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Showcasing Our Best And Worst

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

The Brooklyn Arts Academy is special for offering electives, taught by local professionals, in areas such as hip-hop dance, emcee, deejay, music production, digital photography, fashion design, choir and band. Many students who attend the school were drawn to it for this reason. At the end of each semester, students would show off their new skills in an arts showcase. Sometimes these were held in our cafeteria, and other times in an auditorium we rented from a local college. I never missed one of these performances, and they almost always inspired the same conflicted feelings: pride and awe at my students’ abilities on stage, combined with frustration and embarrassment at the rowdiness and disorganization of the event as a whole.

For a few students, the arts showcase was a time to shine. There was one student who everyone called Michael because he fashioned himself after Michael Jackson. He always had a solo during the hip-hop dance performances and would bring the house down with his impeccable rendition of the moonwalk.

There were two young men — one black and one Hispanic — that formed a rap duo good enough to sign with a label. They kept the crowd spellbound with their brilliant flow and rhymes such as “some of my boys / lost themselves in the bong / truth blowing like bombs or condoms put on wrong / never stepped out of the hood / but say that they gone / I want to travel on planes / because of my songs.”

Another one of my students wasn’t as good as a rapper but amazed me with his stage presence. He could work the crowd like no other, raising his hands in the air and getting people to clap along with him, a wide smile across his face. He performed an unforgettable duet with his girlfriend, rapping the verses while she sang the chorus.

There were four or five students who composed “the band.” This wasn’t a traditional school band with clarinets and trombones, but more like a rock and roll band. They played bass guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and drums and performed rocking medleys of Stevie Wonder songs as well as original compositions.

The girls’ hip-hop dance routines were another highlight. Their instructor helped them with choreography but they added their own flair and the energy was palpable. Those girls practiced constantly in the days leading up to the performance, even ditching classes at times to do so in the back hallways.

The school’s mission explicitly promotes student self-discovery and self-expression though the arts, and the showcases were the time and place when this was best on display. Our kids had a sense of style and individuality all their own, from the way they dressed (jelly bracelets color-coordinated with shoelaces) to the way they interacted with one another (lots of hugging, cheek-kissing, and elaborate hand-shaking). Attending a showcase was a little bit like going to a hip-hop concert, as our students threw their hands in the air and shouted encouragement to their friends.

Unfortunately, the general raucousness of the crowd made it difficult to focus on what was happening onstage. From my perch in the back rows, I couldn’t see the dance routines because students in the front rows were standing up. When the drama class performed a skit, I could hardly hear them because kids in the crowd were horsing around. Then the students in the audience would devolve into typical classroom behavior. One student would yell, “Shut up you guys — they’re trying to perform!” Then someone else would laugh. Then someone would cough. Then you’d hear lots of “shhhhs!” We needed to teach our students norms for being an audience at a public performance.

We needed to teach other students about the responsibilities of free expression. Though students were told to keep their language appropriate, we inevitably had rappers who cursed or made gang references in their songs. On one occasion, a group had their microphones cut off after dropping a line about “red bandanas.” On another occasion, a boy made a reference to oral sex. In both cases, the students actually had the audacity to get angry at the principal for cutting them off, acting as though the performance was a right and not a privilege.

I believe our students would have behaved better if we made a greater effort to turn the showcase into a more high-stakes experience and a more collective enterprise. For one thing, we could have done a better job advertising these performances, to both parents and the community at large. If students knew they were performing for an audience beyond themselves, they might rise to the occasion. We also should have put a lot more effort into rehearsals and preparations. Students should have been better coached about transitions between performances, and also about how and when to respond as an audience.

Finally, I wonder what the showcase could have been like if it involved all students and teachers working together with a shared goal of putting on a great performance. As a content-teacher, I was minimally involved in the planning or execution of the show. I thought it might be cool, though, if students were expected to incorporate ideas from my history lessons into their performances. As a school, we could create the expectation that all students would have to be involved in some way, and that all classes must also in some way be represented.

I believe that the showcase had tremendous potential to be a powerful motivating force in the lives of our students. The event presented an authentic opportunity for our students to share their creativity and their best selves to the world. It also represented an opportunity for the Brooklyn Arts Academy to demonstrate just how transformative arts education can be for inner-city students. But, in my opinion, this potential could not be realized until the school promotes discipline as much as it promotes student self-expression.

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