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.

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”

draining the pool

New York City principals balk at plan to place teachers in their schools; some vow to get around it

PHOTO: Maura Walz
A social studies class at New Design High School, where Scott Conti is principal.

Many New York City principals are unhappy that the city is planning to place teachers directly into their schools — and in some cases, they’re vowing resistance.

Department of Education officials announced last week that they would place up to half of the 822 teachers who currently do not have positions into jobs that haven’t been filled by Oct. 15. Those teachers are part of the Absent Teacher Reserve, a collection of educators moved to the pool for disciplinary reasons or when their positions were eliminated. They remain on the city payroll in an arrangement that has generated political tension for years.

The move by the city reverses Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s promise in 2014 to avoid “forced placement” and raises questions about principals’ already fraying sense of autonomy. The city claims the plan is not forced placement because it would only apply to vacancies, as opposed to displacing teachers who are already employed. Regardless, many principals aren’t on board.

Some say they’ll avoid any attempt to place teachers at their schools, even if that means obscuring open jobs from the city’s hiring systems past October.

“I’m going to make sure my school doesn’t have a vacancy,” said one Bronx principal who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I’m not going to post a vacancy if someone will place an ATR there. I’ll be as strategic as I can and figure out another way.”

Some principals raised concerns about the quality of the teachers in the pool. Education department officials could not readily provide the percentage of teachers in the pool who are there for disciplinary reasons, but a 2014 report estimated it at 25 percent. The same report said another third had received unsatisfactory ratings and half hadn’t held a classroom position in two years or more.

“Many of them have been coming from schools that have been closed down or subject areas that were cut,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “The majority of them were at schools that were highly dysfunctional.” He noted that some may have been out of the classroom for years and not getting proper professional development, effectively hindering their performance as teachers.

Conti said he did hire a teacher from the ATR pool three years ago, through the standard procedure he would use to hire other teachers. He objects to the idea of being forced to hire someone whose effectiveness he could not fully judge.

“It’s never good when somebody from outside a school decides to fill in a vacancy in a school,” Conti said. “ It’s scary that some teacher could be put in your school that you have no choice about.”

Other principals were more harsh. One Bronx principal said multiple experiences working with ATR teachers sent to the school for monthly rotations in the past left the impression that those in the reserve are “not qualified, with very few exceptions.” Other principals agreed, suggesting that if the teachers were high-quality candidates, they probably would have found positions on their own.

To circumvent the new policy, some principals said they might check in with all their teachers early in the hiring period to be aware of potential future vacancies. If there is a vacancy in October, others said they’d consider hiring a long-term substitute to fill the position rather than leaving it open to an ATR placement.

The city says the new approach will be more stable than having teachers in the ATR rotate monthly, and will allow schools to more closely support and supervise the teachers in their building. It plans to work closely with principals on the hiring.

“We will work to find the right fit, and hear and work through concerns that they might have,” education department spokesman Will Mantell told Chalkbeat last week. “But ultimately, we do have discretion to place an educator in a vacancy that exists, and it kind of makes sense.”

Schools will still have final say over whether the teachers are permanently hired. If at the end of the school year, the teacher is rated as “effective” or “highly effective” in the observation portion of their evaluation — performed by principals or other school administrators — that teacher will be permanently hired to that school.

It is unclear if any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have a background of poor disciplinary conduct, or if the teachers placed would come solely from the share that are in the pool because they were excessed.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” education officials said.

Last year, the city offered an incentive system to encourage schools to hire from the ATR pool. During that school year, 372 teachers were hired from the ATR pool under a DOE policy that subsidized the cost of the teachers’ first-year salaries by 50 to 100 percent. Those incentives will not be offered with the placements expected this fall.

Daniel Russo, principal of Walton Avenue School in the Bronx, said he has had positive experiences with the two teachers he hired from ATR pool in previous years. He added that though ATR teachers sometimes have a gap because they are coming from a different school — and sometimes not a high-performing school — his school is able to fill that gap and assimilate the teacher to the school’s culture and expectations.

Still, he noted, finding the right fit between candidates and schools could be a “challenging undertaking” for the city.

New Design’s Conti fears that challenge will disproportionately fall on schools like his that struggle with fluctuating enrollment.

“These teachers are not going to end up at Lab, they will end up at places like New Design where the positions will open up,” Conti said, referring to the selective and successful NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. “Schools with the most unstable populations, serving the neediest kids is where the low-functioning teachers will end up.”