I’m thrilled and honored to once again run for SOMSD’s Board of Education this year. One of the reasons I feel compelled to enter the race again is in response to the barrage of initiatives that have come and gone through our district, and what we are now left with after many have passed. In our case, what remains is a gutted and narrowed curricular set of offerings that, I would argue, has caused far more problems than it has fixed after all has been said and done.
I’ll admit: I am a classically trained musician. It’s true. I also believe the arts play a vital and transformative role in the lives of every student in SOMSD, let alone our world. That said, I’m also a leader in an institution of higher education in our state system, as well as an Executive Director of a non-profit summer school. I’m in charge of developing challenging curricula, supervising and meeting the needs of 200 world-class faculty, capital planning, fundraising, meeting state mandates, and managing budgets in the millions -- amongst many other things.
I wish I could sing and dance my way through those duties (please note: you do not want to see me dance or hear me sing), but I can’t. Luckily, my passion was realized and developed during my formative years through studying a particular subject in its unfettered form with the highest bar set, and the rest of the skills I have acquired in life have flowed from that passion. As a result, I have dedicated my life as an educator and leader to ensuring all students have the chance to experience what I did during their school lives and beyond – in any subject that speaks to them, as music spoke to me.
When it comes to governing on our Board of Education, here are 4 reasons why I will not just be the “Art and Music Guy”, and how my life in the arts has shaped my views on educating all our children:
1. I have been a champion of diversity in all its forms. Look at our two towns and you will see diversity of culture, thought, talents, and career choice. Our schools are not a reflection of this, but they can be if we truly value it. Simply because the current structure of our education system values only academic intelligence does not mean that only the limited number of our students who easily excel in this area are worth our time or are worthy of success in school. It is our charge as a community to discover, celebrate, and leverage the unique strengths in all of our children to allow them to become the best version of who they are. While this, of course, includes academic success and achievement, it goes so much further than we choose to go right now. I know this idea may be challenging for some of us, given our own educational backgrounds and the idea that “we turned out alright” traveling those paths -- but it does not make it any less true. Without a broad curriculum and a broader definition of “success” in school beyond PARCC scores and narrowed quantifiable metrics, our current problems will persist.
2. I understand that deep, challenging curricula is necessary in all subjects. Learning and striving for excellence is of paramount importance in all aspects of our curriculum. It just so happens that I have come to learn this simple fact through my own experiences in the arts. Others have learned it through athletics, the sciences, the humanities, or a host of other fields. My unique, world-class immersion in the arts taught me about true excellence and what it takes to achieve it, so that is my guide.
Anyone who has ever watched a serious dance or orchestra rehearsal at a School of the Arts will see aspects of learning that we have been trying to incorporate into academics for ages. In these rehearsals, you will see students deeply engaged in the “here and now” of the moment; you will see students utilizing every ounce of their bodies, intellect, and emotional capacity to do great work; you will see collaboration and empathy being taught, and you will see teachers teaching the subject as if it is the most important thing in the world at that moment. We want to see this in every classroom, and we want subject-area teachers to have the time and the support to share these best practices and incorporate them into their lessons utilizing a trans-disciplinary approach, when applicable.
3. I have learned that creativity can be taught, and is not limited to a few subjects. Anyone who does not think creativity can be taught has not stepped foot into a School of the Arts, as mentioned above. As Sir Ken Robinson states in his epic TED talk, “there are various myths about creativity. One is that only special people are creative, another is that creativity is only about the arts, a third is that creativity cannot be taught, and a fourth is that it’s all to do with uninhibited “self-expression.””
None of these is true, but many in the system believe that it is. Creativity is inherent in all of us by virtue of being human. Creativity is possible in all areas of human life; in science, the arts, mathematics, technology, athletics, cooking, teaching, business…everything. 25 (plus) years of brain research tells us that creativity can be cultivated and refined. And yes, that involves an increasing mastery of skills, knowledge, and ideas.
Those who know me are aware that I believe we must identify and value far more than PARCC and other standardized exam scores as a true barometer of teaching, learning, and “gap closing”. Giving high stakes multiple-choice tests every year from 3rd through 12th grade simply will not cultivate creativity. Additionally, narrowing our curricular offerings to accommodate these tests will surely destroy creative potential, and I believe we are seeing it clearly in our schools today.
4. I believe offering academics and creative subjects is not an either/or proposition. Our children need it all. You will never hear me say that academics are not important. Additionally, you will never hear me say that the arts are more important than academics. But I will always argue for more balance, broadness, and depth in our curriculum. I want to see all children excited and impassioned by the curriculum offered. From this excitement comes a hunger for learning, and that is what we all want to see our children leave school having obtained (or in many cases, maintained). Providing our youngest citizens access to excellence in all subjects – and celebrating their strengths and passions in the ones that speak to them -- is an essential part of their humanity.
Finally, we have had many discussions about school culture in our towns, and I am compelled to run because I have heard nothing from any of our leaders regarding the one thing I believe to be true: If we do not celebrate diversity in all its forms, we have zero chance of getting the school culture right. Get the culture right, and I believe in many ways that the “output” will take care of itself.
We need to call a big “time out” on the exam-factory model, get back to ensuring a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching and learning in all its forms instead of chipping away at our misguided one-size-fits-all structure. Not only because a childhood at school should be a rich, enjoyable and challenging time, but also because the coming economy demands exactly the kind of deep creativity and personal resilience that are the results of that diverse educational experience.