Onstage and Off: Art Makes Leaders
Post submitted by Kate Quarfordt, an educator, artist, theater maker, writer, and mother.
As soon as I get the word from Kansas City, I call my principal, Jackie King. "Chris is in finals!" I holler breathlessly into the phone. "He's one of the top six orators in the nation!"
Jackie is wrapping up a meeting with our school's board of directors. When she hears the news, she explodes with her signature mama-bear enthusiasm. "South Bronx, represent!" she whoops. "Chris is the King!" Without hanging up the phone, she starts spreading the word to the board members—fresh from his star turn in The King and I at Bronx Preparatory Charter School, senior Chris Moncrief is taking the stage again tomorrow, this time at the National Forensic League's national championships, performing an original speech to a live audience of 5,000 and to thousands more watching online. Through the phone I hear the muffled sound of high fives and congratulations. Then Jackie comes back on, suddenly all business. "OK. So how do we make sure every student and teacher in the building gets to see this?"
By 8:30 the next morning, a crew of adults and kids are down in the gym setting up chairs, connecting a laptop to a projector, and jury-rigging a makeshift screen. Other teachers are projecting laptops onto classroom walls for the kids who won't fit in the gym. It may be the last day of classes on the hottest day of the year in one of the country's lowest-performing school districts, but for a full hour, a whole school buzzes with rapt, anxious stillness, everyone glued to a live feed of six teenagers dressed in suits delivering speeches. When Chris walks off the huge stage at the KCI Expo Center in Kansas City, Mo., after finishing his performance, the Bronx Prep crowd leaps up and the gym thunders with chanting and applause.
And at this moment, it hits me. This is what "authentic assessment" can look like, sound like, and feel like. When teachers help kids step forward onto a stage in a real-life, high-stakes situation and speak their truth, we're helping to shape leaders, creators, and critical thinkers. When administrators recognize big teachable moments and rearrange schedules on the fly to encourage the whole school to take part, the potential result is a moment like this one, when every person in the school stands taller, resolves to work harder, and dares to dream bigger. When we trust that our successes can be measured with creative acts and not just number-two pencils, huge shifts in our communities become possible.
In a few short weeks, Chris Moncrief is heading off to Syracuse, where he'll be majoring in genetic engineering and minoring in musical theater. But first he he'll be coming back to Bronx Prep to run a summer speech team boot camp for the kids who watched him at nationals and feel inspired to follow in his footsteps. And that's what being a King is all about.
Of course, as every educator knows, the road to the "aha moment" isn't always smooth. Here's a story about this remarkable young man's evolution (and a few humbling "ahas" of my own) during the rehearsal process for The King and I: "The Heart of Teaching and Learning: Becoming a King."
Photographs taken by or used with permission from Kate Quarfordt.