Anatomy of a lesson

How one Memphis school is showing that the Achievement School District isn’t all about test scores

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A student at Libertas School of Memphis spells out words next to pictures as part of his independent learning time at the Montessori school in the Frayser community.

With its first year under its belt, Libertas School of Memphis brings a different approach to boosting test scores in chronically low-performing schools than do its fellow state-authorized charter schools.

A Montessori school, Libertas teaches content through experience. Worksheets and test skill lessons are rare. Instead, students learn by working with blocks, beads, wooden letters and other materials.

“If you’re doing it with your hands, then of course you’re going to be able to do it on paper,” said teacher Paula Payne. “They’re not just learning something for a test. … (Testing) is not the best way to learn it.”

And yet, testing and test prep are a daily focus of other schools within the Achievement School District, or ASD. The state-run district takes over schools with some of the state’s worst test scores and usually assigns them to charter networks charged with significantly raising those scores.

But at Libertas, formerly known as Brookmeade Elementary School under Shelby County Schools, testing does not have the appearance of being front and center in daily lessons. In Tennessee, standardized testing doesn’t begin until the third grade, and Libertas now only serves students in preschool through the second grade.

The school plans to phase in an additional grade each year, however. When Libertas adds the school’s first tested grade next fall, its teachers are confident the Montessori model will transition well.

Late last school year, Chalkbeat spent 30 minutes one afternoon inside Marva Bell’s classroom, where a mix of 25 preschoolers, kindergarteners and first-graders worked mostly independently under the supervision of Bell and two teaching assistants. Here’s what we saw:

A classroom at Libertas School of Memphis with students from pre-K to first grade working in the same room. The charter operator is authorized by the state-run Achievement School District and took over Brookmeade Elementary School in 2015.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Students work on small mats scattered around a classroom at Libertas School of Memphis.

1:45 p.m. The classroom has carpet in the center and no desks. Around the room’s perimeter are stations for various subjects with materials that students pull from to work on their own small floor mats around the room.

One 6-year-old student spells out two sentences using small wooden letters — red ones for consonants, blue ones for vowels — based on the previous week’s lesson in sentence structure.

“I want a shark. They so cool,” the student spells out. Bell shows him the missing verb in his second sentence and moves on to another student.

1:50 p.m. One kindergartener works on a chart using beginning word sounds — such as “cl,” “sh” and “br” — and a stack of pictures. He attempts to match the name of the object in the picture to its corresponding word sound.

Though each of these exercises could be done with pencil and paper, Bell said the variety and experience help the lessons stick. “Everything (with Montessori) is always concrete to abstract,” said Bell, noting that the paper-and-pencil approach to building testing knowledge is too abstract for children. “The constant worksheets and the constant staying in your seat is not work.”

Libertas School of Memphis teacher Marva Bell checks a student's work at the end of the day.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Teacher Marva Bell checks a student’s work.

1:55 p.m. Students carry clipboards showing the types of lessons they need to work on that day. Bell checks on another student who is using wooden letters to spell out words that describe a picture. Her teaching assistants also roam the room checking on student work and helping as needed.

2:10 p.m. The first student brings his completed clipboard to Bell. Since it’s a Friday, she reviews and asks questions about the week’s lessons to hear what he learned.

Each day’s lessons fall into four categories: math; reading and writing; social studies and science; and sensorial, which is any activity that employs the five senses. Sensorial activities include matching bell tones or fitting wooden cylinders of varying lengths and thickness into holes. “They get to process through movement,” Bell said. “They’re biologically wired to move. … Many teachers across the world are realizing we need to do something different.”

2:13 p.m. As lessons come to a close, Bell suggests that students, depending on their learning level, find either a sensorial activity or read.

around the world

VIDEO: Second-graders take their Memphis school on a global tour

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A second-grader teaches younger students about India, a country she studied this year at John P. Freeman Optional School.

Dressed in garments representing 30 countries, students at one Memphis school threw a world-class celebration to mark the last week of the school year for Shelby County Schools.

Second-graders at John P. Freeman Optional School created displays about countries they’ve been studying and invited their families and other students to take a tour.

Called Global Fest, the annual event was organized by teacher Melissa Collins, who has traveled to India and Brazil through several global teaching programs. Her teaching style aims to bring those experiences to life for her students.

“Global Fest is important to me because it gives the students a different perspective of other people around the world,” Collins said.

Watch what we saw and heard Thursday during this year’s Global Fest.

Global Fest at John P. Freeman Optional School, Memphis from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.