First Person

Countdown To ‘Guys and Dolls’ In The South Bronx, Pt. 1

After eight years of making theater with urban teenagers and witnessing how challenges can be turned into fuel for creativity, I know that Orson Wells was onto something when he said that “the true enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” That’s all well and good, but I’m pretty sure my man Orson never tried putting on a full-length Broadway musical with a hundred South Bronx teenagers on a tiny stage in a school gym while pregnant and raising a 2-year-old.

Poster advertising the performance outside Room 201

Here’s Part 1 of a condensed 100-day countdown to our production of “Guys and Dolls,” in performance at Bronx Prep May 24-26. Witness the mayhem, the misery, and the small moments of grace in the midst of it all, and stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

100 days until opening night

We haven’t even decided which show we’re doing this year and already we can’t seem to catch a break. I find out today that we can’t get a performance license for the “The Color Purple,” which is the musical the student leaders of the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy have been clamoring to put on at school ever since they saw it on Broadway two years ago.

I’m sorry that kids who’ve shown such strong initiative won’t get their first choice, and that the now-tight timing means that teachers, not students, will choose the show this year, but I can’t say I’m personally devastated by the news. Deep in the grip of first-trimester crankiness and bracing against  one of the coldest, dreariest winters on record, I have to admit that swapping out an emotionally wrenching drama for some good old fashioned jazz-hands sounds like a great idea to me right now.

98 days until opening night

In keeping with tradition, we announce the spring show with a dramatic unveiling of a bulletin board outside of room 201. This year’s crowd of curious kids and teachers is bigger than ever.

After what I hope is a rousing build-up, I rip off the sheet to reveal a hand-painted poster of the New York skyline overlaid with a bright pastel logo for “Guys and Dolls.”

Usually there’s applause. Hollering. Jumping up and down.

This year? Crickets. The kids look around at each other, bewildered. It hits me that they’ve never heard of the show. A posse of high school girls peels away from the crowd and storms off down the hallway.

92 days until opening night

After a few days of stewing over the kids’ reaction to our show choice, I find out that the girls’ exit wasn’t really as huffy as it looked. As one student explains to me today, far from storming off, they’d actually almost trampled each other racing down the hall to the library to Google the show and figure out what leads to start preparing for.

87 days until opening night

High school boys come to audition in record number this year

I wake up this morning so nauseous and tired I can barely get out of bed, but my mood is buoyed by the turn-out at auditions. Last year we had about 65 kids. This year, 147 kids show up — nearly 20 percent of the Bronx Prep student body.

Granted, this means auditions are a logistical nightmare. Not to mention a fire hazard. I agonize about how many kids we’ll have to cut. I also struggle at several points during the first round not to throw up. (I haven’t told the kids I’m pregnant yet and can only imagine what my vomiting during their singing would do to their fragile egos.)

But overall the energy is great. And the best part is that almost a third of the kids trying out are first-timers, most of them guys.

84 days until opening night

Cast list is up. Lots of crying kids. Phone calls to devastated parents. Year after year, I never get used to this part.

83 days until opening night

First rehearsal. Ninety actors packed into a room designed to hold 45. How did I let myself cast so many kids this year? Pregnancy hormones to blame?

I share the news that I’m expecting a baby and tell the kids they better not mess with me this year. They grin and rub my belly and promise to be extra calm, quiet, respectful, and responsible. I grin back and tell them I’ll believe it when I see it.

72 days until opening night

Tragically, my over-casting might turn out not to be such a big issue after all. Today I discover that almost 30 percent of our cast members will be academically ineligible to participate unless they get their grades up by the end of the marking period.

The really bad news is that on the list of struggling kids is the actor who plays Sky Masterson, the male lead. Why has this bright, capable young man suddenly given up on himself halfway through his senior year with a lead role on the line?

64 days until opening night

11th-grader Stephanie shows fifth-grader Mavelyn how it's done (under mentor Julie's watchful eye)

The cast may be a hot mess, but the set crew is holding it down. With so many of last year’s set crew guys now playing roles in the show, most of the crew this year is female.

There is nothing I love more than watching an 11th-grade girl teaching a fifth-grade girl how to use a circular saw.

53 days until opening night

Chris Moncrief, one of my former students and star of the Bronx Prep musical theater program as well as the speech team, comes back from his first year at Syracuse University to pay us a visit. Without waiting to be asked, he steps into a rehearsal with a group of middle school boys and within minutes the scene transforms from stilted and flat to rhythmic and hilarious.

47 days until opening night

Drama with our male leads continues to plague us.

Today a friend emails me an Onion article about President Obama holding nationwide auditions for “Guys and Dolls.” Even after auditioning 8 million Americans for the role, the article jokes, Obama is still searching for the perfect Nathan Detroit. On any other day I would have laughed out loud at this, but today I can only muster a gallows-humor sigh: Soon I might be conducting that same search all over again. I’ve just gotten word that tomorrow I have to attend an expulsion hearing for a 10th-grader I’ve known for four years and have come to love like a son — none other than the kid who plays Nathan Detroit.

Stay tuned for the second installment of this three-part series of posts leading up to opening night of Guys and Dolls at Bronx Prep.

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.