First Person

High-Stakes On Stage: Letting Students Run The Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.