Tennessee

Laughter may be the newest way to meet academic standards, research says

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Some research shows academic performance improves when students learn how to work together in groups, such as these Whitehaven Elementary students at a 2014 STEM expo in Memphis.

Teachers poked fun at each other and made off-the-cuff remarks about the everyday stresses of working at low-income schools during a recent conference in Nashville. It’s a little-known fact that laughter is key to making students memorize lessons, a trainer told teachers in between quips about Teach For America recruits and unruly students.

The conference was geared toward training teachers to help students cope with social and emotional stresses that can sometimes distract from classroom learning.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has installed new learning standards, built academic academies in high school and increased the demands on teachers. But the district has also made a concerted effort to get teachers and students to bring a positive attitude to the classroom.

In 2012, they became the first district in the state – and one of only a handful in the nation –to hire a director of social and emotional learning. The director, Kyla Krengel, trains the district’s staff, from principals to bus drivers, on ways to help students cultivate skills like anger management, relationship building, and mindfulness. The thinking is that happier kids, with fewer discipline problems and the skills to cope with situations ranging from arguments with their best friend to extreme poverty, will more easily be able to focus on classroom lessons, leading to higher test scores.

“It’s not a curriculum that you have to sit back and teach,” said Tony Majors, the director of support services for Metro Nashville Schools. “It’s how you interact with children, it’s how you interact with adults.”

More than 400 educators from across Tennessee and eight other states attended last week’s conference at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch. The conference was sponsored by Metro Nashville Schools and Alignment Nashville, a non-profit committed to bring together community resources to help support public schools. For the first time this year, the conference was expanded to include more than 300 people outside the education sector, including mental health professionals and representatives from juvenile court.

Metro Nashville's director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.
Metro Nashville’s director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.

Teachers should share with students tasks that they find challenging, and tell students the tactics they use to overcome those challenges, said the keynote speaker, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s school of education.

Knowing that even adults find certain tasks difficult helps students feel like their struggles with academic material aren’t exceptional or insurmountable, she said. Throughout the conference speakers like Rimm-Kaufman emphasized that social and emotional learning is as much about teachers’ state of minds as students’.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our teachers, as well as our students,” said Dottie Critchlow, Nashville’s head of instructional support.

An example of how teachers’ own feelings impacts classroom learning caused one outbreak of laughter in a session called “Brain Scans to Lesson Plans” led by Tara Brown, president of an education consulting agency.

Brown was reminding teachers that students can sense their attitude by how they carry themselves in the classroom, which impacts the overall learning environment.

“Kids in poverty read non-verbal cues, too,” Brown told the classroom of teachers. “We’ve all seen scared little white teachers from Teach for America and lord have mercy, we know they’re going to get chewed up and spit out.”

Brown told teachers that showing their enthusiasm and excitement for teaching will demonstrate to students that they are “actually worth listening to.”   

Rimm-Kaufman also specifically addressed how social and emotional learning can help students master new Common Core math standards. In Tennessee, curricula based off the standards often promote group work. She said that show-and-tell in the morning, where students learn to listen and ask each other questions, helps students work together on complex math problems later in the day.

Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.

Administrators in the Metro Schools say they can feel a difference in schools since the district expanded social and emotional learning through a grant from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). But that difference can be hard to measure.

Krengel’s next project is to quantify the impacts of the districts’ work on social and emotional learning, which is so often manifested in intangibles, like laughter and relationships. She’s working to combine data on school discipline, attendance, drop-out rates, test scores, and classroom observations so Nashville can help share the impact of their work with other districts.

“The district is open to finding what really works,” she said.

 

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.