Transcription of the episode “Holistic Education: Joy, wellness, and rigor”

Jon M: [00:00:15] I’m Jon Moscow. 

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Our guest today is Dr. Linda Nathan. Dr. Nathan is Executive Director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and Co-Director of Perrone-Sizer Institute. She’s an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and is the author of two books, “The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test” and “When Grit Isn’t Enough.” Welcome, Linda.

Linda N: [00:00:34] Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Jon M: [00:00:37] I understand there are changes happening at the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and the Perrone-Sizer Institute. Can you tell us about the Center and the Institute and what the changes are?

Linda N: [00:00:46] Yes, I can. In fact, I just tweeted about it. We’re going to be joining Hale, which is actually in the suburbs and we’re moving our PSI, our leadership work, to really sort of ground or be the foundational leadership work for Hale. Hale is known in the Boston area as a camp, more than anything. They run summer camps for Boston kids, for special needs kids, but they’ve expanded in the last few years and they now run a semester school, which is called Intrepid. I love the name Intrepid. I love what that connotes. And so the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership is going to join the professional learning and leading arm of Hale. And so the Center for Artistry and Scholarship will exist, but we won’t be there because we’re going to move to this other very exciting organization.

And we had a two-day retreat there and my colleague, Carmen Torres, said we are going to learn to speak Bird. I love that idea., The idea of being in nature, and we were talking about how critical it is for leaders today. We talk so much about environmental justice, social justice, but where do we get to practice it? So we will actually have class in yurts, in cabins. We’ll be able to take walks around a pond and in the woods and really think, what does it mean to bring, because our focus is really on urban leadership, and it’s not all who we have, but mostly, so we’re so excited about what this may bring for us.

Amy H-L: [00:02:35] How are the outdoors so central to your vision? 

Linda N: [00:02:38] You know, I don’t know if before the pandemic… I was thinking about this this morning, thinking about talking with you. And I was thinking about how privileged I’ve been to have summers outdoors, to know how to cross country ski. And I was thinking when I started teaching in the late seventies, Carmen, the same Carmen I’m referring to, because we’ve been colleagues for over 40 years, every season we took our kids hiking, climbing, skiing, things that our students had had no exposure to. And if they ever acted badly, which of course they did, we would tell them to listen to the trees, because the trees would talk when the branches would rub and they’d be terrified. And we’d say, these were, you know, seventh and eighth graders, 12, 13, 14 year olds, and we’d say, they’re going to come and get you in the night if you don’t behave well. And really all my life, I have begun school as a school leader with kids outside, and all my life as a school leader, I’ve taken kids camping. At Fenway, we took 250 kids camping all together. That was insane. So I feel like my life is going full circle. I feel like the arts have been so central to my life in so many ways, and the outdoors has been really central.

I hadn’t thought about the power of leadership training and outdoors until the pandemic. And so then this opportunity presented itself because in our leadership cohort this year, one of the folks is from Hale. So it’s just all taken on this wonderful evolution. And I can’t wait to learn, as Carmen says, to speak Bird.

Amy H-L: [00:04:30] How do kids act when they’re outside? Does being out in nature impact the way they relate to one another and to you?

Linda N: [00:04:38] Yeah. I mean, I, I think there’s a way in which, I mean, I can just think about building a bonfire, you know, with 16 and 17 year olds, and the power of that. To end an evening making s’mores. And kids hadn’t even heard of that. They hadn’t gone to away camps themselves. No, they were city kids. But to do, to have those kinds of activities sort of equalizes the playing field, equalizes the power. I’ve written a story, not published yet, about a student in my early years who was so difficult for me to reach. I call him Jorge and he challenged me on everything. He broke every pencil I gave him. But I had said those that get a perfect score on this math test are going to get invited into the lottery and you’re all going to go camping with me. And wouldn’t you know it, Jorge won the lottery and he was one of eight kids whom I was taking camping. And I was just like, oh, he’s going to be so bad there, and what if I have to send him back on a bus and blah, blah, blah.

He was in charge of cooking dinner and he didn’t know how to start a fire. And he couldn’t, he didn’t remember that he had to find dry twigs, but when I laid out some dry twigs for him and the fire blazed, he thought I was like some magician and our whole relationship from that point on switched. And he used to tell the other kids, you know, the Missy knows how to start fires. And I suddenly had, you know, this place  of reverence for him. So there’s both a way that kids see you differently cause you’re all kind of equal. And I had some skills that he didn’t have, and maybe he had some skills that I didn’t have. And it’s a way I think the outdoors bring us into an equilibrium that we didn’t know we had. And maybe we get to that equilibrium through an intense disequilibrium, cause you know, we’re uncomfortable because we don’t know the place, and then some cool things happen. I don’t know if that helps.

Jon M: [00:06:46] It does. I think my next question may follow from that. You said that there’s a need to talk about joy, wellness and rigor all together.

Linda N: [00:06:54] Yeah. Yeah. Well, I just have to first say, because I know Deborah Meier has been on the show and I just got to see her. She hates the word rigor and so she’s always telling me to take it out of my vocabulary, cause for her rigor and rigor mortis go together. She just always, you know. But I’ll use the word to mean striving to do your best, striving for high standards. And joy I don’t think needs an explanation because it’s part of our basic humanity. It’s what, you know, without joy you don’t have sorrow, and you need it all to be a whole human being. And too often in our rigor mortis-like schools, our tradition-based schools, our schools that are very lockstep, our schools that are now known as “no excuses” schools. Those schools have really eliminated joy. And, you know, I’ve been in schools where recess is done in a straight line, in silence. Hugs and bubbles, you get bubbles in your mouth so you can’t speak, and you hug yourself so you can’t touch anybody.

But with the arts, you find a range of emotions that I don’t think anything else can get you to. Sports is wonderful because it’s teamwork, it’s collaboration. It often has a lot of competition attached, which isn’t bad, but the arts allow you to explore in ways that you didn’t even know was possible. And I love that about the arts and therefore find deep joy and, if you will, deep rigor.

Jon M: [00:08:42] You’ve written about grit not being enough. What did you mean? And what are your thoughts on it?

Linda N: [00:08:51] Yeah, so I was writing this book, I should say a little bit about how the book came to be about. I’d been a principal and I had worked in the Boston schools. I’ve been a teacher and a principal for 38 years when I started writing that book, and I had founded Boston Arts Academy and I was stepping down as the head of the school. And I was doing some ancillary work for the school and the principal, who was someone I deeply admired and had trained. You know, I said, what can I do to help in this year where you’re interim, and, you know, you don’t want me in the way, but what can I do? And she said, you know, I want you to interview the alums and see how they’re doing. You know, we, we boast about our college going rate. I want to know how our kids are doing. So I started to interview them and I interviewed over 90 kids. And the book emerged from those interviews because I. I found out that, although we had a very high rate of going to college, our rate of finishing college was not as great.

Now it turns out it was about 68% of our kids finished college within four to six years, and I didn’t think that was good enough for a school that auditioned. It turns out that’s an extremely high rate, higher than most schools would get, even some schools in very wealthy areas. So I was wrong about that, but I still didn’t think it was good enough. And what I learned in the book  and I wrote– the book is divided into these chapters about these assumptions that, of course, we have in our country, the meritocracy being one of them. And this notion that if you just pull yourself up on  your boot straps, you’ll be fine. And it turns out that was patently wrong and false because race and racism play a role, institutionalized racism, sort of the systemic oppression that our kids experienced, the lack of funding, was huge and on and on and on.

So when I was writing this book, it was sort of at the heyday of the, you know, the KIPP, no excuses movement, knowledge is power. And this notion that so many of these no excuses outfits really embrace, just work hard, you’ll be fine. And that just wasn’t true. Because some of my best kids had worked really hard and their scholarships went away. Or the example I always like to give is this deep secret in the world of science, where so many kids from wealthier backgrounds will take that hard science course in the summer. But my kids’scholarships didn’t go into the summer. So they were stuck.

So it was sort of one thing after another, one impediment after another, one obstacle after another, in this absolutely insidious web of racism. It caught my kids wherever they were, and grit had nothing to do with it, because they were so gritty, but circumstances really were against them. And I wanted folks to understand.

You know, I was writing this book as my own kids were applying and going to college and it just was so clear that my kids with two college educated doctoral parents got so much support for any issue that they found in college registering for a class, not being able to pay the bill on time, whatever the issue was, they had support. And my own students, that wasn’t the case. So, so the title is really meant to make the reader say, yeah, of course you’ve gotta be gritty, but that is not all it takes.

And if we don’t dismantle some of that systemic racism, some of now we’re calling, we’re naming the white supremacy now. When I was writing, it wasn’t such a term, but that’s what I meant. I don’t know if that’s clear.

Amy H-L: [00:13:07] Yeah. In fact, you’ve said that white supremacy pervades our school systems. What do you mean by that? How does it manifest?

Linda N: [00:13:14] You know, I think everything from the way our curriculum is, and isn’t defined from and by and with kids and families, you know. I think we still have a very Eurocentric curriculum in our schools. I think that the way we think about discipline. I think discipline is one of the most, if you will, white supremacist institutions, the way we think about, if you do one thing wrong, you’re out. The code of discipline. I think, you know, just what we’re even experiencing now with Georgia saying you can’t teach critical race theory or you can’t, you know, we, in our schools forget that we’re there to teach kids in all of their complexity, you know, all of their colors, you know, all of their religions, in all of their experiences. And our curriculum has to be very, very open to asking questions, to learning the skills of listening and collaborating.

And we don’t do that because what we do is we give kids tests, and they’re high stakes tests. Cause there’s nothing wrong with tests, but we give kids tests that determine their fate. And we’ve decided that it’s about the SATs that get you to college. And we’ve decided it’s the narrowest eye of the needle that a kid has to get through. So if a kid has another way of showing their brilliance, their creative genius, their criticality, I love the way Goldy Muhammad writes. We don’t honor that. We have a very narrow curriculum based on assumptions from the 19th century. And you know, the thing that people say. If Rip Van Winkle woke up a hundred years after his sleep and went to a school, he’d fit right in, because it looks just like the way it did when he went.

Yeah. And I think that’s really, I had so hoped that the pandemic would burst open the scenes. That’s why I got so attracted to this notion of outdoors and the arts. Although I’d always been attracted to the arts, but imagine what it would be if every kid, to graduate from high school, had to play a musical instrument or sing, and imagine how that might change our thinking about our humanity. Imagine if every kid had to collaboratively hang a show, a gallery show with their work, whether 3D or 2D. Imagine if every kid had to do a walkabout in nature. You know, imagine if it wasn’t just about a math test or a reading test. Obviously reading is essential, but imagine if what we were asking kids to do was really complex and inquiry-based. As I’ve always said,. Imagine if kids had to pick a six week project and that’s what they worked on for six weeks, whatever that might be, it had to follow their passions, it had to connect with adults, it had to create community, it had to be good for a community. You know, imagine that. That’s what we did at BA, at the Boston Arts Academy. These kids really had to develop a senior project that both improved the lives of folks in whatever community they wanted to find, and use their artistic and academic skills. And that was as much of a graduation requirement as anything else. And that’s powerful. 

Amy H-L: [00:17:12] Linda, I could just imagine if the adults did that.

Linda N: [00:17:15] I know. I know. Yeah. When we started the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership, we developed our year-long capstone based on what we had developed with kids at Boston Arts Academy. So it’s been fun because some of the alums have come to see the consultancies, the mid, mid year consultancies and the end of your capstones, the presentations. And they invariably say to me, Ms. Nathan, “I’ve seen this before. I did something like this.” And I’ll laugh and say, “Yeah, we used the senior project, your senior project, to build this.” So yeah. Imagine if adults. But if kids don’t have those deep experiences, I think school is about, you know, school is not preparation for life. It is life. And so we have to treat it that way. Yeah.

Jon M: [00:18:07] As you’re describing the school, which sounds like an incredible school, what should teacher education look like?

Linda N: [00:18:15] Yeah. We prepare teachers to create and work in this school. Yeah. So interestingly, at Boston Arts Academy, when I was leading it, all of our teachers, no matter their discipline, ballet, math music, English science had to get a dual certification in reading and moderate disabilities. So I have some very firm ideas that while content is important. It is not sufficient. And if teachers don’t all know how to teach reading, as elementary teachers are trained to do, and they’re not trained anymore, as well as when I went through a certification program, I’m trained as a bilingual teacher elementary and middle school. And I did a lot of coursework in reading, the science of reading, how to understand, how to teach reading. Teachers must know how to do that, and they do not. They’re content specialists and that’s not good enough. So all teachers, I think in my world, have to know how to teach reading, need to understand deeply what it means to have an inclusive classroom with kids who learn differently. So that’s why I talk about moderate disabilities.

And then I think teachers really do need, this is gonna sound really funny, but all of our teachers at the Boston Arts Academy always developed the school schedule. And that was an arduous process that took a very long time. It took months, but I used to say to our student teachers, if you go to a school and you’re not involved with the process of creating the schedule, because the schedule, it stands for how you value people, time, money. And if that’s not a teacher activity, if someone in an office, if a registrar is doing that for you or to you, then that is not a democratic school. So I think teachers all should understand something about, you know, the big picture. How do you think like a principal, cause that’s what a principal usually has to do is create a schedule. And then I think teachers have to deeply be practiced in what Vito Perrone and Pat Carini practice, the descriptive review of the child. So that was a practice, you know, done in one particular school in Vermont for little kids, but we use it at Boston Arts Academy as a way to deeply understand what were the assets kids were bringing to us.

So how did we understand kids’ writing? We all learned how to really deeply analyze kids’ writings using protocols. And I think teachers need lots of experience using those kinds of protocols so that they can, if I say a piece of writing is an A or a 4 out of a four point rubric and one of you say it’s a 3 and someone else says it’s a 2, well why is that? Do we understand together what it is we’re looking for and valuing. That’s work. Teachers need lots of time together to develop curriculum, to assess work together. And how you do that requires some skills in that, some practice.

Amy H-L: [00:21:44] Let’s dig a little deeper into that. I mean, how do you measure students’ success? 

Linda N: [00:21:51] Yeah. Well, so what I’m describing right now is if I had a piece of student work. And there is a protocol all through the National School Reform Faculty’s protocols. Those are the ones I use and, you know, shout outs to Jean Thompson Grove and her colleagues for developing those. So there is one about collaborative work protocol, looking at work, looking at student work, together. And so teachers need to be familiar with those and need lots of opportunities to go through that. So that’s how we begin to, if you willtone, evaluate, assess together, what does good work look like. Cause you know, good work can look like lots of different things depending on an assignment.

So that’s something that I think should be really clear and really clear to kids, this is the standard, and of course the standard would be taught. So the that’s the idea of having very clear criteria. That’s what Ted Sizer’s work was all about. What was Grant Wiggins was all about that really, really showing first the criteria and then teaching from that.

So what does good work look like? It depends. And you know, we can have a standard and. In the schools that I’ve run. I do, we do. We’ve developed them together collaboratively. We’ve invited kids and families in, so they do understand what those standards are. They’re written up, they’re published, they’re accessible the same with the Perrone-Sizer Institute, where we’re working with emerging leaders, their written work.

There’s a standard for their work to be completed. There’s exemplars that we share so folks understand what’s an exemplary, what’s good, what’s adequate, and what’s not good. So I think the question of what’s good work depends on the , depends on your goals. And so, I don’t know, there’s never one standard. The standard has to evolve with the assignment. And one thing that I loved at the Arts Academy was in our first year, we were a new school, new teachers, new kids, everything was new. I think our standard wasn’t high enough. And as we got better as teachers, the standard got higher and higher and higher and higher because our teaching got better and better and better.

So now I think what’s good work, when I see the theater performances of kids in 2021 compared to 2000, I’m blown away because it’s so professional. And that’s because the theater teachers got a whole lot better, cause they had a lot more time to practice. So that could be troubling because that means then the standard isn’t stagnant or finite, but I think we all should always be getting better. So good should always be getting more good. I think, I mean, I think that about my own writing, right, like I think hopefully I’m always getting better. I don’t know. Am I answering your question?

Jon M: [00:25:08] Yes. In fact, I have a followup to that, which is when your students graduate, and you talked about seeing what happened to them afterwards. Yeah. But for you, what are some markers of whether you’ve been successful, whether the school has been successful?

Linda N: [00:25:27] I know. That’s a great one .So the biggest was, did they understand that they had to access their professors. So this is college kids. Did they understand that? And we would hear. I sometimes have the chance to talk to professors or even college presidents about the kids. And they would say, Dang, those Arts Academy kids, they know, you know, when there’s office hours, they’re there, that you have to have a conversation, that you have a responsibility and a right to ask questions. So asking questions, that to me, is so critical, because what we wanted our kids to be able to do, and this was really the marker, was learn how to learn. So we used to, the mantra in the hallway was “get to class, learn to learn, learn to learn, learn to learn” wait, we would say “you’re late for class. It’s time to learn to learn.” It wasn’t go learn. It was go learn how to learn. And I love that because I don’t know very much, but I know how to learn. And so that’s what we wanted for our kids. Did you know how to do research? Did you know how to ask for help?

Do you know how to work together? The final assignment at the Arts Academy was a collaborative project with three other people in three different majors from your own. So one dancer, one theater, one music, one visual arts. That was very purposeful. Could you learn to work with other people? I think, yeah, so learning how to get along, I think that’s a huge one. And I think today it’s the marker of a kid from BAA, from Boston Arts Academy, is that they know, they know how to speak to social justice, to racial justice. It was fascinating in my interviews with white kids, talking about the racism that the white kids observed on their campuses. The Black and brown kids, it didn’t surprise me, but I was surprised to hear that the white kids had developed because of their high school education, the sensitivity. They could name when they saw institutionalized racism and, you know, many of them kept being very involved with issues of social justice and racial justice. So I think that’s also a marker of what success looks like. Can you speak truth to power as a young person? The whole senior grant idea was can you take on an issue and figure out. A way to do something about it. And so that to me is a marker of success. Like, are you a bystander or are you somebody that can take a leadership position to create change?

And I think the other thing that I was always very proud of is that kids graduating from BAA didn’t necessarily have the same scope and sequence that other kids had, that they knew about aesthetics. And they knew so deeply about art that they could have conversations at very high levels. So I, I always felt that they were prepared well for college. And then the question of course, was was the college prepared well for them? And the answer that I found out in this research was no. And I was furious, furious at the ways the colleges really let my kids down. 

Amy H-L: [00:29:10] Could you go into that? 

Linda N: [00:29:12] Yeah, because there was all sorts of ways in which kids would be struggling. I gave the example of a science course and they couldn’t get that science course in the summer. And yet their classmates were going to drop the course and take it in the summer and there they were stuck. And so if they got lower than a C, they’d lose their scholarship. And they got lower than a C and lost the scholarship. That infuriated me. And then the financial aid, that story after story of a kid. As a junior, you’ve had a certain advisor. Well, I’ll say it more broadly. Colleges don’t take advising seriously. And so, you know, if you’re in a state college, then you’re dependent on financial aid. And you miss one deadline you’re done and there’s no safety net for you. And so I saw that again and again and again. So I felt like if you take my kids, which you are doing because they’re really into beautiful, you have a responsibility to graduate them and you have a responsibility to help them access financial aid just like we did when they were in high school. They don’t have parents reminding them about the financial aid form. There’s like this thing, if you get financial aid, you’re supposed to know how to do all of that yourself. You need a fricking doctorate to know how to do those financial aid forms. So the most vulnerable, the most inexperienced, are expected to do all of this themselves. And  I put the blame on the colleges. I think they don’t take seriously that advising, you might have an academic advisor who doesn’t know diddly squat about financial aid, and that’s the person you’re talking to, but really you can’t even register cause your loans haven’t come in, your Pell. You know, it’s like on and on and on and on. And I think if anything comes out of our current civil rights unrest, our current moment of racial reckoning, it’s that colleges really need to redo themselves.

Jon M: [00:31:15] Going back to the situation of the school itself, before kids get to college. How can a principal in a school community support and sustain anti-racist child centered education in school districts that don’t value what they’re doing? 

Linda N: [00:31:37] So it’s a tenured principal or is the principal going to lose their job? I mean, this is a difficult issue because… 

Jon M: [00:31:45] I guess whichever and both. I mean, you know, obviously your schools have been very different from the norm. Those that Debbie Meier started were very different from the norm. And I know, for example, with the schools in District 4 in New York City, there were frequently times that the superintendent or school board was either just plain not interested or was actively hostile. So what are survival skills? And of course, you’ll have some principals who may not be tenured, or you may have principals where they may be tenured, but the district makes it clear that their school is never going to get anything if they don’t play by the rules of the game.

Linda N: [00:32:23] So these are conversations, you know, I was very lucky in Boston. First of all, listeners may not know, but I’m white and I’m from a privileged background. So I have all of that white privilege. It’s part of my DNA. And so many of my colleagues were leaders of color. And so there were often times where it was safer if I spoke, than if one of my colleagues of color spoke because if I lost a job, I had a husband who was working. I wasn’t the only breadwinner. If one of my colleagues in this instance lost a job, she was the only breadwinner. So we had lots of conversations as principals in Boston about  allied behavior and who speaks. And often it was like you speak because if I speak, I might get fired. And that was true. So I think I could take more risks than my colleagues of color. When I protested vociferously around about high-stakes testing, and actually we didn’t give the test the first year, I was threatened by my superintendent and I was written up and all of that, but I wasn’t fired. But if a Black person had done that, a Latinx person, an Asian man, you know, might’ve been a different story in that era. So I think race always plays a role. 

And so the question you’re asking, the broad question is what do you do when you don’t agree with district policies, as a leader. And that is such a complicated question. Often the way to go is to enlist parents and kids and family members who can speak for you because you can’t speak, especially if you are afraid of losing your job. So that’s one strategy. Um, I think that’s probably always my best advice. The other is sort of the John Lewis, good trouble. You know, how do you play the game? And yet at the same time, create the school, you know, that kids and families need. So even as a teacher, I had disgusting textbooks, as a early teacher, social studies and math teacher. And I would always have them out and the kids would always have them on their desks because I never knew when a district person would come in. And I would always have on the board, you know, whatever chapter we were supposedly doing, but we weren’t. And so I was always kind of nervous that they would ask the kid about the chapter they were in.

And one time I did get caught and one of the district people said to Chico, “so which chapter are you reading in this class?” And he said, “Oh no, we’re not reading the chapter. Ms. Nathan just has us have them so that no one finds out.” There, you know, my cover was blown, but that was a good district person. I didn’t get into trouble, but you know, what are the ways in which we, we as leaders can protect our teachers so that they can do the work they need to do, and they can become the anti-racist leaders they need to be? And they can. You know, it’s usually about like the book that the teacher wants to teach. And, you know, they get yelled at, by a district person, or even sometimes by a parent, you can’t teach that book. That’s, you know, blasphemy. I had that as a principal a lot. And so my job always was to protect my teachers at all costs. If I believed in my faculty, which I did, I had a stop sign at my door and it meant whatever the issues were stopped with me, and my job was to take care of them, not theirs.

Amy H-L: [00:36:39] Another challenge that all progressive and antiracist educators face is high stakes testing. How do you prepare students to successfully take standardized tests while centering real learning rather than just the test. 

Linda N: [00:36:54] Yeah, I was really clear about that with kids and families and I would do something every year. So after the first year, when we didn’t take the test and there was a whole lot of trouble, I had a teacher come to me because money was associated with scores on the test. And she said, “You’re doing a very racist thing because you’re denying kids access. And so, you know, I disagree with what you’re doing” and I really, she was right. I heard that. So what I did every year was we would come into the assembly hall and I would sort of draw a line, an imaginary line on the floor. And I would step over the line to the left side and on the left side of the line, I would say over here, I work politically in all of my free time to dismantle high-stakes testing, because I don’t believe that one test should determine your future. And that’s what these tests are all about. They’re about saying, if you get a 4, you’ll get money and you can go to a state college or they’re about saying that, you know, you’re smarter than someone else because you could take this kind of test, but I know all of you and I know you’re smart in lots of ways. So that’s what I do over here. And I invite you as parents and, and young people to join me. And here’s a lot of literature to help you figure out if you want to go to any of those meetings with me or with each other.

And then I would go over on the other side and all the faculty would be standing around the perimeter of the room. And I said, I want you to look at all of these amazing teachers and each and every one of them is going to make sure that you are prepared to do your absolute best on these tests. And each of every one of you will take them and each of them and every one of you will do well. And again, it has nothing to do with how smart we think you are, but it is a hoop that you have to jump through in order to graduate from high school and go on to college. And that’s the way I did it. I tried very hard not to use words like, cause we did have these intensives, prep weeks, and sometimes we lapsed into that militaristic language and called it boot camp. I tried not to use that kind of language. I tried to be very deliberate that we have a Saturday crash course for MCAS, just about the test, or for SATs, but it has nothing to do really with your curriculum. And then where it made sense, you know, we weren’t rigid, there was some stuff in the math test that was good. And so we retooled some of our curriculum so it included some of those concepts, some of it.

We had our kids take the engineering test and we had a very rich engineering curriculum, so many kids graduated from the Arts Academy wanting to be engineers until the damn high-stakes test came in engineering. And then that just made it not an interesting subject anymore. So sad, so sad. So we just we’ve lost our balance. Cause I don’t think. I keep saying this, there’s nothing wrong with testing. There’s nothing wrong with assessing what kids can do and what kids know. That’s fine. I really appreciate like the NAEP test, which is a national test and not every kid has to take it, but I appreciate those ideas of we’d like to compare. There’s nothing wrong with that. What I’m opposed to are these tests where huge decisions about your life are being made. That, I think, is not a good use of our time. I mean, I know it’s done around the world, so I think teachers’ judgment does count for something and we don’t trust teachers. That’s the trouble. So that’s why we use these tests. I wouldn’t use them as early as five years old.

Jon M: [00:40:50] I wanted to go back really quickly to what you were saying just before about a parent who might come to you and say, don’t use that book because it’s blasphemy. it’s obviously a different dynamic from a district official coming in and saying something. How did you respond? What is your advice to people when that happened? 

Linda N: [00:41:12] I listened and dialogued. This was a, you know, it was an Oscar Wilde book, and that parent was a born again Christian Pentecostal was just convinced. I can’t remember the passage. I think it was in Dorian Gray, and I cannot remember the passage, but he was convinced that his child reading that book was going to make him gay. That’s what he kept saying to us. And so we listened, we brought him in, you know, we listened a lot. He dialogued with me, dialogued with Carmen. He dialogued with the teacher. He went all the way up to the superintendent. And at the end of the day, it was a book that, you know, lots of people thought was important literature, so he didn’t win. We gave him as much room as we could to present his point of view. Sometimes parents refuse to have their kids in a classroom. I remember early days we were teaching about AIDS and we had to give parents the opportunity to have their kids do an alternative assignment to not be in that class, because it was just so, they believed that this was, they had non-scientific principles about AIDS. And so sometimes you have to let parents do what they need to do.

You know, I’ve had parents scream and yell at me about, we had a play that we were casting by race. We were using, we were not colorblind in auditions. We said any kid could audition, but  it was A Soldier’s Story, and so white kids were only going to be cast in a couple of, I think one, part, and some of the white parents went bananas. This is racist. This is this, this is that. And you know, I had to say, there’s lots of other plays we do that aren’t specifically about Black people. This one happens to be, and your kid can audition just to practice auditioning. But no, we’re not gonna go back on that. We are gonna cast this way. So I that’s always the hardest as a school leader because parents are so all over the map and you just have to, I think school leaders have to have interminable patience and a sense of humor.

You know, we had a parent that, oh god, she would come up screaming about everything. And one day Carmen was in a science class doing that egg drop experiment. You know, kids were dropping eggs out the window. And wouldn’t you know, it, that parent was coming up and an egg landed right on her. She was cute, made a beeline for Carmen saying, you know, you just don’t want me to criticize you at all. I had to like find a way to leave the office. Otherwise she would have gotten, I don’t know what. So parents are hard. Parents can be wonderful and they can be hard, but schools are messy places. And I don’t think you go into school leadership if you don’t like mess. I also don’t think you go into school leadership. I used to say, people say, how have you done this for so long and with a good sense of humor? And I said, cause I love putting on the boxing gloves. I love the fights. You kind of have to like that. You gotta like the mess. You gotta like all the extremes because it’s all about balancing constituents, right.

Jon M: [00:44:50] So clearly the kind of school that you’ve built and that you’re describing requires enormous energy from everybody involved. How do you, as a teacher first but then as a school leader, how do you protect against faculty burnout? How do you make it so people can do this over the long run.

Linda N: [00:45:08] Right, so when I talked earlier about the schedule, that’s where that came from. Cause early days, we were burning out. Cause you know, here it is an art school and you’re at school in the evenings to see kids’ performances. Kids have to rehearse on the weekends, just like way too much. So we had to figure out a way that we could divide up the responsibilities and we had to figure out a way that we could have a schedule where perhaps some teachers came in later because they stayed late. Some came earlier and left earlier. Yeah, you don’t want teaching to be a place that you can’t have a family, you know, you cannot, you’ve got to have a life and your family is also really, really important if you’re a mom or a dad or uncle or aunt, whatever you are. 

So we talked about that, and one of our shared values at Boston Arts Academy, we had four, but passion with balance was a biggie because the kids really struggled with that as artists and we, as faculty, struggled with that. So, you know, we would do things to help faculty let go, very deliberate things. At the end of the year, we had a ritual where teachers would sort of let go of the sorrow or the pain that they were holding about kids that they felt that they hadn’t met their needs. And we tried to hold that as administrators and then for administrators, the team of us. We too had retreats to help us find some nourishment. And all of us, I think. It’s interesting. And this was the same for me at Fenway as at the Arts Academy. We all had partners or spouses that really understood what we were doing and gave us a lot of support. You’ve interviewed my spouse. I could never have done this without Steve, and Carmen had a really strong partner. All of us did. That’s very interesting.

Jon M: [00:47:12] And just for our listeners, Steve is Steve Cohen.

Amy H-L: [00:47:15] Whom we interviewed a couple of weeks ago.

Linda N: [00:47:16] Best teacher I know.

Jon M: [00:47:19] Thank you so much, Dr. Linda Nathan of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship and the Perrone-Sizer Institute.

Linda N: [00:47:25] Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure. 

Jon M: [00:47:29] Thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating and review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools,org, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL, social emotional learning programs, with a focus on ethics, for  schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter@ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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