First Person

“Guys and Dolls” in the South Bronx: Learning To See The (Real) Value Of Arts Education

A few days ago I got an email that changed everything.

The cast of “Guys and Dolls” take their bows

It’s been a full month — and a seemingly endless succession of graduations, end-of-the-year recitals, awards ceremonies and fundraising benefits — since the kids I teach in the South Bronx put on our school’s annual spring musical, the 1950’s classic, “Guys and Dolls.” This year’s rehearsal process served up an especially overwhelming array of challenges and behind-the-scenes mayhem, all intensified by the parallel unfolding of my second pregnancy. (In case you missed them, here are Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of our 100-day countdown to opening night.)

“Well, OK…” you might be wondering, “So, after all of that dramatic build-up … how did the actual show go? (And why has it taken you so darn long to write about it?)”

Well, if you had asked me last week, before the email arrived, I might have heaved an exhausted sigh and launched into what, in the end, would’ve amounted to a sob story.

For starters, I would’ve told you that due to insane scheduling conflicts, our opening night performance was the first time we’d ever had the whole cast together, so it ran more like a dress rehearsal than an actual show, with huge chunks of missed dialogue, brutally slow pacing, and countless costume and prop malfunctions.

I’d have gone on to tell you that the following night’s performance, despite big improvements in overall energy, was still plagued by major problems, not the least of which was a case of vocal strain so intense for one of our male leads that by the second act he could barely talk, let alone sing.

And then I would have hit you with the real zinger and told you that 15 minutes before the sold-out crowd came in on closing night — after the vocally-challenged male lead had been given a cortisone shot in the neck by the only voice specialist in Manhattan willing to treat a young man from the South Bronx with no insurance on a last-minute, walk-in basis, and I was finally letting out a sigh of relief, thinking we were poised to redeem ourselves by putting on the show of our lives — the lighting designer raced up to me breathless and panicked to tell me that the dimmer rack had  blown out and that 85 percent of the lights were now not working at all.

Then I might have told you that when I emerged from the utility closet two minutes later (following a brief but violent explosion of all the built-up tears I’d managed to hold at bay over the preceding four months) I found that the leader of our set crew had transformed a hastily-assembled army of crew kids into an impromptu lighting team who would now have to operate the dimmer rack manually from backstage, each one of them sticking a finger into one of the switches and pressing down hard to recreate some semblance of the original lighting design for each scene, which, though it didn’t yield foolproof results — (halfway through Act II the lights started flickering because Shakeel’s hands went into muscle spasms and he couldn’t keep pressure on his switch) — nevertheless got us through the show.

At this point, I would have confessed to you that by the time the kids took their bows on closing night, jumping and dancing and beaming with pride, all I wanted to do was go home and fall down.

I would have acknowledged that although I put on a brave face over the next few weeks while the students happily reminisced about their accomplishments, I was still internally obsessing over everything that had gone wrong.

In the end, I would have admitted that for the longest time, even the simple act of sitting down to write this blog post felt so physically overwhelming to me that for weeks I haven’t been able to force myself to chronicle what — despite objective signs of positive outcomes and reminders from supportive friends and family that this work is about process not product — still felt to me like a disappointment.

Eighth-grade dancers light up the Havana scene

But if you asked me right now, at this moment, I would have a very different answer for you — all because of a simple email from our photographer that finally allowed me to pull back and catch a glimpse of what we had created from an objective outsider’s perspective.

12th grader Melanie as “Sarah Brown” sings her heart out

The change happened immediately, as soon as I opened the email and clicked the link to the gallery of photos. I moved through the images, my heart started racing, and click after click, I felt the weight and exhaustion of the last six months loosen their grip and spiral off me, leaving a fresh new feeling of excitement in their place.

10th-grader Norberto entertains as “Nicely Nicely Johnson”

I clicked faster, image after image, amazed at the force of this unexpected perspective-shift, flooded with waves of satisfaction and pride …

Because, yes, there may have been lighting problems …

“Adelaide” (12th-grader Brianne) makes her grand entrance

Click.

And yes, there was the cortisone shot, and the crazy scheduling …

Click. Click.

Not to mention the expulsion hearings …

“Adelaide” and her “Hot Box” dancers

The kids crying after being kicked out of the show due to failing grades …

12th-grader Marcus in his stage debut as “Arvide”

The late nights agonizing over whether my decision to give the actor playing Sky another chance had motivated a struggling student to get his grades up and graduate, or taught a slick kid that he could game the system …

Click. Click. Click.

11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
11th grader George, as “Benny Southstreet,” strikes a pose
The guys fly high in “Crapshooter’s Dance”

Yes, there were actors who missed rehearsals because they got jumped in the park …

Because they had to visit family members in prison …

Because their mothers had to work and no one else could look after their siblings …

Because two of their friends were shot and killed at a party on a Saturday night …

Fifth- and sixth-grade future stars wave to their fans

Click.

All of these things are true.

And yet …

Looking at these photographs …

Those truths receded and made room for me to step back, really see at what we accomplished, and remember why we started this program in the first place.

When I look at these pictures …

I see integrity.

I see determination.

Most of all, I see joy.

And last Friday afternoon, after I showed the kids a full slideshow of photographs at our end-of-year wrap-up celebration, I was forced to shift my perspective even further. I found myself surrounded by a roomful of engaged, inspired young people who, even after a long and draining year, were chomping at the bit to get started on summer programming, research shows for next year, and step into leadership roles when I go on maternity leave in the fall.

Listening to them speak about what they had learned from putting on the show, I got a fresh outlook on a process whose value — I can now see clearly — undeniably transcends all of the frustration, heartbreak and exhaustion it may have entailed.

Thomas Sosa, an 11th-grader who before this year had never been in a play before, summed it up well.

“I think the biggest thing I learned this year is that faith in your work goes a really long way,” he said, “especially when there are major challenges you have to overcome to get to that end product.”

Amen, Thomas Sosa.

After a year that tested my faith as an educator in countless ways, I’m beyond grateful to be wrapping up the year on that note.

As always, the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school’s administration.

Special thanks to my dear friend, photographer/videographer extraordinaire, Alejandro Duran (all photo credits).

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.