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.

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

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.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer 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 became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.