Days are getting shorter, stacks of paper are getting taller, and for some reason, you still can’t figure out where your markers went. This can only mean one thing: the school year is in full swing. If you started this school year strong, the key will be sustaining your classroom’s momentum into the holidays. It’ll be tempting to start counting down the days until the next three-day weekend. You deserve them, but keep your eye on the prize. Every moment in your classroom counts.
This is a great time of year to start reflecting on the progress your students have made already. We spend all day providing positive reinforcement and praise, but I encourage you to take a step back and look at the forest instead of the trees. Here’s one way: when you log into Kiddom and click on a student’s individual performance, the first thing you see are the skills in development. I recommend you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page and investigate where your students are the strongest. What skills are they absolutely killing? What standards have they not only demonstrated mastery, but also seem to want to explore further? Take the time to show your students you’ve noticed their accomplishments and growth.
Your students aren’t the only ones that have done something wonderful this year. Maybe you tried to implement a new classroom structure and it’s running smoothly. Or maybe last night’s math lesson was seriously “on fleek.” Something you’re doing this year is amazing and you should take a few minutes to bathe in that glory. You’re a teacher and you’re serving your students: that is fantastic.
Mix Things Up
When I was in the classroom, I was about routine. But every once and awhile, I switched things up. This might be the perfect time for you to try this as well. Not only should you add a little spice in your life, but in your students’ lives as well. If you’re bored, they probably are too.
One of my favorite things to do was to let my students take control and observe where their curiosity takes them. This is a great way to explore a new side of your students, as well as their learning styles. Do they choose to learn by reading? Would they prefer to watch YouTube videos? Or, do they want to sit around in a circle and ask questions? This provides an incredible opportunity to learn how you can personalize learning experiences for them in the future. Once you have discovered how students learn best Kiddomallows you to tailor lessons that meet your students’ unique skills and interests.
The best thing I ever did to improve my teaching craft was to put a brief hold on letting students into my classroom during lunch. Between 12:15 PM and 12:45 PM, my classroom was an educator-only space, providing me with the time I needed to check in with colleagues.
During this time, we casually bounced ideas off each other. We also talked about shared students: what was going on in their lives? What should I have been informed about? What happened during 3rd period? Without these relationships, I wouldn’t have devised science lab reports that incorporated the same vocabulary that my students were using to make outlines in English. Collaborating on interdisciplinary lessons helped us show students that the skills they are learning in the classroom can be used across many subject areas and everyday life. Ultimately, this provided both my colleagues and myself with a safe space to bond and learn more about each other.
Some problems you just can’t control. And if you spend every moment of your life trying to solve for it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Take a deep breath and move on. There are things you can control, and those things should always take priority.
Use that energy to hone your craft. Make this fall the best grading period yet. Kiddom can help you find new and exciting lessons while tracking student progress. Before you know it it will be winter break and you can enjoy your time off, because you know you are ready to face the new year!
I wasn’t always the Fresh Professor. At one point, I was just another starving actor, trying to make a living. But stories change over time, as do professional desires.
This is Part One of my story. Enjoy the ride.
January 1998: New York City
I moved from Chicago to the Big Apple with a couple hundred dollars in my pocket and, as many New York stories begin, found an insane Jamaican to become my roommate. He never washed his clothes, smoked weed all day, spouted Black nationalist philosophies, and dated only White women. My roommate had an equally crazy “cousin,” whom I’m positive only claimed to be a relative so he could crash in our bathroom when he was drunk; some nights, he would bring back a woman and they’d have sex in our shower. This in and of itself didn’t bother me. That said, I was perturbed that he did it in our tub with his boots still on. Why not take your shoes off? Right?
C’est la vie. I suppose worse things could have happened … at least it wasn’t another dead body.
Oh yeah, that’s why I moved to the city in the first place.
August 1997: Chicago
He was dead. We knew this because he wasn’t breathing. We knew this because he had a hole in his head. And we knew this because we had never pulled anything out from the sewers alive.
I worked for the Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. My title was Manual Laborer A, which meant I drove to sewage collection sites around the city and removed solids so that liquid could flow freely to a water plant, where it was then converted to drinking water. Every city has this—in fact, Chicago happens to have the cleanest drinking water in the country (I know because I cleaned it). My daily routine consisted of commuting to Skokie, checking in with my boss, and heading off to a collection site. Once there, I would grab a shovel, put on my hard hat, and wait for the door to open, at which point the stench of fecal matter would come washing over me (it took about 21⁄2 weeks on the job to acclimate and recover my appetite). After walking into a site, between 10 and 20 feet below street level, we would turn on The Arm, an enormous mechanical device that stretched deep into the sewers, grabbed solid waste, and transferred it to us via conveyer, ultimately dumping its load into a large gondola, though we inevitably found ourselves manually moving waste lost in this transition (only after it splashed all over our boots). These gondolas filled quickly and had to be replaced often, which meant we also had to manage a great deal of spillage (spillage: solid feces, animal carcasses, and other nonbiodegradable debris). After shoveling shit from the floors, we would clean The Arm with a steam jet, lock up, grab lunch, and make our way to headquarters for the afternoon’s marching orders.
Our foreman, Johnny, was somewhere between 45 and 60 years old; with grizzled Black men, age is difficult to ascertain. I never saw the guy without a cigarette in his mouth or sunglasses on his face; he was stoic and quiet, like many men of color who seem to have experienced darker times.
He was dead. We knew this because he wasn’t breathing. We knew this because he had a hole in his head.
I had two other coworkers, Eric and Sheila. Eric was in and out because he suffered from severe depression (he returned from a period of hospitalization during my 2nd month), and though he seemed skittish upon our first meeting, he opened up when I started to crack jokes. Eric was from the West Side and hated being Puerto Rican; he said it was worse than being White but not as good as being Black. (I never fully understood his analysis, but he was adamant about it.) I actually think cultural identity was at the root of his depression. Sheila was the exact opposite of Eric: female, Black, constantly joyous … and pregnant. (I worked this job for a total of 4 months and she looked 8 months pregnant the whole time.) Sheila did the driving and bookkeeping, making sure that everything in each site worked properly. But the sewer fumes were horrible, and most definitely laced with carbon monoxide, a by-product of the decay — to my mind, the fact that higher- ups knew Sheila was pregnant and put her on the truck was unconscionable. I worried about her unborn child every day. (I should have known then that at-risk youth would be in my future.)
The day we found the body, our orders were to clean one of the reservoirs, the cesspools in which Chicago’s water is stored. Once again, I assure you, the water coming out of your faucet is drinkable (although the water in the reservoirs is definitely not). Anyway. Eric and Johnny were raking the reservoir while Sheila and I picked up nearby refuse and cleaned the perimeter.
“Heyyy … whoa! What the fuck is that?” Eric yelled, pointing at something caught in his rake. It was the body of a White man, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants. We couldn’t distinguish much else, because he was waterlogged, resembling a sausage casing that would have popped at the slightest prick.
Johnny just stared, stone-faced, still smoking his cigarette, and said, “I guess we should call the police.” Sheila ran to the truck, got the keys, and unlocked the onsite office to place the call.
The man’s body baked in the oppressive August heat until officers arrived 30 min later, informing us that they had been looking for him, the apparent target of a mob hit. As we gave our statements the sun beat down, casting a shadow over the body and the afternoon ahead.
After they’d gone, Johnny stared into the distance and Eric sat on the ground (face turned away) while Sheila and I waited for orders, though she seemed disgusted by the prospect of resuming work. Although I always liked being a Laborer, witnessing death in that way had done something to me; instead of freaking out, I felt myself harden. I saw myself becoming Johnny. As cool as that cat was, he was lonely and unemotional. I didn’t want that. I did not want to be closed off to the world. I still saw hope in people. I knew that if I stayed there, colors would begin to disappear.
So I quit.
At 3 p.m. the next day, I turned in my hard hat and took a bus (then train) back home, smelling like shit and vomit, as I had done every day for 4 months. But this time I knew I wouldn’t be back, which made me sad; the sadness, in turn, made me happy — I knew I was feeling something, which meant I was still alive.
May 1998: New York City
Months passed. My roommate was still insane, though his cousin had stopped coming by, seemingly settled after his bathtub trysts. I was still trying to find work as an actor.
I searched Backstage and called my agent looking for auditions that would get me on stage, on TV, or on film. I was able to move to the city only because, 1 week after finding the body, I landed a commercial in Chicago. I naively believed that, having booked one job there, I’d be hired for every job in the city. As disheartening (and shocking) as it was to come across a bloated cadaver floating in Chicago’s drinking water, it gave me the courage to branch out and audition. That was my first SAG job, and every time the commercial aired I received a check for $500; thankfully, it aired a great deal, landed me an agent with offices in New York and Chicago, and eventually funded my escape to the Big Apple.
Yet there I was, an unemployed actor drinking too much beer.
One day, while sitting in Washington Square Park, a beautiful woman asked to take my picture and get my number. I thought she was hitting on me, but she was actually a scout looking for hip Black models. She called the next day, and though the pay was crap, my residuals were drying up, so I took the gig. At the shoot, I quickly discovered the other models were actors too — modeling was a way for the beatific ones to make extra money between jobs. In talking with them, I realized something that significantly altered my trajectory: They all had graduate degrees in acting. I did not. In fact, I had no real training at all, having majored in English while at Morehouse. It was then I made the decision to attend grad school.
If I was going to pursue acting, I had to take it seriously; manual labor was no longer an option, and I refused to even consider my other nine-to-five, accounting.
May 1995: Chicago
“James, here’s your desk.”
“Thank you, I’m very excited to get started.”
“Well, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is lucky to have you.”
Fresh out of school, I landed a job as Junior Accountant for the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I sat in a cubicle connected to three other desks, forming a quadrant of people staring at screens and drinking coffee. With a focus on foreign markets, my job was to ensure that reported sales for pork bellies matched actual income in USD and deutschmarks (based on conversion rates that shifted daily). It was not difficult, but it was technical, and required a level of acumen I hadn’t accessed in quite a while. I have always been incredibly proficient in mathematics. In high school, teachers thought I cheated on exams because I would calculate in my head; eventually, they realized that I saw numbers in a unique way and suggested I tutor my classmates, whose parents would pay me for services. When I got to Morehouse College, I made extra money doing the same thing. I write all of this not to self-congratulate but to provide a picture of me as a young man. Math was easy, so it seemed logical to work in finance.
If I was going to pursue acting, I had to take it seriously; manual labor was no longer an option
My 1st day at the CME, I was happy to fixate on the screen, plugging in equations and double checking spreadsheets. My neighbors played soft rock at a low volume; it was the first time I heard bands like Stone Temple Pilots and the Cranberries, which I grew to like. This was my first full-time job, and I was beginning to see how the rest of my life would play out: work, work, work, go home, drink a beer, meet a woman in finance, get married, have kids, move to Lincoln Park, raise a family, and enjoy a practical life as an accountant.
And so began my 2nd day of work.
It started early, around 8 a.m. The previous evening I’d gone to a bar with friends from high school. We didn’t stay out late, but we drank a lot. (It was Chicago, after all.) So I was admittedly operating at 85%. Around 12:30, I fell asleep inputting data and made a clerical error that threw off the books by about $500,000. Fortunately, my supervisor caught the mistake; she said it was a common error and just asked me to focus a bit more. I was so shaken that I went back to work full force for the next hour and a half.
Then I fell asleep again.
I quickly learned that the focus required for data entry was unlike anything I had done before. The job was monotonous. It was repetitive. And, although initially challenging, in the end it was quite simply. Once I understood the processes and systems, I could operate on autopilot. I didn’t have to learn new concepts or perform complex computations; I just had to master a few formulas and apply them … every day … for the rest of my life.
For the rest of my life …
Just 24 hours later, I was ready to leave the life I had so vividly imagined. I knew I had to work. I knew I had to be an adult. And I knew I couldn’t walk away from a well-paying job. I was sure lots of people hated their jobs. (In fact, I was sure lots of them ended up doing things they regretted for their rest of their lives.) I didn’t want to be one of those people. I wanted to love my job and everything that I did. I wanted to be so excited about work that I was paid to do something I would have done anyway. I wanted to embrace work like a new lover, nonstop … gratuitously. I wanted to sleep, eat, and dream about my role in society. Basically, I wanted to love whatever I did. Was I being naive? Maybe. Was I being honest? Definitely.
That said, I had no idea what would come next. The Internet wasn’t quite a thing, so I couldn’t log on to idealist or monster.com; moreover, I was a recent college graduate without any real work experience.
And I was a young Black man in Chicago.
At 10 years old, an officer held a gun to my head because I was racing my cousin as we left a mall. He pulled out the gun and asked if I’d stolen anything. And when he couldn’t find anything on me, he said I was “lucky” because he could have told my parents. It would be several years before I realized he had no reason to stop me, let alone conduct a search. But I got used to it.
Throughout my adolescence I was repeatedly stopped by police, and at age 17 I went to jail for looking at graffiti while waiting on the train.
Cop: What are you doing?
Cop: (Referring to graffiti) Did you do that?
Cop: I don’t believe you … prove it.
Me: (Taking off my bag) OK.
Cop: Why are you removing your bag? You trying to run away?
Cop: OK, smart guy. You’re going downtown for destruction of property and resisting arrest.
Just 24 hours later, I was ready to leave the life I had so vividly imagined.
And law enforcement seems to have set the standard for treatment of Black people in Chicago: I was turned away from bars, I had bottles thrown at me, I was even spit on. So here I was, gainfully employed and, more important, safe, with no one calling me a “nigger.” I couldn’t even think about leaving. I put my nose to the grindstone and tried hard to love my job. On Day 3, I walked in smiling, with a cup of coffee in one hand and an oatmeal bar in the other.
But I was asleep by 10 a.m. Damn.
I got my work done, but goddamn. Nothing I could do kept me awake or interested. I tried listening to loud music, chewing gum, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, taking frequent breaks, drinking water, even going to bed early. Everything failed, though somehow my efficacy wasn’t affected and I remained productive. My colleagues noticed that I slept with regularity, but because it didn’t disrupt their work, they left me alone. I mean, who knows, maybe we all took naps at the same time. In all honesty, I was so ashamed that I avoided talking to them about anything other than weather, afraid that a deep conversation would end in narcolepsy, which would lead to a reprimand, or worse, being let go, which would leave me living in a box outside Wrigley Field. So I kept quiet, did my work, slept, ate, worked, slept, worked … wash, rinse, repeat.
Three or four months later, I was despondent and went on a whim to shoot pool with friends in the neighborhood. The bar, also a restaurant serving top-notch food, was six blocks from my house. It was cute and tiny, and had cool clientele. If it existed now, it would be a hipster’s paradise. Anyway, that night I struck up a conversation with this gangly redhead who had burns outlining his arms, drank like a fish, and scrutinized every plate coming out of the kitchen. We chatted about living in Chicago, leaving Chicago, the Cubs, and hot women. I eventually told him about my job—my need for a change—and he asked if I could mix a drink. As luck would have it, my new friend was the bar’s owner and head chef. He offered me a job on the spot. I accepted, and spent the next several months attempting to figure out the rest of my life.
I could not have foreseen my journey to that point. Nor was I able to predict that tending bar would lead to scrubbing sewers, a dead body, a commercial, a move to New York, and graduate school. It was my first fresh start, but clearly not my last.
Storytelling with Fresh Professor: To Be Continued …
James Miles is a Master Teaching Artist who has worked in arts education for over 15 years. He has facilitated workshops and designed curriculum for the New Victory Theater, Roundabout Theatre, Disney Theatrical Group, Theatre for a New Audience, Center of Arts Education, BAX, Brooklyn Arts Council, Opening Act, and (Out)Laws & Justice. He has worked as an actor, an accountant, comedian, and a model. James is an adjunct professor at NYU and the Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership.
I was a teaching artist for 15 years before I made the leap to full-time administrative work. A lot of factors contributed to this decision: I quit acting (feeling I needed to establish myself as something more than a performer), my wife lost her job, and I wanted to develop new skills. At that time, my colleague Michael Wiggins, newly crowned Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership (UAP), was focused on increasing the pedagogical acumen of the organization. He hired me as an Instructional Coach for Fresh Prep (a groundbreaking program using Hip-Hop music and culturally responsive pedagogy to support previously failing New York City students as they work to pass the Social Studies and ELA Regents Exams). So I left acting in November of 2013.
My first task at UAP was to write a process-drama curriculum that supplemented the program’s academically oriented Hip-Hop music; this was right up my alley, as I love designing engaging lessons for students. The wonderful thing was that writing this curriculum wasn’t too far off from the teaching artist work I’d been doing; the only difference was that I myself wouldn’t be teaching every lesson. It seemed like an easy transition into full-time, gainful employment. And, as I pushed to finish the first edition of Global History lessons for Fresh Prep, not once did I miss performing, particularly because while I was writing I was also able to observe our TAs in classrooms and lead professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. I was working in a field directly related to my passions, without having to worry about finding the next gig. Well, kind of…
What I learned — the hard way — is that my full-time salary, paid regularly every two weeks, was not enough to successfully subsist. Taxes were exorbitant, and I had to be in the office five days a week, so it was difficult to pick up extra work; I realized that although teaching artists live from paycheck to paycheck, if scheduled strategically, TAs can make more money than their administrative counterparts. As a teaching artist, I could cobble together various residencies to make a decent income. I didn’t receive paid vacation, but on the other hand I was not beholden to be anywhere. I could work a three-day week, focusing on something else the other four. I could go to a bar at noon on a Tuesday (which I often did, before my kids were born). This full-time job was actually putting me in the hole. I had to find a way to make more money.
As an actor, I always had a backup plan; with this in mind, I made sure that I stayed on the teaching artist rosters at several organizations. I was able to work weeknights, on Saturdays, and could even teach the occasional early-morning class before heading into the office at 10. I was hustling just as much as I had before my full-time gig, and yet I knew I needed to continue working as an administrator. Why? Because I felt people had more respect for an organization’s administrators than its teaching artists. Sensing an opportunity to grow as an educator, I had to spend less time in the classroom and more time behind a desk; it was frustrating, but I believed it would be beneficial in the long run. And, because I was a good Instructional Coach, I was quickly promoted to run UAP’s Professional Development Program. This seemed like a great move, mostly because I happen to love working with teachers and informing their practices; in fact, it is what I love most about being an adjunct instructor at NYU.
Did I forget to write that? I’m also a university professor on the side. In 2010, when I was still acting and freelancing as a TA, I was asked to teach a college course, and over the years I have been offered several more.
In my first position at UAP, I juggled teaching multiple courses, writing curriculum, and working hands-on with Fresh Prep teams in schools. However, in my new role as Professional Development Manager, my primary focus became coordinating schedules; I was rarely able to observe team members, because all the workshops happened either at the same time (in four different boroughs) or during school hours, when I needed to be on-call for our TAs and partner organizations. This was a highly administrative job, and it did not allow me to teach as much as I liked. I was becoming the admin guy.
Did I miss performing? Not really. But I did miss being in the room with a group of students, creating magic. The days of “make a circle” and “clap once if you can hear me,” or “tell me how that made you feel,” were gone. I was beginning to long for those precious moments when I’d have to ask students to stop throwing markers, fighting, or, you know, licking each other. I was now a program manager who knew how to make one sick spreadsheet, use Salesforce, and transfer attendance records for the accountant to report. I was sinking into a sea of systems, trying to claw my way toward the light just above the breaks.
Soon after making this move, UAP received an Arts in Education — Model Development and Dissemination grant from the U.S. Department of Education to adapt Fresh Prep for middle schools; this new initiative was called Fresh Ed, and I was asked to come on as the Project Director. I would have to build the program from scratch: write new lessons, coordinate schedules, manage a multimillion-dollar budget, and create digital content. I was also elected to serve on the Board of Directors for Arts in Education Roundtable. Then came the news that a session I submitted had been accepted at SXSWedu. I would be facilitating a workshop in Austin, Texas, focused on teaching history through Hip-Hop. My hard work was being noticed and rewarded. I was beginning to see how I could live my life as a full-time arts educator.
Still, something was missing and I couldn’t really put my finger on it.
I don’t regret my decision to become a full-time administrator, but I sometimes wonder if it was the right choice. When I quit acting, I was a working actor, and as crazy as it seems, I really miss the need to look for more work. It kept me hungry. It drove me to be a better performer, educator, dad, and husband. On top of that, I long for the days of less predictability, when I could go home to visit family, have a beer with friends (even strangers), sit down to read a novel, work out, take a nap, and of course worry about money. Yes, there is some security in being a salaried employee, but there is nothing like working a gig and just getting paid for it. Every penny seems earned. As a freelancer, there was an immediate sense of value attached to every acting job or classroom residency. I honestly miss traveling from school to school, going from audition to audition, and living paycheck to paycheck.
On the other hand, I love the work we create and implement at UAP. I love empowering other teaching artists, and I love collaborating with people from different fields, on local and national levels. UAP was once again accepted to SXSWedu; this time I’ll moderate an earth-shattering panel: Can Hip Hop Save Us? Beyond SXSW, we’ve been able to showcase our work at NY Tech Meetup, NYC DOE District 75, NYC DOE iZone, Google Education Think Tank, Google Geek Street Fair, NYU, and more. And, in spite of all that, as an administrator I maintain a pretty consistent schedule. I am not flying to Iowa for a small part in a movie or traveling to DC for 3 months to work on a new play. I may travel for events, but those trips are planned months in advance and they’re always brief. For the most part, I see my family every day.
But I have to ask myself: am I happy? Is this what I set out to do after earning my MFA in Acting from Brandeis? I always knew teaching would be a constant (even when I was at Morehouse College, exploring different majors, I was a Benjamin E. Mays Teaching Scholar), but I had also assumed that I would continue to perform in some capacity.
Two years ago, my wife worked as a costume designer for MTV, so I stayed home with my kids and played all summer. I auditioned, I got work on a few TV shows, and I read a lot of books. I was relatively content, and my wife liked knowing her job was only 3 months long. We didn’t necessarily know how we would pay for food or rent when her job ended, but we were happy. And shouldn’t life be about happiness? That said, would we still be happy if/when acting jobs dried up and the relentless schedule of TV designers became a long-term reality for my wife? I guess we’ll never know.
Over the years, I have been able to build a strong reputation in the field of arts education; my passion for performing may have waned, but my passion for education has remained.
When I was thirteen, I met a person who would redefine what I expected from a teacher. And for this, I consider myself very fortunate. I have had many teachers who cared about me, but no one influenced me as much as Fernando Acosta.
For context, I did secondary education in a brand-new school in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was part of the first generation; we were sort of like beta testers. Fernando was hired to teach an ambitious Human Development class. The school was Catholic and boy, did they get more than they expected from Fernando.
Fernando was the first teacher I realized had a life beyond the classroom. Every student has that moment where they see a teacher outside of school, perhaps in the mall for the first time. The difference for me, was that I had this revelation talking to him inside school.
Fernando was an extrovert, religious, but pragmatic, but more importantly he spoke to us as adults. Before his class, I always thought teachers looked down on students. They cared for us, but didn’t expect much (besides their class work) from us. Some of us were already thinking about our future, what to study in college, but he went further. “What kind of life do you want?” He wasn’t pushing an agenda. Simultaneously, he was happy to tell you if he disagreed with something. He didn’t sugarcoat things.
The next year, Fernando became the school’s principal. Students and teachers undoubtedly appreciated the guy. Weird how he was rebellious and yet the authority at the same time.
Fernando liked to have one-on-ones with each of us for no other reason than to check in. It wasn’t a scary thing to do: I remember sitting on the stairs with him, talking about my future and maybe politics. “Memo, you are very smart, but that’s not enough. What’s the point of being smart for its own sake?” This question touched me. I thought I was going to eat the world. Why? Because I was smarter than the rest, I believed. This question and Fernando’s way of living opened my eyes up to a bigger world.
He invited me to be a missionary: to go and meet people in real need and help them with what little I could. I learned how to be responsible at fourteen. From this experience, I learned that you can be impoverished and be hopeful and open to new ideas. This community of people gave me way more than I could ever have given them.
So while my classmates were in spring break during high school, I was happy in the middle of Oaxaca. Fernando thought it was a good idea to put me in charge of a team, I’m not sure why. I was scared of failure, but I told myself that if Fernando thought it was right for me to lead, then I must have the ability to handle it.
At nineteen, I reluctantly accepted I was not a believer anymore. It was hard to tell my mother, but telling Fernando was tougher. He had plans for me on his team, yet he took it better than I expected. Once again, no judgment. Sadness yes, but he wished me the best and to stay true to myself.
When I was twenty, Fernando passed away. It was crushing. Once again, he pushed me to an unexplored part of life. This was the first time a person I knew died. I remember him fondly. He was the best kind of teacher: passionate, caring and thought-provoking. To this day, I still reflect on my learning experiences with Fernando.
By: Guillermo “Memo” Alcantara Platform Lead @ Kiddom
Is there a direct correlation between early childhood learning experiences and high school graduation rates? Are students’ academic learning outcomes in later years, predetermined by the quality of their early childhood education? Research on the subject is all over the place, but, from what I have read, science strongly suggests the answer to these questions is “maybe.”
“…early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives”
Although I am not a researcher, my experience as an arts educator tells me that early childhood is the most important inflection point in our lives, and that artistic experiences are key elements for the healthy development of the human mind. This belief is why we have nursery rhymes, fairy tales, toysall the colorful and imaginative things that we commonly associate with childhood.
As a teaching artist who has worked extensively in early childhood education, and as a parent of young children, it seems clear to me that a child who is encouraged to be curious is more likely to develop into a curious adult. Conversely, a young child whose curiosity is discouraged is more likely to end up sitting in the back of their high school classroom with their book closed in front of them. Pre-school and elementary age children, whose natural desire to explore often results in behavior that irritates their teachers, get messages such as “sit up straight” and “color inside the lines.” Even worse, I have recently noticed an alarming trend toward the idea that the way to close the academic achievement gap is to toughen up academic instruction in early childhood. The working notion seems to be that children, especially poor children, need more rigor in their early childhood education.
This line of thinking disturbs me, because recent research indicates that our very young children need more freedom to play and explore, not less. In fact, according to this study (Tullis, Scientific American, 2011.) “early exposure to academics” has the potential “to psychologically damage developing brains.” Although I am an advocate for Common Core, I know rigorous drilling and testing, have little to do with the intention of Common Core, and I’m not the only one to notice that something may be getting lost in the translation by education policy makers.
I am not saying that young children shouldn’t be challenged, or teachers held accountable. I am saying the kind of structured play and exploration that can be provided through arts education is exactly what young minds need to develop, and that we should focus our efforts on make arts education more widely accessible for all our children. There is research to support what I confess is simply my intuition and observation. For example, a study of a cross section of 3,000 children across England, showed that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education was of particular advantage to children from disadvantaged households. (University of Cambridge, 2013)
Sometimes, especially when I am working in a Title I High School classroom, I wonder how the public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers. Obviously, some of the apathy we see in teens is just a natural part of growing up, but I do wonder how things might turn out differently, if we were really committed to making sure that every child from birth was given the opportunity to learn through serious play.
“The public school system manages to turn so many of our playful, curious toddlers into sullen, apathetic, teenagers.”
In my idealized early childhood classroom, children from the ages of birth to 7 are working artists in a continual state of creativity and exploration. They are painters, actors, singers, directors, playwrights. I see young children playing by creating worlds with blocks, looking at and making their own books with words and images in them, using a magnifying glass outside to gain inspiration from nature, painting and drawing on the walls, engaging in authentic reflective conversations, and taking age appropriate creative risks by using new words, singing, dancing, and role playing.
Engaging seriously in all of the five commonly accepted art forms (Dance, Theatre, Visual Arts, Writing, and Music) teaches children how to collaborate and regulate themselves. For example, by designing and building imaginary cities, a group of 5 year olds must learn how to work together without knocking over each other’s blocks. They also must manage their bodies so they don’t bump into another. When children use their imaginations, they are examining the way people interact in the real world and are engaged in conflict resolution together.
When they are using a magnifying glass, they unearth the way the glass changes their visual perception. When they are painting and drawing, they are using the arts to deepen their understanding of their emotions and the world around them. Through authentic reflective dialogue, they are learning how to sit still and listen, and how to self advocate for their ideas and feelings.
What begins as play and self regulation in early childhood leads to resiliency and critical thinking in high school. The New York Times reported recently that “persistence, planning, the ability to communicate and the capacity to collaborate” are the “core behavioral elements that drive college and career readiness.” (New York Times, 2014) Shortening the time children have for recess, and giving first graders standardized exams is not the way to close the achievement gap, or raise the graduation rate.
Making early childhood education more rigorous and boring for children is not the answer, but it definitely satisfies the adult need to feel like we are making a serious effort to address the hugely complex problem of academic failure in so many of our urban high schools.
Watching my students, and my own children, learn through play has convinced me that play-based learning experiences are the way forward and that arts education is the antidote to a culture that is increasing isolating and anti-intellectual. Too many students, especially low income children, don’t get the kind of play based, arts rich experiences that could help them grow into curious, playful, creative adults. The experts (Daniel Pink, Drive) keep telling us that imagination and creativity are the 21st Century skills.
“Only 37% of New York City students are college and career ready.”
Maybe it’s not because they are bad students. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have arts education and the chance to engage in structured play when they were younger.
I’m teaching test prep in a Title I High School, in a part of Brooklyn that’s not portrayed on Girls, leading a rambunctious group of previously failing students through a content-review of the Cold War; exploring the difference between capitalism and communism. One particularly volatile student, Jonathan, is decrying the fact that he didn’t get M&M’s as a reward for giving the correct answer, like his classmate Kamar.
The class is split in half, and both students are on the side of capitalism. Kamar answered the question correctly, and because in a capitalist system hard work rewards the individual rather than the group, some students, like Jonathan, are going to miss out on the rewards. However, when someone from the communist half of the class answers correctly, M&M’s are shared by the whole group.
Some teachers might be alarmed at the sudden outburst between Kamar and Jonathan, but what it shows me is that the level of student engagement in the room is high, and my students are connecting with core content in an emotional way.
We know that students retain content best when they are emotionally engaged. Yelling, in this case, is a good sign.
The above exercise showcases that and is the essence of what can be defined as process drama: instead of lecturing on core content, students live it.
Process drama is an interactive approach developed by British arts ed pioneer Dorothy Heathcote, in the 1960’s. Heathcote’s innovations in teaching are centered around creating a classroom experience in which students are working through an issue or challenge, making important discoveries about themselves, and learning more about their world along the way. While process dramas has elements of theatre, it is not theatre–it is a living environment that asks students and teachers to think critically and deeply about the subject at hand.
We finally manage to barrel through my introduction to Capitalism and Communism, and now it’s time for the deep dive.
I am going to ask my students to role play history.
First, we must introduce students to two characters — President Truman and Josef Stalin, played by the classroom teacher and myself. Partly to ease the classroom teacher into the experience of role-playing, I’ve written scripts for both characters. Still, the work requires a level of improvisation that is inherent to the experience. The images of Truman and Stalin are projected on the wall so that the students can, literally, put a face to the name.
Within a few moments, the students will also be asked to work in role, as diplomats forced to make a choice about policy. It is important that the students are also given the chance to role play because it deepens their experience and understanding, allowing them to think empathetically as characters in history.
Students already know how to be students, but, through process drama, they are learning more about how to collaborate, cooperate, and form opinions. The objective of this part of the exercise is to create a back and forth between the two characters who try to persuade students towards their political ideology. Although we are improvising a situation that never happened, the themes and concepts are real, and our role-playing provides a catalyst for further inquiry.
“Who wants to be communist?” I ask. Because I have spent much of my adult life as an actor, I am, of course, speaking with Russian accent.
Silence in the room.
“Do you want die in a ditch, or do you want to be guaranteed food shelter and a job? Capitalism makes people poor and those people die. They are pigs. Who wants to be with me?”
The students are now starting wriggle in their seats.
My partnering classroom teacher, now fully in the game, passionately extolls the virtues of capitalism. “Capitalism means if you work hard, you are rewarded. There is no laziness and no handouts. Sure, you may fail, but you may also rise to the top!”
The students begin to murmur amongst themselves. “Shoot, I don’t want to be broke and homeless…” and “That’s true but if you work, you can succeed…” but “guaranteed food and shelter..?”
Students are asked to vote by arranging themselves on either side of a dividing line. Despite the fact that I think the capitalist system in America has left many of our students and their families stuck in a cycle of poverty, I notice that it is by far their favorite choice.
I rationalize this by concluding that capitalism is the easy choice for a teenager with no money, one that reflects their hope that if they work hard, they can actually graduate, get a job and become a successful adult.
The final sequence of the lesson asks students, still in role, to defend their choices by making a piece of art. I like to give students choices, so, for this part, they can craft songs, write poems, design brochures, or create scenes with the goal of persuading their peers to move to their side. The only requirement is that they use evidence pulled from some of the primary sources that have been shared with them in class.
The evidence can be taken from speeches that Truman and Stalin have delivered, some of which I have adapted to craft the script that was delivered earlier in the lesson. While they are working, it is pedagogically important that the students stay in-role and in the world of the drama we’ve created together. This allows them to imagine themselves as people from different regions and classes around the world. The role also acts as a security blanket, helping students be more comfortable speaking in front of their peers. Jamillah may be shy, but because we are in the drama world, it’s not Jamilla presenting, it’s “a Russian soldier.” It’s not Kamar performing a poem, it is a “diplomat.”
Process drama gives students of all dispositions the chance to bring more of themselves into the classroom. Loud voices are allowed, even encouraged. Lessons are fluid enough that teachers can incorporate a little bit of something for everyone. Students involved in a process drama develop an emotional connection to the work. Thinking and Feeling, students in an effective process drama are more engaged, excited, and receptive to learning.
I wish every class incorporated elements of process drama. I have seen the approach change lives. It changed mine.
Written by: James Miles Project Director @ FreshEd Edited by: Michael Wiggins and Delia Denson
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“Hip-hop is one of the most powerful forces…It’s a culture that connects people from any race, school of thought, creed, religion, or color; a global phenomenon that exists in the United States, started in South Bronx and exists in crevices of the world.” — John Robinson, rapper, producer and educator
We’re all accustomed to the same hip-hop songs on the radio. Based on popular belief, hip-hop drums up mainstream music and themes of sexism or misogyny, but contrary to common misconceptions, hip-hop is much more than that and can be used as a learning tool to effectively improve student outcomes and overall learning experiences in the classroom.
At this year’s SXSWedu conference in Austin, Urban Arts Partnership’s James Miles, Fresh Ed program director and NYU professor, led a discussion about how hip-hop can be integrated into classrooms and serve as a powerful teaching method for educators who want to reach their students in a meaningful way. Joining Miles in this panel discussion were Audra The Rapper, Hudson County, New Jersey Teacher and Author Brian Mooney, and Rapper, Producer and Educator John Robinson who confronted the ways in which hip-hop can make a difference in and out of the classroom.
THE HISTORY OF HIP HOP
“Hip-hop isn’t just mainstream radio. It’s a rich culture that includes the four elements of emceeing, graffiti, DJing and bboying (or breakdancing) and it started in the South Bronx as a willed response to systematic violence,” said teacher and author Brian Mooney.
HIP HOP AS A LEARNING TOOL
Those four elements can be used in the classroom as a multi-modal framework for teaching and learning. Mooney is all too familiar with this framework because he incorporates hip-hop into his own classroom in Hudson County, New Jersey. Touching on his experiences, Mooney explained how elements of hip-hop can be both relevant and engaging for in-class learning.
Graffiti relates to the arts and spatial thinking.
DJing ties into technological literacies.
Emceeing and Spoken Word are lyrical and verbal.
Bboying (also known as breaking or breakdancing) connects to kinesthetic learning.
Beyond the direct connection teachers can make between the four elements of hip-hop and class lessons, James Miles detailed one way he has incorporated the trajectory of a hip-hop artist — a topic students can relate to — to engage them and help them retain information on a topic they’re not too familiar with:
“We wrote a lesson about ancient Rome and we used Iggy Azalea as our visual inquiry. We used the rise and fall of Iggy Azalea and compared it to the hubris of Rome. That’s how teachers can use hip-hop in a lesson.”
Hip-hop is also about knowledge of self and knowing where you came from — relevant for social-emotional learning in school — and the panelists raised the issue that students learn in a Euro-centric curriculum that focuses on the history of White culture, but never learn about the history of their own block or community. “Hip-hop allows us to look at those things — communities, groups — that have been marginalized and silenced for too long,” Mooney noted.
In using hip-hop, students are able to identify with the founding members who look like them or have experienced a similar upbringing. Now, the panelists explain, the student least likely to participate and engage is now in the forefront of the conversation because of the culturally responsive teaching method being used in class.
“Without that, an entire group of students are left out. We have to change that,” John Robinson said.
Fresh Ed, a program within a larger initiative at UAP called Fresh Education, is helping to make that change by serving middle school students and training classroom teachers in their pedagogy. Fresh Prep, its sister program, serves high school students taking the ELA, Global History, and U.S. History Regents exams. Both programs are proving how powerful hip-hop can be as a learning tool.
According to Fresh Ed Director James Miles, New York City’s current student pass rate for the Global History Regents Exam is 45 percent while students who have Fresh Education and learn through hip-hop have a pass rate of 61 percent.
However, the panelists note that just because something is expressed through rap or a form of hip-hop does not mean it’s educationally valuable or good. Mooney explains that in many ways teachers are responsible for the literacy development of kids, but it’s not enough to simply present a form of hip-hop and consider it a lesson.
Teachers must understand the medium through which the piece of content — a play, a book, a movie — is expressed and delve into the themes such as immigration or political activism and confront why the piece is being expressed in a certain way; is it because of racial tensions? If so, why? Why are all of the characters only people of color? What is the historical context to all of it? Who is the intended audience?
Those questions spark larger, meaningful conversations that will improve students’ critical consciousness and media literacy. The goal in doing this is to help students move out into the world and look at everything more critically and see systems, subcultures and imagery around them and understand the who, what, where, when, why of it all. Hip-hop questions the norm.
Audra the Rapper agrees. “Hip-hop is more than a musical genre; it’s a lifestyle, it’s a culture. You can’t walk outside and not interact with something encouraged through hip-hop.” The panelists urged teachers to be inspired by this and introduce it into their curriculum because hip-hop is part of youth culture today.
Lastly, hip-hop, like life, is full of contradictions. Learning is indeed a complicated, ambiguous process with no clear cut rules or approach. While much of mainstream hip-hop has themes of homophobia, sexism and misogyny, it isn’t hip-hop that created any of it — hip-hop is simply a reflection of the current culture. Football, movies, and other pop culture favorites also have negative aspects. The panelists express the importance of allowing students to critique systems of oppression that permeate the world by listening to what’s on the radio too.
“We as educators have to have the moral and intellectual courage to ask questions about why it is how it is,” Mooney says, and then have the courage to do it.
Written By: Kelly Fong, writer and editor for USC Rossier School of Education. Kelly has more than eight years of experience in journalism and is currently earning her MS in Communications at Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
Urban Arts Partnership’s (UAP) mission is to close the achievement gap through arts-integrated education programs deployed as targeted academic interventions. Founded in 1991, UAP has established itself as New York’s largest and fastest growing arts education organization; this year alone we directly serve over 100 schools, 15,000 students, and 500 teachers. From using Hip-Hop to help students prepare for the Regents exam, to leveraging the art of storytelling as an ELL tool, to reinforcing socialization skills in students with special needs using the fine arts, UAP’s programs unite the arts and academics to give students an opportunity to succeed and definitively break the cycle of poverty.
In March of 2016, UAP went to SXSWedu, in Austin, TX to launch the expansion of the Fresh Ed program, including its curricula, original music, and blended learning tools. The small team of UAP artists and educators were immediately met with overwhelmingly positive response and interest. It’s clear that classrooms and educators from all over the WORLD are ready and willing to incorporate this culturally responsive (and enjoyable) approach to teaching and learning. Check out all of the responses on social media from our time presenting and showcasing at SXSWedu.
Urban Arts Partnership will continue these conversations on our culturally responsive approach to education in NYC on April 27th, where you can attend the New York Arts in Education Roundtable’s Face to Face Conference. We will be facilitating a workshop called, “Gotta Stay Fresh,” in which the participants will be able to make their own Fresh Ed Lesson Plan for any academic subject.
“I make $1,100 per two-week pay period. Union dues are $60–80, and Arizona puts 11% of my check into a retirement fund,” says Molly Hanzel, a science teacher at Carl Hayden High in Phoenix.
Hanzel says the Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) maintains “a very strong presence at Hayden.” They recruit at the beginning of the year and deliver updates on union affairs at staff meetings. She appreciates the CTA for negotiating better wages in the face of hiring freezes, and helping a fellow teacher with a degenerative health condition obtain accommodations that allowed her to stay in the classroom.
Hanzel transferred to Hayden after two years at Peoria Union, another school in the Phoenix Union district, where she earned her teaching certificate through Americorps’ New Teacher Project. She says of the change, “I feel tons of support here that I didn’t feel before,” and notes the modest pay increase makes her feel appreciated. She still has to keep a tight budget, but shares, “I like what I’m doing. And I don’t think a lot of people can say that about their jobs.”
At Hanzel’s old school, Peoria Union, the CTA had less of a presence. Support for the union was near-universal among members of her Americorps class. However, the difficulties of living on subsistence-level pay and time constraints posed by lesson planning as first-year teachers while trying to maintain a work-life balance made them question if joining was worth it. Hanzel’s peers knew they received the collective bargaining benefits achieved by the CTA whether or not they signed up, and that if they ever had a problem and needed the union’s help, they could start paying dues then.
In the 26 states like Arizona that have implemented “Right to Work” laws, including former union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Indiana, workers can no longer be compelled to pay dues. As a result, unions of all types are losing members and revenue. In the states where “Right to Work” has not yet penetrated, teachers unions are still threatened by a growing number of private charter schools. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports private-sector employees are represented at a rate five times less than their public-sector counterparts.
The group behind “Right to Work” laws is the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC). A conservative think-tank responsible for hundreds of laws in a host of states, ALEC leads the push to privatize public schools, undermine wage increases, cut corporate taxes, and slash funding to regulators who protect our environment from pollution. Alongside firefighters and police officers, America’s teachers represent the employment sectors with the highest rates of unionization. As we saw in Wisconsin, these local government employees are among ALEC’s primary targets. And when union-backed candidates lose to ALEC-funded officials, the ramifications extend beyond temporary wage-freezes.
As many teachers know, unions are not perfect, and should not be exempt from criticism. It is readily understandable why due-paying members grow frustrated when their representatives fail to advance their interests at the bargaining table. However, union employees should remain mindful that ineffectiveness is not always the result of corruption. Sure, graft and greed are an unfortunate reality in some instances, but our current system of campaign finance requires “accountability” to politicians many union leaders would prefer to avoid.
Despite their shortcomings, unions have performed a historically important function in American society. During their two boom points — in the progressive 1930s and post-World War II 1950s — labor unions lobbied for significant policy victories that facilitated the growth of a wildly prosperous middle class. While these benefits have not always been extended to all Americans fairly, it is undeniable that organized labor has helped millions of families live better lives.
Recently, Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of unions and civic groups like The League of Women Voters, delivered a lecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Geoghegan spoke about the Wagner Act, a monumental labor bill passed in 1935 that established exclusive bargaining rights for majority unions. In the decade after its inception, Wagner proved of great benefit to workers. Union membership increased from approximately 7 percent of the total workforce to over 25 percent of the total workforce — a figure maintained for over thirty years.
However, the provision of Wagner that established majority-only bargaining proved to be a trap. Beginning in the 1970s, millions of wage-earning manufacturing jobs were shipped abroad, and a cross-industry increase in hiring of “independent contractors” transpired. As these events unfolded, union membership began its precipitous decline.
“Right to Work” followed, and further eroded labor’s numbers. With fewer funds from dues, unions are able to achieve less for the workers they represent. Eventually, the cost of paying-in exceeds the benefits, and unions fail to earn the majority vote required to achieve bargaining rights.
Geoghegan says, “Under this model, union membership will not exceed 6 percent, where we sit now.” The result of fewer union represented employees than in the years preceding the Great Depression? “Labor will not be an effective counter to efforts being made to push for a more plutocratic income structure.” The transition to a less equitable income distribution will come at the expense of funding for the public good. More plainly, teacher pay, class-sizes, and workloads won’t get any better, and schools will suffer for it.
A potential solution to this dilemma may be to increase the number of participants in organized labor by removing the Wagner Act provision that mandates “majority-only” bargaining, moving towards a European-style minority union representation. Some labor organizers fear this change would actually reduce the number of total workers represented, and that existing unions would have less negotiating power. But Geoghegan says these fears are misguided — more unions would form to represent the vast numbers of Americans falling from the ranks of the middle class.
Further, coalitions between minority unions could be formed during collective bargaining to maximize leverage in negotiations. And perhaps of greater benefit, competition between minority unions would ensure that unions are responsive to their members, or risk losing them to other unions offering a better deal. Under this system of minority representation, European workers unionize at a rate near five-times greater than Americans employees, and typically enjoy better earnings, too.
While benefits are clear, the trick lies in actualizing change. Generally, Republicans oppose labor as allies of their Democratic opponents, and Democrats struggle to win elections without funds provided by unions. In fewer words, teachers don’t have many friends in the political system when it comes to reforming this antiquated statute.
There are impending court decisions that will impact the future of union organization, and Geoghegan optimistically observes that courts nationwide are siding with labor at an increased rate. However, that trend could also be understood as evidence of how far union opponents have already advanced.
With Congress and the courts unlikely to provide much aid, organized labor’s best shot at affecting this needed change comes with the executive branch, whose leader appoints members to the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has the power to revise the Wagner Act with a single vote. And if we look back in history at the tenures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, we find strong examples of the positive impact an executive advocate can have on the opportunities afforded to working Americans.
In absence of change, union membership will continue to decline. Teacher pay will continue to stagnate and pensions will wither as income inequality increases and our environment sustains further damage. The continued existence of a prosperous American middle-class will be threatened.
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We at Kiddom like to ponder how classrooms and learning might evolve as a whole.
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