Doing the math

Trying to sort out Tennessee’s new math standards? These educators are doing it for you.

As mathematics director for Tennessee’s second largest school district, David Williams faced down several daunting tasks over the summer.

The Nashville educator had to figure out how to deal with the aftermath of the state’s cancellation of its end-of-year test, and the accompanying lack of data. He had to wade through Tennessee’s new math standards and how to train teachers on the differences. And then there’s the perennial challenge of making education equitable, with all kids having access to rigorous coursework.

Williams soon realized there was no reason to figure it out on his own. His counterparts across the state have the same challenges, he figured, so why not work together?

In August, Williams convened a group of math coordinators and instructional coaches from nearby districts to form the Mid-Cumberland Math Consortium, a kind of support group for educators working through common challenges with math instruction. Leaders from Cheatham, Dickson, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson counties showed up to the first meeting.

“We’re all dealing with the same issues,” explained Williams, now interim director of curriculum and instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But he didn’t want the group to be all talk. “There are a lot of groups that just talk. I wanted products,” he said.

So the group took on the task of creating grade-by-grade guides to help teachers tackle the state’s new math standards, which replace the Common Core State Standards and will go into effect next school year.

There are hundreds of standards that identify what students should know at the end of each grade. For any one district, highlighting the changes would have been a huge task. But consortium members divided them up and have spent the last few months collaborating via Google Docs to create a color coded guide: green for additional standards, red for those removed, and orange when the wording changed.

The guides are meant to save teachers time so they can focus on adjusting their teaching to the changes. They also will help district officials design professional development programs.

The State Department of Education isn’t developing similar guides, but enthusiastically supports the work of the consortium and similar collaborations, said spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Unlike the last time Tennessee switched math standards in 2011, the changes for next year aren’t drastic because the revision committee used the Common Core as a foundation rather than starting from scratch. That makes the differences in this transition more subtle, but no less substantive, according to Williams.

"Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it."David Williams, Metro Nashville Public Schools

“Some of the revisions are so minute that if you don’t pay attention to the detail, you might miss it,” he said. “If you don’t have some document telling you (what’s) new, it won’t be in your curricular materials; it won’t be in your (professional development).”

Consortium members have brought different levels of grassroots expertise to the project. Joseph Jones, mathematics coordinator for Cheatham County Schools, chaired Tennessee’s standards review committee for math and brought a wealth of knowledge and documents to help create the guides. He’s also helping the state develop professional development opportunities around the new standards, which means he can help districts avoid redundancies. And Williams served as the math coordinator for the entire state for three years, until 2015.

“With this group, it’s a benefit to all of us, that we can have each other’s insights, that we have different information from each other … so we can all move forward more efficiently,” he said.

The consortium will meet again in November and plans to finalize its guides. But what’s next on their agenda, neither Williams or Jones can say.

“We’re just a bunch of like-minded math leaders discussing issues,” Jones said. “I can bounce ideas off of people I respect quite a bit.”

Scrutinizing Content

You’ve heard what Buzzfeed thinks about Tennessee’s social studies standards. Here’s what teachers say.

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
The civil rights movement, depicted in displays (above) at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, is among Tennessee-specific topics that would be reorganized in the state's proposed new social studies standards.

Mark Finchum loves to teach his social studies students about Nancy Ward, a Native American who brokered peace between European settlers and Cherokee Indians in what is now East Tennessee.

Ward isn’t identified in Tennessee’s proposed new standards for social studies. But Finchum says that doesn’t mean she’s not important, or that his students at Jefferson County High School won’t get to learn about her. He’ll make time between teaching state standards to tell students about her, too.

Most people weighing in on Tennessee’s controversial new social studies standards have been teachers like Finchum — voices largely missing from debate that has spilled onto national media sites like Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

The standards have generated controversy two years in a row. Last year, concerns about an overrepresentation of Islam in seventh-grade world history propelled them to national headlines. This year, Tennessee has been derided in media reports that lessons about Islam, as well as important events in the civil rights and women’s movements, may be cut out of revisions.

Social studies, which includes civics, history, geography, and economics, has been a flashpoint across the nation in recent years, including concerns that politics and cultural values are bleeding into curriculum or textbooksTennessee is one of the few states to open up its standards revision process to the public, the result of a 2015 state law.

The state-appointed Standards Review Committee responded this month to the recent hoopla over social studies by extending its public review by six weeks to December. Now, Tennessee residents have more time to weigh in on what historical facts the state’s students should know at each grade level.

So far, 65 percent of reviews of the proposed standards have come from K-12 teachers, according to data presented Friday to the panel monitoring the process.

Tennessee’s review wasn’t actually due until 2018, but teachers had complained they were having to teach too many standards; then the process was hastened by controversy over instruction about Islam.

Overall, teachers participating in the review process thus far prefer the proposed standards to current ones. In the first public online review, which was open to any Tennessee resident, 64 percent of the reviews were to keep current standards, a contrast to last year’s examination of the Common Core standards for math and English, where most reviewers were happy with the existing standards.

In the last two years, Tennessee has launched standards reviews of all four core subjects, and social studies is the last one to be wrapped up. So far, the proposed social studies revision has the highest percentage of approval for standards of any subject, according to the State Board of Education.

Finchum, a former president of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies, said he welcomes a set of slimmed-down standards. Under the current ones, he’s expected to cover 105 standards in a 180-day school year. The proposed revision has only 84. Still, he isn’t thrilled with some of the cuts. He’d like a course in Tennessee history to be required instead of elective. But it’s impossible to please everyone, he acknowledges.

“Whatever the decision is, however they look at the end, I’ll agree with a lot of that, and disagree with some,” said Finchum, who attended a roundtable about the draft earlier this month in Knoxville. “There will never be a complete consensus, but trimming will be helpful.”

Other teachers say they already adapt their lessons according to current standards and expect to do the same with the new ones, which will reach classrooms in the 2019-20 school year.

Amelia Klug, a fifth-grade teacher at Valor Collegiate Academy in Nashville, says the standards are only one of many components of designing her curriculum — what materials to use in class, and how she structures lessons. The focus of her class is social justice: Is the American Dream accessible to everyone? Why or why not?

“I take the standards and ask questions that allow my students to relate history to their own lives and experiences,” Klug said. For instance, the high number of current standards only allows for two to three days to teach about the civil rights movement, so she incorporates the topic in other lessons. “I don’t necessarily feel tied back,” she said.

a unifying force

Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

Upset about the election result and wanting to act, Cheetah McClellan was excited to learn that women from across the country were planning to march on Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Then she checked out prices on flights and hotel rooms, and remembered she was earning a beginning teacher’s salary.

Maybe, she thought, Denver ought to have its own women’s march. After searching fruitlessly online for anyone planning such a thing, McClellan created a Facebook event page, shared it with some left-leaning social media sites and waited.

By the next morning, 800 people had signed up for an event that was more of an idea at that point.

Not long after, McClellan connected with a couple of similarly inspired local women — Karen Hinkel and Jessica Rogers — and plans for the Women’s March on Denver began to take shape.

PHOTO: Stan Obert
Cheetah McClellan

On Saturday, a larger-than-anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park in a display of what organizers described as a united front for equality and women’s rights after Trump’s ascension to the White House.

McClellan, 42, came to teaching later in life after working as a bartender, waitress and astrologer who did readings and wrote a column about astrology, she said. McClellan completed her teacher licensure through a University of Colorado Denver residency program, and is now pursuing a master’s in culturally and linguistically diverse education.

This school year, McClellan is doing math intervention work on a one-year contract at Colfax Elementary School in Denver, which has a large number of Latino students living in poverty.

We caught up with McClellan after the march she helped lead. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What led you to become a teacher?

Life just kind of pulled me in that direction. I was volunteering at my kids’ school, doing writing groups with kids. The school secretary said, “Do you want a job?” So I became a paraprofessional. Then I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

There is something so beautiful about a child’s mind that is just so wide open and eager to learn. There is nothing more fulfilling to me that hearing, “Miss, I get it.”

Why did you invest so much energy in the organization of this march? What motivated you?

I have always considered myself to be politically aware and informed. I’ve always voted, I try to be vocal and have conversations with people. But I never was super-active. Last year, I was doing student teaching for my residency. Even before Trump was the (Republican) nominee, kids were scared. I was working with fourth graders, and literally every single day a student would ask me a question about Trump that revolved around fear. “Will they really deport us? Will my mom and dad have to go back to Mexico?” While we want students to be aware of politics, they were not just aware of it, they were emotionally affected by it. They were scared. That just really bothered me. The day after the election, the whole fifth-grade class was sobbing.

My son has Asperger Syndrome. So when Trump mocks a disabled person, it irks you. My daughter identifies with the LGBT community. She said she was so scared. All this got me mad.

Have you brought any of your work organizing the march into the classroom, used it in your teaching in any way?

Some of the kids know what I’ve been doing. But it’s not something I have been able to discuss in more of an academic way. Moving forward, I am actively looking for a teaching position next year and I’m definitely excited to bring this into the classroom — especially in Colorado, where we have such a rich history of the women’s movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Continuing to empower girls at the same time educating boys that empowered girls are not a threat: That’s how I’d like to incorporate it into the classroom. This is definitely something that is not ending.

So what does come next?

We are working to create a nonprofit organization out of this. We want to move forward with it but we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look like at this point. I am hoping it becomes a platform for community networking and — as I have called it — legislative meddling. We want to make sure we have an impact on laws and the legislative process as citizens.

Beyond that, on a broader level what do you hope will come out of the energy and enthusiasm?

I hope to see people just continue to be active in their community. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of hiding behind our keyboard, hiding behind social media. We have tensions in our communities. We still have a lot of racial tensions in our communities. What you saw Saturday was all these different people coming out because they care about a central issue. We have to continue that — to try to find opportunities for people to sit in the same room together and work together on issues they care about.

The march was a sea of signs. Did you have a favorite?

That is a hard question. I loved them all. One of my favorites was a small sign by a man that said, “Gay, Muslim and fifth-generation Coloradan.” I just felt, “Wow.” It was the simplicity of it, and him just saying, “This is who I am.”

What do you say to those who think the marches are sour grapes about a lost election, and that this ultimately won’t make any difference? 

I would say, look at the history books. Take a class on civics. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a different approach to the civil rights movement.On Saturday, we had numerous state legislators marching with us and on stage. It sends a strong message to those in power. And it also unites the community.

OK, I need to ask. Is “Cheetah” a nickname? Where did that come from?

It’s an old bowling nickname. It has been around for about 25 years. That’s who I am.

Any closing thoughts?

One of the larger messages I’d like to pass along is you don’t have to be someone special or a board member or a politician to impact real change in your community. You just have to be a little bit brave and a little bit crazy.