Linda Nathan is an education warrior.
The unassuming educator and wife of friend and Tufts University lecturer Steve Cohen has dedicated her adult life to Boston’s youth, pushing them to realize their often untapped potential against considerable adversity.
Since 1998, the former director of Fenway Middle College has been the founder and head of Boston Arts Academy, a public high school in which students both learn a traditional curriculum and have an artistic focus, or major, that they pursue closely.
Since its inception, Boston Arts Academy has placed about 95 percent of its graduates in college-a figure that is markedly higher than the system-wide figure of 50 percent.
As impressive as that statistic is, though, it may not be the most compelling aspect of the school, according to Nathan.
It’s the questioning.
Nathan and the dedicated staff she has assembled are deeply committed to a relentless interrogation of things small and large at the school, and to conveying that culture of inquiry to their students.
Nathan distills and shares the wisdom she has accrued during the past quarter century in The Hardest Questions Aren’t On The Test, a passionate testimony to the community that she has played a pivotal role in creating at Boston Arts.
Nathan divides the book into three sections and six chapters, each of which has a framing question. The sections are dedicated to school structure, supporting teachers and addressing inequality – roles that she asserts are critical for school leaders to do. (She has an entertaining and thoughtful critique of how principals are portrayed in many Hollywood movies about teachers.)
The Hardest Questions has many positive features.
Nathan devotes a chapter early in the book to describing interactions between two ace teachers and their students. She makes it clear that the teachers are demanding and accepting, strong and flexible.
Nathan also stresses that these two instructors are exceptional examples, but that she could have cited many others in the building. Beyond that, the two teachers gain strength because they are not stars seeking their own individual praise and honors, rather they are part of a team. (A gifted music teacher who is not sufficiently committed to the team concept is asked to leave.).
The team is characterized by its honesty.
Nathan offers numerous examples of hers, and others’, efforts to surmount the visible and invisible barriers her students confront on the way to academic success and artistic fulfillment.
One of the book’s most poignant moments comes when she describes an incredibly talented female student’s losing out on a full scholarship to a prestigious conservatory because she was too ashamed of her inability to pay the $500 deposit to share her need with anyone on staff.
Nathan also talks about her painfully awkward attempt to diversify the composition of the parent advisory group. She describes how, after the nominations had been submitted, she noticed that only one parent of color was among the ranks of 15 or so people in the group. Her suggestion that the committee reopen the process lead to understandably hard feelings, several parents walking out, and the threat of a lawsuit.
In the end, she persisted, and the group’s composition did indeed become more diverse.
You sense that Nathan feels relatively comfortable with that stance, and, to her credit, she also talks about moments when she made choices of which she is far less proud.
In a chapter about how the school in 2002 confronted hateful graffiti, for example, she writes about how she was far less morally outraged and active in confronting a similar homophobic incident. Her willingness to share her less impressive choices enhances Nathan’s credibility and moral integrity.
Nathan also describes the at times seemingly interminable staff discussions about how best to deal with students’ home lives, cultures and communities in which they live. She writes openly about the frustration many staff members felt at the number and length of the conversations, which for months did not lead to any concrete action.
She also explains that there are limits to the discourse, too.
White students who feel that they are being blamed for historic and current racism do not appear to receive much sympathy at Boston Arts. Nathan writes that she is shocked when a student approaches her after the Gulf War began in 2003 to ask for information about why one might support President Bush’s decision – a request that surprised Nathan because she considered it self-evident that the war was a wrong one. Even though she eventually convened a teach-in, it’s clear that the ground in Boston Arts is not neutral.
Nathan also devotes a certain amount of space throughout the book and in the conclusion to explaining the central elements – a set of shared values; a collection of talented and dedicated teachers; and a series of culminating projects – that lead to the school’s success, and that offer whatever lessons she feels the school has to offer.
The writing is straightforward, laced with anecdotes and peppered with personal reflections.
You don’t read The Hardest Questions for the writing, though.
Rather the strongest impression that emerges from the work is one of an experienced, innovative and intelligent school leader sharing her visceral pride in her staff that she has selected and the students they have helped usher through adolescence and toward their dreams.