Read (Watch) Along: That Time They Booed LaGuardia Arts (Or, Curtis Chin's Tested)

UPDATE: I posted some English Language Arts packets to the Writing > Curriculum section of this website. If you're interested in reading some of my lesson plans from previous years, check them out. (Expect to find a great deal of Freudian psychoanalysis and Norse mythology. #nerdproblems)

Last week, Teach for America hosted a screening of Curtis Chin's Tested, a documentary about the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Every year, students from across New York City spend months drilling for this exam, which is the sole basis of admission for the Big Three: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These are some of the most elite high schools in the nation -- or, as one parent in Tested calls it, "the Ivy League for the rest of us." Only one in six students is admitted; competition is fierce.

We had the privilege of hearing from one of the students featured in the documentary and his mother at a post-screening Q&A. Inrii Gonzalez, now a sophomore at Stuyvesant, has an Individualized Education Plan (accommodations for special education students) and needed extra time on the SHSAT. His mother had to negotiate her way through the NYC DOE and even the state education board to make sure that her son could successfully take the exam. Inrii was admitted to Stuyvesant and just wrapped up his sophomore year. While I've never been a great believer in the SHSAT (and "high-stakes testing" in general), Inrii's mother brought up a great point. Inrii's middle school hadn't provided him with the accommodations that he needed in order to be successful. Despite the fact that he's intelligent (as proven by the fact that he's thriving at Stuyvesant), he was receiving low grades. That was enough to keep him out of screened schools (like Beacon and Bard); his only shot at a great high school education was the SHSAT.

Stanley Ng, the senior researcher on Tested, brought up another interesting point. Screened schools require in-person interviews. For students who aren't native English speakers, the interview can be the cause of great anxiety and ultimately count against them. (Ng also implied that seeing the student in-person during the interview process might lead to either conscious or unconscious racial bias in selection.) For the Asian-American students who make up the majority of the Big Three's demographics, the SHSAT could also be their best chance.

The documentary itself was well-done, and Chin should be commended for his work. However, I wanted to talk briefly about the reaction of the audience. At the end of the film, we learned that one African-American student was accepted to both Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia Arts. She decided to attend LaGuardia Arts. The audience shook their heads in disapproval; there was even some actual booing. Now, I understand that some of the audience members were Brooklyn Tech alumni and that there's probably some friendly rivalry between the specialized high schools. (Having gone to Columbia University, we were constantly belittling NYU, our neighbors to the South.) But it also made me wonder if there wasn't something larger at play.

The demographics of the Big Three have been a divisive issue in NYC. It's the reason why some politicians and educators have suggested replacing the SHSAT with portfolio reviews and interviews. Students from low-income African-American and Latino/a communities just aren't getting into these schools. Chin suggests that it's due to lack of access to satisfactory test prep programs, lack of information about the SHSAT, and lack of understanding about how hard students need to work for admission. Whatever the case, African-American and Latino/a students make up almost 70% of NYC's student population.

This year, only ten African-American students were offered spaces at Stuyvesant.

The numbers are grim. According to InsideSchools, 8% African-American and 8% Latino/a at Brooklyn Tech. 3% African-American and 6% Latino/a at Bronx Science. And an abysmal 1% African-American and 3% Latino/a at Stuyvesant.

In contrast, we have LaGuardia Arts -- the only specialized high school in NYC that does not use the SHSAT for admission. 11% African-American and 19% Latino/a. LaGuardia Arts uses a process that's more similar to a screened school. Students are required to attend an audition/interview and grades are taken into account. (Students cannot have any scores lower than an 80% on their report cards.)

Immediately, there were two reasons that I could think of why the audience might have booed LaGuardia Arts.

1. Disrespect for the Arts
I'm amazed by the amount of disrespect that the arts receive in both our schools and our communities (one probably leading to the other). The arts are, for some reason, seen as being "less than" STEM. The audience might have perceived LaGuardia Arts as being less intellectually rigorous than the Big Three, despite the fact that students from the technical theater department are frequently accepted by elite engineering departments like MIT. They might have perceived this young woman as "selling herself short" because she could have been a scientist or a physician or a computer programmer; instead, she decided that she wanted to be an artist. If that isn't deserving of a strong booing, I don't know what is.

2. Unconscious Racism
This is the one that disturbs me a little bit more. Are the Big Three seen as being superior because of their student demographics? Because they're dominated almost exclusively by Asian-American and white students? I may be guilty of this myself. Instead of encouraging students to go to our charter high school, I'm perpetually extolling the virtues of programs like Prep 9 that send high-achieving minority students to elite (and predominantly white) boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover -- even if that might not be the best fit for them. I insist that these are the schools with "name recognition," that these are the schools that will get them into the Ivy League. But why do they have "name recognition"? Because they're rich. Because they're white. And those reasons just aren't good enough.

Maybe I should thank the audience members who booed LaGuardia Arts at the screening. Even though they were way out-of-line, they forced me to check my own assumptions about which high schools are "good enough." But -- for the record, audience members -- LaGuardia Arts is one of the best high schools I've ever had the privilege of working with. And yes, I've worked with students from Stuyvesant.

Day Nine (31 Days of Trip Planning): Booked my Megabus ticket from NYC to Buffalo, NY. (At the end of my Ireland/UK trip, I've decided to spend the remainder of the summer with my family. I'll travel directly to Fulbright Orientation in Washington, DC and then return to NYC for summer professional development.)

Dreams Come True (Or, Fulbright 2017)

When I first joined Teach for America, I started looking into opportunities that were available for teachers. The one that really caught my attention was the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. During my undergraduate career, I hadn't been interested in the prestigious fellowships that were being promoted left and right -- Rhodes, Gates, Fulbright, Marshall, etc. While my friends spent late nights studying in Butler Library, trying to score that qualifying GPA, I was picking up job skills on the internship market. I was always much more interested in practical work than academic work.

But this Fulbright had its roots in practical application. It wasn't for educational researchers; it was for real-life teachers who wanted to study best practices abroad. At the end of the grant, they didn't expect you to write a methodological study; they expected you to create a toolkit of resources for teachers back in the United States. You were able to choose your area of research and were in-residence at a host university -- attending advanced undergraduate or graduate level classes. Add in the fact that one of the host countries was the United Kingdom (home of the National Youth Theatre and National Youth Music Theatre), and I was completely sold. I printed out the application guidelines and spent the next eight years acquiring the credentials to meet them.

Yes, I've been working on my Fulbright application for eight years.

I finally made the decision to apply this year. One afternoon, I logged onto the Fulbright DAT website and misread the updates, leading me to believe that they'd cancelled the program in the UK. I was filled with such an all-consuming sense of loss that, when I discovered that I was mistaken, I knew that I needed to apply sooner rather than later. If I missed out on this chance through my own procrastination, I would never forgive myself. I spent three months filling out the actual application -- completing a series of personal essays and an inquiry project description, ordering copies of all of my academic transcripts, requesting recommendations from employers and professors, etc. I'd heard that the Fulbright application process was a long haul.

"Long haul" was an understatement.


Once I'd sent in the application, I waited. And waited. And waited. In February, I found out that I was being considered as a finalist for the United Kingdom and needed to attend a phone interview with the Fulbright US-UK Commission. I'd read interviews with previous recipients in which they chronicled how poorly their interviews had gone. In contrast, I thought that my interview went extraordinarily well. Every question that they asked was one that I'd already prepped in advance. (Admittedly, if you looked at my "interview prep" document, you would find over thirty pages of prospective Q&As.) And then, at the beginning of April, I received the email that would consume my every waking thought for the next six weeks.

Greetings again from Fulbright Program staff at the Institute of International Education (IIE) in Washington, DC. We are writing you today with an update regarding your selection status to participate in the program.

You have been recommended for selection for a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program grant to the United Kingdom for a 3-6 month period during the 2016-2017 program year. Final selection decisions are contingent upon many factors and selection is not guaranteed until all elements of the selection process are confirmed. Your selection is currently pending confirmation of a host university in the UK. This process could take as little as two to several weeks. It is possible that a host university will not be found and that you will not participate in the program.

I had been told that host university placement might be a challenge for my project, so this email sunk into the pit of my stomach like an iron weight. To know that I'd gotten so far ("recommended for selection"!) only to be possibly thwarted by logistical details in the final hour was almost unbearable. I further tormented myself by setting a Google Alert for the Fulbright DAT so that every time a teacher received a host university placement, I received a foreboding ding in my inbox. I also found a blog by a teacher who'd been recommended for the now-defunct Fulbright Teacher Exchange program. It included this anxiety-provoking line from the IIE:

Dear Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange applicant,

On behalf of the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange Program, I would like to update you on the status of your candidacy. Although you were recommended by the peer review panel based on your application and interview, you have not been matched with an international candidate after the first round of the selection process.

As the weeks slowly passed (one week . . . two weeks . . . three weeks . . .), a thick atmosphere of dread settled over my apartment. I would lie awake for hours, staring at the ceiling. I read forum archives on GradCafe -- testimonials from graduating seniors who were stuck in "Fulbright Limbo." My parents complained about my stunted conversation skills; the only thing that I was capable of talking about anymore was the Fulbright. I would analyze every minute detail of my exchanges with the IIE, like a girl trying to determine if the boy in her second period class liked her or liked liked her.

And then, while weeding lawns in a community impacted by Hurricane Katrina (on our end-of-year trip to New Orleans), I finally received the email that I'd been waiting for:

Dear Ms. Chatfield,

We are writing you today with an update regarding your selection status to participate in the program. We are pleased to let you know that a placement for you at the University of Glasgow has been confirmed. This means that we can move forward to the next step in the process which is to send you your official selection letter and selection packet to complete. We will be sending this email out shortly.

My euphoria was somewhat tempered by the placement. Glasgow? It's not that I'm not excited about spending time in the third largest city in the United Kingdom (and the largest city in Scotland). After all, I've attended every National Theatre of Scotland production that's toured to St. Ann's Warehouse. It's just that all of the organizations that my inquiry project focuses on are based in London. I'm still trying to figure out how I'll make the eight-hour commute every week to attend classes in Glasgow and conduct research in London . . . but I did promote myself to the Fulbright Committee as being extraordinarily flexible. And so flexible I will be. (Plus, when I scanned down the list of placement sites, I realized that Glasgow's the best location for me. I'm used to high-energy metropolitan areas, and Glasgow certainly fits the bill. Plus, so close to Edinburgh! Global theater city of the highest order!)

(Glasgow. How is this an actual place? It's like the architectural depiction of fairy-dust.)

So I am now officially a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher. I'll be leaving in January for the UK and will be staying abroad until July. I cannot tell you how thankful I am to the Fulbright Committee and IIE for this opportunity. I've spent the past eight years dreaming of this moment, and now that I'm getting ready to move out of my apartment and apply for my visa, I can't believe that it's actually happening.

Day Eight (31 Days of Trip Planning): Contacted the National Association of Youth Drama, the International Youth Arts Festival, and the Dublin Youth Theatre.

Read Along: No, I Will Not Walk 500 Miles (Or, Dale Russakoff's The Prize)

Last weekend marked the 7th Annual Big Walk -- a 50-mile hike from Metropark Station in Iselin, NJ to Penn Station in New York, NY. Following the East Coast Greenway, the event has been billed as the "longest, most diverse and perhaps toughest urban hike" that the Freewalkers organization offers. Because I haven't had my sanity checked in a while, I decided to sign up and attempt to trek all fifty miles. SPOILERS: I didn't get all the way back to Manhattan. I had to bow out around the 30-mile mark (after ten straight hours of walking) because of two particularly painful blisters. I had read all of these articles on how to prevent blisters on long-distance hikes, and I'd thought that I was prepared with my broken-in Merrells and multiple pairs of REI merino wool socks. Apparently, I need to raise my game next time and wrap my toes up in Moleskin before starting out. Lesson learned. I will conquer you next time, 8th Annual Big Walk.

One of my preparations for The Big Walk was downloading a ton of new education tomes on my Audible account. I thought that since we were trekking through New Jersey, it would be appropriate to start off with Dale Russakoff's The Prize: Who's in Charge of America's Schools?. The book chronicles the attempted restructuring of the New Jersey school system after Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million philanthropic gift. It was also the book that I was most excited about reading (or listening to, as the case were). Having been a Teach for America corps member back in the late 2000s, I met Cory Booker a few times. He visited my Institute site back when I was working as a School Operations Manager, and he spoke frequently at TFA benefit dinners. Cami Anderson also popped up at various events. (This was back when she was the Superintendent of District 79 -- the city's alternative programs for students, ages 18-21, which includes the public school on Rikers Island.) These were the Ed Reform leaders that were held up as exemplars for us. Every TFA corps member was striving to be the next Booker or the next Anderson -- the reformer that could create that systemic, "transformational" change.

But, as Russakoff has uncovered, that "transformational" change wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

1. Glut and Greed
I remember the exact moment that I lost faith in the current iteration of the Education Reform Movement. I was having coffee with a friend who worked for a principal pipeline program. He pointed across the street to a five-star restaurant and said: "Our CEO's having lunch in there right now. We process receipts for those lunches all the time. Hundreds of dollars."

"Are you serious?" I asked, looking down at my own $1.50 cardboard cup of black coffee.

"One time," my friend said, leaning closer, "our CEO left his iPad at home when he was headed to the Aspen Institute. He had us transfer the money to his account so that he could buy a new one when he landed."

"A new iPad?"


Sitting there, wondering how I was going to buy spiral-bound notebooks for all of my students (none of whom could afford even the most basic school supplies) out of a second-year teacher's salary, I remember feeling duped. Why was I funneling every cent of my disposable income into the classroom when our leaders (many of whom had never taught a day in their lives) were out wining and dining on Park Avenue with their wealthy compatriots? I've watched these "Civil Service Celebrities" get shuttled to and from star-studded events in private jets. There's so much glut and greed in the Education Reform Movement that you can't help but come out the other side embittered and disillusioned. The Prize mentions two consultants who were brought in, both of whom billed the NJ Department of Education for $1,000 a day.

You can go back and read that number again. I'll wait.

$1,000 a day. And, to add insult to injury, the consultants billed for overtime when they worked more than eight hours a day. Meanwhile, teachers labor day in and day out for little more than $66,000 a year in New Jersey. Does the NJ DOE honestly believe that the work done by these consultants -- sitting in their offices, attached to their tablets and cell phones -- could ever be more important than the work that the average teacher does everyday? Thankfully, The Prize spends many chapters pointing out that the grassroots work done by teachers and principals had way more of an impact on Newark student achievement than anything done "top-down."

2. "Getting Rid of" Communities (A Little R&H)
One of the Teach for America core values is Respect and Humility -- or, as our program directors sometimes called it, R&H. This was back when TFA intentionally placed corps members in the neediest public schools instead of striking deals with charter schools due to local hiring freezes. Our TFA program directors encouraged us to remain humble in our placement schools. We should learn from the veteran teachers, respect decisions made by administrators, and defer to the judgment of parents. However, in the very next breath, they told us that the school system was failing, that "bad teachers" needed to be pushed out of classrooms, that the unions needed to be dismantled, and that low-income communities needed to be saved. Apparently, they needed to be saved by a bunch of recent Ivy League graduates?

The Prize frequently cites how the education reformers wanted to "get rid of Newark" in order to "save" Newark. I've seen even the best-intentioned educators, administrators, and policymakers fall into this community disengagement trap. Many charter networks seem to view parent and community committees as afterthoughts. They're managed by school social workers who already have way too many responsibilities -- counseling students, liaising with ACS (the Administration for Children's Services), and filling out scads of paperwork. Education reformers seem very interested in struggling minority children -- but not nearly as interested in struggling minority parents. Just look at The SEED Schools. They literally take the children away from their families and communities through their public boarding school model.

I'm not judging the work that SEED does. (After all, many of the wealthiest and most elite families also choose to send their children away for their educations.) But something about this mindset, that we should "save" the children because the parents are "scorched earth" where nothing good can grow, smacks of racist GOP conservatism. As The Prize argues, if we want to make long-term, sustainable changes in low-income communities, then those changes need to be initiated from inside the community; they can't be forced on families from outside. Education reformers need to trust parents to be agents of change instead of viewing them as adversaries.

3. The Problem with Philanthropy
On the issue of trust, let's talk about the problem with philanthropy. In the past, donors used to trust that non-profit directors knew how to manage their organizations. They would make fiscal contributions and rest assured that their money was being used for the common good. Nowadays, those donors have transitioned into being "venture philanthropists." They insist that their money be used in whatever way they see fit, regardless of whether or not that's what's best for the organization's constituents. Much of the Zuckerberg money, for instance, was allocated for labor-related reform. Specifically, Zuckerberg wanted to implement a system of merit pay that he believed would attract top-tier teachers to the neediest schools -- despite the fact that studies have consistently shown that teachers are motivated by positive school environments, not increased pay.

While Russakoff asserts that the titular "prize" refers to the Newark school system, I definitely saw the prize as being the Zuckerberg money. The politicians were so busy scrabbling to get their hands on the "prize" (which could only be unlocked through another $100 million matching grant) that they lost sight of what the money was meant to accomplish. It's a common mistake in non-profit management. You stray from your mission because you let the donors decide what they want to fund; as the subtitle ("Who's in Charge of America's Schools?") implies, he who holds the checkbook sets the agenda -- no matter how unqualified he may be.

One of the few "happy endings" in The Prize actually comes from Mark Zuckerberg who learned from his first foray into philanthropy. According to Russakoff, he now consults with low-income communities about their needs and invests his money accordingly. Good for him. If only more philanthropists would follow his example.

Day Seven (31 Days of Trip Planning): Reached out to Dr. Amanda Piesse, the supervisor of Players at Trinity College. Hopefully, I'll be having coffee with her and the current Chair of Players. Can't wait!

You Coulda Been a Contender (Or, The Power of Competition)

A few weeks ago, my students participated in our state theater festival.

The festival planning committee makes sure not to refer to Individual Events (IEs) as a "competition." They are an "adjudication" only -- an opportunity for your students to receive feedback from theater professionals. But let's be honest: our students are all vying for superior scores. And while the adjudicators insist that all of the students could hypothetically receive superiors, you know that all of the scores are relative. They pick out the few "best" examples of student work and then grade everyone else accordingly. So it's definitely not a competition. Except that it's totally a competition.

(Festival opening ceremonies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts)

You want to get a superior score because that's your golden ticket to the national festival. For my middle school students, that means a weekend trip to Sacramento, CA (pending our school coming up with the travel, housing, and registration fees) where they will be able to present their work alongside some of the most talented students from across the country. I've had the privilege of volunteering at the national high school festival for the past two years. The NYC theater community can sometimes be embittered, disillusioned, and (dare I say it) downright catty. You get the feeling at times that no one really wants to be there. Stepping onto the campus of the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, corn stalks and all, you automatically feel rejuvenated. For one week, that city is overflowing with passion for the dramatic arts -- simple and unbridled. It reminds you why you decided to work in this industry in the first place. I'm hoping that my middle school students have a similarly transformative experience at the middle school festival.

My students were the first middle schoolers to ever compete in the technical theater categories. Four of my costume designers were presenting portfolios and renderings based on 30-minute adaptations of Shakespearean plays. They did outstanding work and that was recognized by the adjudicators: two superior scores and two excellent scores. When my first student, Jaylin, finished her presentation, one of the adjudicators asked her where she was going to college.

"I don't know," she laughed. "I'm just getting ready for high school!"

The adjudicator paused for a moment and put down her pen. "What grade are you in?"


The adjudicator turned around to look at me.


(Ready to start our first IE presentation)

"All of my students are," I said, motioning to the four young women clad in their best dress blacks beside me.

"I was impressed before," the adjudicator finally said, jotting down her scores, "but now, I'm REALLY impressed."

Up until that moment, my students had thought of theater as a "throwaway class." Even these four young women, who really enjoyed designing costumes, were perpetually skipping out on our after-school work sessions in favor of sports practices and studying for IAs and hanging out with their friends (which can be oh-so-tempting at the end of the day). They had begrudgingly dragged themselves up the stairs to the fifth floor theater room and then complained ad nauseum about having to be there. They played on their iPhones when they were supposed to be sketching; they never completed any of the homework that was posted on the Google Drive. I literally had to drag these portfolios and renderings out of them (eventually pulling them out of their classes after state testing to get the finished products done). It was a frustrating experience and, walking into our state festival, I swore that I'd never do it again.

But when my students started getting praise heaped on them -- by a Broadway costume designer, nonetheless -- everything changed. On the subway ride back to Brooklyn, all they could talk about was how much they wanted to compete again next year. Even the two young women who had only received excellent scores announced with a steadfast determination how they were going to "get it right" the second time around. On Monday, students at school -- hearing about our costume designers' accomplishments -- asked how they could get involved in the state festival. Interest in the theater department grew and our students, seeing their classmates score round-trip tickets to California, started to dream big for themselves.

I suppose that's the power of competition. Students who have spent their entire lives failing -- scoring low on state tests, ending up in lunch detention day after day, being conscripted into early morning "intervention groups" -- are able, with the right coaching and commitment, to succeed. However, that success doesn't just benefit that one student; it also benefits all of their friends who see someone like them (same socioeconomic status, same ethnic/racial background, some education) achieve, and they start to wonder if they could do the same.

(Learning how to use power tools in the Tech Challenge)

The student that I was proudest of at the state festival wasn't one of my superior scorers. It was a special education student (we'll call her Rachel) who was at the bottom of her English classes. When Rachel had expressed interest in participating in the festival, I had been hesitant. We were competing with Shakespearean scripts, and she was reading many years below grade level. I spent hours helping her work through her script analysis and design choices. But even the day before the festival, she kept forgetting who characters were and mixing up fundamental plot points. When Rachel stood up for her presentation, I was probably more nervous than she was. I was so worried that the adjudicators were going to belittle her for not understanding the script.

I didn't need to worry. Rachel aced the presentation. She explained all of her design choices clearly and supported them with evidence from the text. There was not a single mistake in her analysis of the script, not a single character saddled with a misnomer. The adjudicators presented her with a score of excellent -- the second highest score that you can receive. I think it was probably the first time that she'd felt successful in anything. When she was finished, I excused myself to the bathroom and cried.

I don't believe in competition. I think that it can be detrimental -- especially for middle schoolers who are just beginning to compare themselves to their peer group. I strongly agree with Montessori's philosophy that we need to focus more on intrinsic motivation and collaboration during this time. But there are some upsides to the American Spirit of Competition.

And I think about them every time I see Rachel in the hallways.

Day Six (31 Days of Trip Planning): Had coffee/brunch with the playwright of Collapsing Horse, a puppet theatre based out of Dublin. (I'll write much more about them at a later date. I'm not only absolutely enchanted by the work that they're doing, I'm also in awe of how cohesively they function as a touring ensemble. They've been doing this for years now, and they're only in their early-mid 20s. There's something really special happening with that company.)

Student Work: Stop Motion Film Dailies

Work Product: Stop motion film dailies

Student Leaders
Co-Directors: Franklyn and Nyoka
1st AD: Berenize
Cinematographer: Nassir
Screenwriter: Raul

Proudest Moment: Another minor incident of theft. Our Lego knight minifig (who also happened to be our protagonist) was stolen from the back of the classroom. Confronted with the reality that shipping a duplicate minifig would take two weeks (or more), I announced to the class that filming would have to be cancelled. Co-Director Nyoka countered: "Do we have any other minifigs in the classroom?" We had some ninja minifigs in the back -- unused remnants of the dragon building kit. Nyoka looked through the ninjas and picked out one of them. "We can use him as the knight!" I pointed out that he doesn't look anything like the original minifig used in most of our shots. Nyoka shrugged and said: "So? We'll paint him silver." It was the clearest demonstration of strong leadership that I've seen in my classroom all year.

Next Steps: Next year, students will have the option of creating stop motion films again, but we'll limit them to being 1:30-2:00. My students drastically underestimated how much time stop motion animation takes and how challenging it can be to get the perfect sequence.


Curse You, IT (Or, Struggles with Technology)

I love technology.

I know that there are disadvantages to using technology in the classroom. Your projector breaks right before a lesson that revolves around video clips. You open up the laptop cart only to realize that none of the computers have been plugged in for the past three weeks -- and your students are walking into the classroom right now. Your students discover that a class-wide Google Docs account is the perfect tool for writing anonymous "deez nuts" comments on each other's playwriting projects. (Deez Nuts for President in 2016. Rise up and take action, my fellow Americans.) I've struggled through all of these worst case scenarios.

And yet, I still love technology.

But the IT firm that services our school network has spent this year doing EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER to squash that love with their bureaucratically red-taped fists. All of our devices -- Chromebooks, PCs, and iPads -- are serviced by this one IT firm, and everything is required to go through them. Any software, applications, even font packages need to be installed by them. So you email them a request and then sit back to wait for a week (or longer), while they decide whether or not they're going to fulfill your tech request. Obviously, there are problems with this system. I needed a stop motion animation app installed on the iPads for my eighth grade filmmaking classes. We could not move forward without access to this app. My students were getting frustrated. I was getting frustrated. Filmmaking classes weren't going well.

So I downloaded the stop motion animation app onto my cell phone. I just wanted my students to have the chance to try it out and understand the challenges of this particular medium. (After a few minutes with the app, one of my students declared: "Ms. Chatfield, this is going to be a lot of work." My response: "Yes. That's what I told you on the first day of class. But everyone in here insisted that they wanted to do stop motion animation anyway. We took a vote, remember?" When my students realized that this had been THEIR choice, they stopped complaining and got back to work. Behold: the power of student choice.) Even though my cell phone has a broken camera that's perpetually out-of-focus, my students powered through and shot an eighteen-second test sequence of Lego minifigs walking across our cardboard forest.

I was super-proud of them for rolling with the punches and making the best of a discouraging situation -- but why are we even having this issue? When I received a major classroom grant from Voya Financial earlier this year (Thanks, Voya!), one of my first purchase requests was for MacBook Pros -- and AppleCare Protection Plans for each one of them. There's no way that my laptops are going to be serviced by our network's IT firm. I need to be able to install software -- like Virtual Light Lab and Finale Notebook and Final Cut Pro -- at a moment's notice. To act like I'm incapable of installing my own software feels a whole lot like not trusting me. Or thinking that I'm technologically illiterate. (Neither of which are true.)

This isn't the first time this year that I've struggled with trust issues and technology usage. During the first quarter, we were required to install a web filtering software. While I'm not a huge proponent of blocking content (which can border on academic censorship), I understand that you can't have students surfing PornHub when they're supposed to be watching TED Talks. The problem is that the web filtering software doesn't just affect the student laptops; it affects the staff laptops as well. All of a sudden, I couldn't search Google Images at work. My YouTube account blocked "objectionable content." I couldn't access any social media sites. I started leaving work right at the end of the school day because I could only read the "unapproved" articles that I needed for lesson planning at home.

Our operations team has done an incredible job making the web filter more functional. (Best School in the World!) But those first few weeks were a frustrating reminder of how so much of the education sector functions. We make teachers jump through hoops to get the materials that they need to manage their classrooms.* We micro-manage their work because, despite the fact that we rubber-stamped their state certifications, we don't trust them enough to educate our children. We approach seasoned professionals (all of whom have masters degrees in New York State) in the same way that we approach disobedient adolescents. We lambast our teachers for not closing the achievement gap -- but we block them from success at every available opportunity.

Our educators deserve a little bit more trust and respect. We also deserve the right to install our own apps on the iPads. Just saying.

* Our school doesn't have this problem. If you need anything -- from a class set of books to laboratory materials, our school will get them for you in 48 hours or less. (Thanks, Amazon Prime!) All you have to do is send a purchase request via email to the office manager. The whole process takes a few minutes at most. I just wanted to put that out there because I know that I'm #soblessed. However, many teachers are not as lucky as I am.

Day Five (31 Days of Trip Planning): Reached out to The Company (co-led by Jose Miguel Jimenez, a SEEDS alumnus)
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