Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Powerful Performance

If the object of a drama troupe is to transport the audience directly into the very scenes being portrayed, the BH-BL High School Drama Club accomplished that in a powerful way this past weekend. If you were in attendance, you know exactly what I mean.

Most of us are at least familiar with The Diary of Anne Frank. The play is based on the writings of a young Jewish girl, Anne Frank, who along with her family and a group of Jewish residents of the Netherlands hid from the Nazis for almost two years in a concealed room in the building where Anne’s father worked. Abby VanNostrand did a superb job portraying Anne’s energy, kindness, and zeal for life. Ricky Noel introduced us to her intelligent and loving father Otto. These two were supported with great performances by Sarah McErlean (Anne’s mother Edith), Micaela Slovic (Anne’s sister Margot), Sam Lynch, Kennedy Jobin, and Matthew Rigby (a second family hiding with the Franks), Jacob Ettkin (a local dentist) and Maddy Hicks and Zach Ashcraft (two kindly Christians who helped the family hide).

While I was familiar with the story, I was not prepared for the power with which the students brought this history to life. To begin with, the group was masterful at portraying the friction that arose among the family members as the group spent so many long tense days together. I felt myself wanting to literally “shush” them for fear they would be discovered at several points when their arguments grew loud and heated. Woven throughout this tension was the innocent and ill-fated friendship that grew up between Anne and Peter (Rigby). The connection they created was definitely recognized by the audience when their “first kiss” produced the happiest moment of the tragic drama.

Ironically, just as the Allies were liberating Europe, country by country, the Frank family and their friends fell victim to the hatred and racism of the Nazi regime. The family’s hiding place was betrayed and they were carted off to concentration camps by three Nazi soldiers (Kyle Farmer, Liam Glading, Brandon Burt).  

The most poignant scene of the play occurred at the very end.  Otto Frank returned to the disheveled hidden apartment that had hidden his family for so long. He told us about how each of his family members had been separated and ultimately killed by the hateful Nazi regime. He was the only survivor. Anne had perished in the Bergin-Belsen concentration camp at the age of 15. An anguished Otto cried out in grief and pain. His daughter- once so full of life and optimism- was now dead and buried in a mass grave. The audience was silent.  Otto stooped down and picked up a diary off the floor… left behind by Anne. The house lights went off and the theater was silent. The words of Anne Frank appeared on the back wall of the set: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

Each audience member sat in the dark,  processing what they had just seen and heard. We had formed connections with these characters through the artful work of the student actors. Now, through brutal and senseless acts, they were gone. The cast joined hands and bowed their heads and left the stage. There was no curtain call. There was no reprise.

Getting up from my seat and leaving the auditorium was very odd. Most people I looked at had tears in their eyes (so I didn’t feel out of place).  Everyone was either silent, or talking in hushed tones as they walked out.  The experience created by these young actors was not confined to the stage.  The receiving line in the lobby had the feel of an actual wake. The troupe was tired and teary. They were hugging friends and family members. There was a good deal of consoling going on.  As I greeted them and thanked them, more than one of them said to me- “the story needs to be told.”

I would be remiss not to mention the  leadership of Jen Summersell, Eric Shovah, Chris Lombardi, and Ann Derrick and the great work of the Student Crew including Trevor Tuxhill, Simon Goslin, John Lombardi, Zach Bond, Maggie Cuddihy, John DeLucia, Lilly Hogle, Rachel Johnson, Deirdre Kelliher, Nico Petel, Matt Petroski, Alissa Ronca, Alexis Van Buren, and Kayla Van Buren.  The set itself was impressive, realistic, and functional. The special effects were key in transporting the audience to World War II Amsterdam.

I am sure I join many other audience members in saying that I thought deeply about the show for hours after leaving the auditorium. It upset me, it bothered me, it affected me, and it inspired me. And isn’t that the point?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Welcome Back!

The first week is just about complete. I hope it went well!  I had a chance to visit and walk through the buildings on Thursday. Everything looks great. The floors were shiny, the O'Rourke parking lot opened on schedule. Walls were freshly painted.  The kids had smiles, new clothes, and lots of enthusiasm. Tara took a bunch of pictures that capture the moment.

Of all the things that Murray [Guest speaker Murray Banks] said on Tuesday morning, the thing that hit home the most for me was the story he told about having surgery and watching the doctor standing over him as he drifted into unconsciousness. Imagine, he mused, how he would feel if the doctor was tired...yawning... not bringing his A-game that particular day. Most days he's great... just not that day.

We all got the point and was a good one. It is worth repeating. We don't stand in front of kids teaching them 40 hours a week,  52 weeks a year.  That's not the way our profession works.  Like the surgeon, like the actor, like the pilot- we work with kids in focused periods of periods of time. It is important that when we are called upon to do our thing, we do it with passion, fervor, and skill every day.  It is critical that we get it right.

We have a school year that has ebbs and flows... times of intensity and times of refreshment. Now we begin one of those times of intensity. We will bring our A-game. As we prep our lessons, teach our classes, run our meetings, and interact with our kids, our parents, and our colleagues, we will give it our all.  We expect it of each other. We expect it of ourselves.

I have heard teachers all over the district quoting the "Showtime!" theme these last few days... and that one phrase really captures the whole point. It is showtime. Happy New Year... Break a leg!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Common Core Update

As you may have seen in the news this week, the State Board of Regents P-12 Education and Higher Education Committee adopted several measures that will adjust the implementation of the new Common Core Learning Standards and other aspects of the Regents Reform Agenda. Included are changes that will delay the impact of Common Core-related state assessments on high school Regents exams and reduce the level of local school district testing associated with the new teacher evaluation law. (View complete list of proposed adjustments.) 

In reality, most of the Regents measures were relatively minor adjustments. Perhaps the most significant development, however, was the Regents’ acknowledgement that the new Common Core Learning Standards require periodic review and updating. According to the Regents, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School officers “will use feedback provided by educators, parents, higher education faculty, special education advocates, business leaders and bilingual education experts from each state to conduct reviews and make adjustments where necessary.” 

The acknowledgement that it is necessary to allow for adjustments as change is implemented is a positive step forward. In our view, the state standards should always be reviewed and revised as teachers work with students in the classroom and parents provide feedback from what they are seeing at home. In fact, in our multiple correspondences with Commissioner King and state legislators over that past several months, we have continually urged them to listen to feedback from educators, parents and students regarding all aspects of the Regent’s Reform Agenda. Now they have stated in regulations that they will.  

There have been so many state mandates thrust upon schools in such a short time. We have publicly called upon NYSED to be cautious about pushing too much change at once. In order to help our families keep up with the changes,  we recently published a position statement jointly written by the BH-BL Board of Education and the District Leadership Team. The statement covers three of the major aspects of the Regents Reform Agenda: Common Core Learning Standards, Testing, and the Collection and Use of Student Data. On January 30, we posted the statement on our website and our facebook page. In case you have not seen it, we are providing you with the link:  

Please take the time to read this important statement. We are actively calling upon our legislators to limit the amount of testing that is required of our students. We are adamant about protecting student educational data and limiting the data that we share with NYSED to only that which is absolutely necessary to academics. 

Last October, we had an extensive community forum on the new NYS Common Core Learning Standards. In March, we will have a similar forum focused on testing. We also encourage you to review the extensive Common Core pages we have on our website to give you a more thorough understanding of Common Core, view the new standards, access helpful documents and links for parents, watch explanatory videos and more.

In closing, I would like to thank the board and leadership of our district for their vigilance in this matter. This has been a constant topic of conversation and study for the past two years. They have invested a great amount of time and energy in learning about the Common Core, overseeing the implementation, and advocating for caution and clarification as necessary. Despite the many changes required of us, we want to assure our community that the priority of the BH-BL Central School District always has been, and will continue to be, a high-quality, well-rounded education in a caring and nurturing environment, preparing our students to reach their highest potential in their adult lives.