“Tackling the Crime of School Design”
Book Excerpt from Rena Upitis, former Dean of Education at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; currently Professor of Arts Education at Queen’s University.
Full biographical and contact information available on page 7. Citations on page 8.
“Is there a link between crime and schools?
Windowless concrete containers, surrounded by barbed wire fences - looking more like prisons than schools - can hardly be thought of as inviting environments for students. But buildings surrounded by barbed wire certainly bear cultural messages. This paper describes how architecture embeds cultural and educational values, and how schools often send messages about institutional life that are far from nurturing.
The paper includes examples from North America, Europe and Australia - such as a prison built in New South Wales that was converted to a high school, still in operation today. I also introduce three prominent educational approaches associated with early childhood - Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia.”
This paper is the first of eight chapters of a book manuscript titled Raising a School. In the book, the author claims that contemporary problems with education are not only about curriculum or testing or teacher competency, but also about the ways in which we build schools.
“Be careful where you park”. Those were the first words I heard from the teacher in the classroom next to mine. I had just been hired to teach music at the Hennigan School in Boston—my first real job—and I figured parking was the least of my concerns. I was wrong. And that warning, spoken in 1985, haunts me still.
I soon learned where to park my car. Some nearby streets were relatively safe, meaning at the end of the day there was a pretty good chance of finding my car with the windshield intact and the tires undamaged. But the best place to park was just a few yards from the front door of the school, smack dab in the middle of the concrete walkway leading up to the steel front doors. Picture driving over the sidewalk curb onto a broad concrete expanse, where, thanks to the cars that parked there on a daily basis, not even weeds could grow.
To secure a parking spot on the concrete walkway meant arriving at the school before the other teachers. But that was a small price to pay because the other “safe” alternative was to park in the gated lot behind the school. I found it almost unbearable to park there. Every time I heard the gate thud behind me I faced the possibility, however remote, that the bell at the back door of the school might not be working. I imagined being stuck there in limbo, unable to enter the school and unable to leave the locked compound.
On the first day of school—as on every other day—I was greeted by the resident police officer. With profound sadness, I wondered why they needed police protection at a school for children who were all under ten years of age. During my first walk down the hallway of the primary wing of the school I began to understand.
Outside the Grade 1 classroom I came across a decorated bulletin board with a banner in place, awaiting the art and stories of the young students. The title on the banner? “Why I Will Not Bring Guns And Knives To School”. Two days later, the board was filled with children’s work. The drawings—of guns aimed at teachers’ heads—were explicit. The two sentence stories were chilling. Stories like: “This boy, he was bad. When the teacher came inside the classroom, he killed the teacher”. I was dumbfounded by everything in that display: by the content provided by six-year-olds; by the necessity of having such a unit for children so young; and by the detailed depictions of hand guns and machine guns, knives and switchblades. This is not a scene that can be dismissed as something from the past: it is a scene of the present. Similar schools—with similar first grade topics—still populate school landscapes. Formidable signs on schools throughout America warn “NO GUNS”. ( 1 ) Scarcely what one would call welcoming.
Meanwhile, on that warm September morning, I was frightened and humbled. I doubted my ability to engage these children on any level, much less teach them something about music. I questioned how my hard-earned diploma in piano performance from The Royal Conservatory of Music had prepared me for this challenge, or how the decade I had spent as a studio piano teacher had any relevance. Singing “The Wheels on the Bus” didn’t seem right either. The wheels were falling off my bus, and fast. I could play Haydn sonatas and Bach fugues and I could teach young middle-class children how to play the piano and pass Conservatory exams with First Class Honours. But I had no idea how I was going to teach music to this group of children, many of whom came from unimaginably impoverished environments. To complicate things further, Hennigan was called a “rainbow school” because every skin colour under the sun could be found there. Most of the children were Black or Hispanic. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the cultural values and experiences of children from backgrounds different from my own. As the kids would say, “Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada”.
I figured out, pretty quickly, that most of the popular kids were amazing dancers. Breakdancing was all the rage at the time.( 2 ) Most students—from every stripe of the rainbow—could recite reams of rap lyrics, with stunning nuances in phrasing and expression. I knew nothing about rap either. But what I completely underestimated on that first walk down the hallway was the power of music and the other arts in all of their forms.
For a handful of kids, the experiences they had with school music were transcendent: children who might otherwise have ended up in one of the many state prisons instead got bitten by the music bug, and found ways to craft joyful lives with careers in the arts and in other fields—like the former student who wrote a few years ago telling me about her acting career in New York City. Nevertheless, far too many of those students did end up in state prisons, scarcely a decade after being in my classroom. I will never forget asking one of my former students, then in his twenties, about the fate of some of his school friends, children whom I had taught and admired. His answer? “They’re doing, dealing, or dead”.
Because some of those happy outcomes were so short-lived, the ways that we spent our days in the classroom have particular poignancy for me now. Along with the children, I learned African and Appalachian dances. We created choreographies in response to music of many kinds. The children learned to play instruments, and to make instruments with their own hands. They improvised. They composed music, using what was then new technology to hook up synthesizers to computers. Some of them snuck in early, each morning, to listen to me practice the piano. (I was almost always there early because of the parking.) They heard me play music of Mozart and Chopin, music they had never heard, but decided was “pretty good music”. By that time, I had decided their music and dancing were pretty good, too. Very good, in fact. As I admired the acrobatics of the breakdancers, I knew my body would never move in those ways.
We put on elaborate musicals, in a real theatre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Cambridge is across the river from where the school was located, and most of the children I taught had never ventured there before, even though MIT was only a few subway stops away. For that matter, they had never been in a real theatre anywhere. Everything about the place was new to them—fold-down fabric covered seats, fancy lights, and heavy velvet curtains drawn across the stage. Some teachers expressed trepidation about bringing the students across the river. I was warned: “The students will trash the place”, and, “That will be the end of this experiment”.
Continued on page 2.
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February 26th, 2007