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A Boston Public HS for Artists, Scholars & Citizens

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For 20-plus years Linda Nathan has been showing me the peaks of effort, originality, achievement and humanity! that are possible in big-city public schools. And now she is sharing her hard-won mountain-top lessons in a manual for anybody who cares about real education today: The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School.

Linda's led me to some peaks that seemed impossible, too. She asked me in the early Nineties to teach a course at her high school in Boston. I said: "See if there's a handful of kids who'll read The Brothers Karamazov with me over a semester. It's not P.C. It's not 'relevant.' It's just great. As long as the kids live they'll never have to ask what makes a work of art." Linda quickly found about 15 volunteers -- boys and girls, seniors and juniors, of all sizes and stripes -- for 750 pages of dense Dostoevsky. Twelve kids read and talked their way through to the end of a masterpiece. Most wrote very strong papers about it. Twenty years later, some of those kids still stay in touch with me. All of them stay in touch with her.

Linda Nathan's kids call her "Mom" in the corridors of the Boston Arts Academy -- on three floors of a converted warehouse behind the right-field bleachers of the Red Sox' Fenway Park. On the occasion of Linda's book, we're hanging out with her teenaged painters, poets, horn players, dancers and stage designers, and with the teachers who've chosen with the kids to find their own path to art, learning and citizenship.

Listen to my day at the Boston Arts Academy:

Thinking-wise, it opens your mind, being around the arts all the time. If someone is struggling in middle school you would look and giggle; in regular high school you would look and giggle. "Look, oh, they are having a hard time." Here you know what that struggle feels like because you struggled to get that note, you struggled to stay on the right key, you struggled to get that dance move down. It opens your mind. When you look at the world you look at it artistically, and with your normal mind. I don't want to say normal mind because art is part of my normal mind. But you see the world differently from the way people at a regular Boston public school would.
"India," a student in Mr. Ali's Humanities class, with Chris Lydon at the Boston Arts Academy.
I was a physics major before I became a dancer, and I truly believe in my personal journey that I wouldn't be the artist I have become had I not had a very strong academic background. It actually gave me a lot of skills, a lot of tools to go back on, even math. It taught me a different way of thinking. I also feel if you are a true artist you have to develop your own voice. What is your voice? And what are you trying to say? That is why we aim for wholistic training, because I don't think you should spend all your time in the studio. And, yes, you can become a fabulous technician, but that is not the true sense of an artist. I think you also have to have something that comes from inside you. So you have to enrich every aspect of your brain, your soul, all of that. And that's why in this school we don't say: we're training you just to become an artist. We say: ... an artist, a scholar, a citizen.
Dance teacher Fern Chan with Chris Lydon at the Boston Arts Academy, Friday, March 5, 2010.

What we know from the arts is there is a whole range of experiences that fall outside of the mind. What our students get is a sense of the things that cannot be expressed in words or mathematical symbols, but deserve expression. That is where the arts live. I can't tell you how often students tell me, 'I've had experiences but I can't put them in words.' The arts provide sound and kinesthesia that help us explain these other things that we express and experience. Adolescence is this open field of complications and contradictions. How do you get through that unless you have a way of embracing it and in some way integrating it into your lives.

The other side is this: just because you're giving me the arts, it doesn't mean that all of a sudden my world becomes OK. When you give me the arts you're actually creating new anxieties for me, or you're agitating anxieties that I carry. Our model of teaching is one that involves mentorship. It's important that older artists be a part of their educational experiences. We need you to tell us your story about how you crossed this creative bridge.  The world of art-making is hugely anxiety-ridden. People are constantly worrying about reputation, they're doubting themselves, they're questioning themselves. How do we help students in that space to continue on, to feel like they have enough muscle in them to really feel like they can face some of those monsters? Because there are monsters that come up with art-making.
Humanities teacher Abdi Ali with Chris Lydon at the Boston Arts Academy, Friday, March 5, 2010.

The question in my head going in was: how's to evaluate a public high school that doesn't take tests as the true measure of anything? My question on the way out was: if I had to do high school all over again, wouldn't I rather go to a place like Linda Nathan's Arts Academy than to the sort of "Marine Corps of the Mind" exam-school where I did go -- and where we sent our own three kids? Who else out there is puzzling through that sort of choice?