First Person

Broadway In El Barrio (And The Bronx) For A New Era

2013-03-11-Aida.jpgFlashback to early last month:

It’s 8:30 p.m. on a cold February night in Washington Heights. The huge crowd outside of the United Palace Theater is anxious about missing the opening number of tonight’s one-night-only “In The Heights” benefit performance. When the show’s writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda races around the block, high-fiving fans and hollering, “We don’t start until y’all get inside!” people whoop and cheer. But our students barely notice their idol blowing by. They’re too wrapped up belting a cappella versions of the show’s greatest hits. Auditions for our school’s production of “In The Heights” are still a week away, but the kids have already memorized the whole score.

In the history of our performing arts program, I’ve never seen kids so amped up about a show before. But then, I can’t say I’m surprised.

For a decade, the kids in our program have been stretching far outside their cultural comfort zones to put on musicals that have little do to with their own life experiences. It doesn’t matter that we’ve intentionally chosen a broad range of shows, including ones that prominently feature people of color, like “Once On This Island” and “Aida.” At the end of the day, the French Antilles and the shores of Nubia are still a far cry from the corner of 172nd Street and Third Avenue in the South Bronx. And each of those shows, like every other show we’ve done — with the lone exception of “The Wiz” whose composer/lyricist is African-American — was created by white people.

It’s not like we weren’t trying to find Broadway musicals that could have hit home more directly. They just weren’t out there.
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So when I first saw “In The Heights” on Broadway five years ago and found a stage packed full of performers who looked exactly like the students I teach, telling stories that Lin-Manuel Miranda could have overheard in our school’s hallways, I knew our students’ response to the show was going to be epic.

I wasn’t naïve enough to think that musical theater’s whole cultural landscape would shift overnight as a result of one show. If nothing else, the almost all-white Broadway crowd around me back in 2008 was a clear indication of how much work remained to be done in terms of access.

But ever since “In The Heights” has been on the scene, I’ve been less worried about young African-American and Latino actors coming out of our program after playing lead roles in “Les Misérables” only to find that their best hope in the professional world is getting cast as “Thug #3” or the lead character’s “Sassy Best Friend.”
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We’ve had to wait the better part of five years for the amateur licensing rights to “In The Heights” to become available, but the time has arrived. And now we’re kicking off our creative process with a field trip to see the original Broadway cast show us how it’s done.

As we finally make our way to our seats inside the United Palace Theater, one of my students looks around at the capacity crowd, does her best “Home Alone” shocked face and nudges me playfully. “Yo, Ms. Q,” she says, “There’s a lot of black and brown people in here!”

A combination of the show’s widespread popularity and organizers’ efforts to reach a broader audience with $30 tickets for Upper Manhattan residents means that the crowd is more diverse than any group of theater-goers I’ve ever seen. (And there’s reason to hope that this demographic shift may be part of a wider trend, since the evening’s proceeds benefit The Broadway League’s Viva Broadway initiative, a new audience development partnership with the Hispanic community to help bridge the world of Broadway with Latino audiences around the country, as well as Family First Nights, a nationwide program specifically designed to encourage at risk families to attend theater on a regular basis.)
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The rest of the evening is a blur. The audience is cheering and singing along throughout most of the show. Actors pause before the big laugh lines so the audience can shout them out en masse. At the curtain call the whole place leaps up, dancing to the music and waving Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican flags. We haven’t come prepared for this Rocky Horror Picture Show-level of audience participation, but we join in happily.

The emotional high of the evening sets the scene perfectly for auditions for “In The Heights” at our school. This year’s turnout is enormous and includes an unprecedented number of first-time participants.

At the callback, one 12th-grade newbie named Chris says,

There’s no way I would’ve considered trying out if we hadn’t been doing this particular show… Let’s just say musical theater was never really my thing. But being Dominican, these characters and the stories they’re telling through the music and the dance all really hit home for me.

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Once auditions are behind us and rehearsals begin, the students show up with a level of professionalism and initiative unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Gone are the days of pulling teeth, begging actors to get focused and learn their lines. These kids are off-book at the first read-through, leaping up to perform each song fully memorized with provisional blocking and improvised choreography already in place.
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When our leading man discovers that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has “liked” a rehearsal photo of him posted on Facebook, his comment is the following:

“Omg omg omg, my heart’s gonna blow up!!!”

And while I like to think I’m immune to celebrity worship, here’s what I comment back to him:

“Yeah. I feel you, dude. Me, too.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.