The Education Issue

Grade-A ideas

From virtual-reality science instruction to meditation for teachers, these approaches aim to reinvigorate education for all ages.

By Patti Hartigan
May 2, 2010

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Art From the Start The current rage in education is STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But creative types are working valiantly to turn STEM into STEAM – with the A standing for the arts. At the Boston Arts Academy, for instance, the arts are infused in every subject. While creative pursuits are often the first to go when budgets are cut, this high school continues to innovate as it engages students through the arts. The ninth grade just wrapped up a unit on African civilization with a multimedia celebration called “Africa Lives.” The students got their hands dirty. And they mastered the material.

“High school shouldn’t be a preparation for life,” says co-headmaster Linda Nathan. “It should be life.”

Nathan is not alone in her belief that the arts foster deep learning. Young Audiences of Massachusetts, a nonprofit that brings artists into schools, is inaugurating an arts integration program at the Salemwood Elementary School in Malden this fall. Visiting artists will help teachers incorporate the arts into the literacy and social studies curriculums. If the pilot program takes off, Young Audiences hopes to make it a model for other Extended Learning Time schools like Salemwood. Explains executive director Diane Michalowski Freedland: “We need to think big.”

Way Beyond Latin Steven Berbeco is a self-described “language nerd” who studied Arabic long before it became fashionable, and he was a pioneer when he began teaching the language at Charlestown High School a few years ago. Today, more and more public and private schools here and nationwide are offering Arabic, and classes at schools in Cambridge, Norwell, and other communities fill up as soon as they are offered.

While the teaching of French and German has decreased in high schools across the country, Arabic is on the rise. The federal government supports Arabic instruction through several grant programs. “They see it as a real necessity for security and diplomacy issues,” says Nancy Rhodes of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

But some students also see it as a chance to stand out on college applications. “They want to be special,” says Berbeco. His students get to test their language chops, but they also gain a deeper understanding of other cultures. And being a high school Arabic student has its perks. Just last month, the Palestinian hip-hop band Da Arabian MCs played a concert at Charlestown High.

Making College Stick Today’s mantra about education is that students must be college- or career-ready when they graduate from high school. But nationally, 89 percent of first-generation college students drop out before receiving a diploma. That statistic horrified Dennis Littky, so last fall he and a colleague started College Unbound, a collaboration with Roger Williams University in Providence funded by the Lumina Foundation. Students spend 20 hours a week in an internship and study a curriculum that relates to their work. They live together while sharing chores and ideas.

“If 89 percent are dropping out, it ain’t all the students’ problem,” says Littky. Colleges, he says, need to be ready for the students, just as the students need to be ready for the colleges. He and co-director Elliot Washor modeled College Unbound after the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, the alternative high school they founded in Providence. President Obama recently hailed the school for its “real-world, hands-on training.”

The College Unbound pilot has nine students, and Littky plans eventually to expand across the country. His goal is to help his students not only gain the skills they need to succeed but also to be able to think on their feet and be creative. “Doing,” he says, “is more important than knowing.”

Rx for Teachers Teachers, especially those in urban settings, are under attack. Every day they hear about mass firings, school closings, pressure to raise test scores, and student violence. But now a local support network called the Mindful Teacher Project offers an antidote to alienation and a way for teachers to relieve stress. In short, the project proposes that what teachers really need is a chance to take a long, deep breath.

Led by the project’s founders – Boston College professor Dennis Shirley and Elizabeth MacDonald, a literacy coach in the Boston Public Schools – 18 of the city’s public school teachers meet once a month at Boston College to share stories, offer collegial support, and practice guided meditation. The project may be off the map of orthodox reform strategies, but it’s been critical for the participants, several of whom were ready to leave the profession.

Shirley and MacDonald – who just released a book called The Mindful Teacher and hope its publication will lead to similar programs in other cities – say mindful teaching leads to better instruction. “Mindfulness should always take us back to the learners,” Shirley notes. “If we get distracted, we have to meditate, we have to come back to the kids.”

Out-of-This-World Science Remember all those field trips Ms. Frizzle used to lead on The Magic School Bus? The students didn’t learn about science by reading books. Instead, they traveled inside the human body or the volcano or the recycling plant.

Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are developing a way for middle school students to take Frizzle-like virtual field trips while studying complex science concepts. The team, led by Christopher Dede and Tina Grotzer, is working on EcoMUVE, a multi-user computer program that enables students to immerse themselves in an ecosystem and gather data to solve problems. In one application, students create avatars to study the virtual Scheele Pond. All the fish there have died overnight, and students work in teams to figure out why. They can travel in a virtual submarine to get microscopic views of pond life and can go back and forth in time to chart changes in the environment.

The project, which will be piloted in some Cambridge and Boston schools this fall, is on the cutting edge of classroom technology. “We know that active learning is more powerful than passive learning,” Dede explains. “In virtual worlds, you are not only active, you are in the middle of it. You are wearing the shoes of a scientist.” n

Patti Hartigan, a former Globe reporter, blogs about education at Send comments to

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