Gun shy

Some Colorado officials wanted fourth-graders to learn about the benefits of guns. Here’s why it won’t happen

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Luciano Martingano works on answering questions on a worksheet during a social studies class at Meiklejohn Elementary in Arvada.

Colorado fourth-graders won’t be asked to demonstrate their understanding of the possible benefits of gun ownership as part of their unit on conflict resolution.

Republican members of the State Board of Education had proposed adding language to state standards that spoke to the benefits of gun ownership for self-defense. But on Wednesday they decided against pressing the issue with their Democratic colleagues. The discussion came at the tail end of months of work to update Colorado’s academic standards, including health and physical education standards. The state reconsiders these requirements every six years.

The new health standard in question says that Colorado students should be able to “demonstrate skills necessary to prevent a conflict from escalating to violence.” They should be able to describe situations that could escalate to violence, explain positive alternatives to using violence to resolve conflicts, and “explain the potential dangers of having weapons at home, in school, and in the community.”

But some board members felt that last requirement, an “evidence outcome” in the parlance of the state standards, was too one-sided. They said it was not appropriate to focus only on the dangers of firearms — since parents might have guns at home, security officers might have guns at school, and police have guns in the community. The previous health standards talk about conflict resolution but are largely silent on the issue of firearms.

Board member Deb Scheffel suggested adding to the health standard the phrase “and benefits for self-defense” and board member Joyce Rankin, aiming for a middle ground, wanted to add just the phrase “and benefits.” Rankin said it was not appropriate to focus only on the dangers.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, the State Board of Education sets standards, but local districts maintain complete control over curriculum. They will decide how to implement the standard on conflict resolution, along with other aspects of the new health and physical education standards. There is no state assessment on these topics, as there is for math or reading.

Community norms around guns vary tremendously around the state, with some districts supporting students in advocating for more gun control even as some rural districts adopt policies to arm teachers.

Members of the committee that developed the new standards had already added an “inquiry question,” intended as guidance for teachers to prompt deeper discussion, in response to community feedback that reads: “How can the use of guns and other weapons be positive?” This question “could be used to guide a discussion about self-defense in the event a school community feels that it is appropriate.”

But the committee members, in a written statement responding to the proposed amendment on “benefits” of firearms, said that they do “not agree that adding self-defense to the evidence outcome is appropriate for fourth grade.”

Members in the characteristic red shirts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which advocates for stricter gun control laws, filled the small hearing room to tell board members that a positive message about guns had no place in elementary school curriculums.

“This is supposed to be a unit about conflict resolution and avoiding violence,” said Denver Public Schools teacher Rachel Barnes, a member of Moms Demand Action. “This is like having a unit on fire prevention and then asking: What is the benefit of playing with matches in a drought-stricken forest?”

Haven Coleman, a 12-year-old student at Slavens K-8 in Denver, said evidence doesn’t support the benefits of guns for self-defense,

“People exaggerate the benefits of having a gun and underestimate the consequences,” said Haven, who has previously spoken out publicly on climate change and social justice issues.  “I don’t want to hear how guns are safe in people’s houses when kids are bringing those guns to school and killing us.”

Her younger sister, Anna, who is entering fourth grade, told Chalkbeat that talking about guns in a positive light scares her and invites violent escalation of conflicts.

“If their mom or dad has a gun, they’ll think it’s okay and they should bring it to school if they have a bully,” Anna said. “They’re telling us that it’s how you solve conflicts, that you’ll definitely win.”

New state standards on health and physical education discuss guns in the context of conflict resolution.

And Deronn Turner, the parent of four former Denver Public Schools students and a member of Our Voice, Our Schools, said putting the benefits of guns into a state standard is “silly” when children of color don’t have adequate access to curriculum that teaches their history or to teachers of color.

“If we can’t even teach children about their own history, why would we put something in the curriculum about the benefits of guns?” she asked.

With Democrats holding a majority on the state board, the amendment was not likely to gain enough support to pass. No member made a motion to change the standards. On a 4-3 party line vote, with every Republican voting no, the Colorado State Board of Education adopted the new health standards without any language about the benefits of guns, but with the prompt to ask students how guns might be positive.

Rankin said that if schools only talk about dangers, that has the potential to scare children unnecessarily. She supports language in the standards that urges younger children to not touch and tell an adult if they find a gun, but she said any other mention of guns should wait until high school and be accompanied by a discussion of the Second Amendment.

Republican board members said they also think the health standards focus too much on mental and emotional health, and not enough on physical health, particularly obesity.

How I Teach

Why Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year uses penguins to help her first-graders grow as readers, writers, and thinkers

PHOTO: Alan Poizner
Melissa Miller reads aloud to her first-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Melissa Miller loves to read, adores teaching first-graders, and has a fascination for penguins.

It’s no surprise, then, that an annual highlight for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is teaching a science unit she created to get her first-graders reading and learning about the unique aquatic bird.

“We have so much we can learn about and from penguins,” Miller explains. “They work together, share responsibilities, look out for each other, love each other for life, and persevere in the most challenging situations.”

The unit begins during the wintertime with reading that lets students learn penguin facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then in the spring, they do book reports on penguins — projects that “celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer.”

“The unit encompasses everything I believe about teaching and learning,” Miller says. “It puts me in the position as facilitator of learning. My desire is to fuel students’ passion for learning by teaching with passion.”

Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller works at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, south of Nashville. Her enthusiasm as a teacher and expertise in curriculum and technology are among the reasons that she was chosen Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. 

Miller talked with Chalkbeat about why teaching students to read is her greatest passion, how she partners with parents to build classroom rapport, and the upside of behavioral challenges. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I wanted to be a teacher beginning as a kindergarten student in Columbia, Tennessee. My teacher, Ms. Portia Lea, was so loving and encouraging, she just won me over. I have taken away a valuable lesson from each teacher that I had in my journey toward my career. I feel like they are part of who I am. I just want to give to my students the same experience of love, encouragement, hope, belief, and perseverance that I received.

Why elementary-age students? What’s the best thing about that age group?

PHOTO: TN.gov
“My great passion is teaching kids to read!” says Miller.

My great passion is teaching kids to read! Reading opens the doors to their world and windows of possibilities for their future. I have taught kindergarten through fourth grade, but find myself best at home in first grade giving that strong foundation in reading. My first-graders are sponges for knowledge. Each child is as unique as a snowflake. They are just as loving and encouraging for me as I am for them. 

How do you get to know your students?

At the beginning of the school year, I send home a questionnaire for parents to share their insights. During the first few weeks of school, we do community-building activities each day. I need to know what motivates each student, their favorite books, their family members, their pets, and what they want to be when they grow up. While reading books such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Important Book,” “Chrysanthemum,” “I Like Me,” and “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” we learn many things about each other and truly become a family.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lessons to teach are within the Penguin Research Unit that I created. Students research what penguins eat, where they live, their characteristics, dangers, and adaptations. In the process, the students learn that their brains are like folders and that they need to organize information in order to remember it. They take in new facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then they write a book report complete with table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, author information, and a glossary. Those reports are read and edited by a local author before we publish them for others in the school to read. Because this happens in the spring, it’s a time to celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer. The unit ties together fiction, nonfiction, writing, math, and science standards. Even at 6 and 7 years old, the kids are learning to research their wonderings and making connections on how to contribute to the world around them.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

A funny necessity is my Mr. Sketch Scented Markers in all sizes to create anchor charts. A serious necessity is the rich literature that I have collected through the years. I don’t collect things, I collect books. A fun date night for my husband and me is going to the bookstore for coffee and more books.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One of the quick lessons I learned came when I started out by communicating with parents once per week about their child’s behavior. I quickly found out that weekly would not work. Parents need daily communication. They cannot address problems if I don’t communicate them right away. The best communication plan is the one that gets the most collaboration. It strengthens the partnership between teacher and parents.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“If you look cute and smell pretty, your kids will love you.” That came in the first week of my first year. Not only was this funny advice, it keeps things fun!

You serve as a team leader and mentor at your school. What advice do you give to new teachers?

Love your students! Each one is an individual with their own gifts and challenges. Get to know what motivates them, because each one is unique. Listen, really listen, to your students. Know the names of their siblings, favorite sports, favorite authors, and pets. Greet each student with a smile and a personal message. And make each day count!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Anytime I contact a parent about behavioral challenges, it changes my perspective and approach. This is where empathy and compassion come together. Understanding the child deep down gives me a snapshot into what motivates them and what does not. It guides me in making home-school connections ultimately to benefit both places. I need to understand where they are coming from in order to help them see the vision for where they can go.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I am constantly ON. My mind is on my kids at school as everything I do and everywhere I go ties back to teaching and learning experiences that I can share.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Love Does” by Bob Goff

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share with other educators?

“Positive people on positive teams produce positive results and the essential ingredient is positive energy.” —Jon Gordon from “The Energy Bus”

Reading revisited

McQueen ends her Tennessee tenure the same way she started — focused on reading

When then-newly appointed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen began touring Tennessee schools in 2015, she was “ashamed” of the dearth of strong reading materials available for many students and their teachers.

“Depending on what districts and classrooms you were in, some people had resources and curriculum and some did not,” recalls McQueen, a former classroom teacher and university dean of education.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen reads to students during one of her classroom tours. (Courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

The shortcoming was just one of several that helped explain Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores and why only one in three students was considered proficient in reading, based on national tests.

There also was a gap in how teachers or teacher candidates were being equipped to teach reading, a lack of attention to fostering reading skills in students’ early years, and little to no public education programming to address “summer slide,” the tendency for especially low-income students to regress in academic skills during their summer break from school.

McQueen has sought to address all of those weaknesses through various investments and supports under Read to be Ready, which was her first sweeping initiative under Gov. Bill Haslam.

Now, as she winds down her four-year tenure this month, the outgoing commissioner considers that work — launched in 2016 with the support of Haslam and his wife, Chrissy — among her most important legacies as education chief.

Last week, as a fitting bookend to her statewide leadership before starting her new job as CEO of a national education organization, McQueen put reading front and center during three days of regional gatherings of teachers and literacy coaches in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.

“We’re just now beginning to see progress on TNReady,” she said of last year’s reading gains in grades 3-5 on the state’s standardized test.

“It’s progress we’re proud of, even though it’s not as much as we want,” she added.

Indeed, the climb ahead is steep, despite this year’s 2.3 percent increase to almost 37 percent of third-graders reading on or above grade level. To reach Tennessee’s lofty goal of 75 percent by 2025, the state will have to move 5 to 6 percent more third-graders to proficiency every year.

McQueen says reaching the goal is “absolutely doable” and cites the groundwork laid through Read to be Ready. Since 2016, Tennessee has launched a statewide coaching network for elementary reading teachers, offered new training for educators, and made investments in better resources for students. There are also new standards and expectations in teacher training and summer reading camps for first- through third-graders who are furthest behind.

McQueen is especially encouraged by summer camps that have shown statistically significant reading improvements for participating students during the past two years. She recently announced $8.9 million in state grants to 218 public schools to host even more camps next summer.

PHOTO: TDOE
Children participate in a 2016 summer reading program in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee as part of the new grant-based literacy program overseen by the Tennessee Department of Education.

As for the lack of high-quality textbooks and materials she first encountered in 2015, the state has identified texts that align with Tennessee’s new academic standards, and McQueen is urging districts to plan now to budget more for them.

“We’re building in this idea that you don’t just adopt; you purchase,” she told Chalkbeat. “Sometimes we see adoption where you have a set that all teachers are sharing. We feel like every teacher needs their own sets of books, their own curriculums, so they can adequately support all their students.”

Recognizing that strong reading skills are the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas, most Tennessee’s districts have embraced some or all parts of Read to be Ready. It’s popular as well with teachers, who say they like having both guidance and flexibility to help their students learn to decode letters and words, expand vocabularies, and deepen comprehension skills.

“This makes concrete resources available, but we’re also empowered to use our own teacher resources,” said Emily Townsend, who teaches kindergarteners in Coffee County.

Others are concerned that the focus on young children is coming at the expense of struggling middle and high school readers. “These are not throwaway kids,” said Stephanie Love, a board member for Shelby County Schools.

Love said the effects of poverty are also at play and require a deeper look at illiteracy in large cities like Memphis.

“I don’t think we need more initiatives; I think we need to reevaluate and see what’s preventing so many of our students from reading well,” said Love, a proponent of more state funding for schools. “Do they need glasses? Are they dyslexic? Did they not attend a pre-K or Head Start program?”

McQueen agrees that illiteracy is a “true equity issue.”

“Reading skills are a predictor of so many things across a lifetime,” she said of navigating school and jobs and avoiding crime and poverty. “We know that if you’re not reading proficiently by the third grade, you can still catch up, but it gets harder over time. Our passion for this work comes from what we know happens when kids are not reading.”