Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Hardest Questions Aren't On the Test

Nathan, L., (2009). The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test. Boston: Beacon Press. 


Nathan founded the Boston Arts Academy, a charter high school serving a high needs student body, in 1998.  Her book gives honest insight into the workings of a school, boiling it down to the culture and vision of a school--what gives it its heart and soul.  The book is broken into three sections: Structuring a School, Supporting Teachers, Addressing Inequality.  Each section includes anecdotes, first-person thought processes, and connections to common challenges and success beyond the BAA campus.  Nathan is forthwright in sharing how her campus, and she as a school leader, grappled with questions such as: What does this school really stand for?  What happens when schools develop shared values? What makes great teachers possible, and how much can school leaders really ask of them?  What are the risks and rewards of transforming a faculty into a professional learning community?  How do we talk about race?  How can we learn to see the invisible barriers students face and helf student break them down?

Evaluation:  Nathan is writing from her life experiences as an educator and as founder and leader of Boston Arts Academy; therefore her book is both very biased and very open about her experiences.  She doesn't highlight only the best and most successful moments, but includes the many roadblocks and bumps that she and her staff, students, and community have struggled with along the way.  Many of her stories are uncomfortable as they describe inequities, both apparent and hidden, that BAA has grappled with.  What is most admirable about her descriptions is her willingness, as an author and a school leader, to address these sensitive and complex concerns with genuine concern and honesty.

Reflection:  This book influenced my thinking about school culture tremendously because it is not a template of "how to do it" but an actual model of "how we are trying to do it."  As such, it gave me a taste of the pitfalls and potentials in structuring a school community.  Nathan defines strategies and ideas that BAA uses (for example, RICO represents the core values of BAA's "unifying framework" that is the foundation of all student and staff work) but she also describes how these strategies and ideas are put to work, how they are discussed, how they generate new questions and opportunities.  Nathan's honesty and optimism serve as a model for me as an aspiring school leader.  The level of student and staff engagement push my thinking about what a mentoring program should/could look like at my school.

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