You may have heard me describe the Monticello High School Drama Program as “our original makerspace.” I say that a lot when I’m asked about Maker Education, because theater at Monticello was the first place I saw the full ethos of maker-based learning at work — at work for every kind of student.

So, when Madeline Michel and MHS drama won a Tony Award on Sunday, June 9 for being the Outstanding High School Theater Education Program I just have to say, I couldn’t have felt happier. I have told people it was the best for years — and now I have the New York Theater industry agreeing.

Why the best? It’s not that it has the most sophisticated sets or most complex lighting (actually they battle with an antiquated lighting system and have to work with a stage that reflects light). They don’t have the strongest financial support (instead, they raise money for other community needs). They may not have the most technically perfect performances, most technically perfect blocking, most technically perfect choreography.

What they do have is a gift… a gift of offering every child in this mostly rural, significantly impoverished high school a real chance for Voice, Agency, and Influence. a gift of a real chance for every child to work through complex projects, to help solve difficult problems, and to engage their deep passions. a gift of the ability to involve themselves in an extremely relevant curriculum while opening wide the doors of opportunity.

And that is what Maker Education is about, and why it is the path to the future for our children.

For “making” is how humans learn to assemble knowledge and how they demonstrate that they can assemble knowledge.

But… let us not think any of this is easy within the confines of even our best schools. I have watched this theater program struggle for funding, struggle for rehearsal space, struggle for acceptance. An otherwise highly sensitive former principal couldn’t be found at performances, the supposed leader of “Culturally Responsive Teaching” came away from watching the award-winning student-written A King’s Story with no response except a list of the “curse words” used by students, another division leader could only describe (to me) the program director as “a pain in the ass.”

Yet, we fought to support it. The moment I became tech director I managed to replace the antiquated computer running the lighting system. When a young man, a dreamer, needed to audition for the Governor’s School for Dance, I helped explain and order the required dance belt. Later, I talked our Building Services Department into installing a cushioned floor for dance in the program’s practice space — “If these boys want to dance,” I told Building Services, “We’re going to give them a place to dance.” — though we still had to fight annually that the space remain uncluttered and available throughout the year. When A King’s Story was being threatened by protestors who had no idea what the play was about, Superintendent Pam Moran had to insist that in order to say “student voice matters” we had to make sure that, yes, controversial voices matter. When play rehearsals collided with sports practices most coaches bravely supported the drama program, widening the range of kids involved. When a wall splitting the drama room in half threatened effective meetings, Building Services snuck knocking down that wall to the top of a summer work list.

Because I need you to know, that you need to defend, support, and constantly run interference for the great, groundbreaking, risk-taking programs that rise up in your schools. It is only when your leadership keeps those promises, that systemic change grows.

And the payoff can look like this Tony Award, or it can simply be the chance to watch student-written, student-choreographed, student tech supported, student-directed theater that brings kids — all kinds of kids — together in something vitally important to their lives. It can simply be the chance to watch kids pursue their passions — and their own definitions of excellence — to their school and their community. Just as any true MakerSpace, any MakerSpace where kids are the decision-makers, can show you how joy and accomplishment can overtake your school.

Making a Tony Award is not easy. Making a great school is not easy. Both require great educators who are not just creative, but are self-confident enough to let learners lead. Both require strong support from the top. Both require leadership that checks egos at the door. Both require big risks and the ability to get past big failures. Both require the construction of a community that sees itself as fully ‘in this together.’

So, I need to salute Madeline Michel, the brilliant educator who leads this wonderful MakerSpace. I need to salute all the students Madeline mentioned Sunday night, and all those she couldn’t find time to list. I need to salute Pam Moran’s leadership that created a fearless school system.

I also need to salute the long hours Ms. Michel spent wandering the library, the cafeteria, the hallways, encouraging kids to take big risks. I need to salute all the kids she personally drove home after rehearsals so that they could be part of this program. I need to salute all the kids who worked double-hours or triple-hours, between school, theater, and jobs in order to pursue their passions. I need to salute Broadway stars who took time to Skype with these kids and offer love and encouragement. And, in the end I need to salute a philosophy that understands that learning through making, learning via passions, learning through the creative process is the true lifespan learning that really matters.

Michel isn’t into staging what she calls “fluff.” Monticello drama productions “have to have something in [them] that relates to a problem we’re facing in our world,” she says, or reflect the experiences and interests of MHS students, who come from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, the program has staged, among other productions, In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ musical with a hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and soul score; Leap of Faith, Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s musical about a charismatic con man posing as a man of faith; A King’s Story, St. Hill’s original play motivated by the stories of black men who have died as a result of police violence; and #WhileBlack, a play that Scott penned about racial profiling.”

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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