Saturday, October 10, 2009

NC Charter School Conference a success!

From my perspective, the 2009 NC Charter School Conference was a success!  I really enjoyed meeting other charter educators, renewing aquaintances and attending breakout sessions.  Wasn't it great to see so many charter schools receive their 10-year renewals?  Don't let anyone suggest that charter schools in NC are a fleeting fad.  We are alive and well, and making positive impacts on our communities.  Let's continue to "fight the good fight" of giving children of NC as many opportunities for educational success as possible!

Visiting Artists

Recently Evergreen Community Charter School hosted a guest artist who portrayed pioneering environmentalist John Muir.  Lee Stetson's one-man performance fit well with Evergreen's vision of environmental learning.  "Meeting" John Muir also helped reinforce third graders' study of heroes in everyday life.  So many times visiting artists can enhance student life and student learning.  They are especially powerful when integrated with classroom curriculum.  It sounds obvious, but sometimes performers are brought to schools simply for entertainment value.  As an entertainer myself, I see nothing wrong with entertaining kids for "entertainment sake."  Still, the performances take on much deeper meaning and make longer-lasting impressions on students when they are integrated with school curriculum.  Bravo Evergreen!

Bringing in experts from "real life" can add greatly to our students' understanding of a topic.  When my students are preparing for their war crimes trial role-play, I invite a local attorney to speak to the class regarding our justice system and the duties of jurors, attorneys, witnesses, etc.  I could cover that information myself, but having a "real life" lawyer discuss the topic brings a reality and seriousness to the proceedings that might not be there otherwise.

How do you utilize community experts in your classroom?  Does your charter school strive to bring in visiting artists and "experts" to enhance curriculum?

Thanks to Jeff Ziegler, Academic Dean at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy, for forwarding an article from the Asheville Citizen-Times regarding the John Muir performance.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

North Carolina Charter School Conference keynote address

This week I am honored to present the keynote address to the North Carolina Charter School Conference. Wow! I've scrambled to come up with an appropriate address, and here is my initial draft. Though I'm sure it will undergo changes right up till I give it, here is what I have so far.


This is the part where I tell you that my road to educational excellence and success began at a very early age…I was born knowing I wanted to teach. As an infant I wrote lesson plans in the gruel I spilt on the dinner table. By the time I could walk I was assigning essays to my stuffed animals. "Peter Pan and Captain Hook – compare and contrast". "Mr. Green Jeans – independent family farmer or toady to the man?" - and don’t forget to indent, Fluffy!
No, my journey to education was very different and came much later. I received my Bachelor of Arts in Humanities from Milligan College in Tennessee, sometime during the Ice Age. People questioned my choice of Humanities as a major, but it was what made the most sense to me, because everything was connected: economics, politics, arts, religion. More on that later…
In my 20s I was what I fondly refer to as a "hobo actor", living from one acting job to another, whether it was as a traveling storyteller for the National Boy Scout Museum or as Bob Cratchit in a touring production of "A Christmas Carol." In my 30s I moved to Asheville, NC and became a theatre producer – actually I convinced a local performing arts center that I was a theatre producer with a play to produce, then when the artistic director believed me I actually had to create a theatre company and find a play to produce. Well, that worked, and for several years I produced theatre for young audiences. The part I loved best was transporting those young audiences to a different world. The lights would go down, the curtain would rise and they’d be – in a different place. Maybe it was the giant’s castle in the clouds, or Merrill’s cave, with Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher or in the castle of King Wanderwitz as he learns a lesson about giving instead of receiving…. Along the way I worked many different jobs to support my actor’s life, and what I found out when I finally made it into a classroom was that no skill you learn is ever wasted. Every skill I learned from all those different jobs, from mopping floors, to filing alphabetically, painting walls, landscaping, conducting, and yes, storytelling and producing theatre – every skill I learned I have used in my classroom or my school. Those jobs, those experiences helped shape who I was, and I brought it all to the classroom.
I started off as a classroom teacher in traditional public school at age 40. I was a lateral entry teacher, and as I had before, I managed to convince people that yes, even though I had never done any student teaching, I was ready for the classroom. Then I had to prove it. It wasn’t easy. After a couple of years I moved beyond the panic mode and I felt that I was learning the ropes. I was really starting to question the traditional approach to education, and that’s when I learned about charter schools, and in particular, ArtSpace Charter School. I enrolled my daughter there and began to realize that this might be a place I could use my background as a creative artist. Up till then my only experience with charter schools was a joke I was emailed that said, "You know you’re a teacher if – you tell a disgruntled parent, "Have you checked out the local charter school?" So I applied and was hired at ArtSpace. That’s when I really began to grow as a teacher. That’s when I began to see education as more than a job, because I was at a school with a vision. That made a huge difference, because somehow it made everything matter.
"They won’t remember what you taught them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel." Hmm.
This is a popular quotation that is repeated often. What is it saying? I worry about the implied message that what we’re teaching ultimately doesn’t really matter. Now hold on there, Nelly! Is this a message we want to embrace? I know that I want my students to remember the joy of creating a well-crafted essay, the excitement of a boldly interpreted performance! I want them a few years from now to light up in someone else’s class, or while reading a newspaper when they’ve made a connection from my social studies class, from history. When they hear of a charismatic leader in a chaotic country telling citizens to "just follow me, just give me more power and I’ll return you to glory" I want their eyes to pop open and say, "Wait a minute! That reminds me of what we talked about in Mr. Hall’s class. That sounds like Julius Caesar – or, Napoleon, or – that sounds like Adolf Hitler!" When they hear a news story of a military official saying in response to questioning, "I was just following orders", they better say, "Wait, that was the defense we used in our Holocaust war crimes trial in Mr. Hall’s class!" And I hope they make those connections and see those patterns and realize that what they learned mattered, not just how they felt. We need to convince our kids that what we are teaching, the skills they are learning MATTER. It has weight and meaning. We need to believe that what we are teaching matters. Otherwise, why are we standing amongst them, wagging our chins all day? You know, Charlie Brown’s teacher, "Wah, wah, wah, wah…" That’s what we’ll sound like if we can’t demonstrate to our students that what they are learning matters.
How best to attach meaning, give weight to what we teach? I suggest to you an approach that is not new, but it is powerful. Integration. When I had returned to school in my late 30s to get my teaching certification, I took a Methods of Teaching class, and in that class we had many discussions about best practices and best ways of teaching. I was expected to go out to schools and observe teachers. During these observations and during our class discussions it hit me that collaboration between teachers and subjects made a lot of sense. I was reminded of my Humanities classes in college, how everything was tied together. I mentioned to my teacher and fellow students, "Doesn’t it make sense that the language arts teacher would teach a unit on The Grapes of Wrath at the same time the social studies class is learning about the Great Depression? That way, students would be getting a much more complete picture, and the classes would make sense together. It all becomes integrated." "Well, I wouldn’t count on that John." I was told. "Teachers don’t really have the time to do that kind of work together. You’ll find it hard to get someone to work with you on that." I was surprised, because it made so much sense. And pretty much, that was my experience in traditional school. But when I began working at ArtSpace Charter School, I found a learning environment that not only welcomed collaboration and integration, but expected it! With an integrated approach to learning, I have seen so many connections being made by students from language arts to history to science and the arts. Many times they don’t even realize they’re doing it, because it all fits together so well. Successful integration causes everything to make so much more sense.
But back to what students will remember. "I have a new view of the world, a new notion of history, a better comprehension of what it means to be a human being because of my time in that classroom. I see words differently, not as a worksheet to stumble over, but as brightly hued colors in a painting, and each word I choose makes a difference, each word matters because it changes the painting, changes the message and helps define who I am. Words matter!" Those are some of the things I want them to remember! Then the curtain will have lifted and they will find themselves in another world, a world where they can see how the dots are connected.
If they remember that I smiled and cracked old Marx brother’s jokes, made them laugh, ok. If they take from my class the belief that individuals make a difference in society – yes! And if they remember that I challenged them, questioned them, urged them on to be greater than they thought they could be – GREAT!
We want our students to feel loved. Of course. We want our students to feel valued. Absolutely. But we can’t be satisfied with that. We’ve got to have them leave our classes filled up, but hungry for more. Leave our classes hungry? Yes, hungry for more epiphanies, hungry for more challenges, hungry for more learning that makes sense!
Nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century, where are we as charter schools in North Carolina? Are we challenging, leading our students to be 21st century leaders and learners? Are we demonstrating to our students that not only do they matter, but what they’re learning matters? Are we fulfilling our obligation to encourage thinkers, and thinkers who will be doers?
As charter schools, we are schools with a vision. We are schools of choice. That hopefully means schools full of teachers who choose to be visionary educators, administrators who are visionary leaders. Parents choose to put their children with us, because we have visionary approaches to learning. We have the opportunity to use our vision to make an impact. Our North Carolina charter schools should be the place people look for visionary teaching and engaging approaches to learning. We need to be who we say we are. ArtSpace says we believe teaching through the arts will make creative learners by learning to create, Evergreen Community Charter School and Two Rivers Community School are dedicated to Expeditionary Learning to engage and empower, Thomas Jefferson Academy and Socrates Academy celebrate a classical approach to student learning. Wonderful Visions! We need to stick to our visions of integrated learning and be who we say we are.
As charter school educators and administrators, we have the vision – we have the perseverance and I know we have the faith to make an impact that can reverberate across our communities and across decades. We can do some world-shaking because we can see – not in some distant future – but every day in our classrooms, in our hallways, in our assemblies what could be, what CAN be – when we teach with passion and that creative force we have inside us!
Before I close, I encourage us all to take time to celebrate one another. To lift each other up, whether it be in staff meetings, team meetings or in conferences such as this one. We should celebrate the state’s charter school community as one which fights the good fight!
I have started a blog called "North Carolina Charter Schools Rock!". ( My goal is to hear your successes, so I can celebrate them in this blog. Email your good news, comment on posts and let’s lift up this charter school community!
Finally, I leave you with a message I drill into my students. Be bold – Whatever our endeavors, our visions, our classroom dreams – be BOLD! Let us not be guilty of doing anything halfway. For then the curtain will rise for our children and they’ll find themselves in a different place, and then they’ll know THEY can shake the world! Thank you.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Community building

Every year when teachers and staff return to ArtSpace, Lori Cozzi our Director engages us in a community building project. This year we were given the task of creating a piece of art to which all of us would have to contribute, and also to create a school song. She gave us about 90 minutes and let us go, with no other rules or specifications. After a few minutes of soaking this in, some staff members began taking the lead. Josh, our drama specialist, announced that the songwriting would take place in the music room, and Gwen, one of our art specialists let us know that the work on the art piece would begin in the art room. People began moving to one or the other project and work began. I joined the songwriting group, and we began brainstorming immediately. Sugguestions were made regarding the rhythm, and one was chosen. Suggestions regarding the themes to be covered were given, and after bandying ideas about, three or four were settled on. Very soon lyrics were created, deleted, altered, etc. Much give-and-take was involved, and I was pleased to see that every person in the group participated in some way or another. The art project quickly took shape as well, in an equally collaborative manner. At the end of the 90 minutes, the song was performed, though the paint was still drying on the mixed media piece.

This project succeeded in bringing the staff together after a two month separation with very little chin-wagging or lecture from administration. Isn't that preferable? Isn't that what our classrooms are supposed to emulate? It's so tempting for teachers, when returning after the summer, to hunker down in their classrooms and start planning, shutting out everything else. Though it's crucial to be given time for that oh-so-vital planning, it's also important to remind ourselves that we are a community working together, with a common goal and vision.

My favorite project that Lori assigned us took place about three years ago. We had to write, costume and stage an opera about ArtSpace - in 90 minutes. You've never seen such frantic and free-wheeling creativity! By the time the curtain fell on that production, one could see the incredible amount of teamwork and cooperation that had taken place. We were a community, ready to face a new year.

What are some ways your school creates community within the staff? Are there specific community-building activities you've experienced that can be replicated elsewhere in the charter school family? Please share!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Integration and the collaborative process

Many NC charter schools have specific approaches to learning. Evergreen Charter School in Buncombe County uses an "Outward Bound" approach to the NCSCOS (North Carolina Standard Course of Study), emphasizing experiential learning. At ArtSpace we utilize the arts and technology in an integrated approach to the NCSCOS. Integration is our byword. By integrating drama, music, dance/movement, art (visual and other) and tech together, we strive to engage kids with the curriculum, unlocking their creativity and giving them as many opportunities to succeed as possible. This whole-arts, whole-child integration takes work, but a way our school tackles that challenge is through our arts integration team. Each month the AI team (drama, dance, music, art and tech specialists) meets with classroom teachers to coordinate integration of the different arts into what each grade is covering. When I'm on top of my game (and planning) I find these meetings very helpful and even exciting at times. (Meetings, exciting?) I may bring an idea for a project I am planning and by the time the meeting is over, we have developed that project idea into a unit that has connections all across the arts. Since my sixth grade teaching partner (the fabulous Amy Strickland - math/science) is also in the meeting, we often find ways to collaborate on projects as well.

This is how we do it. I know the arts are a great tool for teaching, but I also know there are other successful approaches as well. What approach does your school embrace? Share it please!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

List of NC Charter Schools


Click on above link to see the list of charter schools in North Carolina.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Poetry Week - a wonderful occasion at ArtSpace

Seeing as how I wish to celebrate the creative things NC charter schools are doing, I suppose I'll start with my own. One event at ArtSpace that is very popular and successful is our annual Poetry Week. Usually held in the spring, Poetry Week is full of activities about - you guessed it - poetry! The walls of the school are covered with poems by a wide variety of well-known writers. One afternoon during the week we have a school-wide assembly called "Fools for Poetry" when staff members take to the microphone and share their own poetry or poems by others that they love. The elementary and middle schools both hold their own poetry slams. The winners of the middle school slam go on to compete at the Lake Eden Arts Festival a few weeks later. Also during poetry week we have moments of "Random Acts of Poetry" when students or staff may interrupt another class with a poem or two. Student poets also read their poems during morning and afternoon announcements on the intercom. Parent volunteers sign up to read poetry to classes. We also always try to have professional poets perform. This year we were excited to have Glenis Redmond in residency all week. She was terrific!

Obviously all these activities take organization and thought. We have a poetry committee that meets throughout the year to plan the event. I doubt it could succeed otherwise. (Big hurrah to Juliana Caldwell for her excellent leadership this past year!) So, planning, creativity and school/community-wide involvement is crucial for a successful Poetry Week. Does your school have a similar event? Share it please!