talking it out

Memphis teachers share how they foster conversations about social justice in the classroom all year long

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Freedom School teacher Lozie Guy (right) walks his class through an exercise where they build their own family trees during the summer learning program at Frayser Achievement Elementary School in Memphis.

The killings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas this week have brought conversations about race and policing to the forefront of national conversation.

But for educators and students in Memphis, where about 70 percent of people identify as a person of color and 27 percent of people live in poverty, discussions about race, violence, and justice are part of everyday life.

Here’s what five Memphis educators had to say about sparking thoughtful conversations about social justice within their classrooms. (The interviews have been edited and condensed.)

 Blake Barber, fifth grade teacher at Frayser Achievement Elementary School

Last year we talked about Tamir Rice because he is so close to their age and yet was seen as a dangerous threat by the police. In our classroom we have four corners of the class representing different emotions. Red is angry, blue is sad, green is calm and yellow is for happy. And, of course, all of them were in either red or blue and as their teacher I allowed them to articulate why they felt that.

My kids don’t get to be 10-year-olds, people look at them and see 21-year-olds. My role as a teacher is helping them form their own identity. And to do that, I’m making sure my fiction books have black protagonists. And making sure my nonfiction books have more than just slavery. African-American history is so much richer. All so they can form their own black identity. Part of that is making sure I’m well read and searching for elementary books with people of color to add to my classroom library.

Blake Barber
Blake Barber (Photo by Katie Barber)

One day a student told me he felt worthless and didn’t have what it takes to do well in school. When Black Lives Matter came out, it wasn’t just about police. It’s about an entire history of society telling them they don’t matter. Society is saying it loud enough that a 10-year-old student is picking up on that narrative.

I can go home at the end of the night and not have to deal with what they have to. As a teacher I’m asking, “How can I deal with my whiteness so I can help them deal with how society sees their blackness?”

Jade Anderson, first grade teacher at the Memphis Business Academy

It’s a coincidence that we have been reading a book about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and have been teaching the kids about segregation. In the midst of that, I first asked the students about the things they’ve been reading on the news, and then asked them what does that look like to them.

Since the majority of my students are African American, I asked if they feel like they are less than white people. Even today, do you feel that way? And they said yes. I explained to them why that isn’t the truth, and talked about why they are important. I wanted to instill in them how beautiful, strong, and powerful they are.

Jordan Mann, school operations manager and former algebra teacher at Hillcrest High School

I think we need to give our students a safe space to process what’s happening, especially because a lot of what’s happening is obviously racially motivated. And there needs to be a healthy way of expressing that frustration. Aggressive retaliation is not the answer.

I would always make a point of asking the students how they are feeling about what’s going on. Students too often aren’t given a space to process and express emotions about certain things. If they don’t, because they’re young, they’ll act out.

At first it’s often very difficult because maybe they’re not comfortable doing that especially with me, since I don’t have the same background. But over time as I keep asking and caring, they open up and we can talk about it. Teachers have a huge role to play in helping students process their emotions in a mature way.

Erin Magliozzi, math teacher at the Memphis Business Academy

One of the things that I was really kind of stumped on at the beginning of the summer is, “How do I make math relevant to my students’ lives and how do I make it relevant to what’s going on in the world?”

Some of the other teachers have been talking about the public housing issues and using that data to teach their math lessons. It allows them to be able to talk about how math is reflected in public housing issues. It’s not just about the content and numbers, but how you can actually use these skills to combat the issues that our students are facing every day.

We are always asked, “What’s the bigger picture that you’re trying to help connect your students to?” Whether or not it’s in the lesson plan, we can always make those connections and help our students make those connections, to set the stage for safe, empowering conversations of how we can combat these issues outside of the classroom.

Jocquell Rodgers, Green Dot Tennessee leadership, former teacher and Memphis native

Jocquell Rodgers
Jocquell Rodgers

Yesterday, my husband and I were walking in the park recently and there were these little kids maybe 5 to 9-year-olds. And they said to my husband who is real big and tall and they said, “Hey, police!” We didn’t turn around but we were the only ones in the park. My husband turned around and the child said, “F*** the police.” That really goes back to what is going in the community. We really have to spend some time talking to our children about the role of the police. Even though there have been some negative things happening in the community, the police are there to protect and serve. I really do believe that. There’s some bad teachers. There are bad people wherever you go. But I believe most police officers are there for the greater good.

Every day for 30 minutes, our middle school students have “advisory” where we normally do character development. And when tragedy strikes, that is a time we can talk about it.

In our high schools, teachers engage with students on current events through the text they are studying. We connect “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson with social justice issues going on today. We help our students understand social justice.

We really try to work with student and teacher mindsets. We have a different responsibility in school now. Our responsibility is to educate children not just academically but socially. And emotionally we have a greater service to children than we did when I started teaching in 1998. We didn’t live in a digitally open society. We didn’t have this greater awareness of what was happening in the rest of the world unless you watched the news. And children didn’t watch the news. So it was like you were on your own island. But now, everything is right here in your face and you can’t get away from it. It is so important that we have conversations with our employees, with our children. We have a responsibility to teach social relations including with the police. It’s both processing what’s going on in the world and how to respond. Teachers need to be able to build that kind of relationship where students will talk with them about it.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman and Grace Tatter contributed to this story.

How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.

How I Teach

An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain

PHOTO: File Photo

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Cheryl Mosier’s favorite lesson about the properties of light waves is one that her students enjoy, too. Some spend all day Snapchatting about it.

But the lesson also brings up painful memories for the Columbine High School earth science teacher because she was teaching it the day of the deadly shooting there in 1999.

Mosier stopped teaching the lesson for a few years, but ultimately brought it back into the mix. In fact, a video of that lesson was part of the package that earned her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2007.

Mosier shared her thoughts on how she builds relationships with students, why she’s always nice to custodians and secretaries, and what she reads for fun.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I first taught when I volunteered at my local swimming pool during swim lessons. I knew then that teaching fit my personality as I had the ability to have fun and teach content. During high school, I was inspired by my math and science teachers (Ms. Finnegan and Ms. Chaloupka) as they were able to make math and science accessible for all students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ___________Why?

My husband. He teaches literally next door to me, and teaches earth science. We collaborate on everything and help each other solve problems as they arise. We are each other’s sounding boards and he keeps me sane and I keep him thinking outside the box. He hates it when I attend a conference or meeting because I make him change something else.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

Fingerprints of Light — on spectroscopy — is honestly my favorite, but also my most dreaded. I was teaching that lesson on April 20, 1999, so it took me a couple of years to do it again with students.

During the 2007 school year, I applied for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and this lesson was the one my husband filmed for the application. I found out a year later that I was the awardee, so this lesson holds a special place in my heart.

Another reason I love this lesson is seeing the excitement of my students. We use the diffraction grating in “Rainbow Peepholes” — small disks with the grating in the middle to look through — which act as tiny prisms splitting the light into the basic wavelengths. This is the one lesson that is Snapchatted all day long – they love taking pictures of the different lights and make some amazing stories.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students typically collaborate in class and have the opportunity to retake quizzes and tests in an effort to help them learn the content rather than just do the work. When they don’t understand they ask someone – a friend or me to help them figure it out.

My students have to adjust to my style, though, as I make them tell me where in their work their understanding broke down. They have to be able to specifically state where they are stuck, rather than just saying “I don’t get it” because I will ask them “What don’t you get? Show me where you got stuck.” Larger issues of learning styles are managed on an individual basis as I know that not every student can learn from watching videos. So those get addressed as needed and as students recognize what does and doesn’t work for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task? To a casual observer, my students are constantly off task in my room, because they are working collaboratively. Freshmen are very social creatures, and need to be able to interact with each other. At the beginning of the year, I train them in the major tasks for each class, so they know what to expect each block.

If I need to, I’ll put a phone in “phone jail” if they are being distracted by it, but this isn’t very often. One trick I use at the beginning to refocus them is to raise my hand, as they raise their hand, they close their mouth and pass the message to others. Sounds cheesy, but it’s super effective as they are learning how to manage my class.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Every fall, students fill out a Who Am I form that I stole from Pinterest. They get to see my responses and ask me questions, allowing them to get to know me as a human being.

I also have them write down anything I might need to know as a teacher about them, past what is in their school records, similar to the #Iwishmyteacherknew campaign. This opportunity gives me perspective on their individual needs and helps me understand what they might get overwhelmed by each year, or what they might need differently for science learning. As each class is mostly work time, this allows me to interact with my students answering questions, clarifying directions and listening to their conversations.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of the main reasons I do my own version of #Iwishmyteacherknew is because of an interaction I had with a family in May last year. I had struggled with a particular student all year long, his behavior was obnoxious daily and he constantly was off task, pulling others off task with him and generally working towards being removed from his peers every block as he just couldn’t handle being in the room.

In May, the family requested a meeting with teachers and the counselor, where we found out that this student has Aspergers. Had I known that, our interactions would have been different because I would have known more about him and his needs as a learner and human in society. Once I heard this, we were able to work with each other each day, instead of constantly playing tug-of-war.

What are you reading for enjoyment? I tend to read teen dystopian novels, because they are fun and fast reads with a bit of science fiction mixed in. I also like to read books that my son might enjoy, even if it takes him months to try one, only to realize Mom was right and the book is lots of fun to read!

What’s the best advice you ever received? In my first teaching job, I was told to never make the custodian or secretary mad at you as they can make your life miserable. This has stayed with me, because it’s so amazingly true. My room is typically cleaner than others because I smile and talk with the custodian. I can talk my way into “favors” with the office staff because I know our school would quickly fall apart without them. Schools wouldn’t and couldn’t run day to day without our educational support colleagues!