Why Black Rockettes are Important

As a former musician and musical theater geek, the only award show I look forward to each year is the Tony’s. This year was no exception, even though, as one might say, “I had no horse in this race.” It wasn’t like the year when Phantom went up against Into the Woods, splitting awards for “Best Musical” and “Best Book of a Musical.” Or when Avenue Q so unrightly won “Best Musical” over Wicked (Wicked is still on Broadway after more than 20 years. Where are those damn puppets now? Old and moldy.) But this year had an interesting twist, one that seemed innocuous at first.

The 71st Tony Awards were held in Radio City Music Hall and included their famous “Rockettes.” They’re a marvel. Their talent and precision is mesmerizing, especially for an old band director. I actually got to see them live at an Easter show many years ago. Most of it was stupendous until…Rockettes…dressed as nuns…holding Easter lilies that lit up in the shape of a cross. That was surreal. But I’m not from New York. But then, neither is my nephew.

My youngest nephew lives in the country. I guess I’m close to the country now, but he lives in Summers County, West Virginia. It’s a small place, very rural, more country than where I live, and he’s an anomaly. Of mixed race, most people reasonably assume he’s black. He’s also quite accomplished, even at a very young age. He’s just finished the sixth grade and is moving to middle school. This year, again, he’s won many awards for his academic success. He also wins awards every year for his citizenship, for which his mother is most proud. So being black shouldn’t matter.

But it does. He’s grown up with a multi-age group of friends and relatives, which is not uncommon in rural areas. He has friends that are several years older as well as some that are younger than him, but he’s still usually the only black one. They’re a tight group of friends, and their parents are close, too. When you talk about “a village,” you’re talking about the folks who are raising my nephew and his friends. It’s what we want for our kids.

So, why should it matter that he’s black? He’s doing well in school, right? Well, I’m the uncle who gives him books as presents. I give him other presents, but my nephew was born the day before Christmas, so I try to mix it up with fun stuff for one celebration and books for the other. Don’t get me wrong, I love books! I think books are the fun stuff! But I’m not in the sixth grade (or the fifth, and fourth and every grade earlier to the point where he used to sit on my lap as a baby while I read to him). The trouble is, there are (almost) no books for him.

When I was growing up, I had already read all of Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I read the Shanarra Chronicles and lots of classics, too. I was a voracious reader. My parents encouraged us to read, and most nights finished with Mom or Dad reading a chapter from some book to me and my little brother before bed. But that’s because I could see myself in those books. That’s not the case for my nephew.

Every year, as he gets older, it gets harder and harder to find books that have characters that look like my nephew, or have the same interests as my nephew. In the past, I’ve given him books about dinosaurs, mythology, superheroes, and sports. I also go for fantasy, but even then, a lot have been turned into movies and almost all the characters are white. At least the main characters. Or, like in the case of Percy Jackson, the black kid is a supporting character, and an animal to boot!

When I do find good books with strong black teenage characters, they’re usually inner city kids. Many are dealing with drugs and violence and broken families. That’s not my nephew, or his family. Yes, he likes playing basketball, and was just awarded “Best Camper” at his summer basketball camp, but he’s not dealing with kids shooting up or shooting each other. The only shooting he’s interested in is free throws. He’s not in the books I find at my local bookstore.

So, that’s why, when watching the Tony Awards tonight, I noticed that there was only one black Rockette. There were dozens of them on the stage, but only one black one. And they put her front and center. And then set that off with a vocal performance by Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom, two amazingly talented, and yes, black performers. I might not have noticed the irony before my nephew. But it was now, forgive me, bright as the celebrated neon lights of the “Great White Way.” So many puns in that sentence.

If we want kids to succeed in school (and life!), we need to give them stories they can relate to. They need to see themselves as the main characters—in books, movies, TV shows, games, and even awards shows. All kids, boys and girls of every race. They have to see possibilities for themselves. If a kid in rural West Virginia can turn on the TV and can’t see anyone who looks like him unless it’s a drug addict or a convict, what message is that sending? If I can’t find a single book with a positive role model for a young black kid, what are we telling him? I can’t even find books where a young black kid doing well is the main character.

Help me work on this. Yes, there are a few books out there for him to read. I’ve read a couple. I also work in schools across the country, so I ask teachers and visit school libraries. I’ll continue to look. But the operative word is few. There are a limited number of role models for him to relate to that may not be sports figures. I can’t solve this on my own, but I will keep working on it for him, and his friends, because I know some day he is going to be that role model for some other young, black kid in a rural area that needs someone to look up to. So maybe he’ll tell his story. And there will be Rockettes of every color.

 

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 1: Building Capacity

Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. The process helped me to reflect upon and energize my own coaching skills, and reminded me of a few ideas I need to keep focused on. This post is a first in a series about lessons I learned–or had to re-learn–during my coaching work this past year. I’ll keep returning to them in my own work and hope you find them helpful, too.

In the Dell Certification process for Mentors I use an eclectic approach. I include ideas from the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, cognitive coaching, from my mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Harsh, along with other tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their own goals. Despite the certification from a company known for technology, we practice listening and questioning and step back a little from jumping on the technology bandwagon to have deeper conversations about what educators need and want.

Coaches build the capacity of others to reach their goals.

John Ross (channeling Sharon Harsh)

My friend and mentor, Sharon Harsh, taught me more about capacity building through her own actions than I could find in any book. Working with her was a real highpoint in my career, because she helped me to understand the ultimate way coaches help build capacity—whether the capacity of individuals or organizations—and that’s through helping others reach their goals. We did this work formally through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education in the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in my own coaching and try to help new coaches understand how that can impact their work.

Just a note of caution: This is my philosophy of what coaches do. In every school and district I work with, we have conversations about what is expected of coaches. We also talk about what coaches should not do. Those are interesting lists. I haven’t found one yet in which this philosophy doesn’t fit, but you should know where I’m coming from. That’s a good ELA strategy, know the author’s bias. This is mine.

Why do people become coaches? We’re in education, so it’s not really about the money. It’s also not because of the power. What power?!? Any coach would heartily laugh at that one. Teachers (and others) become coaches probably for many of the same reasons they become teachers—to help others. And like when we were new teachers, new coaches are excited about the potential. We’re eager to get into other peoples’ classrooms and get to work. To “fix” things.

I see that often with new coaches, including myself. And since I work with technology, I used to often lead with the technology solution. Learn this gadget, or try this resource. But very quickly we learn that not everyone comes to the coaching partnership with the same eagerness and interest in using technology. They may be open to some ideas, but new coaches have to realize the people they work with have their own interests and motivations. You can’t build their capacity without knowing what these are. So coaching relationships often start with setting goals and then working to help people achieve those goals.

Capacity can be measured by goals achieved

One of the first things coaches can do is to help others write reasonable goals. There are very few educators who have not heard of the SMART goal-setting process (Wikipedia has more about SMART goals), but I’ve run across fewer still that can actually use it to set reasonable goals for their own growth. When goals are about something you’re already doing, those are accomplishments, not goals. When they’re so large you can’t reasonably accomplish them, those are aspirations (not to mention frustration). One of the first steps a coach can take is to spend time—repeatedly—to set and monitor reasonable goals with the educators with whom they work.

Tech cart before the horseA well-written goal is like a roadmap. It tells me where you want to go, and as a coach, I then have a guide of how we might get there—together. That’s tough for a new coach, especially if you’ve been hired to help a school or district integrate a bunch of new and expensive technology. You want to lead with the tech cart. You want to share all the great things you did in your classroom! But it’s not your classroom any longer. You’re a guest, and if you keep your colleague’s goals in mind, you’ll become an integral part of that classroom.

Goal Example 1: In order to foster creative and innovative thinking in my schools, I will explore digital storytelling to present information found with online research tools. I will monitor my progress toward this goal by using the TIP Chart to self-reflect, guide my planning, self-evaluate my progress to ensure that I am moving toward the next step on the chart. Goal Example 2: In order for students to compare and contrast Plains and Woodland Indians, students will create a Google presentation on the lives, living conditions, food, clothing, and tools of the Native Americans.
Which of these would you want to coach to?

 

No coach is intentionally going to go in and try to take control, but being problem solvers, we tend to want to “fix” things, sometimes working on things that others don’t even think need fixing. So, there’s more I’ve learned from working with coaches, and I’ll share them. Next time.

 

Resolutions for a New Year

It’s that time of year. Time to make resolutions, hopefully ones I can keep. I got to add a big checkmark on my ToDo list today and check off one of those resolutions—one a year in the making. I updated my website! That was a personal resolution for 2016, so I made it just under the wire. I’ve been doing better this year Tweeting out from my visits to schools, but my poor blog has sat lonely and untouched for the past year. I hope promoting WordPress up as the primary framework for my website will make it much easier for me to update what’s happening while I’m on the road visiting schools.

My goal this year is to share out at least one post from every trip I make to districts across the country. I have such a good time visiting different school districts, but as I tell most of them—unfortunately for the—I’m usually the one who learns the most from my visits. I get to see how authentic instruction or new technology integration resources or a myriad of other strategies and tools play out in classrooms in districts across the country. I try to bring as much value as possible to the districts I visit. This is usually through the conversations we have—whether easy or not. But I have to admit that ultimately I learn the most visiting district after district.

So, for this year, my resolution is to share more of what I learn here. Moving my WordPress blog to my primary site should help. It’ll be easier to share from hotels across the country. Wish me luck on my resolution and hope it doesn’t take another year to come to fruition.