What my High School Students Can Teach Ed Reformers

"Cut!" hollers Sahirah Johnson, an 11th grader at Bronx Prep, the fifth through 12th-grade school in the South Bronx where I teach theater. The actor she's working with, a seventh grader named Maria who has never acted before, sputters to a stop mid-sentence and looks down at her fingers.

We're holding auditions for student directors for the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, a new program my colleague Andrew and I designed with the help of recent Bronx Prep graduates. At the core of the Academy's mission is a commitment to building a strong student leadership team.

My students and I have done some work around student voice and peer mentoring before, but this is a completely different model from what they're used to and we're all feeling a little out of our depths.

Sahirah is especially exasperated. She's performed brilliantly in every musical Bronx Prep has ever done since we started doing shows in 2005, but she's never directed before. She breaks focus for a second and looks over at me. "This is so hard!" she mouths silently.

I continue to watch the audition play out, cringing at the dawning realization that apparently Andrew and I haven't done enough ramp-up work with the potential student leaders. They suck at directing.

Sahirah takes a deep breath and scowls at Maria. "OK. I need you to do it again," she says. "Except this time, I need you to do it..." -- she flails her arms in search of the right word -- "I need you to do it better."

Maria starts up again. But Sahirah's aggressive interruption has left her rattled, embarrassed and defensive. She's shaking so hard she can barely speak. Needless to say, her performance does not improve.

Luckily, Sahirah is a quick study. After a little side-coaching from Andrew, the two girls dive back into the scene.

Sahirah only makes one concrete change. This time when she wants to stop Maria, instead of shaking her head impatiently and saying, "Cut!" she nods vigorously, smiles and says, "Good!"

That's it. That's the only thing she does differently.

The intensity and urgency of the interruption are the same.

The instructions she gives next are the same vague, impossible-to-follow requests she was making before.

She still flails her arms when she can't think of how to name the adjustment she's looking for.

But it doesn't matter. Because the infinitesimal shift she's made in the way she interrupts changes everything.

Now, Maria nods and smiles back. She repeats the scene and this time she's confident enough to try a different voice, which gives Sahirah an idea for a new suggestion. Within minutes, Maria's body language, diction, posture and energy have all radically transformed. Both she and Sahirah are deep in concentration, working off one another seemingly without effort.

Let me be clear. Neither of these girls is going to win a Tony... not today, anyway. But where a few moments before there was angst and stagnation, now there's creative momentum. There's trust. There's flow. There's teaching and learning.

Andrew and I spent our D train commute that afternoon talking about how the simple shift he'd suggested changed the entire dynamic of Sahirah and Maria's work together. We'd both been intuitively employing the technique of interrupting actors with praise for so long, it never occurred to us we'd need to teach the skill explicitly. But watching our students learn the power of positive acknowledgment made us think long and hard about the big implications of that seemingly simple tactic when it comes to sparking and sustaining social change.

Anyone who's been following the media swirl surrounding the latest high-profile crop of school reformers -- New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and particularly former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee -- can attest that the basic skill of front-loading critique with positive acknowledgment is not a key component of our country's current ed reform toolkit.

Indeed, as evidenced in the recent Manifesto penned by Rhee, Klein and co., the tone has been just the opposite -- a bewildering doublespeak that ignores the critical role of students' socio-economic status and home life and nails teachers with full responsibility for the widespread system failures plaguing our nation's public schools.

While I'm glad that the work of this new group of reformers is shining a spotlight on education in America, I'm as disturbed by what they're saying as I am by how they're saying it. Both the content and the form of the current ed reform movement reflect the same faulty assumption: that teaching is a disembodied, mechanistic process of delivering static data from teacher to student, not a dynamic, collaborative process of meaning-creation that draws on the full humanity of everyone in the classroom.

The proposed reforms are centered on rigid accountability systems tied to standardized tests, merit pay for teachers determined by these same narrow (not to mention unreliable) measures, and strict curricular control that profoundly limits innovation and creativity. All of this reflects what most veteran teachers will tell you is a radically flawed understanding of how people actually learn.

Not surprisingly, the tenor of the movement reveals the same stunning lack of understanding of how teaching really works. Great teaching requires more than just competence in a subject matter and an understanding of differentiated instruction; it requires a deep and dynamic sense of integrity, confidence and agency on the part of the teacher. Ask anyone who has ever worked with kids in a classroom and they will tell you: a teacher who feels like a trusted, respected professional teaches better than one who feels marginalized. Period.

So when reformers systematically squeeze teachers out of the ed reform conversation, close neighborhood schools and fire teachers aggressively and without community support, fail to acknowledge the innovative, transformational work unfolding in classrooms, make sweeping negative generalizations about the teaching profession as a whole based on the failings of a few -- and then expect those same teachers they've disenfranchised to enthusiastically embody the changes they're pushing, they're no different from the rookie directors in my theater class, snarling "cut!" and then wondering why their actors aren't leaping up, inspired to deliver the performance of a lifetime.

Some pundits say it's foolish to suggest that Rhee would have been more successful if only she'd been "nicer," because the magnitude of the problems plaguing DC public schools trump whatever touchy-feely value there might have been in conducting public hearings or including teachers in the reform conversation. Calling on that same thinking to defend her comments that "collaboration and consensus are overrated," Rhee recently posted on her blog:

One of the problems in public education is that collaboration and consensus have become the goal, instead of a means to an end. When we're more concerned about the adults getting along than we are about improving education for children, then we've lost our way and we've got our priorities in the wrong place.

On the surface, I think she's got a point. I agree that the focus in the ed reform conversation needs to be on concrete action that supports what's best for kids, and I understand that endless collaborative discussion that ultimately yields deadlock is a frustrating waste of everyone's time. But here's where the argument breaks down: if the adults who are supposed to be helping kids reach for the very best inside themselves are feeling disrespected at best and invisible at worst, no centrally-enforced standards or merit pay incentives are going to translate into the kind of elevated, passionate, challenging teaching that actually transforms kids' lives.

The last thing I want to do here is to suggest that educators are so delicate and overly-sensitive that they can't suck it up and make magic happen in even the most stagnating and stifling conditions. They can, and they do. Nor do I want to suggest that good teachers need coddling, or that bad teachers shouldn't be fired.

But I take issue with the content of the reforms that Rhee and her colleagues are promoting for exactly the same reason I bristle at their tone: because I know that what's true for directing actors is as true for teaching as it is for education reform: how you do it becomes what it is.

The good news is that this is a lesson my high school students learned in about 30 seconds, and have continued to build on over the last few months. A respectful, collaborative tone has become the calling card of our Performing Arts Academy's high school leadership team -- spearheaded by the ultra-competent Sahirah Johnson, who is currently directing 60 middle school performers in our first-ever student-directed musical.

The show opens in two weeks. There's a lot of nervous energy in the air and the stakes are high. But Sahirah has her kids on point.

Every time she introduces a critique with positive acknowledgment, I smile... and find myself wishing the folks directing the ed reform movement could take their leadership cues straight from her.

As always, the students featured in this article agreed to let me share their stories; the views expressed here are my own and not those of my school's administration.