Survival of the Fittest (Or, Five Lessons Learned from the 2016 BPS)

It's that time of the year again.

Wake up at 7 AM and prepare four Tupperware containers of healthy snack foods (cashews - check, sunflower seeds - check, ancient grain cereal with quinoa - check). Do a round of meditative yoga to ensure that you're mentally prepared for the challenge ahead. Mobility stretches are your key to success, so make sure that you do them before you step onto the subway. Dress in layers because you don't know what the temperature will be like when you arrive or after the first twelve hours. Make sure that you pack a water bottle that can sustain you, but at the same time, remember your threshold (how much can you drink without having to run to the bathroom?). There's so much to remember in order to ensure that you are one of the few, the proud, who survive.

It's time for AMC's Best Picture Showcase.



I refuse to go to movie theaters. I cannot stand audiences that chit-chat with their friends, text on their cell phones, or actively yell at the screen. So unless it's playing at a venue like BAM or Film Forum, I'm not interested. My one exception is AMC's annual Best Picture Showcase where they screen all of the Academy Award Best Picture nominees back-to-back in one day of sleep-deprived cinematic bingeing. I watched all of the nominees this year and, oh my goodness, are we talking slim pickings or what? I learned a lot of lessons from this year's BPS -- mostly about teaching -- and I'm going to take a few moments to share them with you today (before The Revenant wins Best Picture and convinces me that no one in the Academy knows what they're doing):

1. The Myth of the A-Student
Oh, Alejandro Iñárritu. Let's start with you. I did enjoy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, but not as much as I expected. As a theater practitioner who wrote her undergraduate thesis on comic books, this film seemed tailor-made for my approval. And I really wanted Birdman to be my front-runner for the Academy Award -- but then I saw Whiplash and forgot that every other film existed. Because I am, first and foremost, a teacher, and Whiplash is the best film that I've ever seen about the trauma and ecstasy of teaching. So, while I wasn't disappointed to see Birdman win last year, it was only an "also-ran" nominee for me.

However, I was excited to see Iñárritu's follow-up this year -- his gritty survivalist period drama, The Revenant. I'd been impressed with Iñàrritu's work in the past, so I figured that I was guaranteed at least a solid showing from him. But, despite being primed to root for this film, I can honestly say that The Revenant is one of the worst Best Picture nominees ever. (I would say THE worst nominee ever, but then I remembered last year's miserably chauvinistic and xenophobic American Sniper.) It was just so damned silly, and not in a good way. When the protagonist drove his horse off a cliff, I just about dissolved into giggles. It was full of ridiculous macho posturing and hackneyed dream imagery. None of the characters evoked more than a vague sense of curiosity about what they'd be forced to survive next. I know that the cast endured grueling stunt work, harsh weather conditions, and perpetual discomfort on-set -- but I can't imagine that making The Revenant was any more painful than being forced to sit through it.

This reminded me of when I first started my teaching career. I had a few high performers where even if they'd submitted substandard work, I still ended up giving them a decent score because I had it locked in my mind that they were "A-students." It took a long time for me to realize that students can change a lot throughout the course of a year, and you need to make sure that you're giving them valid feedback at all times. If a student's starting to slip for whatever reason, he needs to know that. If Iñàrritu's most recent film looks like a missing reel from America's Funniest Home Videos, please give him the feedback that he needs instead of an Academy Award.

2. The Curse of the Genre Film
Genre films have never done well at the Academy Awards. Every season, the best representatives of specific genres (action, horror, and sci-fi) have found themselves locked out of the nominee bracket. And when the Academy finally upped the number of nominees a few years ago (notably to include Neill Blomkamp's sensational District 9), it was universally acknowledged that while these films could now be nominated, they could never actually win.

Enter a film that should be a strong contender for Best Picture this year but isn't: George Miller's visual masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. Fury Road is both deceptively intelligent and politically progressive. Its narrative structure is iron-clad, never missing a single character-fueled beat. It doesn't condescend to the audience by spelling out the backstory in scads of forced exposition. And the visual design is some of the best that you'll ever find in a film. (I WANT A FLAME-THROWING GUITAR BIG RIG.) Add in the fact that the chase sequences are choreographed, shot, and edited to perfection, and you have a clear genre winner.

But Fury Road won't win. And let that be a lesson to all the teachers of the world. Don't overlook the genre film. I'm talking about the student who doesn't neatly fit into the exemplar response boxes. The one who refuses to follow the directions or ignores the rubric. Will this student ever win an Academy Award? Unlikely. (Best Picture is basically the gold star teacher-store sticker of the film world, after all.) But will this student someday create mind-blowing car chases fueled by potent feminist rage? HOPEFULLY, MY FRIENDS. HOPEFULLY.

3. Process vs. Product
I'm now going to say something complimentary about The Revenant. (Screenshots or it didn't happen.) The Revenant is a film that deeply values process. You've probably read countless articles about how the cast suffered to create this film -- and, as audience members, we should respect that. Leonardo DiCaprio probably does deserve the Best Actor award because the process that he went through to create that character was epic in its own right. (We're going to ignore the fact that, as written, the character was one-dimensional at best.) When you're willing to throw up chunks of blood-soaked bison meat and wrap yourself up in gutted animal carcasses, then you have officially gone the extra mile.

Lesson learned? Sometimes, teachers need to respect a student's process just as much as the finished product. If I have a student who really struggles with performance anxiety, then it's not unusual for me to look at their written work (the beats and actions, the moment before, etc.) and use that to guide my grading on their monologue projects. For other students (especially ones who plan on applying to selective performing arts high schools), they need to know that, while their written work will help develop their character, they ultimately need to let all of that work be seen onstage. So let Leonardo DiCaprio have the Academy Award for Best Actor, recognizing the process that went into creating his character in The Revenant. And also because he definitely should have won for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? back in 1993. Way overdue.

4. Playing It Safe
I had an interesting debate about who the true Worst Picture winner should be -- The Revenant or Bridge of Spies. The Revenant was an absolute mess, but the cinematography was visually striking and the plot was absurd enough to at least keep you awake. Bridge of Spies was so blandly mediocre that it literally put half of the audience to sleep. (Admittedly, it was playing in the uncoveted 2:30 AM slot, but the two films that it was flanked by [Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian] managed to keep us all awake so #noexcuses.) The moment the Thomas Newman score swelled during the final shots, evoking the simpler period dramas of the late 1990s/early 2000s, it became clear that this film did nothing to earn its entry into the nominee list. Did it check all of the boxes that the Academy was looking for? Certainly. Was it any good? Not at all.

Let this point be an addition to #2. Mad Max: Fury Road checked none of those rubric boxes, but it was amazingly good. Bridge of Spies checked all of those rubric boxes, but it was pitifully bad. They both ended up being Academy Award nominees. What lesson can teachers take away? Don't let your students play it safe. It can be really tempting, as a student, to write a passable thesis that's has the interest level of a bowl of plain white rice. It can also be tempting, as a teacher, to check off the boxes and give the student an A because, well, there's nothing really WRONG with the essay now, is there? But that would be doing a disservice to our students because there IS something wrong with that essay. It's boring, and no one wants to read it. So make one completely subjective rubric row if you must. Call that rubric row INTEREST LEVEL and grade the student solely based on this one question: Did I want to read your essay? Because it's not enough to be able to write well, you also have to be able to write something that folks will actually want to read. Which brings us to our final lesson learned . . .

5. If It Doesn't Matter, It Didn't Matter
I am tired of films that don't matter. Sure, I like a good narrative as much as the next audience member. But I also want a film that's trying to change the world in some way. That's the reason why my pick for Best Picture wouldn't be Mad Max: Fury Road even though that film blew my mind. If I was allowed to cast a vote, I'd mark my ballot for The Big Short. More than any other nominee, The Big Short was clearly trying to rectify a political problem. I walked out of the cinema with a feeling of frustration deep in my gut. I wanted to go to the bank and withdraw all of my funds. TAKE THAT, WELLS FARGO. I wish that there'd been some kind of call to action at the end, although that seems to be more the purview of documentaries, but I appreciate the fact that Adam McKay was trying to get the issues out there and stir up popular opinion.

The Revenant ended with Leonardo DiCaprio staring blankly into the camera lens. The Big Short ended by telling us that taxpayers had bailed out these avaricious bankers (and even provided them with massive bonuses for going bankrupt), and that Wall Street was once again dealing in CDOs under a different nomenclature. Yes, The Big Short didn't get everything right in their explanation of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis -- but they definitely left me and all of my friends with the clear message that banking reform is necessary in the United States. The Revenant left me with the thought: "Leonardo DiCaprio sure has pretty eyes."

You tell me who the winner should be.
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Embrace Your Fears (Or, Why Facing Your Fears Isn't Enough)

Earlier this week, I was driven to Cunningham Park, Queens to the DMV road test site. Weather conditions were not ideal. Parked deep in the woods, the fog was not coming "on little cat feet," as Carl Sandburg once wrote. Instead, that fog was crashing down like Godzilla mounting a full-scale invasion of Tokyo, tiny pedestrians crushed underneath his massive precipitation-spiked tail. The raindrops spattered on the side mirrors (the ones that are essential for parallel parking) lodged my image of the outdoors somewhere between pointillism and impressionism. And the poncho-clad inspectors weren't too pleased to be running from car-to-car, their umbrellas blown inside out by the high winds.


(My road test experience in a nutshell.)

Normally, I would be having a full-scale panic attack. But on that blustery Tuesday, I simply leaned back against the headrest and waited for my turn.

I've spent my whole life slamming into my fears like a bulldozer. Whenever someone says that a project "can't be done," I attack it like an angry bull and, sure as shooting, get 'er done. I eat the impossible for breakfast and then spit out the nay-sayers like burned grits. But I've since learned that it's not enough to face your fears; you need to go one step beyond and embrace your fears. Someone who feels 100% comfortable tackling impossible problems in an effort to change the world might not be able to deal with the paralyzing anxieties that pop up in her everyday life.

During my teaching career, I've encountered a lot of students with testing anxiety. Of course, the fact that we've turned state tests into high-stakes "do-or-die" missions where we evaluate an entire year of learning based on one written exam might not exactly lend itself to calm. (Kind of like how ONE ROAD TEST does NOT tell you if I know how to drive, DMV.) I do commend the New York State Education Department for their decision to make this year's tests untimed. However, I would make the case that taking away the stressors isn't enough; we need to be actively teaching our students how to handle those unpleasant stressful feelings in a productive way. Because if you're really challenging yourself to become a better and stronger person on a daily basis, those feelings aren't going away. Chances are you're going to be struggling with them for the rest of your life.

I would love to see less of a focus on "test prep strategies" in our classrooms and more of a focus on mindfulness. (We already have our students plugged into online instructional platforms like Khan Academy; let's get them registered on Headspace and Buddhify as well! Also: Am I the only one who wants to scream out "KHAAAAAAAAAN!" whenever students log in to complete a math lesson?) I know that it's tough to get a classroom full of middle school students to sit still for more than three minutes at a time, nevertheless to concentrate on deep breathing and relaxing each muscle individually. But I think that if we made it part of our classroom routine, instead of just an one-off yoga lesson in PE class, we could start teaching our students how to tackle anxiety and stress (and enhance focus) instead of immediately going to the 504 for extra time.

And in case you're wondering how I did on my road test, I passed. Barely. New York City Drivers, beware. Lock your doors; bolt your windows. All your streets are belong to me now.
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How To: Teach Visual Research in Middle School (Pt. 2)

Previously in Pt. 1: Students used Google Image search to identify appropriate visual research images and saved them to their class Dropbox.

Once all of the visual research images have been printed out and taped up on the walls, it's time for my students to start analyzing what they've found. For this activity, I break the students up into groups and print out a different dramaturgical article for each group. Last week, I guided the Thursday cohort, who will be designing a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest set in New Orleans circa Hurricane Katrina*, through their visual research analysis. The dramaturgical articles that I selected were about:

- Zombies and their connection to voodoo
- Profiles of the different voodoo spirts (loa)
- Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans
- Mardi Gras traditions

These were all articles that tied heavily into design choices that students could make. I was particularly excited for students to connect the idea of a loa like Azaka-Tonnerre, the spirit of thunder, with Ariel, while Prospero would be the controlling bokor with the ability to summon spirits and manipulate the weather to serve his purposes. I also hoped that they'd look at the Haitian concept of the zombie, the dead slave who was forced to remain on the Hispaniola plantations forever (as opposed to finally being granted his freedom, or lan guinée), and immediately think of Caliban and his subjugation and humiliation at the hands of his captor/master. As a former reading teacher, I made sure that the articles were at least somewhat leveled -- with my X-Z readers tackling the article jam-packed with scientific facts about Hurricane Katrina and analyzing its social/economic impact on New Orleans. Meanwhile, my T-V readers worked on the article about Mardi Gras traditions, which featured chunks of text interspersed with photographs. If a student finished an article, she raised her hand, and I brought over another one (usually the high-interest zombie article). Students annotated the articles and filled out a graphic organizer, summarizing the content and listing ways that they could integrate the information into their designs.



While students were reading their dramaturgical articles, I called up small groups (of 3-4 students) to look at the visual research walls. These groups would answer the following questions on a graphic organizer:

- What are some things that you see on the visual research wall that are interesting to you? Why are they interesting?
- What colors do you notice on the visual research wall?
- Are the colors dark or light?
- Are the colors bright or dull?
- What shapes or lines do you notice on the visual research wall?
- What textures do you notice on the visual research wall?
- How might you incorporate some of the ideas on the visual research wall into your designs?



These questions help students begin crafting a "visual profile" for their production. After each group spent 4-5 minutes at the visual research wall, I brought the entire class back together to conduct an informal survey. "Are the colors dark or light? Show me one for dark, two for light." Students agreed that most of the colors were dark and dull, circles were the shape most commonly used, lines tended to zigzag (like stitches), and textures were rough (like burlap or gravel). Next week, I'll print all of those unifying properties onto a poster, so that students can refer back to them during the design process. If I see a student coloring Miranda's dress bright pink, for instance, I might ask: "Look at the poster. What do you think I'm going to say?"

"The colors are supposed to be dark and dull."

"Why did you choose to color Miranda's dress bright pink?"

This could go two different ways. If the student says "because I like pink," then he's encouraged to find a color that better matches the visual profile for the show. However, if he says "because Miranda doesn't fit into the world of the island and wants to leave," then I'll challenge him to find ways of making his choices even clearer to the audience. Can you add detailing that connects her back to the island, or indicates that she feels trapped there? (Maybe going back to those stitches up on the visual research wall?) Can you make a choice with Ferdinand's costume that shows that Miranda views him as a means of escape?

Finally, students choose a representative from their group who stands up and presents the summary of their dramaturgical research article for the entire class. The table then shares some of their ideas for how the information from their article could be integrated into our design for the show. Students at other tables are encouraged to write down their questions and comments as well; at the end of class, we have a whole-class discussion about new ideas that we've discovered (from the visual research wall and the dramaturgical research articles). Sure enough, one student suggested that they should use zombie imagery for Caliban because of their shared connection to slavery, and another student wanted to link graphic representations of loa to both Prospero and Ariel. I cannot wait to see what they come up with the coming weeks!

* Our students take an end-of-year trip to New Orleans to do community service work in neighborhoods that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Tying The Tempest into their end-of-year trip will make both the production and their community service more meaningful. Can't wait for NOLA 2016!
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How I Learned to Drive (Or, A Case Against Grit)

This week, while most of my co-workers and students are on vacation (relaxing on the sun-drenched beaches of the Dominican Republic or Hawaii or Texas), I will be taking my road test. Since the day I passed the written exam for my permit, almost a decade ago, I have lived in fear of the New York City road test. Statistically, my chances of passing on the first attempt aren't great. In 2012, only 46% of drivers were able to pass the basic road test. While some in the comments section of The Daily News would ascribe this to the fact that "New Yorkers don't know how to drive," I would make the counterargument that the road test here is just insanely difficult. There's not a single lesson where I don't have to swerve around double-parked cars on narrow streets, navigate a minefield of pedestrians crossing when they're not supposed to, and calm my rattled nerves when half a dozen impatient drivers are honking at me in the middle of rush hour. Trying to drive in New York City would make anyone feel a twinge of nausea. So I decided that I could live without my driver's license, especially since I live in a veritable public transportation utopia.

However, when I went to the post office to renew my passport, they told me that my permit was no longer considered a valid form of identification. I needed to either get my driver's license or go to the DMV and fill out an application for a permanent ID card. Forget that. If I'm just going to end up standing around the DMV anyways, I might as well take the road test and get my license. So I signed up for a package of ten lessons at a driving school in Queens and braced myself for the inevitable failure ahead.

A bit of background: I have driven before. I learned how to drive on the Upper West Side soon after graduating college. My first time behind the wheel of a car, the instructor spoke words designed to instill terror in the most stalwart of students: "Okay, now turn left onto Broadway." About two years later, I purchased a car with my roommate and drove to and from work every day (with him sitting in the passenger seat as the designated "licensed driver"). So I'm probably more prepared than most to take the road test. What's holding me back right now is that I'm terrified of failure.

I'm sure that I'll write more about failure at a later date (and how trying to avoid it holds students, especially female students, back from success). But right now, I want to tell you about this morning. After a restless night of dreaming about driving maneuvers, I woke up at 5:30 AM (on a Sunday!) with a stress-induced cold clogging my nasal passages, ready to drag myself onto the subway to Queens. However, since my driving instructor had not confirmed my lesson, I texted and waited for him to say: "Yes! The receptionist remembered to block off the time slot, and you have a lesson this morning!" So I sent the message, bundled up for the negative degree windchill outside, and waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, ten minutes before my scheduled appointment, my instructor texted back: "Yes. You have a lesson at 7 AM." Which, of course, I now wouldn't be able to attend since the lesson was in Queens, and I live in Brooklyn.



My first response was panic. This was supposed to be the morning that I practiced switching lanes! And I'd spent the past three days screwing up parallel parking! And do you know how many errors can result in an AUTOMATIC FAIL? MY ROAD TEST IS ON TUESDAY! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME? I curled up underneath my comforter and cried at my abysmal luck. After I'd sniffled myself into exhaustion, I began questioning why the cosmos might have allowed this travesty to occur. As if the pile of snotty Kleenex next to my bed and my two hours of uninterrupted sleep weren't enough.

This is a case against grit.

Education Reformers worship at the altar of grit. According to them, grit can put every economically-disadvantaged student on a one-way path to Harvard. (For the record, I've rarely heard teachers at affluent suburban [read: predominantly white] high schools talk about grit.) Grit can be taught. You just have to set up situations in which your students can (and probably will) fail and then teach them how to overcome that adversity. How can they power through any obstacles that may arise? How can they find the mental/emotional willpower to continue struggling? I thought about grit a lot during my last driving lesson, while I was trying to parallel park next to a small tank disguised as an SUV. This was the fifth time during the lesson that my front tires had bumped into the curb -- an automatic fail on the road test (despite the fact that literally every licensed driver I know regularly taps the curb while parallel parking). I was following every instruction given to me; I was asking specific questions and checking my own understanding; I was taking my time so that I could precisely follow every step in the procedure. I was being a model driving student -- but I just kept messing up.

Eventually, I started making stupid mistakes. Not signaling before pulling in next to a car. Forgetting to shift gears from reverse into drive. Turning the wheel more than two times to the right to straighten up. All of the steps were engraved into my memory, so why did I keep messing them up? Because I was struggling so hard that I was beginning to shut down. And this, my friends, is the other side of grit. I have literally been making myself sick over the New York City road test. I close my eyes and can only see the blinking arrow of my turn signal. I replay my greatest hits over and over again in my mind: Triangle not opening? Turn the wheel one more time to the left. Still not opening? Turn right and drive forward. Try again. Fifteen points off for excessive maneuvering. BAM. FAILED.

The truth is that missing my driving lesson was probably the best thing that could have happened to me today. Because sometimes, you need to take a step back from whatever you're learning. You need that mental break; you need to take some time to let the knowledge sink in. If we see a student struggling, instead of attacking the situation with a YOU NEED TO MASTER THIS NOW mentality, maybe we should accept that learning takes time. And sometimes, "time" doesn't look like more practice problems; sometimes, "time" looks like thirty minutes in front of an XBox or hanging out with friends instead. In Finland, the country with the leading education system in the world, students get fifteen minutes "off" each hour for socializing and recreation.

Maybe we need to give our students a little more leeway in regards to when they master objectives. Maybe taking some time away from learning is one of the best (and most underutilized) methods that we have for facilitating student achievement. I know that we're up against some brutal odds (like a 46% pass rate on the New York City road test), but instead of making ourselves sick over the possibility of failure, maybe we need to take a step back and recognize that, even if we fail this time, we can always try again later.
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The Death Spiral (Or, When Consequences Don't Work)

At our school, we refer to it as the Death Spiral.

It's when you start passing out consequences like 99-cent beads at Mardi Gras. YOU get a demerit. And YOU get a demerit. And YOU get a demerit. EVERYBODY GETS A DEMERIT. Half of your class earns a one-way ticket to lunch detention during the entrance procedure. And the next thing you know, all of your students are defiantly refusing to do their work, and you're wondering why you ever got into teaching. That, my friends, is the nature of the Death Spiral. It makes students unhappy. It makes educators unhappy. We should all just avoid it.

Easier said than done.

The Death Spiral has become easier to get sucked into than ever before, thanks in part to the pursuit of High Expectations. You may be thinking: "But Victoria, are you saying that we shouldn't hold all of our students to high expectations?" Of course we should. If I didn't firmly believe that all students can become outstanding critical thinkers, I would never have become a teacher. However, I also believe that the High Expectations espoused by some education reformers are absurd. I'm talking about the High Expectations that require all students to sit in a cross-legged position with their backs ramrod straight. The High Expectations that expect middle school students to know what the word "expurgated" means. (A student asked me for the definition today on our quarterly exams. Thankfully, I was able to respond: "I can't tell you what it means. It's a test question." Because the alternative would have been: "My GRE Verbal score was in the top 10th percentile, and I have no fracking clue.") The High Expectations that spawned the extraordinarily flawed Lexile Framework. (Blaine Greteman's article on New Republic perfectly sums up the problem with the Lexile Framework, an educational tool which measures the complexity of a text solely based on the length of its words: "On my way to work I pass the House on Van Buren Street where Kurt Vonnegut began Slaughterhouse Five -- but with a score of only 870, this book is only a fourth-grade read. By these standards Mr. Popper's Penguins [weighing in at a respectable 910] is deemed more complex.")

At my school, there's a saying: "Purpose, not power." When you give a consequence, it's supposed to be in order to facilitate student achievement. You give a consequence to a student because he's distracting the class and pulling focus away from the learning objective. You give a consequence to a student because she's off-task (even after you've given her repeated redirections), and she needs to master the content to pass the New York State Tests. You give a consequence to a student because he keeps making belching noises during his quarterly exams and CAN YOU JUST STOP PLEASE? But giving a consequence to a student for not crossing his legs in Seated SLANT when he's on the floor? It's ridiculous -- but I've done it before. I still do it sometimes. And not because it's good teaching but because, coming from Teach For America, it's been ingrained in me that this is the defining mark of a disciplined classroom. Criss-cross applesauce and all that.


(Created by my eighth grade filmmaking class for their puppet movie. Currently wondering which of these unfinished puppets would earn a demerit for misbehavior first.)

It doesn't matter if that student in the back row (who's almost 6' tall, by the way) sits with his legs crossed, or he stretches them out in front of him. You put him in the row with the Even More Space seating because you knew that he'd need it. So why would you refuse to let him use it now? As long as he's doing the work, that's what matters. (If a student isn't doing the work, i.e. the one student who put her legs up on the cabinets and tried to fall asleep during testing yesterday, then that's an entirely different matter. Shut that down ASAP.) But if he's learning, then what's the rationale behind administering a consequence? That seems a whole lot like power, not purpose.

I recently read an article from Education Week Teacher entitled "Why I've 'Softened' My Classroom-Management Style." While I think that the author goes a bit overboard (like not giving consequences for students using cell phones during class), I appreciate her sentiment. She discusses the idea of Restorative Justice -- a form of classroom-management that encourages students to think about how their behaviors are affecting others, as well as problem-solving how they can better manage their emotions in the future. And that's essential work that needs to be done with every single student. (Even I, a notably well-behaved child in middle school, needed occasional interventions when I became stressed or frustrated.) But it's also really time-consuming. And sometimes, especially in the middle of a lecture, you just can't allocate that kind of time to an individual student. So maybe you create a reflection binder; you have students sit in the corner and write a letter about how their behavior negatively impacted the class. But there are always going to be students who breeze through those assignments without a moment of honest contemplation. So what do you do?


(This one will receive the first merit. For flawless style.)

Something that's worked well for me this year has been the "flexible consequence." When students enter the classroom, I make sure to give positive praise both to individuals and entire lines. ("I love Clarice's strong, still, silent posture while she's waiting to go to the cubbies." "The red row is showing me incredible facial expressions right now. Eyebrows are down, mouths are frowning.") But I also make sure to give demerits for minor misbehaviors, especially to students who typically struggle. I always preface and follow-up the demerits with the declaration: "You know that, in my class, you can always get rid of the demerit by following directions and being a leader for your classmates." Then I keep tabs on those students throughout the lesson. When they're misbehaving, I might go over and check in with them one-on-one: "Right now, you're not on-track to get rid of that demerit. Let's see if we can turn it around." At the end of class, I get to make announcements like: "I saw Miguel working really hard today and setting a great example for his classmates. Miguel, you've earned back your demerit."

This works for a couple of reasons. Students have a clear and tangible goal from the entrance procedure onwards. They want to get rid of that demerit. This motivates them to "do the right thing" -- and they know exactly what they have to do to ensure that they leave my classroom demerit-free. They have to follow the directions. They have to try their best during the activity. And they have to be a positive member of the community (i.e. not distracting or mocking their classmates). Most importantly, they know that it's possible to reach their goal. Every day, I wrap up the class by taking demerits off of the clipboard. They've seen it happen hundreds of times -- and if their classmates can do it, so can they.


(You just know that this one is trying to be all sneaky. Hey Puppet, just because your covering your mouth with a book doesn't mean that we don't know you're talking.)


(Have you ever seen a guiltier expression? Demerit.)

While Restorative Justice may be the ultimate goal, we have to be realistic about the limitations of being a single teacher in a classroom with 20-30 students. I've found that, for now, the "flexible consequence" helps get my students back on-track without being too punitive. At the same time, if they don't earn that demerit back (and yes, I definitely make them work for it), then the consequence stays on the clipboard. No Death Spiral necessary.
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Opportunity Cost (Or, What We Don't Tell Our Middle Schoolers)

We're in the middle of administering Interim Assessments, a quarterly series of content-specific exams designed to mimic the New York State Tests. Every single year, by the end of these exams, I'm always foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog, stalking around the classroom at a rapid-fire pace, and jamming my finger against test questions on students' papers with a disapproving scowl that reads: "IS THAT YOUR ANSWER? REALLY?" And there's only one reason why: it's because I'm always assigned to proctor the seventh grade assessments.



If you're not familiar with the high school admissions process in New York City, it's rough. Middle school students are given a directory of all the high schools to which they can apply. However, the information presented inside isn't exactly "student-friendly." For instance, the NYC Department of Education lists the Quality Review scores for each high school. The Quality Review is the inspection process that each public school goes through on an annual basis, during which state representatives come in and observe multiple classes before assigning the school's scores. These scores are in areas like "Assessing Student Learning" and "Teacher Collaboration." What eighth grade student cares about "Assessing Student Learning"? (Spoilers: None of them.) They're all looking at one single list -- Extracurricular Activities. I've known students who've flipped through the directory pages, found a high school that offers their favorite sport, and then have ended their search right there. They haven't considered that only 40% of students at their "dream high school" graduate in four years and only 22% enroll in a college or career program post-graduation. (Those are the statistics for Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx. There were many students in my TFA placement school who planned on going to Banana Kelly, until I convinced them otherwise.)

I feel like the NYC DOE forgets that many eighth grade students, especially from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, have a lot of input about where they go to high school. If the family has Internet access, they can find the NYC High School Directory translated online into nine different languages; however, the directories distributed in school are written in English. I started my career teaching at a multicultural magnet school where many of the parents didn't speak English and were living far below the poverty line (i.e. didn't have computers or Internet access). In those families, the students were oftentimes responsible for choosing their own high schools. Therefore, I encourage the NYC DOE to publish a directory geared less towards parents/educators and more towards the students themselves. Don't tell me what the Quality Review score for "Teacher Collaboration" was; tell me what the high school's alumni are doing. What's their annual income compared to the rest of NYC? What percentage of them are employed and in which industries? How many of them actually FINISHED college? I know that we're not tracking this data -- but maybe we should be. I think that these statistics would be much more useful to students deciding where to invest the next four years of their lives than any Quality Review score.

(Every teenager dreams of a "rigorous Regents, Common Core, and College Preparatory curriculum" that values "individual experiences and different learning styles" to "support student growth and achievement." Also please note that there are 677 pages in this educational encyclopedia.)

What does this have to do with the seventh grade quarterly assessments and my test-fueled irascibility? Your seventh grade report card is a major determining factor in where you go to high school. Now, our students are incredibly lucky because all of them are guaranteed a spot at our charter high school. 100% of students at that high school will enroll in a four-year college program. It's unbelievable to think that all of our students, even the ones who are currently struggling academically and behaviorally, will eventually be moving into their dorm rooms. But while our high school will open up outstanding opportunities for most of our students, for some, it's not the best choice that they could make.

There are tons of high schools in New York City. And while some of them are like Banana Kelly, some of them are reserved for the intellectual elite. These are the specialized high schools -- the ones that require an exam, a portfolio, an audition, or an interview. The ones where you need to attend open houses and jump through other pre-specified hoops to gain admission. Where you have to demonstrate that you have parents who care enough to drive you to the Upper West Side at 6 AM on a Saturday. (Or that you have a theater teacher who's willing to sit in Central Park for an entire day while you audition for two studios.) And these are the schools -- schools like Stuyvesant High School, Beacon High School, LaGuardia Arts High School -- that will help you get into top-tier institutions of higher education. Harvard. Yale. Stanford. Princeton. Columbia. Juilliard. Now, I could discuss ad nauseam what's wrong with all of the aforementioned hoop-jumping that these high schools require -- especially for low-income families, recent immigrants, and single parents -- but for right now, I'm going to discuss a different problem:

In seventh grade, none of my students even know that these high schools exist.

I've never been able to figure out why we don't talk about high school options earlier. In eighth grade, I host an information session about performing arts high schools (and coach students for their auditions/interviews), but, by that time, many of the students who are interested have already ruined their chances with lackluster grades the previous year. (Most selective high schools require you to have at least a B in every seventh grade class.) I always tell myself that I'll go into each advisory at the beginning of the year and talk to them about high school selection -- but I get so bogged down so quickly with our school productions that I never remember. Really, I have no one to blame for their lack of knowledge but myself.


(She totally saw me taking this photo outside the classroom window, while I was trying to be all stealthy and discrete, and it was AWKWARD.)

And so a few students don't take their quarterly assessments seriously. They refuse to add two quotes to their short response questions. They neglect to write down the central idea next to each paragraph. They don't mark the close confusers and get multiple choice questions incorrect. And this drives me to the breaking point of exasperation because I know that these grades are some of the most important of their entire lives. These are the grades that will determine where they go to high school. And therefore, these grades will heavily influence where they go to college. For some of them, their entire futures hinge on these few hours of testing.

But they don't know that.

And that's our fault.
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Thank You, MTI Jr. (Or, Teaching Musical Theater When There's Only One of You and You Kind of Suck at Musicals)

WARNING: I'm about to write an extremely complimentary post about MTI Jr. If this bothers you, please turn away from your computer screen now.

I'm going to tell you a secret: I'm bad at musical theater. Like REALLY bad. I selected our fifth grade musical exclusively based on how much harmony I would have to teach. (The correct answer: none.) I recruited upperclassmen as choreographers to improve student leadership skills, but I was also compelled by the fact that I trip over my own feet on every kick-ball-change. I just learned what an eighth note looks like last month -- and I not only teach musical theater, I also teach sound design/composition. So what can a teacher who wants to teach musical theater, but lacks the basic fundamental skills, do?

Enter MTI Jr.

I understand your reservations about these scripts. Really, I do. When I discovered that the "juniorfication" of Into the Woods involved cutting the entire second act, every Milky White, in every high school auditorium from here to Idaho, shattered at the force of my rage. (Goodbye, Old Pal.) But after a remarkable week of PD at the North Star schools in New Jersey, I decided that it was time to try teaching musical theater. And the only solution that I could find to my can't-sing/can't-dance conundrum was the MTI Jr. collection.



If you've never produced an MTI Jr. show before, let me explain how it works. You apply for a license, and they send you a complete show kit. (You're also allowed to perform the show as often as you'd like for an entire calendar year. I'm sure there's a school out there somewhere that's found a way to really monetize that unrestricted producing agreement.) Your show kit includes:

- Scripts that students can actually write in and keep. Such a relief after a decade of rental scripts that I spent hours erasing before returning.

- An accompaniment CD (without vocals) and a reference CD (with vocals). Without a doubt, the MVP of the entire package. My students spend hours listening to their CDs at home and then come in completely prepared for rehearsal.

- A choreography DVD. I wish that this DVD actually taught students the choreography, à la an aerobics instruction video. As someone who really struggles with movement, even the choreography DVD couldn't help me. I needed to turn to a higher power and say, "Seventh/Eighth Graders, take the wheel."

- A director's script and other production paperwork. This might be useful for someone who's new to theater. As a seasoned veteran, I definitely didn't need any of the blocking notes that they included -- although some of the language that they use can be useful in terms of communicating motivation/intent to young children.

The scripts have been edited down to a 60-minute running time, i.e. the perfect length for my once-a-week rehearsals. I split the script between my four classes (with each class taking on different songs/scenes), and they've all been doing an admirable job thus far. None of the songs that were cut from the junior edition were ones that we'd miss too much (apart from "There! Right There!", but let's be real: my fifth graders wouldn't understand one-tenth of the "Gay or European" jokes). And the CDs make lesson planning so simple. I just have students sing along with the reference CD a few times, then turn on the accompaniment CD, and they're basically performance-ready. MAGIC.

I could complain about the edits (and, don't get me wrong, not all MTI Jr. shows are created equal), but in the long scheme of things, the details are unimportant. The only thing that matters is how joyful my youngest students are when they're performing in scenes, how excited my leads are to come to after-school rehearsal every day, and how neighboring teachers frequently drop into my classroom just to listen to the students sing.

And my final case for MTI Jr.:


(This was our first day of rehearsal. They basically taught themselves at home.)
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We Need More [Fill in the Blank] Already? (Or, the Economics of a Theater Classroom)

If I had to choose another job, if the abyss cracked open before me and a tentacled, winged elder god (you know the one) commanded that I never teach theater again, I wouldn't have to think twice about what I'd do instead. I'd work in a development department. Specifically, I'd become a grant-writer.


(Actual facepalm on the left.)

I write grants on the weekends. For fun. (Seriously, someone save my pathetic life.) There's nothing that brings me more joy than opening up a blank budgeting spreadsheet and getting ready to crunch some numbers. Or staring at the blinking cursor that's about to type a 1,200-character narrative on why my students require Macbooks. Or conducting research on just how cheaply we can travel to Ireland to observe the National Association for Youth Drama in action. Pressing SUBMIT on a grant that you've just read (and re-read and re-read and re-read) produces a thrill not unlike what I imagine base jumping must be like. One click of a button, and you've dived off the cliff and hopefully into an ocean of technology, supplies, field trips, and much more.

But there's an eternal struggle with grant-writing for a theater classroom. And that's the eternal amount of grants that must be written. Theater, by its very nature, is a business of consumables. You finish one show, and you move on to the next one. You call 1-800-GOT JUNK, and they haul away that custom fabricated set that just cost you $7,000. The designers don't think twice about it; the producer buries her head in her hands and weeps. A theater classroom functions in much the same way, except with a few additional layers of frustration and expense. For instance, when you're working with professionals, you don't have to worry about a lighting technician cutting the wrong size gel. Four times. Guess you're making another trip to Barbizon. (The staff knows you by name at this point.) And while it's really rewarding to watch your students try to construct foam puppets, you cringe when, in a single session, they manage to waste:

- Three polystyrene balls
- Two sheets of 1/4" foam purchased at a speciality store
- An entire tube of contact cement

And I'm sure if there'd been a partridge in a pear tree in our classroom, my students would have figured out a way to waste that as well. Of course, it's not REALLY a "waste," as students gradually become more skilled at using materials. It does take some trial and error to transform a middle school student into a seasoned theatrical designer. But just try explaining that to most grant-makers. There's a reason why capital campaigns are so popular amongst foundations. They result in permanent buildings. No one wants to donate money that's going to end up in the garbage because your students couldn't figure out how to put a set model box together. (Then again, I can't put a set model box together either. In graduate school, I cried until the teaching assistant completed that assignment for me. Presumably because he was tired of me snotting and weeping all over the studio.)


(Twelve colored pencils died to make these costume renderings. RIP.)

So you find yourself buried under an insurmountable pile of receipts. Thankfully, I work at The Best School in the World, and they've always been remarkably open to purchase orders and reimbursements. But I still feel guilty when I have to ask them to buy yet ANOTHER set of acrylic paints because my students left the tubes open and they all dried out. You think to yourself: "Well, they've all learned that lesson at least." But even as you're thinking it, you know that it's a lesson that will probably have to be learned again next year by an entirely new set of seventh graders. So that's the reason why I'm perpetually writing grants. Because I'm a theater teacher, and I burn through money like a California wildfire.

So it probably won't come as a surprise that I'm going to have a grant up on DonorsChoose starting tomorrow. It's to help my set designers get the materials that they need to construct model boxes for the state theater festival. And I will personally guarantee that at least 35% of those materials will actually end up in front of the judging panel. And the other 65%?

Well, let's just say they'll be a valuable lesson learned.
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Missing: Legos (Or, What Happens When Children Steal)

My classroom is like Toys "R" Us.

It's full of everything that a child could possibly want: Legos. Beanbags. Puppets. (Unfortunately, since I teach theatrical design/construction, it's also filled with spraypaint and box cutters. Not to mention thousands of dollars of audio-visual equipment.) It would be difficult for any child with poor impulse control to walk into my classroom and NOT grab everything she could get her hands on.

And sometimes, that happens.

Last week, over $300 worth of Legos were stolen from my classroom. I'm mentioning the price, but that's really not what's important. (After all, my school offered to repurchase all of the kits.) The important part is that my eighth grade students had been working on those kits for almost a month. When they discovered that all of their work had been for nothing, that someone had stolen their Lego constructions in what appeared to be the dead of night, they were incredibly upset -- and I didn't blame them. One of my students vowed to track down the thief and "teach him a lesson." I told him that, no, he couldn't launch his own private investigation and then wreak vigilante justice on the perpetrator. But I understood his frustration.


(DON'T TOUCH THE LEGOS.)

And I tried my damnedest to recover those Lego kits. I noticed that they were missing during Saturday Boost (our school's Saturday academic enrichment program), so the Boost Coordinator and I found a way to unobtrusively check student backpacks to make sure that no one was smuggling out thousands of Lego parts. No dice. I contemplated other possible methods for Lego recovery. Should we make an auto-dialer call to parents, asking them to check their children's bedrooms for strange and unusual Legos? Should we interrogate all of the students who had Friday after-school detention? Take them into the Dean's office, one-by-one, and see who cracks first? Should we run a covert undercover operation, entrusting a crafty 5th grader to question her peers and find out who was responsible? I dedicated way more mental space than I should have to how we could solve the mystery -- but, at the end of the day, it all just seemed detrimental to classroom culture. While I wanted my students to believe that justice always prevails, I also didn't want my classroom to resemble a McCarthy hearing.

Besides, justice DOESN'T always prevail. And maybe it's better for students to learn that lesson in middle school over stolen Legos than out in the "real world."


(Let's all just be glad that no one has stolen the spraypaint yet.)

On the bright side, an incredible coalition of boys volunteered to come in after-school on Friday to help reassemble the Lego dragon. And while they weren't able to finish (or even come close), the fact that they were willing to cut into their weekend time to get this film project off the ground meant a lot to me.

The reality of the situation is that students are going to steal. And lie. And get into fights. Because they're children who are still trying to figure out how to deal with the sticky situations that life tosses at them. They haven't yet developed the skills necessary to cope with frustration, so they respond by stealing a Lego dragon. Or throwing it in the trash. Or maybe hiding it in another classroom. (We haven't figured out exactly what happened yet.) While we teach coping strategies in our classrooms, it takes a while for students to get the hang of using them on a regular basis and presenting themselves like a high school-ready/college-bound scholar. Until then, we have to accept that our fifth and sixth graders are a "work in progress" and that they're sometimes going to make the wrong choices. That's part of growing up, and we need to accept that -- instead of calling our parents and complaining for hours about how we need to lock down detention so that students can't wander the hallways and steal our Legos. It doesn't mean that they're "bad kids" or that they don't like us or our class; it just means that they haven't mastered emotional constancy yet, but they'll get there.

Until then, I'll spend my Friday afternoons sitting in my classroom, sticking together Lego bits and listening to students say things like: "Lego can't really sue us for using their products in a film. After all, if we release our film under parody laws, we should be fine."

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How To: Teach Visual Research in Middle School (Pt. 1)

I had no idea that we were kicking off the Year of the Monkey until I stumbled on the extraordinary display that's currently installed in the Bellagio Conservatory. Whipping out my iPhone to capture the moment, I was struck by how unified the entire design scheme was -- how tightly the horticulturalists and set/lighting technicians had collaborated to create this East Asian wonderland.










After I stopped salivating into the koi pond, I started thinking about the work that my seventh graders have been doing in theater class. Every student has been assigned to a specific "job" (sets, costumes, lighting, sound, make-up/hair) and a specific scene in a Shakespeare adaptation. (We use the 30-Minute Shakespeare adaptations, which are the perfect length for a once-a-week class of middle school students.) This ensures that everyone has a design task that will be challenging -- but that won't become overwhelming.

However, meting out scenes to different groups of students can create problems. The biggest one is that the scenes look as if they're all coming from different plays. There's no single unifying "look," so you end up with a hodge-podge of different things that pre-teens like. (Like Oberon wearing Air Jordans.) Even when you give students a simple directorial concept (i.e. our production of A Midsummer Night's Dream will be staged on a playground), they come at it from all different angles, and the final product ends up being a multicolored, disjointed mess.

So I've learned to teach visual research.

Visual research days are my absolute favorite. Students grab a Chromebook from the cart at the back of the classroom, and then log into my account so that they can bypass the student web filter. (Yes, I provide them with all of my login information. No, I don't regret it.) We brainstorm a list of possible search terms based on our directorial concept. For instance:

The Taming of the Shrew
Directorial Concept: Comic Books/WWF Wrestling
- WWF
- WWE
- Wrestlemania
- Wrestling Costumes
- Wrestling Entrances
- Comic Book Art
- DC Comics
- Marvel Comics
- Roy Lichtenstein (okay, I gave them that one)
- Female Superheroes

. . . And the list goes on. Students are then given 20-30 minutes to look for images and save them to their desktop. During this time, I circulate and provide feedback on the work that they're doing. For instance, if Alejandro is looking up photographs of Sports Illustrated models and saying "That's Bianca!," I might challenge his choices by asking: "But what does that have to do with comic books or wrestling?" (Nothing, Alejandro. Adjust your search terms, please.) I also can steer them towards search terms that other students might not be using. If everyone's looking at screenshots from last year's Wrestlemania, then I might direct Jeneizy to start looking for female superheroes like Captain Marvel (circa 2012) or Starfire.

Once we've accumulated an assortment of images, students log in to our theater Dropbox (shared amongst all of the classes) and drag their images into their class folder. But that's only the first part of what needs to happen. Because once their work ends, my work (and the work of many student volunteers) begins. I "curate" the visual research, only printing out images that meet the basic criteria (i.e. WWF wrestling and comic books) and thus avoiding having to stick an image of Trollface on the Hamlet Victorian spiritualism wall. (There were actually three Trollface memes in this year's Hamlet research. I like to think that my students were making the astute observation that Hamlet spends five acts trolling the entire royal family of Denmark.) If the students have selected way too many images, the ones with similar color schemes make the final cut.

We then grab some scissors from the design closet and cut out all of the images. Then, one-by-one, they make their way up onto our classroom walls to form a mural that will remain there until the end of the school year. Or until students start doodling in the white spaces while waiting in line. Whichever comes first.







In Pt. 2: How students analyze their visual research
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Viva Las Vegas! (Or, Real Theater People Look Up)

I've spent the past two days in Las Vegas at the Advisor Insight Conference. Earlier this year, I received a grant from Voya Financial for $12,000 as part of the Unsung Heroes Awards. Thanks to their generosity, our theater department was able to purchase all kinds of filmmaking equipment like HD cameras, a Macbook Pro editing studio, a boom mic, and a green screen (which was the clear winner with our students who apparently watch the "Making Of" featurettes on their Marvel DVDs). We're using the equipment to create two original short films, which will be screened for the community at the end of the school year. As a recipient of the award, I was invited to come to Voya's annual conference and share details about our project with their financial advisors.

Since our grant was used for a cross-grade film project, I figured that a short film was only appropriate for our presentation. So I entrusted Trayvon (one of my 8th grade students) with gathering action-packed B-roll footage, and we created the following sizzle reel of our classroom:



With my backpack stuffed to the brim, I ventured westward. The conference was being held at Caesar's Palace, which put me right in the middle of the action on the Strip. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy gambling, you might not think that I'd get much out of Las Vegas. On the contrary, I found the city to be a theater-maker's wonderland -- as long as you remember that real theater people always look up.


(Part of the light grid in the lobby of the Bellagio)

And sometimes down.


(Koi pond lit by surprisingly affordable LED lights)

Las Vegas reminded me a lot of another favorite spot of mine -- Disneyworld (and Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea and Euro Disney). It's not because I have any particular yen for the Disney Corporation. It's because their Imagineers have an extraordinary attention to detail that can keep me fascinated for hours. I can spend an entire day at Disneyworld and never step onto a single ride; I just stare at the plumbing fixtures.



For instance, I noticed these windows in the New York, New York Hotel and Casino. All of the windows are lit using different colors of gel. (I saw the same technique used in the Paris Hotel and Casino. The windows were all lit with different shades of yellow/white light, so that it looked like the lightbulbs were purchased at different stores by different families.) Check out all of the little details that the set designers put into this pint-size replica of NYC. There's a bicycle perched out on the fire escape, and an assortment of blinds and shades. Some of the windows are jarred open by air conditioning units. And then there's the next level of set dressing excellence . . .



Look at the sticker in the window of this NYC replica apartment! It's an ADT Security sticker! And you can't see in the photo, but there are also bars on the adjacent window. You almost feel like you're actually in NYC until you see something like this . . .



Sorry, Las Vegas. The 9 train hasn't been operational for about a decade.

However, you more than made up for your MTA fail with the happiest sight that this displaced Brooklynite could have hoped to see . . .


(Yes, please.)
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