Anatomy of a classroom

A classroom where tech is the subject but teamwork’s the goal

PHOTO: Kate Schimel

At one of the work stations in Courtney Miller’s classroom at Slavens ECE-8 School on Thursday morning, two third graders argued over the design of a tower they were supposed to be building.

“You can’t just say the way we’re going to do it and make me do it,” Finn told his partner, Roman. Rather than work together, each boy was building his own. Finn’s design was visibly less sturdy, a fact which his partner attempted to demonstrate by pushing on it.

“You’re not just going to take mine apart,” Finn objected. In a quiet moment, Roman said he’d heard from other students that Finn was difficult to work with, a feeling Finn seemed to share about his partner. Their bickering continued until the bell rang.

The generation of this kind of mutual frustration is all part of the learning process in Miller’s STEM classroom, which is in its second year. STEM, an acronym which refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics-focused education, is getting increasing attention from state and national leaders for the potential to prepare students for a tech-centric future. But it has also drawn attention as part of a wider initiative for student-directed learning, which is what Miller has taken as the primary focus of her classroom.

That’s at least in part a result of her own skill set.

“My principal would tell you I’m not the most tech-savvy person he’s ever met,” said Miller. Instead, she says she brings a willingness to learn new things, to struggle — and to tolerate a little chaos. “[Student-driven learning] has to be messy at some points. You have to comfortable with mess.”

Her noisy classroom is full of students working largely independent of Miller in order to solve technological dilemmas ranging from programming a robot to making a design to print out with a 3D printer. As for her instruction, it’s mostly focused on making sure the classroom is a space where students are constantly challenged.

One of the fundamentals she has created in each class is pairs of students who challenge each other. Take, for example, Finn and Roman.

“I put them together because of their own differences,” she said. Both boys are headstrong. But Finn, she has observed, is more willing to experiment but bad at communicating his ideas. Roman tends to stick with the familiar but is much better at communicating.

“It could be a really great collaboration,” Miller said.

And they’ve already made progress. For example, she pushed them to find a way to combine their towers, despite their disagreements. By the end of class, Finn had found a way to combine his with Roman’s, if reluctantly.

But it’s not just about students’ differences. In the following class, she put two students together who always make the same mistake: failing to read directions and plan ahead.

She encourages students to seek each other out first and to research before they come to her for a fix. That pair sought her out multiple times throughout the class when they became frustrated. Each time, she directed them to the directions she’d provided or encouraged to them to do a little research.

“When they’re with someone else, their partner rescues them,” she said. Now that they’re stuck with another person with the same flaw, she hopes they’ll learn to slow down and plan ahead.

Still, even she can become frustrated when students are struggling with each other.

“In my head, I say, ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient,’” said Miller. But she’s had to learn to work differently than teachers do in most other classrooms.

“The problems to solve, they will have to deal with them all the time in here,” she said. That won’t happen if she resolves things for them.

As the morning progressed, the classroom filled up with middle schoolers. The eighth graders were deep into their projects and were beginning to tackle a set of increasingly challenging dilemmas.

One pair of girls were tossing a ballon at aluminum panels taped to desk. The balloon was supposed to activate electrical circuits hooked to the panels that then somehow played piano chords online. The girls hoped to be able to play a simple song like “Jingle Bells” with the complex tool. But when they tried to actually hit a note with the balloon, the circuits wouldn’t fire and no sound came out. They tried a variety of solutions — creating more surface area for the balloons to make contact with, readjusting the circuits, trying different angles of bounce — until their test balloon popped. Unfazed, they replaced it with a tennis ball.

A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.
A student tests out her electronic piano, played using a tennis ball.

For Miller, that sort of problem-solving and resolve is the most important thing students could leave her class with. But getting them to see it that way is its own challenge.

“The stuff in here is fun, but you’re learning big stuff,” said Miller. But for students, especially middle schoolers, she has found that “they equate hard with ‘I took that multiple choice test in social studies and studied all night.’”

She pushes them to pay attention to what they learn in her class so they can use it once they leave school. But her students aren’t the only ones she’s worried about valuing the class. She’ll be evaluated for the first time since launching the STEM lab this fall and she’s not sure how her observer will take her class.

“I did email her and say, ‘This classroom doesn’t look like many others,’” said Miller. “Quite honestly, I’m a little nervous.”

One big difference from other classes: less focus on the new state standards. STEM is often invoked in conjunction with the standards and their national counterparts and Miller recognizes their importance. But she and her principal agreed they wouldn’t be a primary focus in her STEM lab.

“When I was a language arts teachers, I combed them,” said Miller. All the material the students grapple with is tied to their grade-level expectations but that’s as far as she goes with the standards.

That approach is an easy one to take at a school like high-performing, relatively affluent Slavens, Miller acknowledges. But she sees benefits for other schools, too.

“I’ve never been in a place where engagement and excitement is so normal and palpable,” said Miller. “The behaviors that may be problematic in other classrooms just melt away.”

Her main goal is creating “that place that makes students love school.” That, she says, is something all schools could benefit from.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.