Teaching Creativity

Teachers find space to teach creativity, teamwork under new standards

Teachers at the Odyssey School have a mandate from their school leaders, math teacher Ali Morgan said recently. Their charge is to figure out where the new Common Core academic standards intersect with the skills students will need to find jobs in an increasingly white-collar job force.

These new standards require students to learn fewer subjects in areas like math, but in deeper detail, encouraging students to think critically about the questions and collaborate with their peers to find solutions.

“In my mind, that’s asking us as teacher to prepare students to interact effectively with others, while deepening involvement in the content,” Morgan said.

That challenge — finding the balance between meeting new education standards and teaching students to be collaborative and critical thinkers — is one of the many issues Morgan and about 10 other Denver teachers touched on as part of a workshop held last week at Galvanize as part of Summer Institute, a professional development program.

Teachers at the Odyssey School find this balance in a number of ways. Students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of Common Core skills for their grade level, while also demonstrating habits the school has identified as crucial to success: responsibility, revision, inquiry, perspective taking, collaboration and leadership, and service and stewardship. Morgan’s sixth grade math class focuses on the habit of inquiry, generating and analyzing questions to better understand the content.

Morgan said the way students are taught at the Odyssey School, although not directly related, correlate with Common Core. At the end of each year students’ growth is measured in all subjects, and they are given the opportunity to discuss with their teachers how the habits taught in class influenced their success. Allowing students to reflect on their year’s work makes the chances of them retaining it higher.

Teaching Soft Skills

Panelist Brett Goldberg, an entrepreneur who works at software company FieldTek, Inc., said while tech skills are important, teaching kids good communication and collaboration are key to successful businesses and work environments.

“They may be considered soft skills, but they can make or break a company,” Goldberg said.

That is what many teachers are focusing on in their lesson plans. Patrick Seamars, a Spanish teacher at Manual High School, said his classrooms are very collaboration-heavy and project-based.

While several of the educators at the panel agreed that this model of teaching is beneficial, the problem lies in teaching students to think critically and work with one another in an environment that is extremely test-intensive and individualistic.

“(The schools) seem to know that and hear that — the importance of soft skills like communication — but with the reform movement it’s more about getting the correct answers on a test,” Allan Cutler, a librarian at Stanley British Primary School, said.

Teachers’ Concerns

Several teachers said the big challenge is time: school districts have set up a short time frame to implement the Common Core and teachers said they struggle to find the time to introduce the collaboration and critical thinking lessons.

Seamars said students need to be taught that failure is a positive thing in the learning process, but the current learning environment does not allow that. He said in high school — at a time where it is crucial to learn how to cooperate and communicate effectively — students are uncomfortable with it.

“It’s not OK in the current paradigm to fail,” he said. “My classes have always been project based and (students) feel uncomfortable, but if I give them an assignment and tell them, ‘Read this, fill in this blank, read this and tell me what you think I want to hear,’ then they thrive, and that’s unfortunate.”

Lori Nazareno, teacher leader in residence at the Center for Teaching Quality, said there is a dissonance between what educators want to teach and what they can teach.

“We want to create cooperative, collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial spirits in students, in a way that says ‘OK, you have to sit in this row and fill in this bubble’,” Nazareno said.

Coglianese said that problem is also seen in his own company. He recently made several new hires and sees how uncomfortable they are with being on their own and generating unique ideas.

“I’m teaching them on a daily basis,” he said. “That look your students have on their face when you tell them to work on a new project is the same look they have.” They look terrified and the reason they look terrified is they don’t yet have enough information to feel confident doing that.

Nazareno said it will take teachers like Morgan and Seamars to effectively integrate these changes. Gaps between what teachers currently teach and what they need to teach to meet these standards will take time, space and support from school administrations and the public as they try to align their lesson plans with the students needs and the standards.

Update: This article has been updated. It previously stated that Summer Institute was held in part by the University of Colorado Denver, when UCD only provided space for one of the program’s workshops.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.