The Award Trap (Or, A Case Against the American Competitive Spirit)

I'm not a fan of competition.

That's part of the reason why I started the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA). When I researched opportunities for students from across the United States to share their work, I was bombarded with opportunities for them to compete against one another -- not collaborate with one another. And, if there's one thing that I've learned at Uncommon Schools, it's that a group of highly-skilled professionals working together can make extraordinary gains.

I don't believe that competition necessarily begets strong results. I remember reading McKinsey's infamous guide to layoffs, The War for Talent, during my undergraduate years. The book advocated pitting employees against each other in a race to the top -- the most "talented" would be promoted at breakneck speed, while the least "talented" could be let-go at a moment's notice. Jack Welch, former president of GE, developed the 20-70-10 System, which annually culled the bottom 10% of workers, regardless of how far their performance was above the established "norm" outside of the company. It was a Darwinian approach to business -- and one that didn't quite work out as planned. Enron, founded by a McKinsey alumnus, promoted this "rank-and-yank" philosophy, and it led to employees scamming the system instead of actually innovating. When you're under that kind of competitive pressure, all day and every day, breaking the law to get ahead starts to sound like a good idea. Or at least an idea that the guy in the cubicle next to you might not have thought of already.

Confession: I cheated in high school. I cheated in middle school. I can't really remember, but I'm willing to bet that I cheated in elementary school as well. It's not because I hadn't studied the material or because I wasn't smart enough. (I never cheated in college and still managed to graduate with distinction.) It's because the pressure to succeed, to outpace every other student in my graduating class, was so ridiculously high that I started doubting my own abilities. Yes, I could submit my best work -- but what if it wasn't good enough? And by "good enough," what I really meant was: What if it isn't better than everyone else's? There's not that much of a jump from using the textbook to "double-check your work" on a take-home test to fudging a few numbers on the accounting spreadsheet that you send into the IRS. It's the reason why I keep meticulous QuickBooks records for NTSA and never try to finesse my numbers, even if it will make life harder. In terms of slippery slopes, that one's covered in black ice of the deadliest variety.



In a 1987 issue of Working Mother, Alfie Kohn wrote: "Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it's obvious why that causes self-doubt. But even winning doesn't build character; it just lets a child gloat temporarily. Studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you've done." The problem isn't just that our students are falling into The Award Trap; it's that this need for external validation follows them throughout their entire lives. As a Type A personality, I find myself always jonesing for my next credential fix. I'm perpetually looking for metrics that will help me measure myself against my peer group. Since I excel in my profession, I try to rack up as many teaching awards and certifications as I can. This has two effects:

1. I tend to shy away from things that I might not succeed at.
As I get older, this has gotten easier for me. I accept that I might not be the fastest hiker on the Appalachian Trail, that I might be the clumsiest climber at Brooklyn Boulders, that I might score in the bottom 20% on the quantitative section of the GRE the first time around. I've also had the concept of malleable intelligence beaten into me by Teach for America and Uncommon Schools. So I know that if I keep trying, I will eventually get better. But think about how much better I could be now if I hadn't been so afraid of failure when I was younger. Think about how many more miles I might have run if I hadn't been comparing myself to the (much "sportier") girls in my class. I know that strengths-based development exists, but we shouldn't confine ourselves exclusively to our "natural talents." We should be ready, willing, and able to stretch beyond our comfort zones. We should live to fail (as they tell me on Daily Burn).

2. I've lost sight of what "success" really means.
I'm going through a period in my life where I'm struggling to identify what success looks like. I've always looked at my credentials as a way of evaluating if I should be happy or not. But in my perpetual quest for the next degree, the next fellowship, the next feature article, I've realized that there's a law of diminishing returns. I no longer get the same rush from receiving an engraved wall plaque as I did back in high school. So I'm forced to look around and ask: Now what? If winning isn't the key to happiness, then what is? If our culture wasn't so deeply rooted in competition, then we might have fewer 30-somethings looking outside of themselves to assess their own happiness, as opposed to looking inward.

Later this week, I'll be posting about the merits of competition. There are some circumstances in which competition can be beneficial for students; however, for the most part, I'm decidedly planted in the collaboration, not competition, camp.

Day Four (31 Days of Trip Planning): Contacted Complex Youth Theatre, DraĆ­ocht's D15 Youth Theatre, and Rough Magic's SEEDS Programme. (SEEDS is one of the best artist development programs in the world. I'm looking forward to writing a post about their work this summer. Absolutely in awe of the amount of talent that's come up through their ranks.)
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A Break! A Break! My Kingdom for a Break! (Or, T-1 Hour Until Spring Break)

UPDATE: Two of my student costume designers received superior scores at the statewide theater festival. This qualifies them to present at the national festival in Sacramento, California next January. I'll post a more detailed write-up about the festival next week.

In morning advisory (our version of homeroom), my co-advisor said: "I know that you're all excited for spring break. But I don't think anyone's more excited than your teachers." Our students adamantly disagreed -- but it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher in possession of fidgety students, must be in want of a break. The leaves are starting to blossom on the trees; the birds are chirping outside of our windows. And our students are already beginning to feel the electric currents of summer crackling through their veins. As you might imagine, the struggle to keep them focused and attentive in class is getting REAL.


(Spring break. Better than cookies? Quite possible.)

I love my job. As I've heard numerous teachers say, you don't get into this profession for the paycheck. The hours are too long; the bureaucracy, too arduous. You need to be resolutely dedicated to closing the Achievement Gap. You need to feel strongly about contributing in some small way to rectifying the "greatest civil rights issue of our generation" (in the words of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp). But even with the spark of educational equity fired up within them, teachers can get burned out. Personally, my spark has fizzled into a sad little wisp of smoke. Which, because we're coming up to summer, may or may not be a Tennessee Williams reference.

I'm a strong believer in sabbaticals. College professors are eligible for sabbatical leave, oftentimes paid, during which they conduct independent research without having to worry about teaching responsibilities. Sabbaticals are sometimes perceived as "a luxury these troubled times cannot abide". But I would argue that sabbaticals should be expanded to include everyone in the American workforce. Especially in a society with no paid maternity/paternity leave and little paid vacation/sick leave.

The Equity Project (TEP Charter School) has been a troubled experiment since the beginning. They boast $125,000 teacher salaries, with $25,000 annual bonuses -- however, teachers earn that salary by pulling "double-duty," taking on full-time administrative work in addition to their daily teaching schedule. (One of my acquaintances taught a full schedule of ELA blocks and then spent her prep periods working as the Dean of Students. If this sounds unsustainable [and/or absolutely insane] to you, you're not alone.) But even though there are some tragic flaws in their school model, I think TEP absolutely nailed one part: teachers are encouraged to take a sabbatical every five years.

TEP doesn't have a perfect sabbatical system worked out. Teachers don't receive any pay during their sabbaticals, although they do retain their medical/dental benefits. (The TEP website does assure prospective teachers that the school helps find ways to secure funding.) Teachers aren't required to "justify" what they plan on doing over their sabbaticals. They're encouraged to pursue higher education, to travel abroad, or even to commit to outside employment. They bring their experiences back to TEP and share them at Summer Institute. I don't know anyone who's actually gone on a TEP sabbatical before, so I'm unsure whether the program as documented on their website is simply the stuff of dreams -- but I'd love to research and learn more.

Even though spring vacation will only be a week (instead of the year-long research sabbatical of my dreams), it will be a much-needed opportunity to refresh. I'm going to Shenandoah National Park with one of my co-workers for a hiking expedition. It will be our first time backcountry camping together, and I'm excited to brush up on my tent pitching skills. (My 31 Days of Trip Planning will resume upon my return.)
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Preparing for Competition (Or, When High Standards Leave Low-Income Students Behind)

My students are in the final stages of preparing for this year's statewide theater festival. This will be our first time participating and, as such, has been my first time looking at the standards and requirements. I have to admit that I was a little bit shocked the first time that I accessed the document library and discovered that there was only one set of standards for grades 6-12. And I was even more shocked when I started reading through them and realized how drastically they put my low-income students at a disadvantage. These were my three main takeaways:

1. The standards were written with affluent schools (and students) in mind.

When I started reading through the design standards, the thing that struck me the most was that they were clearly written for students at affluent schools (and that students at performing arts schools have a noticeable advantage). The standards that caused the most concern were the ones for lighting design, which are clearly meant to tie into your school's facilities. For lighting design, students are supposed to submit:

A light plot (1/4" or 1/2" = 1'0" and no larger than 24"x36") which may be rolled, folded, or mounted indicating:
- Color medium
- Set and masking
- Areas
- Lighting positions with labels
- Type of instrument
- Unit numbers
- Circuit
- Channel
- Focus/purpose
- Gobos/patterns/templates
- Practicals
- Special instruments (LED, moving lights, foggers, hazers, fans, relays, etc)
- Instrument key

My Title 1 school has a rundown auditorium with three operational lights. These are controlled via switches backstage so that when you're working the lights backstage, you cannot actually see what's happening out onstage. I had to purchase work lights on poles this year, just so my students could have the experience of cutting gels (and then sticking them to the lights with packing tape). At first, I thought that my students might stand a chance because of programs like Virtual Light Lab. Virtual Light Lab simulates a professional venue and gives students the opportunity to experiment with different lighting instruments, color filters, and even gobos. Students can digitally "hang and focus" lights in over seventy different positions. They can build, record, and playback cues -- something that they could never accomplish in our actual auditorium since, as previously mentioned, we don't have a lighting console. Programs like Virtual Light Lab open up so many opportunities for students in under-resourced schools.

But they're just not enough.


(Ophelia and Claudius from Hamlet)

If the standards were adjusted so that students were evaluated on their analysis of the script (and subsequent design concept), their visual lighting composition, and the quality of their cues, then my students could possibly present in the lighting design category. However, there are so many technical requirements in this category -- circuit and channel notations on the light plot, a magic sheet/cheat sheet, an instrument schedule, etc. This is the kind of paperwork that I'd expect to see from high school seniors applying for a paid job with the National Theatre for Student Artists (and, in fact, we based our application around these exact standards). It's not what I'd expect to see from a middle school student who doesn't even have access to a working ellipsoidal. With our limited resources, I cannot imagine that any of our students -- even the most theatrically inclined -- could ever complete these materials and participate.

2. Theoretical designs are acceptable -- but realized designs are better.

The standards clearly state that "designs for either theoretical or realized productions are acceptable" -- except that the standards demonstrate a clear preference for realized designs. In the lighting and sound design categories, you're even supposed to include a title block on your plot with the name of the facility. What do you put there if you're creating a theoretical design? World of Pure Imagination Theatre, Inc.? And what about set design when you have to create a floor plan for a theoretical venue that clearly indicates the performance space, backstage space, audience areas, and sightlines?


(Gertrude [beginning of play] and Gertrude [end of play] from Hamlet)

There's a workaround here. You can easily download the floor plan or light grid for a professional venue like New York Theatre Workshop's Fourth Street Theatre online. In fact, our national team of student designers for Expedition completed all of their work online without ever stepping into the actual space. We forwarded them the documentation and uploaded our video tour of the venue. But, once again, all of our students were graduating high school seniors from elite performing arts schools. And even THEY sometimes struggled to complete the work without having seen the space firsthand. How are we supposed to expect our middle school students, many of whom have never even attended a professionally-staged play before, to design for a space they've never been in? If you have easy access to (and have been trained to work in) the facility, you're obviously going to have a clear advantage in this category.

I'm running into a similar problem with my costume designers. There's a portfolio requirement where you're supposed to include budgetary constraints. We're working on theoretical designs -- so what are we supposed to put in this section? I suppose that we're supposed to mention the prices of the fabrics that we swatched and what might be problematic if you were creating an actual production. But my eleven-year-olds are still learning different techniques for using colored pencils, not thinking about how to negotiate prices with Garment District vendors. Which brings me to my final problem with the standards . . .

3. The middle school standards are the same as the high school standards.

This makes no sense to me. How are my sixth graders supposed to be capable of the exact same type of work that a twelfth grader can complete? That's not to say that I don't think students should be held to a rigorous standard; they definitely should. But high school students have, in some cases, more than half a decade more education than my middle school students. They've had time to learn more content, to master more objectives, to explore more aesthetics. A graduating high school senior SHOULD be able to submit a sound system plot with rack diagrams and microphone schedules and patch assignments and preliminary sound levels. You know who probably wouldn't be successful with that assignment? A sixth grader who has never operated a microphone, has never seen an audio rack, and doesn't know anything about patches or levels. A quick revision of the standards so that middle school students exclusively submit sound cues (so that teachers can focus on script analysis, design concept, and recording/mixing effects, soundscapes, and music compositions) would enable our students to be successful instead of overwhelmed.


(Katherine and Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew)

On that note, even in a Title 1 school, I'm writing from an extraordinarily privileged position. Our school has two Chromebook carts and, thanks to the Voya Unsung Heroes Award, my classroom has four MacBooks. We're able to access software like GarageBand and Virtual Light Lab and Final Cut Pro. In my Teach for America placement school, we didn't have any access to technology. If you wanted your students to publish on a word processing program, you needed to sign up for the desktop computer lab at least a month in advance (and, even then, good luck actually getting a reservation). So if we really wanted to make these standards equitable, and if we really wanted to open up opportunities for low-income students to participate, we would need to take technology out of the requirements almost entirely. (Although I have a feeling that students capable of using technology in their projects would still have an unfair advantage. Part of that comes down to the fact that the judging panels usually consist of theater professionals and college educators who aren't used to working in facilities without any technology available. It can be a challenge to understand "how the other half lives" unless you've experienced it firsthand.)

I'm a major supporter of the statewide theater festival and the work that they're doing to elevate theater education in New York. I've volunteered with them for three years now, and I'm always so impressed by the students who attend. They have the very best intentions, but it's impossible not to sometimes overlook the little things that restrict access for underserved populations of students.


(Harpy from The Tempest)

Day Three (31 Days of Trip Planning): Researched three new theater companies in the UK/Ireland with young leadership that I'll reach out to tomorrow
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The List: Three Successful Deescalation Tactics for Teachers

Unfortunately, state test season always results in students making a few poor life choices. They start buckling under the pressure and are not yet able to effectively "self-soothe." Amazingly, our school has started promoting mindfulness instruction in order to teach students how to calm themselves down in high-stakes situations. (One of our teachers has extensive experience in teaching yoga and meditation. She actually leads a staff-wide vinyasa flow every Wednesday. Namaste.) But even with a chair Uttanasana starting off every class period, students will occasionally struggle with resolving conflicts, managing frustration, and refocusing after corrections. Understandable. I'm an adult, and I struggle with that too sometimes.


(Front of Mask Says: Leader.)

At Uncommon Schools, I have the privilege of working with some of the best teachers in the world. So I've seen an extraordinary amount of successful deescalation tactics this week. Here are just a few of the methods that I've observed while traveling through the hallways of our school:

1. Redirect for Success

Yesterday, two of our students got into an altercation out on the playground. When a teacher intervened, one of the students immediately started to calm down, while the other student (called "Allison" here) only became more aggressive. The teacher brought Allison upstairs to the main office, but she resisted the entire way: "You're only taking me upstairs because you think that I'm the bad one," "This just makes me hate you even more," "You should let me go back out there and punch her," etc. The teacher demonstrated incredible emotional constancy, responding with statements like "You can be angry with me" and "I understand that you're feeling frustrated right now. "

When they reached the main office, the teacher asked Allison to sit down and IMMEDIATELY redirected her attention. Our staff was having a bake-off, which meant that four trays of cheesecake were out on the table. The teacher said: "Allison, we need to choose the best cheesecake from the bake-off. I can't have any, so I need you to vote on my behalf. Do you think you can do that?" And, without even waiting for the answer, the teacher spooned some of the most scrumptious-looking dessert into a bowl and passed it over to Allison. "Here, try this one."

Within a few seconds, Allison had completely forgotten about wanting to punch her classmate downstairs. She sampled each cheesecake selection, shared her thoughts with the teacher (strengthening that relationship), and then voted for her favorite. Afterwards, the teacher was able to successfully process with Allison what had happened downstairs and schedule a time for conflict mediation between the two students. When a situation starts spiraling out-of-control, sometimes redirecting the major player(s) can calm everyone down, help repair damaged relationships, and create the mental space necessarily to actually solve the problem.

Note: I know that the cause-and-effect seems out of whack here. If you're acting out (fighting with a classmate), you're going to get a reward (eating cheesecake). However, if we're really focused on solving the problem and teaching conflict-resolution strategies to students (instead of simply punishing them), it's more important to calm the student down and move her into a receptive headspace than immediately sticking her in the detention room. Allison did receive a consequence for her actions -- but, in that moment, giving the consequence would have done much more harm than good.

2. Positive Praise (in Advance)

Yesterday, one of our more sociable students (called "Bethany" here) was striking up conversations in the hallway. A teacher asked her to please stop talking, and she turned around with a look that clearly signaled that there was an automatic detention-worthy response a-brewing. Instead of letting her dig herself into that consequence hole, the teacher cut her off at the pass: "Bethany, I'm so proud of you for making the right decision and turning around. It really shows that you have the maturity that we look for in all of our eighth graders. I knew that I could count on you to be a leader." Of course, Bethany hadn't turned around and knew full-well that she hadn't been planning on making the right choice. But once the teacher laid all of that public praise on her, Bethany didn't really have a choice. She turned around and walked silently into the classroom.

Positive praise (in advance) is a perfect example of how students will usually rise to the expectations that you set for them. The teacher set the expectation that Bethany would be a leader for her class and that she would make the right choice in this situation. Because the teacher used such positive framing (as opposed to "don't earn a demerit" or "you need to stop before you get into trouble"), Bethany was able to re-focus and successfully start the class period -- sans automatic detention.

Variation: I used a similar technique on a student that I was struggling with earlier this year. We'd gotten off to a rough start, and he was convinced that I was "out to get him." In order to turn the relationship around, I started approaching him like he was the MVP of my classroom. I made him the lead cinematographer on our class film; I entrusted him with the fragile and expensive lighting equipment; he was the only student allowed to use the box cutter. Nowadays, he's receptive to my redirections in the hallways, and he always steps up to volunteer in the classroom. I'm not saying that students will rise to your expectations every single time -- but, more often than not, they'll step up their game.

3. Show the Love

There's a teacher at our school who does SPED pull-out classes in the conference room. Because our staff restroom is located inside of the conference room (awkward architectural choice, NYC Department of Education), I frequently find myself unintentionally observing his classes while I'm waiting. One thing that I've noticed is that he uses affectionate terminology when talking with students. He'll call the fifth graders "sweetie" or "buddy" -- terms that a parent or relative might use. Now, I can't use the term "sweetie" without thinking of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, so I wasn't exactly in a hurry to run out and start using these in my teaching practice. But then I noticed that he was able to use affectionate terminology to deescalate situations with even the most frustrated fifth grade students.

For instance, one of our fifth graders (called "Charlie" here) really struggles with basic mathematical skills. When he was working on his pull-out packet, the teacher circulated to him and told him that he was doing the work incorrectly. Charlie became frustrated and threw his pencil onto the floor. Instead of aggravating the situation further (by telling Charlie to pick up the pencil or giving him a demerit for his inappropriate reaction), the teacher retrieved the pencil and said: "Come on, buddy. Let's figure this out together." Charlie calmed down almost immediately. It's really hard to direct your anger towards someone who's calling you "buddy," "pal," "sweetie," "hun," etc. (Although the last one will make you sound like you just popped out of Hairspray. Good morning Baltimore indeed.) It's a small way of verbally letting students know that we care about them and that we're on their side, even if they're not making the right choices in that moment.

Bonus: Because I'm a human being (and not a teacher-bot), I sometimes get frustrated with my students. When I push myself to verbally show them the love, it immediately takes down my guard and reminds me that we're all working together towards a common goal -- getting them into college. Even though students sometimes struggle to keep that goal in sight (and it's understandably tough to visualize college when you're only nine-years-old), they do all want to get there. So show the love!


(Back of Mask Says: Follow Me.)

Day Two (31 Days of Trip Planning): Created my unofficial travel guide that (so far) includes all of the information about my flights and hostel bookings, as well as public transportation and directions to/from airports and hostels
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31 Days of Travel Planning (Or, Flying Solo)

This summer, I'll be traveling to the United Kingdom and Ireland to research young arts leaders and how they can be better supported by governments, corporations/foundations, and non-profit organizations. This research will form the backbone of my presentation at EdTA's National Conference in September. I'm also being considered for a much larger research grant focusing on how schools can create artistic communities that intentionally cross racial/ethnic, cultural, linguistic, geographic, and socioeconomic borders. If I'm selected (HOPING WISHING PRAYING), I can start establishing some connections for that project as well.

I've never been a traveler, but I've always dreamed of exploring the world. I even chose my university because of its strong study abroad program. However, every time I thought to myself "YES! THIS will be the year that I travel abroad!", something that demanded my attention in New York City would come up. So I've focused diligently on my work (joining Teach for America, starting the National Theatre for Student Artists, finishing my first graduate degree, quitting my second graduate degree half-way through, etc.) and have always put off traveling "for another day." Needless to say, there was no studying abroad for this Columbia University alumna.

However, when I turned thirty and started thinking seriously about "settling down," I decided that putting off travel was no longer an option. If I ever wanted to backpack through Europe or volunteer in South Africa, I couldn't afford to wait "for another day." So I finally applied for all of those professional development grants that had been bookmarked on my laptop since my Teach For America acceptance letter arrived in the mail. However, when I started actually booking tickets and making reservations, I realized that something else might have been holding me back as well. While I have traveled solo before, it's always been to visit a friend or attend a conference. Traveling solo to a brand-new country for an entire month where I have no connections sounds absolutely TERRIFYING. When I hovered my cursor over the PAY NOW button on Skypicker, it was with a sense of nauseating dread. But, as I've mentioned before, this year is all about rushing into fears head-on for me. So I clicked. And I bought. And I'm leaving. (On a jet plane.)


(Not like this is the definition of paradise or anything.)

Not being a traveler, I don't know a whole lot about traveling. In fact, when my friend and I hiked the Rocky Mountains last summer, I didn't do any research in advance. Boarding the flight to Colorado, I knew as much about the Rocky Mountains as one of my middle school students knows about Michel Foucault. (Read: nothin' muffin.) We rolled into town without any campsites booked and without any hiking trails mapped. While I definitely appreciate this loose and flexible approach to trip planning (which seems tailor-made for lazy afternoons spent writing in off-the-beaten-path cafes), I also recognize that when you're traveling solo, it can create more anxiety than it's worth. So it's my resolution to plan every single day of my summer trip -- especially since this will be my first time in the United Kingdom.

So today (Day One!), I took the necessary first step towards planning a successful trip. I booked my plane tickets and my hostel reservations. I completely missed out on the "struggling college student hosteling across the world" experience so, even though I'm way too old to be slugging down shots of whiskey on a Tuesday night (at thirty, I'm basically a relic of the ancient world), I still want to live my youthful bohemian fantasies. Complete with snoring strangers and uncomfortable twin-sized beds. Plus, you can't argue with the price. For £22 a night, I was able to stretch my trip out for my entire summer vacation. I plan on spending at least three of those days just lounging around the Irish countryside reading books. SO. MUCH. BOOKS.


(Isaacs Hostel in Dublin -- Staying here for two weeks!)

First of all, let's talk budget. My goal is to spend only as much traveling across the United Kingdom as I'd spend during a month in New York City. My rent costs $1,900 a month because Williamsburg. I spend about $100 a week on food at the organic grocery stores in my neighborhood. (I almost never go out for lunch/dinner anymore.) Also, it's about $80 to refill my MTA Metrocard every month for bus and subway access. That brings my monthly budget to $2,380. I want to vacation abroad for less than that amount of money. So let the trip planning begin!

I'll be leaving New York City on Wednesday, June 22. I'll be flying Norwegian Airlines to Copenhagen and then transferring to Ryanair to Dublin. Both of these airlines have stringent carry-on policies, which only allow me to take 10 kg (about 22 lbs). This will work out well though because I also purchased an Osprey Porter 46 yesterday, which is slightly over the carry-on dimensions permitted. Limiting the amount of weight will make sure that I don't overpack and can squeeze my luggage into the carry-on parameters. (I browsed through multiple message boards to make sure that other travelers have successfully brought the Porter 46 onto European carry-on only flights. Seems like we should be good to go!) I'll be staying at Isaacs Hostel in Central Dublin where I will assiduously avoid late nights at the bar. After two weeks, I'll be flying Ryanair to London and staying at The Dictionary Hostel in Shoreditch. I'll be returning to New York City on Wednesday, July 20 (Ryanair to Copenhagen, Norwegian Airlines to New York City). This brings all of my travel and lodging costs to $1,495, leaving $885 for local transportation, food, and attractions. I probably know nothing, but I think that I can make this work.


(The Dictionary Hostel. The Definition of the Day is Hipster. I'm from Williamsburg. Clearly, this was meant to be.)

For the next 31 days, I'm looking forward to including a snippet in each day's blog entry about what I've done to plan my first research trip. Hopefully, this trip will get me more comfortable with being abroad and will prepare me for many more international adventures to come!
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Read Along: The Uncommon Problem (Or, Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered)

My Teach for America Institute experience was a DISASTER.

When I finished teaching my first class (a self-contained ESL/SPED classroom of 30+ students who knew that summer attendance, not effort, would get them passed on to the next grade), I went into the bathroom and cried for over an hour. I'd been so certain that I would be a natural-born teacher. I'd done countless observations at KIPP and Achievement First and Harlem Village Academies. I'd scored a teaching job on my first interview and demo lesson. I'd even diligently completed all of my Institute pre-work assignments, unlike everyone else in my cohort -- and yet they were all leaving me in the dust! I remember that when everyone else in my cohort received one area of growth on their Teaching as Leadership rubric, I received FOUR, which meant that I was basically on an improvement plan for teachers who were failures. I was ready to give up before the first day of school even started.

And then, Uncommon Schools came into my life.



At the end of Institute, we all attended a workshop, facilitated by Doug Lemov (the founder of Uncommon Schools), introducing us to what would later become the Teach Like a Champion taxonomy. I remember thinking to myself: "WHY didn't they schedule this workshop on the FIRST day of Institute?" Here was a researcher who was giving me all of the discrete skills necessary to manage a classroom and raise student achievement. Everything suddenly clicked and at the end of my first year, my students had made an average of 2.38 years in reading growth and had scored 82.7% content mastery. (Yes, I was one of THOSE Teach for America teachers.) When I decided to leave my placement school at the end of my corps commitment, I remembered the extraordinary professional development that I'd received from Doug Lemov and immediately sent in a job application to Uncommon Schools. I've been teaching at the network's flagship Brooklyn school for six years now, and I've never once considered leaving.

Teach Like a Champion should be on every graduate school of education's required reading list. It's the perfect book for first-year (or second-year or third-year) teachers who are just learning how to manage a classroom. I still whip out my copy from time-to-time to brush up on some of the techniques. (This year's focus? Techniques #43 and #44: Positive Framing and Precise Praise. Use at least five times during your opening procedures for maximum student happiness.) So now that Doug Lemov, along with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, have released a new book, Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction, I was excited to pick up a copy -- especially since I started my career at Uncommon Schools as a sixth grade reading teacher.



And Reading Reconsidered has a lot to offer. It's basically the Uncommon Schools Reading Taxonomy compiled into book form -- extolling the merits of close reading, reading/writing integration, embedded nonfiction, and rigorous text selection. That said, when I was reading the Introduction, I became aware of a problem. It's a problem that existed in Teach Like a Champion. It's a problem that exists in Reading Reconsidered. It is, quite possibly, the Uncommon Problem.

Distilling education down to a set of discrete skills benefits many teachers. I should know; I was one of them. However, it also simplifies many of the problems that are larger than anything happening in an Uncommon classroom. In the Introduction, Lemov talks about how he was asked to "'figure out' reading." While Uncommon's math departments were closing the achievement gap at breakneck speed, students weren't reading on grade level until graduation. So the Teach Like a Champion team set about identifying the skills that teachers could use to make their students better readers. It's both noble and necessary work.

But it's also fundamentally flawed. We're never going to be able to catch students up in reading at the same speed as math, and the reasons have everything to do with public policy and little to do with instruction in our classrooms. As any literacy instructor knows, reading is made up of a series of complex skills -- decoding (and encoding), fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, background knowledge, etc. And once students have fallen behind in these skills, it's a painful and frustrating battle to catch them up. As we know from research studies (particularly Hart and Risley's "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3"), many low-income children start struggling with literacy from the moment they leave the hospital delivery room. By age three, they've been exposed to 30 million fewer words than children from high-income families, which produces major deficits in their knowledge and skills. The answer to solving that 30 million word gap isn't the Teach Like a Champion team. It's . . .

- Generous paid maternity and paternity leave
- Free child care, especially for dual working parent households
- Universal pre-K*
- A federally-administered single-payer health care system
- Better welfare systems for providing adequate nutrition and housing to all Americans

* While I know that Bill de Blasio hasn't been an ally for charter schools, I think that universal pre-K is one of the best NYC policies in recent memories. Thank you, Mr. de Blasio, for helping our most struggling students to succeed from pre-K to college.

I've only read the first few chapters of Reading Reconsidered, and I do highly recommend the book based on what I've read so far. (Although I'm sure that I'll be bringing up the issues with text selection in a future post.) Uncommon has incredible classroom practices; that's a major part of the reason why I wanted to teach with this network. And I'm definitely not saying that classroom teachers shouldn't go above and beyond to "do their part." But we need to remember that it really is just their part. America's low-income students need more than a few good superteachers in order to close the literacy gap. They need an entire system of community, state, and federal support. I worry that when we put the onus entirely on teachers, when we say that everything they need to be successful can be found inside a "toolbox," we're perpetuating a culture that scores, ranks, and subsequently shames teachers for trying their best in a failing system.
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The List: Three Cheap (or Free) Field Trips for Student Designers

Teaching in New York City, you'd expect that my theater class would take a lot of field trips to Broadway shows.

You'd be wrong.

First of all, Broadway tickets are ridiculously expensive -- even when you're buying at the discounted group rate, even when you're picking them up through TDF's online service. If you're a solid networker, you might get connected with the "right people" who will notify you whenever there are extra seats available that they'd like to distribute to students (way more likely if you're teaching in a Title 1 school). But that takes a lot of hustle on your part and a lot of happenstance that your students will be available at last-minute notice. So we generally stay away from Second Stage and Roundabout and stick to hole-in-the-wall theatres (with actual cigarette holes in the upholstery of their fifty seats) instead.

Luckily, you don't need theater tickets to have a great performing arts field trip. In fact, you don't have to splurge for anything more than the Metrocards (and some pizza slices if your students are getting peckish). If you don't live in New York City, no need to worry! You can make these field trip ideas work for you too. Without further ado, three cheap (or free) field trips for student designers.



The Garment District
Some of my students took a field trip to the Garment District on Saturday, and it was a huge success. It made me wonder what it would be like to stop educating in a classroom and start teaching out in the real world. (Looking at you, School Without Walls.) We met at school where students were grilled on the first drafts of their renderings. "Why did you choose this color?" "Tell me about the silhouette of the outfit." "Does anything in your design foreshadow what will happen to the character at the end of the play?" "Tell me how you used the elements of design to visually connect these two characters." After students had been interrogated in the Gulag Archipelago of Room 507, we headed to Times Square -- the one location that no one in New York City ever wants to travel to with students. It's seriously crowded, seriously noisy, and seriously distracting.

The majority of our time was spent at New York Elegant Fabrics, one of the largest fabric houses in the Garment District. The main reason why I recommend New York Elegant Fabrics over every other shop is because they swatch. You can just rip a sample off of the bolt (they come attached on plastic tag fasteners) and stick it into your pocket. They limit students to taking twenty swatches per day, which seems completely reasonable to me -- but I still found my students' pockets bursting with rayon, seersucker, and cotton squares. It's like they just couldn't help themselves, even AFTER I'd explained the rules.


(YOU DO NOT NEED EVERY WHITE SWATCH. I PROMISE.)

We continued on to Daytona Trimmings Company where an associate was kind enough to swatch some trims for us. Then my students insisted on stopping into Mood Fabrics because they've all watched way too many episodes of Project Runway. Definitely not the best shop for students. (Sales associates are frigid at best. Fabric bolts aren't "swatch-friendly." And store layout can be a challenge.) We wrapped up at Chipotle where everyone got to enjoy their classy Manhattan kids' meals.

DIY: I highly recommend taking a field trip to a fabric store in your neighborhood. My students learned more about costuming from one afternoon of looking at swatches than they had all year in my classroom. We talked about how different types of fabric are more suitable for men's and women's costumes (like how you wouldn't normally make a suit out of jersey knit). We talked about how different fabrics "move" onstage and how that can contribute to characterization. We even talked about budget constraints and how that might impact your fabric selection if you were working in a professional theatre. I recommend taking a small group of students, pairing them off in buddy-system style, and letting them wander around the shop independently.



Museum Mile
I've been dragged along on so many museum field trips. They're not my jam, to say the least. My students start lagging about halfway through, and then all I hear are refrains of "IS IT LUNCHTIME YET?" while they're sprawled out on the floor on top of a pile of backpacks. Of course, only my students feel this way. Not me. Not at all. Really.


(The struggle is so real, you guys.)

But on our most recent seventh grade field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, I started thinking about how museums could be used to enhance a theatrical design curriculum. While we were wandering through the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, we started talking about how a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest could easily be set in Samoa or New Guinea or Bali. I asked students to read the artifact descriptions and explain how any specific artifact could be tied into Shakespeare's narrative. One student pointed out a photograph of an indigenous man in a loincloth waiting at a train station, a neon-lit bodega standing behind him. She compared this visual to when the Royal Guests (Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian, Gonzalo, etc.) find themselves stranded on Prospero's island -- except in reverse. Only now am I thinking about the discussion that could have happened: How could we reflect Prospero's enduring ties to his own culture through his costume, while still acknowledging that he's the self-proclaimed ruler of this island? What kind of displacement of indigenous populations is happening in the Pacific? How can we connect that to Caliban's plight when he's forced into servitude by a foreigner (and how can that be reflected in his costume)? The possibilities are endless, especially when you have an entire museum at your disposal.



DIY: A field trip to any kind of museum could generate background knowledge and lead to insightful theatrical designs. Say you're starting a unit on Shakespeare. Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Have students explore art forms from different locations/time periods and choose their own design concept for Macbeth. Going to the Museum of the City of New York or the New York Historical Society? Have students research different locations in their own community where they could launch a site-specific production of Love's Labour's Lost. Going to the National Museum of Mathematics? (Yay MoMath!) Have students explore different physics properties before designing their own piece of technical theater equipment that can simulate a tempest. (All of these ideas are super-cool, and I will be trying them all out next year.)

Fashion Design Colleges
Our school took a field trip to a fashion institute, and I didn't even get to attend. (Curse you, inconvenient teaching schedule!) One of my co-advisors had the brilliant idea to book a field trip to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Students were able to observe classes in action, learn about summer opportunities, and even watch a fashion show of student work. It would have been perfect -- except for the fact that the fashion show was Lady Gaga-inspired and ended with the models throwing free condoms out onto the audience. Not exactly the field trip story that you want students recounting to their families over dinner.

DIY: If your city doesn't have a fashion design college (like FIT or Parsons: The New School for Design), I recommend looking for design departments at larger universities. For instance, my major hometown university (University of Buffalo) has a theatrical design department, a music composition department, and an emerging practices art department that focuses on "interactive multi-media, electronic installation, networked telematic communication, robotic art, three-dimensional simulation, biotechnology, and algorithmic image synthesis." Sign me up because that would make the COOLEST PRODUCTION EVER.

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How To: Manage Design Stations in Middle School

UPDATE: I'm going to be presenting a session on student leadership in arts departments at this year's Educational Theatre Association National Conference at the Tropicana Las Vegas. I've been involved with EdTA for the past three years, and I'm so excited to finally have the chance to not only attend but present at the educators' conference. Can't wait to see everyone in Las Vegas!



On to the "How To" . . .

So your students have completed their visual research. They've written their design concepts (or the rough drafts at least). Where do you go from here? This is my first year running design stations and, while there are still some kinks that need to be worked out, students have responded really well to having independent and differentiated work time. Basically, there's a sequence of activities that students in each "department" (set, costume, lighting, sound) need to work through in order to develop their final projects. Let's look at an example:

COSTUME DESIGN

Activity 1: Costume designers fill out an information sheet for each character in their scene. (If we met more often than once a week, I'd have students create an Elements and Principles Chart for each character -- identifying different design elements [lines, patterns, textures, shapes, colors, etc.] that match each character's personality and then defending why they chose those particular elements with text evidence.) The information sheet asks basic questions, including:
- Where is the character in this scene?
- What is the character doing in this scene?
- How is the character feeling in this scene? Why?



(Working on a makeup chart for Hamlet while using color theory/symbolism -- Help my students purchase makeup so that they can bring their designs to life this spring!)

This helps brings students back to the basics of the scene before they switch into "design-mode." If a character's standing outside in the middle of winter, then he's probably wearing a coat. If a character's attending a ball at the royal palace, then she probably won't be wearing a pair of skinny jeans. Students then use a color symbolism chart to identify three colors that they might want to incorporate into their designs. (They're also required to write one sentence that explains their reason for choosing each color.)


(Students write out possible sound cues on small Post-It notes and insert them into their scripts. When they're finished, they're able to go online and start browsing a royalty-free sound effects library.)

Activity 2: Costume designers receive copies of pre-drawn croquis templates, onto which they sketch out the first drafts of their designs. (I usually start alternating independent work time with "talk time" around this point. This gives students a chance to silently focus on their own work AND share their designs with others. I've found that, for the most part, students are so invested in their art that they use this time to receive peer feedback and seek out new ways of collaborating. For instance, our makeup and costume designers sit at the same table. They'll often use this time to make sure that the costume/makeup palettes match.)

Last year, I taught students how to draw their own croquis -- but most of them became really discouraged and disengaged with the entire project. While our school has one of the best math departments in the country, I discovered that our students were lacking some fundamental ruler skills that made drawing proportionally-correct figures challenging. Therefore, I decided to save the "draw your own" lessons for students competing at Thespian Festival and just use the templates for in-class work.


(First draft: Set design rendering for Queen Gertrude's bedroom in Hamlet)

These two activities usually take around 3-4 weeks for students to complete. After they've cobbled together their first drafts, we do a peer review session where students look at all of the drafts assembled together as a unified concept and determine if they all belong in the same world. More on that step in the next "How To." For now, I'm including a PDF of the design station activities for each department so that you can get a better idea of what students are working on in my classroom.



NOTE: All of my color theory charts come from Paper Leaf. I've had their Elements of Design, Principles of Design, and Color Theory posters hanging on my classroom walls all year long. Students use them every single day, and they're aesthetically pleasing.
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