A powerful innovation

When you walk into Sandra Murdoch’s 5th grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary School in Novato, you enter a tropical rainforest teeming with the life of young imaginations. Mrs. Murdoch has filled spaces everywhere with visible evidence of student learning.class with Sam

Like caterpillars, student understandings may slowly inch along at first. Given the right environment, they are capable of devouring the leaves of entire trees, eventually emerging as butterflies. With a little finesse, you can capture and pin them to the wall to marvel at their colors. But they are at their most magnificent in the open air, gathering nectar from the flowers.

Nancie Atwell, an educator from rural Maine, was recently selected to receive the Varkey Foundation’s first Global Teaching Award from an international field of finalists. As reported in a Washington Post blog, the most important innovation of Atwell’s approach is student choice. Students choose individual books and subject matter, allowing them to invest themselves “in the way a literary critic does, a writer does, a mathematician does, a historian does, a scientist does, out of real curiosity, real passion, a real sense of motivation.” Atwell eschews tests and quizzes, assessing students exclusively through portfolios of their work.

Similarly, San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! residency program asks students to invest themselves as artists do, as they collaborate to make choices about plot, music, lyrics, and how to portray a story in performance.

Book to Bravo wall

Sandra Murdoch’s Book to Bravo! wall with student responses, writing, music, and photos. Her 5th graders are working on an original music- theatre piece related to famous explorers.

While transience is part of the beauty of performing arts, it does present a challenge to communicating its impact on learning. Mrs. Murdoch, a Guild partner for 19 years, has clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into sharing her students’ learning process and creative choices with the wider community.

“We are our choices,” Sartre said. The ability to choose wisely, discriminately, and with foresight is ever more important in our modern, free society where choices have multiplied exponentially. Choosing well is embedded in critical thinking and creativity, key capacities we seek to cultivate in Book to Bravo! classes.

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The Core of the Matter

Opera is one of the most profound and moving means that the human race has developed for storytelling. When we hear Violetta’s final aria from La Traviata, we’re not just hearing about a 19th century courtesan dying of consumption. This is about love lost, opportunity foregone, precious lives cut short by illness, things that, sadly, affect most of us at some point. Opera plots are frameworks through which we can understand our own lives.

In this way, General Director David Gockley illuminated a defining attribute of opera at San Francisco Opera’s recent annual meeting.

IRobin solo would amplify that opera’s essential medium is music. The simplest utterances – Violetta’s “Gioia,” The Count’s “Contessa perdono, ” Brunhilde’s “Hojotoho,” – pick your favorite. All gain their power in the way they are set and sung. Such moments flow together to build opera’s liquid architecture.

To grasp how music can dramatize words and heighten expression is central to education programs at San Francisco Opera Guild, and it was in abundant display at last week’s performance of The Adventures of Robin Hood, an original musical-dramatic work by 5th graders in our Book to Bravo! program.

Artists' Statements

Artists’ Statements from the 5th grade cast of Robin Hood graced the walls of the venue.

Life is short: eat dessert first.  The fun and excitement may well be icing on the cake, but here, more aptly, trimmings of a nutritious feast. In writing dialogue and lyrics, composing choruses and songs, performing and reflecting on the creative process, principles central to Common Core State Standards and, indeed, to all learning, are manifest.

At the performance, a parent commented that among the most memorable experiences from her own school years was her participation in theatre, and she was grateful her daughter was able to have this experience.  A program where students not only study a work of literature but create and perform their own interpretation is an active, collaborative way of building cognitive and life skills.  The effects endure, as relevant to today’s youth as they were to the merry men and women in the depths of legendary Sherwood Forest.

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A fitting celebration

Education is never out of fashion. Neither, it seems, is fashion ever out of education. Style-consciousness has spurred a continuing debate nationwide about dress codes, the advantages of uniforms, and the range of freedom of dress advisable for schools.

At any age, and at different times, we may dress to fit in or to stand out, to hide what makes us feel uncomfortable or to flaunt what we’ve got. Our dress is integral to our public persona.????????????

Last week, San Francisco Opera Guild co-presented an extraordinary fashion show with Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit our education programs, featuring the hot young designer Erdem. The intersection of opera and fashion is centuries old. Through history, opera performances have been dress-up occasions, with competition in audience attire often rivaling the drama on stage. And costumes, of course, form a critical part of characterization and the mise-en-scène of a production.

In our education programs it’s an exciting moment for students when they get their costumes. George Lucas, a veteran Guild director who has created costumes for our signature Opera à la Carte school programs for more than twenty years, remarked on the transformation students experience the minute they don a costume.

Many of the Erdem designs on view last week had a distinctly theatrical bent, incorporating bright colors, vivid patterns, and rich textures. But as George, with his long career as a tailor, pointed out, they work not only because they are inventive, but also exquisitely shaped to look natural on the body.

????????????A highlight of the evening was the appearance of three of our students, following the runway show, in costumes from Opera à la Carte productions. (I heard tell that backstage the Erdem models were coveting the outfits for themselves). As George explains, building costumes to be used interchangeably by hundreds of students has its own set of challenges. For our young performers, clothes make the man, the princess, the solider, and even occasionally the dragon. It’s one more avenue for them to find outward expression of their inner voices, in a context where being a little over the top is not only permitted, but encouraged.

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One, two, three, testing

Lynwood students working

4th grade students at Lynwood Elementary School in Novato draft a libretto for an original opera in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! program.

Now that Common Core assessments are upon us in a big way, the “opt out” movement is making national headlines. Some students, parents, and teachers are refusing to participate in mandated testing. This comes at a pivotal moment as Congress reconsiders No Child Left Behind legislation.

Saying that tests are part of life may be cliché but is nonetheless true. Wonderful activities are bound up with tests we give ourselves: cracking a crossword puzzle or getting to level 200 on Candy Crush, for example. Athletics and performing arts are all about tests that participants embrace, as are baking a fancy cake, taking a strenuous hike, or hunting for the perfect gift. They engage us in a process of meeting – and exceeding – standards we set for ourselves.

The best teachers know how to get students to relish pushing themselves to meet and exceed standards. For the student, it requires a sense of confidence in one’s ability, a resilience to failure, an understanding that if one doesn’t meet the mark the first time, with refection and effort, one will get closer with each effort. This cluster of qualities has been thoughtfully researched and persuasively presented by Stanford’s Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The Psychology of Success.


San Francisco Opera Guild teaching artists work with 3rd grade students at Caliber Beta Academy in Richmond on scene breakdown for an original opera.

At San Francisco Opera Guild, we’re looking at ways of better assessing the qualities that students develop and the understandings they gain as a result of our programs.  What occurs in music and theatre performances is often hard to get one’s arms around. Unlike visual arts or writing, the products cannot be readily examined once they’ve happened.

A signature initiative of Project Zero, the arts education think tank at Harvard School of Education, is “Making Learning Visible” and stresses the importance of documentation for students, teachers, parents, and the wider community. It’s a way of sharing the learning process in order to assess it in a more meaningful way. When this kind of assessment is integrated into teaching, it can emerge as a powerful tool in students’ self-pursuit of excellence. It’s one more step in encouraging students to take ownership of their own learning, and one more way of letting their unique voices be heard.

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Posted in Common Core, Education Philosophy & Practice, School Programs | 2 Comments

Sing to live; sing to learn

Swans sing before they die — ‘t were no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.

I take issue here with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Singing is a birthright, and it would be tragic to stifle this basic human impulse for fear of harsh judgment.


A fifth-grade Tamino in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Opera Junior.

Coleridge, of course, refers to those who sing for the wider public, and not everyone is so equipped. As the Jerry character says in Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love: “In life I have a terrible voice, but when I’m soaping myself under hot water, I sound just like Eartha Kitt.”

But singing is not just an art – it is a fundamental way of communicating. While we may enjoy singing in the shower or as we go about day to day business, it is also a way of sharing experiences that transcends mere words. And consider the multitude of ways we use songs, the myriad situations, the variety of types of singing across every culture.

Fifth-graders sing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in San Francisco Opera Guild’s Book to Bravo! program.

While the benefits for young children are well known, less familiar are outcomes singing produces throughout education. A recent New York Times article featured the accomplishments of the VOICE charter school, a K-7 school in New York City where singing is a focus of the curriculum and where students significantly outperform peers at comparable schools.

In our annual Summer Conservatory, San Francisco Opera Guild provides a unique opportunity for young people to explore their vocal abilities at many levels. In a varied, experiential program, young people ages 10 to 18 come with a range of prior experience to learn together, rehearse, and mount a fully-staged opera. While not all go on to further study, they experience the special bond and sense of communal accomplishment that singing together can create. These are profound rewards that many who sing in choirs, in religious congregations, with family, or around campfires feel, and one that is available all around us.

Applications are currently being accepted for Summer Conservatory 2015 this July and can be found here.

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Labors of Love

To see a challenge, say “I have to do something about this,” and act purely from one’s convictions; to volunteer is a gift to others as well as to oneself. As Albert Schweitzer put it,

Students 1949

Mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout with members of a Student Matinée audience, 1949

Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it.

In 1939, Virginia Miller was a ninth-grader when she attended San Francisco Opera Guild’s very first Student Matinée. She later went on to run backstage tours, organize annual rummage sales, and eventually serve on the Guild’s Board of Directors. Clare Skall was also a devoted Director, active for nearly 50 years. Until their recent passing, both made substantial contributions to opera and especially to the lives of the young people served by the Guild’s education programs. We will miss them.

Students at San Francisco Opera Guild’s 100th Student Matinée, 1973

Jane Hartley, a devoted Director who continues to provide tireless service, recalls,

The most impressive thing about Virginia was that she was serious and committed to anything she took on, would keep the job for years, and appear week after week. She made you feel your volunteerism was important. She epitomized the faithful volunteer.

Volunteerism is so central to the opera world that in the early 1970’s, Opera Guilds International was formed. Now known as Opera Volunteers International, the organization provides a forum for opera volunteers from around the globe.

Students at a San Francisco Opera Guild Student Dress Rehearsal, 2014

Students at a San Francisco Opera Guild Student Dress Rehearsal, 2014

While certainly motivated by their love of opera, these volunteers also touch and are touched by young people, as with Mary Muerle, now in her fourth decade as a docent in San Francisco Opera Guild’s East Bay Chapter school programs.

In a meeting recently about Voices for Social Justice, a Guild program where students explore social issues through creating original musical-dramatic works, the teacher suggested her class dramatize the story of Albeiro Vargas. As a nine-year old boy living in a shantytown of rural Colombia, Albeiro organized his friends to feed and care for abandoned elderly neighbors. His work is movingly depicted in the documentary Little Angel of Colombia. We look forward to how our students will interpret his story as a mini-opera.

From the arts to education to social justice, volunteers reaching hands across the generations makes for powerful transformations.

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Encircling the world

Wagner can get you up and dancing.


Young gods and goddesses cross the rainbow bridge to Valhalla.

As part of our 75th Anniversary celebration, San Francisco Opera Guild presented our Sing a Story program this past fall at libraries around the Bay Area. Included was Das Rheingold for juniors, which has parts for gods, goddesses, Rhine children (as we cast them in this egalitarian version), and giants. What could be more fun?

A response from a San Francisco librarian:

The community participation was magical. Patrons kept coming up to me to say how much they’d enjoyed it. The daughter of one of our regulars hadn’t wanted to attend, but as soon as she heard the music she was captivated and ended up taking on four or five different parts!

It’s hard to predict when and where transformational experiences may occur. In a recent workshop I attended, participants were asked to share such episodes from their lives. The wide range of ages from which these were drawn was fascinating. Mine include seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring just a few years ago.

Our educational system often asks students to narrow their interests early on. In college, liberal arts education has widely fallen victim to early specialization. Even high schools are becoming more career-oriented as a way of creating relevancy. A report last week on PBS profiled Oakland’s Life Academy, an innovative school which fosters skills for a career in health and biosciences. The focus and rigor has achieved notable success, but precludes offering sports or the arts. One student comments, “I used to love acting. But now that I know I want to be…somewhere in the medical field, I don’t miss it as much.” This sounded a sad note to me.

A close friend, a former professor of Psychology and Philosophy, asked me once if a school had to choose between a course in arts and literature or in psychology, which should it choose and why?

I’d argue that this is a false choice. Both are important and education should be able to accommodate a variety of modes of understanding. But arts and humanities, in particular, open up vistas of possibility, and may light the magic fire of innovation in any field. As Albert Einstein, who never travelled without his violin, said,

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.


Family members enjoy Sing a Story together at Mill Valley Public Library in Marin County



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