Thursday, June 16, 2011

What 9 Kids, 4 Teachers & a Supervisor Taught a District

I knew last night would be important, grand, inspiring--so much so that I had trouble sleeping.  I was awake at about 4:30, anxious, and ready to get on with it.  After a significant amount of work, the culmination of an idea that began nearly 20 months earlier, happened. I would like to say I had great clarity about how Classics Academy actually began, but truth be told I have vague recollections of its start.

At that time I shared an office space in the basement of a high school with two colleagues, both of whom worked as coaches.  I had only begun the new job a few weeks earlier and was busy co-teaching with four different English teachers as I began to a get a handle on some redesign possibilities for the high school.  One of the first things the three of us (Celeste Hammell, John Madden and I) decided to do was to find a round table for our office space and "borrow" four chairs as we had hoped it might be a place teachers gathered to talk--figure things out. What I remember most about the start of the Classics Academy was how Harry Sugar, Cynthia Laudadio, Dawn DeMartino and Mark Gutkowski were gathered round that table planning: heads together, the room full of talk, speculation. Scott in and out making suggestions. I knew then what I still believe now: the surest way to redesign a high school is to invest in and support teachers' thinking.  Nothing more.

So these four teachers along with the humanities supervisor, Scott Klepesch, designed a senior experience based on Ancient Greece and Rome, which was a passion the teachers shared.  The plan was for students to enroll in five courses: AP Latin Vergil, AP English - Classics Academy, AP European History and two new courses: Classical History and Mathematics (a team taught class) and The Symposium, a course about creativity. After fairly significant struggles which included addressing many people's doubts, the Academy opened this September with nine students.  In these days of budget conscious communities, the Board and Superintendent showed the necessary backbone in funding this initiative. Our charge though was to grow the program for the next school year. Classics Academy was one of four curriculum/course initiatives, along with American Studies I, American Studies II, and African American Studies at the high school.  This year about 65 students participated in these courses. Next year more than 350 students are enrolled in the same four offerings,  and teachers have also designed additional courses also based on their passions and interests.

Last night these nine students produced individual works for a public exhibition that was well attended. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. nine presentations/performances were given, each unique and all in response to a question about how the past informs their individual and societal present.  Kevin Coughlin from Morristown did a great job of reporting about the exhibition here.  Please take a look before reading on. Truly the performances by the students exceeded anything I have seen in 25+ years of education work. Below is an example from the evening in which senior, Gloria Bangiola conducted an 23-member orchestra of her peers. "Reconciliation" is an original composition Gloria composed based on her reading on the Iliad and her desire to situate the dichotomy between human's brutish expressions and our betters angels.

So if the story ended with a great and inspiring night it would be a success, but this story didn't end there. What is most remarkable, and I want to suggest, even critical, is that these nine students, their four teachers, and a supervisor have helped to change the discourse in the district.  I lost count today of the times students, teachers, directors, and even board of education members discussed the importance of passion based learning, made recommendations for curricular changes based on privileging passion and interests, and suggested that all students had a right to the deep learning witnessed the night before. One junior student told me this morning that he was changing his schedule so that he could be in Classics Academy next year.  He said, "I want to be a scientist who is influenced by the Arts."

24 hours.

Really it's not a lot of time and yet the conversation has changed. Perhaps the event allowed us to hear one another, to dream bigger than we might have felt comfortable to do in front of one another at an earlier time.  Perhaps the nine voices who stunned us while showing us their brilliance also allowed us to understand what Michael Doyle wrote about in a recent post, Arne in June.  Michael said:

The blueberries are still mostly green, just blue enough to remind me of Uranus through our scope.

Raspberries and snow peas and basil and purple beans explode in our mouths, in our brains.

Light, light, and more light floods us daily--anything is possible in June, anything. There's enough energy for all of us who survived the past winter, more than enough.

"Enough" is a wonderful word foreign to many of us. If you know "enough," you know "content."

Less than a week ago, a dolphin eyed me, and I eyed it back. Not much to say, even if we could speak the same language. It's June, and there's more than enough to go around.

Yes, anything is possible in June. The challenge of course is to recall that spirit when less bright times arrive (and we know they will arrive), when doubt and fear fill us and our sense of possibility flickers. Then, I will recall these nine kids, their 4 teachers and a supervisor who helped us to remember that our dreams must be bold.  I will remember the tweet sent to me as I wrote this from another teacher at the high school telling me he's rolling up his sleeves. He has caught the passion bug and spent the day testing out ideas with his students.

I want to be there for this teacher, to use every shred of possible power I have to position him and his ideas for success.  That's the job.

That's the revolution.

It's not in canned programs, regardless of how slick  or pretty they're dressed. It's not in having or not having PLCs or PLNs or strategic plans or vision statements. It's not in the common core.

It's in people.

The power of community can change the direction this country is heading. 

Look, I know that way off in the distance there's Arne Duncan. There's fear. There's the impossibility of PARCC and NCLB and governors who just don't get it and plans to evaluate these fine teachers I've written about here with some awful metric (the new sexy word of the day).  I can hear the drone and for the first time in the 2 years since I took this job, I believe we can get it right for ALL kids, not only nine.  They have showed us the way.  One community in NJ will get this right regardless of what the politicos in Trenton and Washington DC do and don't do. 

Really, it all comes down to this: Last night after the performances as I was getting ready to leave, a father of one of the students said softly and simply: This year has changed my daughter's life. Thank you. 

Quite frankly, that's the only measure I'm paying attention to.   


  1. I so wish I was a fly on the wall in that room the presentations were happening.

    I also hope that movements like yours are the ones that win out in US education. Passion based learning is so much more sustainable in many ways than education based on standardization.

  2. There is video of the night. Will let you know when some is posted. I hope that local wins out in the US and not this federal monster of mediocrity.

  3. we broke the barriers down last night. We touched something true this year about the nature of learning and the importance of deep and creative thought. It's incredible thing to have seen first hand

  4. Yes, it is. And now that we know how possible it is, we can move forward for and with all. Thanks:)

  5. So good topic really i like any post talking about Ancient Greece but i want to say thing to u Ancient Greece not that only ... you can see in Ancient Greece AncientGreece.Me and more , you shall search in Google and Wikipedia about that .... thanks a gain ,,,


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