Reflections from the NYC Innovation Tour | IDEA

Reflections from the NYC Innovation Tour

Posted by Manauvaskar Kublall on Nov 21, 2011 - 09:31 AM

Do we need to change our failing education systems or do we need to transform them?  Do we need to envision and build something new from the ground up or can we work with what we have?  These are just two of the many questions that I am stitting with after participating in an insightful IDEA Innovation Tour in New York City, and as I reflect on my own journey and my mother's journey as an educator. 
I stopped by my family’s home in Queens the other night so that my one-year old daughter could hang with her grandparents.  My mother was able to spend some time with her grandaugther, but had to quickly jump back into work.  She is a 56 year old teacher in the New York City (NYC) public schools.  My mom is up until midnight most school nights, not watching television or reading or playing with her grandchildren, but entering information into journals to document her students’ development. 
This is my mother’s first year teaching the first grade. She has spent the last 15 year teaching kindergarten and second grade in her Brooklyn elementary school.  She has been teaching since her mid-twenties, starting off in her home land of Guyana.  After migrating to the United States in her twenties she went back to school and earned her Masters degree in education.  While in school, she supported herself by working as a nanny and through small cleaning jobs.  She became a certified teacher at the age of 38. My mom is a determined woman, and she has shown me that you have to be pretty determined if you want to be a good teacher today. 
I recently heard that the average tenure of new teachers in the NYC Board of Education is 5 years. She has been teaching in the United States for about 15 years. She has seen countless changes to the school system in NYC, under the guise of improving test scores and teacher performance. This new round of changes has her up late and stressed out. I asked if she thought these new tracking systems are working, she replied:
“Being a teacher is not about statistics.  It is about something inherent in you.
We know how our students are performing. We know who needs more help
and individual attention. I don’t need to enter all these statistics to know that.”
As I reflect on the new changes imposed on teachers by the Board of Education and the words of my mother, I can’t help but wonder if our education system is actually improving student learning and development or if  we are simply caught up in numbers and statistics. 
Since getting involved in a larger conversation about education as a teaching artist, a member of the Education Circle of Change, and more recently as a Digital Organizer with IDEA, I have have been pondering many questions, especially the ones listed above about change versus transformation. I recently had the privilege of witnessing some ways in which education in NYC is not simply being changed but actually being transformed. I was part of an Innovation Tour, organized by IDEA, which stands behind a vision that students and communities should be democratically invested in their schools. As part of the tour we were taken to four sites in NYC. Two of the schools were high schools in Manhattan: The I School and Urban Academy.  One was an elementary school in Brooklyn: PS 28.  And, the final one was a community based organization in the Hunts Point Area of The Bronx:  THE POINT. All the leaders in the various institutions were passionate about their work and presented unique ways of transforming education. From granting students and teachers the freedom to shape the curriculum and programs, to fighting and winning a battle with the state to waive the required Regents exams, these institutions were on the cutting-edge. They each had strong arts-based programs and deeply valued the assets of the community. 
One leader that stood out for me was Principal Silver from PS 28, a second generation Puerto Rican who lives in Brooklyn.  She expressed a philosophy of love and resiliency as part of their work and mentioned that they are in the business of saving lives. Principal Silver started a unique program in her school where they partner with non-profit groups that offer social service programming in her building.  These programs include foster care and support with housing issues, among much more. I learned so much from this stop on the tour, namely that  there is no silver bullet when it comes to transforming the lives of young people; rather, it  starts with love and an environment that is supportive and non-judgemental. Principal Silver knows that to have a healthy school you need to have a healthy community, and that means teachers too. 
Thinking back to my mom I wonder if having such a numbers oriented approach to her students’ development can actually take the place of the love she demonstrates to her students. Is she a better teacher because of all the time and energy she expends filling out charts and journals? I can’t help but wonder about all the stress it causes her in addition to how that might affect her health. 
My big take-away from the tour is that transforming education is not only about how students are affected; it is also about healthy and whole communities and how those working within the system are sustained. I invite you to also learn and be inspired by the tour by reliving the journey with me. Take a look at some photos I took during the Innovation Tour and some of the captions I wrote along the way.  Click here to see the photos.
I remain hopeful that with a collective vision of something new we can truly transform education. And, I am playing my part. As a teaching artist for the last seven years I’ve worked with high school and elementary students in Queens, NY to bring arts-based programming into the classroom.  I believe in the power of the arts and creative process to spark vision and action that is so needed if we are to develop and support students and communities to imagine and build new educational institutions.