First Person

Million Hoodie March, Victor Hugo Edition: Les Miserábles in the South Bronx

It’s a Tuesday after ninth period and I’m walking down the hallway of my South Bronx school toward what looks unmistakably like a fight. A tight circle of high school boys are gathered around two other boys on the floor outside of the classroom where I teach theater. One of the boys appears to be pounding the other with his fist. The other kids are chanting, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

The scene doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, we have our fair share of hallway scuffles, but compared to most schools in the neighborhood, ours isn’t terribly violent. I get closer and recognize that all the kids in the group are cast members in Les Miserábles, the spring musical I’m directing. Now I’m even more confused. Some of these kids may struggle academically and some have tough home lives, but there’s not a bully or a thug among them. Even so, the energy of the scene automatically triggers memories of my early days as a new teacher breaking up fights in the back of my classroom, memories that are quick to surge up and flood me with adrenaline despite the trusting relationships I’ve built with my students, the leadership work they’ve done over the years and the creative challenges we’ve faced together while developing a musical theater program at Bronx Prep.

The chanting gets louder. I race down the hall.

When I get to the scene, the circle of kids unknots itself and I struggle to make sense of what I’m seeing. George — the student on the floor — is laughing so hard he can barely breathe. The boy kneeling over him is not punching him, but hugging him and slapping him on the back with enough enthusiasm and force to have toppled them both over. Several of the boys around them are wiping tears out of their eyes. At first I assume they’re tears of laughter.

I ask what’s going on.

Thomas, the boy doing the hugging, stands up and straightens his tie, then extends a hand to George, the senior who plays the show’s lead, Jean Valjean. George stands up, shoots me a sheepish grin and coaxes Jasmine, who plays one of the other leads, Fantine, out of the stairwell at the end of the hallway where she is burying her face in her hands. She blushes and smiles shyly.

“Um, yeah, so we were just singing Fantine’s death scene for the guys, here,” says George.

“Yeah,” says Thomas. “And it was so awesome that they made everybody cry.”

I look around at the boys. With the congratulatory brouhaha I’d mistaken for a smack-down fully subsided now, I can feel the lingering charge of the emotion that incited it. The guys are embarrassed, avoiding my gaze, kicking the tile floor with their sneakers. One kid wipes a tear-stained cheek with his shoulder. “I don’t cry,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Ever. But that was really, really good.”

I’m stunned.

First of all, before we even get to the crying thing, there’s the simple fact that the kids are rehearsing on their own. Finally, after nine years spent building up a performing arts program from scratch through what has mostly felt like sheer force of adult will — the endless hours my colleagues and I have spent begging students to show up on time and get to work, calling kids’ homes after every missed practice, trying to convince young people whose default setting for self expression is texting and tweeting that real art takes time, discipline and painstaking follow-through — this moment offers a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, this group of kids is finally starting to take ownership of their creative process.

Secondly, it occurs to me that my initial fears that urban teenagers wouldn’t connect emotionally to an operetta set in 19th century France might have been unfounded. Could it be that they are actually starting to understand and connect to these characters?

Finally — and here’s the kicker: In a neighborhood where so many of the kids I interact with every day seem to spend the bulk of their energy trying to convince the world how tough they are, how unfeeling they are, how little they care about what happens to them or the people around them — where even the appearance of emotional vulnerability can equal social rejection, a serious ass-beating, or worse — these kids are not only crying openly in front of each other — they’re crying over musical theater.

Partly this phenomenon has to do with this particular group of kids and the coming of age of a program that has been nearly a decade in the making. Our school is a combined middle and high school that spans fifth to 12th grade, and we’ve been putting on musicals since 2006, so our older kids have formed close bonds, establishing a tightly-knit culture of positivity, creative risk-taking and emotional support. Two of our senior cast members have received acceptances (and full rides) to competitive BFA programs in acting and set design from SUNY Purchase and Ithaca respectively. And my co-director on this show is former Bronx Prep student and musical theater star Denisse Polanco, who earned her undergraduate degree in Arts in Education from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2011 and has returned to Bronx Prep this year as a theater teacher and speech coach. With so many successful upper classmen and alumni leading them, it’s not surprising that younger students coming up through the ranks of the program are feeling inspired this year.

But there’s more to it than that. The level of commitment we’re seeing this year is bordering on a weird kind of fervor. Put simply, the kids have become Les Mis freaks. Students who claim to “hate reading” are devouring the Victor Hugo novel the show is based on. Cast members who say they don’t care about history or math are making Google maps of Paris and calculating travel times for revolutionaries carrying ammunition from one end of the city to the other. While we lost some cast members who couldn’t get their grades up in time, a large number of students who were failing four and five classes as of a few months ago are now staying at school until all hours and getting tutored by their fellow actors so they can meet academic requirements and stay in the cast.

In all my years making theater in the Bronx, I’ve never seen kids give this much of a damn about a show before. Ironically enough — given how far removed it is from them in terms of time period, geography, race and culture — I think it’s because we’ve never done a show that connects so directly to their lives.

The first moment I realized that the kids were understanding the story more deeply than I ever had at their age was the first week of rehearsals when we started learning the big musical numbers. Put it this way: When a roomful of young people — many of whom can trace their families’ roots directly back to the Middle Passage and the Triangle Trade — instinctively launch their fists up when they sing, “It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!” there’s an electricity in the air that was noticeably absent from the version of “The People’s Song” I sang with my high school choir back in Wilton, Conn.

I sat in the classroom that day listening to the kids sing with every hair on my arms standing on end, thinking, “Victor Hugo couldn’t possibly have predicted it, and Cameron Mackintosh couldn’t have known it either, but I’m pretty sure this show was created for this exact group of kids to perform at this exact moment in history.” Since that first week of rehearsal, the kids have been discovering resonant overlaps between the student uprisings at the heart of Les Miserábles and the expansive revolutionary spirit — as well as the countervailing energies of apathy, cynicism and fear — fueling so many present-day events. One of our student leaders, a 12th-grader named Ruth, recently designed and ran a workshop for the cast called “What Is Your Breaking Point?” in which she helped kids understand the uprisings in Les Mis by analyzing blog posts written by real-life student participants in the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, and the Million Hoodie March organized in protest over the death of Trayvon Martin.

“When a bunch of Bronx Prep kids are debating whether to wear hoodies to school in honor of Trayvon — and some of them are cynical about whether their act of defiance will actually mean anything in the end,” Ruth says, “that’s really not so different — on a basic level — from these kids in Paris in the 1800s deciding whether or not to stand up and fight on the barricade for what they believe in.”

Even more compelling in my view than “text-to-world” connections the kids are making are the “text-to-self” connections — the very specific and intimate ways they see their own lives and families’ experiences reflected in their characters’ stories. Every day more of these art-and-life intersections surface, and every time another student talks about how they see themselves in this show, I get chills. Here are three examples the kids have shared over the last few days:

Thomas (the enthusiastic young actor from the hallway scene) says that playing the role of Marius, who wrestles over whether to risk death on the barricade for his revolutionary ideals, has given him a deeper understanding of the agonizing moral dilemmas his grandparents faced living under the brutal dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s.

For a junior named Miguel, the play’s critique of the criminal justice system hits home directly. Like Jean Valjean, Miguel’s older brother went to prison for a crime he committed in the process of trying to help someone, and then found he couldn’t get a job with a living wage when he got out, “not even a job at McDonald’s,” Miguel says. Miguel’s favorite part of the show is when Valjean, embittered by his treatment in jail, steals a silver cup from a bishop, who responds with a surprising gift of two silver candlesticks and an inspiring admonition to Valjean to change his ways and walk a path of redemption. The bishop’s radical act of generosity reminds Miguel of the life-changing employment assistance his brother has recently received from the state.

Tenth grader Jada says that in the awful days following the shooting death of her brother Jared this February, the lyrics of “The Café Song (Empty Chairs at Empty Tables)” played through her head constantly, bringing her unexpected stretches of a “strange kind of comfort” at a time of overwhelming grief.

***

Over the last several decades, budget cuts and the pressures of high-stakes standardized testing in English and math have either squeezed arts education out of middle school and high school curriculum completely or reduced it to a frivolous, once-in-a-while add-on in a huge number of schools across the country. Programming losses have hit students in the nation’s poorest districts the hardest. Cuts to arts education programs fly in the face of abundant research confirming what those of us lucky enough to continue this work know in our bones: that arts education is more than just a tool for boosting test scores and closing the achievement gap. Access to rich and relevant learning opportunities in the creative arts is a fundamental human right — a right worth fighting for.

***

Les Miserábles Student Edition will be performed at Bronx Prep May 21-23 at 7 p.m. with a special encore performance including student reflections and stories in Manhattan on Friday, May 25 at 7 p.m. Contact me for more information.

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

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.