First Person

Breaking down perceptions of others helps students learn

Following the direction of John Keating — masterfully played by Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society — it was time to stand on the desk. Time to change not only our view but our approach as well. The students with whom we work each and every day — Gen Z’ers as they are now known — needed something more.

So at Yuma Middle School on Colorado’s eastern plains, we created MindWorks.

MindWorks is a combination of Brainology — an online program created by Drs. Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell of Stanford University — and project-based learning using inspiration from the works of Dweck, Blackwell, Angela Duckworth, and others in the field of brain development. To reinvigorate a passion for learning, MindWorks breaks down perceptions (one’s self or others’) that often limit what students are able to accomplish.

MindWorks has been incorporated into our counseling program at Yuma Middle School. At the helm of our counseling program is tech-geek/problem solver Elaine Menardi. She explains the need for the course this way:

“MindWorks is an integration class. Where core classes focus individually on math or science or language arts or social studies, MindWorks is a time to practice all of those skills simultaneously. Middle school students make up the core population of Generation Z and easily outpace our adult skills with their digital native intuitiveness.

Combine this with their uncanny ability to multitask and consume media and you have an explosive opportunity to take them to the next level academically. These students must be challenged to persevere through difficulty so we are focusing on key character traits like grit and curiosity.”

In addition to words like grit and curiosity, setback and obstacle, one will also hear us use the term growth mindset. It is a concept that is gaining popularity in the field of education and beyond. Research has shown us that one who possesses a growth mindset does not shy away from setback and failure; rather, the growth-minded person is one who uses those challenges as motivators to try harder and improve his or her character.

On the opposite side of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. The fixed-minded person is one who is unable to move forward when faced with obstacles. He or she operates with a perceived “ceiling” of ability disallowing for any type of positive, vertical movement.

I am passionate about using MindWorks to instill in students a growth mindset and to redefine what 21st century college and career readiness should mean. My support for this endeavor is inspired by an even greater cause: I want to shatter the misconception of what rural schools can achieve.

Rural districts like Yuma are faced with smaller budgets, limited personnel resources and inaccessibility due to location. Often the perception is that these limitations mean students cannot or should not be expected to compete with students in urban and suburban districts. This is a myth.

Still in its developmental stage, our desire is for MindWorks to instill in students a growth mindset and to reenergize and feed the intellectual fire that we know all students possess. In doing so we seek to uncover each student’s potential and help him or her embark on the educational journey with renewed energy.

The class meets for 30 minutes every other day and students engage in small group activities, online research and team collaboration.

Menardi further describes how students spend their class time.

“For the first semester, we have been focused on how our brains absorb and process information. If we view the brain as a muscle — which it is — students learn that practice and hard work in school grows their mental abilities in the same way that athletes improve at their sports.”

“By the end of the semester, we will have blogs, videos, Slide Shares, Blackout poems, cartoons, infographics and newspaper articles posted on the student website YumaMindWorks.com. It is a very exciting time at Yuma Middle School.”

There is a lot of misconception out there as to what a counseling program can truly provide a school. All too often, counselors are remanded to menial tasks and occasional chat sessions with students. Our philosophy is that a good counseling program can serve to meet the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

Standing on a desk shouting O Captain! My Captain! helped us envision a larger world for students and create a new path of learning that does more to meet the true needs of students. Already we see their growth and renewed energy for education.

I invite you to follow the research that has inspired us and to check us out on the web. The class website is YumaMindWorks.com. You can also visit the Yuma School District-1 YouTube Channel for a great look at some of the projects that have taken place thus far.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.