First Person

High-Stakes On Stage: Letting Students Run The Show

“Oh my god, you’re the playwright? It’s soooo amazing to meet you!”

Brian — my former theater student and star of the production of “Les Miserábles” I co-directed with students last year in the South Bronx — fights through the crowd in the lobby of Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan. He’s still sweating from his opening night performance of “Circuits,” one of two student-written one-acts currently in production by National Theater for Student Artists.

As Brian lunges forward to hug the young playwright of “Circuits,” she shouts, “You were fantastic!” and they launch into a volley of overlapping compliments. The lobby around them is a jumble of whooping, high-fives and gravity-defying hugs. Audience members vie to congratulate exuberant swarms of student directors, designers, stage managers and actors — the oldest recent college grads, the youngest fresh out of eighth grade. From across the lobby, I catch NTSA founder and executive director Victoria Chatfield’s eye and wink. Judging by the jubilant reaction of this opening night crowd, her high-stakes gamble is paying off big-time.

When the phrase “high stakes” comes up in a conversations among educators these days, it’s usually in reference to only one thing: standardized testing. (And if the frenzied analysis greeting last week’s release of New York’s new, lower Common Core state test scores is any indication, odds are those conversations are going to be pretty grim.)

2013-08-10-Circuits.jpg But if you’re Victoria Chatfield, the phrase “high stakes” tells a different story altogether — and hearing her talk about it is anything but a downer. For Chatfield, “high stakes” means investing a hefty chunk of her own money into the creation of a professional theater by young adults for young adults, a project based on the risky — (read: thrilling) — proposition that young people should be given opportunities to lead in real-world contexts, even when that means giving them room to fail.

As a fellow theater educator who’s spent the past 10 years building a school-based theater program on a similar model of a student leadership, I’m a huge fan of what National Theater for Student Artists stands for. I know how critical this work is in terms of helping kids build the analytical, socio-emotional, creative and real-world navigational skills that have been largely squeezed out of so many schools in the wake of No Child Left Behind. I also know how hard it can be in this outcomes-obsessed climate to let go of the reins — even in an artistic class with no standardized test.

2013-08-10-CLipped.jpg“I get it,” Chatfield says when we talk shop after a recent NTSA rehearsal. “Letting go of control can be frightening.”

As a middle school English teacher at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, Chatfield tells me, she spent her first year in the classroom talking at her students instead of listening to what they had to say.

“I used to rationalize that decision,” she says, “telling myself that my students were far behind and needed ‘a little extra help.’ It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t want to give them room to lead because that meant giving them room to fail … which in this era of accountability is tantamount to begging your principal to fire you.”

Charfield says she encountered similar reluctance from potential partners and investors when she first started pitching the idea of a student-run theater company. “Everyone said the same thing to me: ‘Sure, the students can be actors. But don’t expect them to direct, design, or produce. If you do that, your show simply won’t be any good.'”

2013-08-10-Circuits2.jpgChatfield understands this knee-jerk reaction, she says, especially in what she sees as a national climate of risk-aversion that puts the squeeze on creativity — not only in classrooms across the country but also on the Great White Way. The push toward standardization — whether in the form of bubbling in answer sheets in schools or subjecting theater shows to relentless regional testing before they end up (often radically diluted) on Broadway — is symptomatic of the same cultural issue, she argues: our obsession with playing it safe and betting on the sure thing.

But Brian says it’s precisely the element of risk — the feeling of being vulnerable with his teammates, out there with no safety net and knowing that no adult is going to swoop in to save them — that has made his learning experiences in the theater so powerful.

When I ask him about the difference between preparing for a high-stakes test in school and preparing for a high-stakes theater performance, he says,

They both require hours of work and the will to succeed. In a typical classroom setting, though, I always had a certain hesitation and fear about sharing my thoughts. The line between student and teacher was so blatant that I usually didn’t feel safe to share what was on my mind. And although I knew I was supposed to want to do well on tests, there was a part of me that said, “Why should I spend so much time and energy working for a letter or a number that is supposed to define my academic ability?”

But when I’m in rehearsal at NTSA, I feel as if there are no lines. No titles. Just person A and person B trying to solve for X. The performance feels high-stakes because I want to connect with the audience so badly I’ll work as long and hard as it takes. But since there is no grade at the end, just the result of how I affected other people, I feel safe to take risks. It’s not heavy and determinant like a test. It’s freeing.

If we made it a priority to help every classroom in America feel less like a test-prep bootcamp and more like an NTSA rehearsal — where students learned content in order to connect meaningfully with others in authentically high-stakes contexts — I’m willing to bet that our graduates would be far better prepared for college, career, and citizenship. If nothing else, we’d have a nation full of creative minds producing sophisticated, thought-provoking work. (And who knows? Maybe our test scores would climb in the process.)

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

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.