Hayat Sindi and Diagnostics for All
Dennis Litky and the big picture of learning

James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School

I'm tag-teaming today and tomorrow with my partner in crime (and husband) Ethan Zuckerman to liveblog the 2009 iteration of the fabulous Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. You can read about today's events at the Pop!Tech blog, or via the Pop!Tech 2009 tag at Ethan's blog and via the Pop!Tech 2009 category here on this blog.

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy. Enjoy the conference posts -- not my usual fare, but hopefully interesting. (And to longtime readers: never fear, I'll return to my usual subject matter in a few days.)

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Our second session on Friday morning is themed around Teaching Change. First up after the break is James O'Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. He's a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow, along with the rest of the 2009 cohort.

The school started four years ago; now there are 4 grades and 430 students. "We believe that our students...simultaneously have access to every form of media, but also are the most susceptible to being consumed by that media." They use a 3-pronged approach of academics, creative arts, and professional development to support their students.

"Hopefully someone in the BCAM community is watching this live streamed" -- Fridays at BCAM students get to dress how they want (no uniform shirts) and today is pyjama day at BCAM, and it sounds like O'Brien got some flak for not being there. "Pyjama day will be never-before-seen like we do it at BCAM," he says. "Yesterday when we were hyping pyjama day and I said I wasn't going to be there, I'd be at a conference, the kids said: you're scared to wear pyjamas!" So he hopes they're watching the live stream and can see that he really did have someplace to be today. He had pyjamas on earlier today, he acknowledges, but now he's wearing a suit.

BCAM is a small school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. "Our students are like any set of students in any inner city across the country or world. We're an un-screeened open-enrollment school... we have access to students who aren't selected for specialized schools, didn't audition or take a screened exam." Some come in with college literacy levels; some come in with third and fourth grade literacy and academic skills, "and every place in between."

The student body is dominantly working-class, "though as Brooklyn is and has been and continues to be, we also have middle class students," he adds. It's a diverse student population. "We try to support our students and we have to approach some real critical aspects in educating our students. Our students have a wide variety of skills," and the educational approach has to meet their needs.

New York requires the kids to pass 5 Regents Exams, so there's a Regents' Exam prep model folded in with their other approach. Many students who come to BCAM come already alienated, they've never had good experiences in school before, their families aren't motivated because they've never seen their kids succeed in school. "We try to change that in partnership with them."

"It's Bed-Stuy, New York, and some of our students do come with somewhat of a culture of crime and violence," he acknowledges. Some students have gang affiliations. "We don't deny that, we don't berate our students for having that inside of them; we try to help them understand it and to give them other options and to meet them as real people."

He shows us a slide of David Hollis, one of the first students to enroll in BCAM. "That's an all-American looking young man," he notes -- the photo shows him in his gym uniform. "He typifies a BCAM student: charismatic, a leader, nice with the ladies, really smart and savvy in how he does things. I've seen him lead million-dollar foundations to tour our building and talk with them as if he were an adult with them." Last spring he and 11 other students went to Chicago for a culture and college prep tour; "he's legendary in Chicago, at this point!" He mixed with professors, with museum, docents, and again -- "was nice with the ladies."

David, though, also has another side to him. "All these compliments are real, but David also has a side that isn't nice with the community. He already has a felony charge of robbery, has been superintended-suspended numerous times, doesn't do well in formal academic classes, has at best a C average and doesn't pass all of his classes." But he's gotten caught up in the end. "I've sat up with his mother at one in the morning bailing him out of jail." I believe in him, O'Brien says, and I believe he's working this out. David is a typical student at BCAM, not an anomaly.

They're trying to develop a "professional preparatory model," integrating academics steeped in an inquiry model where students push to connect what they're studying with real life and real world issues. "We want them to make sense of it," O'Brien says. "We also have to integrate that with the Regents' exams, so it can't just be personalized performance-based education" -- that's a real struggle, since the Regents' is mostly about content and skills, not personal relevance.

Art is considered an academic discipline at BCAM, so students take a 3-year art curriculum, "which is unheard-of in small public schools, especially given funding cuts." Art is marginalized, "ironically enough in New York City, the mecca of art." The kids do fine arts, media arts, to have a critical analysis and analyze the context and impact of art. "We also have an incredible elective program...we contract community-based artists and educators" from the neighborhood to come into the school a few days a week. and if teachers want to put on another hat -- if a science or English teacher wants to teach an elective that they're passionate about, they can. This quarter there are 18 electives that kids can opt into, and they do four a year in nine-week modules. Once a quarter they do "Night to Shine," where students demonstrate what they're learning to family and friends and community.

And they push students to engage in professional experiences, through internships and partnership experiences with the school's partners. "We push students to do what we call publishing and exhibiting -- to revise, to take things to full completion, whether it's a music studio beat or a piece of writing or a science experience." They've published two books of student writing and artwork; they've made six short films that are on their website or on YouTube; there are two full cds of 16 songs apiece, brought out with their mobile music studio. And they've exhibited work all over the place: MoMA, international center for photography at Brooklyn Art Museum, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A professional filmmaker is making a documentary about the school. She's partnered with a group of ten students, all of whom have cameras; she shoots from her angle, but gives them free range to shoot from their angle.

BCAM teamed up with a hip-hop festival in New York, partnering with hiphop artists and a film and production team; students edited, wrote, and produced the whole film. O'Brien shows us part of the first verse; it looks as polished as anything you'd seen on television, and there's something powerful about knowing that the lyrics and the voice we're hearing belong to kids for whom these realities of violence are real. (You can see that very video here at YouTube.)

"What we want to do next," O'Brien says, is to have students specialize in an academic or artistic discipline, as one does in college. They do sporadic art projects based on partnerships; their hope is in the next year to push each student to do a project where they're working in the community on an issue, expressing a response which can go into the graduation portfolio. And, he says, "we want students to get paid" -- to develop small businesses, to be able to hustle the products they make in school and have revenue come back into a bank account or investment portfolio that they can access upon graduation to help them be prepared for the future.

They have one floor and four classrooms; they share space with a middle school. They want someday to have dedicated studios and labs, and a nonprofit foundation to develop funds to keep the model alive and keep the school alive. "We can give [these kids] a fighting chance to succeed."