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.

 

What do you want to create today?

Transformers by Mary Kim SchreckMore than a few years ago I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the ideas of creativity and creative thinking thanks to the wonderful Mary Kim Schreck. She was thinking about, writing about, and sharing her ideas about creativity in her book, Transformers: Creative Teachers for the 21st Century. She had been thinking about creativity so much that she was about done with the book! But she asked me to contribute a chapter about technology in the creative classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been thinking about creativity most of my career! I taught music and most people segregate musicians into a small, select group of “creatives,” that includes visual artists, actors, dancers, writers and a few others. But creativity is not the purview of the few. Everyone can be creative, and in fact, we need more people to be creative in their lives and in their work, now more than ever. I appreciate that Mary Kim gave me a reason to dig deeper into my own ideas about creativity and to compare them to others. It was a valuable experience and, luckily, I get to keep thinking about creativity.

The Value of Performance

I cringe a bit when I see or hear the directions “be creative” in an assignment, because usually this is followed up by using crayons, markers, or different backgrounds in a slide deck. Students are encouraged to “be creative” without ever teaching them what that means. And what does that mean in, say, science? Or math? It’s not the same as in my class. What few teachers realize is that we folks in the creative fields had content standards we had to address, and just like every other class, some of our standards promoted creative thinking, some did not. The important message here is, yes, science, math, and all the others have standards that promote creative thinking.

As a former high school band director I often reflect back on what was then a somewhat routine conversation that has turned out to have significant impact on my life. I had been through my annual observation with my principal, something all teachers go through. My principal, Dr. Barry Beers, was great to work with and full of ideas that pushed and stretched his teachers. I didn’t realize how valuable that was at the time. During our follow-up conference he said to me, “John, I really appreciate how you move from whole group, small group, to individuals, and back and forth whenever you need to. You’re customizing your instruction to the needs of each student.”

I replied to him, hopefully not too snarkily, something like, “Dr. Beers (I still have a hard time calling him Barry), I was just doing a rehearsal. That’s what musicians to do get ready for a performance. Nothing special.”

He tried to help me see the importance of what was going on, but I didn’t really understand his statement until later. Because everything my students did in my class eventually led to a performance, he tried to help me understand how a performance can only be successful when all of the students can play their part, literally. He reminded me that by working with all of the students individually and in groups during rehearsal that I knew who was ready and who still needed work. Then he challenged me.

Learning-Driven Schools by Barry BeersDr. Beers asked me to help teachers in other content areas understand how they can help their students learn how to “perform” their content. Whether math, science, English or whatever, Barry wanted me to help other teachers in other content areas understand how to help their students rehearse so they’d be better prepared to perform in a more authentic context. He enlisted all the Fine Arts staff, and I collaborated with a social studies teacher one year, English the next. It was a challenge, but it helped me to see connections I hadn’t seen before. So, thanks Barry, for thinking creatively about teaching and learning back then.

You can find out more about Barry’s work in his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.

Performance in All Classrooms

Recently, perhaps in reaction to the horribly mind-numbing compliance mentality promoted by federal education policy, the education community is once again seeing the value of performance. I saw this in the release of new college-and-career standards both at the national and state level. New standards in the core areas and the arts definitely push students to work towards levels of creative thinking in their domains. And now, in many states, students demonstrate higher levels of learning through performance.

The best performances are not compliance. They’re not mechanical. They’re not simply the replication of what someone has done before. They’re not multiple choice. The best performances give people a chance to be creative—to pull their knowledge and skills together—to address a real problem or situation in or across content domains.

In this way, creativity is a cumulative skill. I liken it to the top level of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. You can’t get to the top without working you’re way up. You have to have the foundational knowledge and skills of any domain you plan to be creative in—whether that’s writing, speaking, visual or performing arts, or science, or engineering, or even legislation. You have to know what the accepted strategies and processes are before you can change them. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them.You have to understand what work has come before and to analyze and evaluate information in order to provide a creative solution to address a problem.

Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

One interpretation of the cognitive process dimension from the revised Taxonomy of Learning by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001)

Ideas that don’t build on a foundation are not creative. They’re simply novelty. And novelty wears thin fast and falls apart. Creativity has weight, value, and lasting appeal.

The most creative ideas can live a long time—in an individual, a group, or society, but everyone can be creative as we are all faced with authentic problems that are routinely found in the real world. We need creative solutions for providing affordable housing to everyone no matter where they live. We need creative solutions on how to ensure our planet will be able to sustain us. We also need creative solutions to simply provide the best education to each generation of students.

Creativity: Imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.

Sir Ken Robinson
“Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” (2001)

What do you want to create today?

I’ve been given another chance to continue my musings about creativity. I’m very honored that Dell and Advanced Learning Partnerships have asked me to share my ideas and some of the work we’ve done in districts across the nation around promoting instruction and assessments that encourage creative thinking. Dell is calling these events, appropriately enough, “What do you want to create today?”

We’ll talk a bit about creativity and why it’s important, but the main plan is to co-create ideas of how creative thinking can be promoted in all classrooms—not just a few. We’ll explore performance tasks—something I’ve been immersed in for years (like this one a creative teacher from Lake Travis ISD just Tweeted out), but we’ll also explore how preparing kids to perform (in math, or English, or whatever) has deep implications for all curricula.

At these events I’m looking forward to hearing from district leaders from across the country who are promoting creative thinking in their own schools, and we’ll share ideas on how we can help every student in every classroom experience learning that helps them develop critical and creative thinking and perform what they’ve learned. I look forward to hearing your ideas whether you can attend one of these events or not.

 

 

 

 

Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.