IPS teacher of the year's advice: Don't be afraid to fail

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
IPS teacher of the year Tina Ahlgren, now a finalist for state teacher of the year, holds her son Elijah during media interviews in June at Shortridge High School.

Indianapolis Public Schools’ teacher of the year has been feted lavishly for her successes lately.

Last week, Tina Ahlgren was handed a check for $25,000 as one of four winners of Al and Kathy Hubbard’s new Life-Changing Teacher Awards. At that ceremony, tears welled up around the room during a video story of how Ahlgren broke through to a troubled, pregnant teen in her class, staying with her in the hospital as she gave birth and practically adopting her afterward.

Today, she was greeted by a packed auditorium of cheering kids at Shortridge High School. One-by-one, her Algebra students spoke of how she changed their attitudes about math, helped them turn their academic work around and made better futures they had only dreamed about suddenly seem achievable.

Ahlgren, a new mother herself holding her 12-week-old son Elijah, could have just basked in the glow of all that success. Instead, she told reporters about her teaching failures.

Because, she said, figuring out what’s not working in the classroom is the only way teachers can find their way to the techniques that will make every kid succeed.

“Don’t beat yourself up from your failures, but you have to be willing to learn from your failures,” she said. “Just like I teach the kids to do.”

Ahlgren is a nine-year IPS teacher who grew up in New Albany and came to work in Indianapolis after graduating from DePauw University.

How good of a teacher is she? Like many excellent teachers, she got every one of her students to pass the state end-of-course exam in Algebra.

But consider the scale of her challenge: For Ahlgren, every one of those students had failed the test at least once before.

Tenth grader Mary Baker, who this year had Ahlgren for Algebra II, is an example of one of her students who never thought she could pass the exam.

“I was scared,” she said. “Math was always the subject that held me back. I was never, ever good at math. It was always Ds and Fs. But with her, it’s become As.”

That was critical, because Baker’s dream is to become a family lawyer. She has friends and relatives who have gone though tough times over divorce and custody issues and she just has a sense that she would be good at helping families in those situations forge compromises.

Shortridge is a magnet school for law and public policy, so Baker is in the right place. But she knew being a lawyer would not be possible for someone with an F in math who can’t pass the state Algebra test.

There was something about the way Ahlgren explained things that made it come more easily, Baker said. And she could tell Ahlgren really wanted her to succeed.

“I would have never made it to where I am without her,” Baker said. “With Algebra I, from the beginning I was like ‘I’m not going to pass. I’m not going to pass.’ She made sure I passed.”

Her classmate, 10th grader Darius Taylor, told a similar story. Taylor wants to be a firefighter, but he is dyslexic and has trouble controlling his anger when he gets frustrated. To him, Taylor said, Algebraic equations literally looked like a random jumble of numbers and letters. He felt overwhelmed by the subject.

“It takes longer for me to understand stuff than other students,” he said. “She sat with me and had me lay it out so we could go through it in a slow process. When she helps me, instead of being all scrambled on paper, we break it down into little things so I can understand it piece by piece.”

Ahlgren’s patience helped gain Taylor’s trust.

“It could be a week or two after everybody else but she’s there helping me try to understand it,” he said. “No matter what, Mrs. Ahlgren will never let me fall behind.”

Trust is the No. 1 thing her students need, Ahlgren said.

“They’ve been let down a lot in their lives and they don’t trust people very much,” she said. “You have to start day one, minute one trying to connect with them any way you can.”

For example, students who take Ahlgren’s tests “pass” each question. Passing the test is focused on mastering each concept, not a big letter grade at the top of the page.

“I focus a lot on small successes,” she said. “So they can be successful on topic one and if they fail topic two they can go back and retake it. So they can see I passed topic one on Monday and then I passed topic two on Tuesday they can feel ‘I’ve been successful.’ Whereas if they had seen an F across a total test they would have been defeated.”

The reward that comes from building trust is overcoming fear, particularly of a subject that many students find intimidating.

“It takes a lot of effort and personal risk of failure to be successful in the classroom and especially in math,” she said. “It’s an area a lot of kids are really afraid of. A lot of kids will shut down rather than try and fail.”

But it’s not just students who try and fail, she said. The only way to become a great teacher is to keep overcoming failure on your end, too.

“Early in my career I had kind of the fun and engaging part down,” she said. “What matured for me over the years is making it connect back to what some other math teacher would teach when they have them next time.”

An example of one of Ahlgen’s failures was a hands on lesson where kids learned algebraic concepts through “ninja battles.” They loved it and were doing a great job — until she gave them the exact same equation to solve on paper.

“They were like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” she said. “I really learned from that and said, ‘next time I do this I want to use some elements of it but I’ve got to change it.’”

Ahlgren said she goes over every one of her lessons, asking herself what worked and what didn’t and making changes so when she teaches it in the future it will work better.

Sometimes, recognition that a lesson doesn’t work can even come in mid-lesson. In fact, this happened not long ago on a day when her principal was observing, although she hadn’t noticed him come into the room.

She thought her kids were ready for a fun exercise on a concept they had learned. But she recognized as she went around the room from kid to kid that none of them were getting it.

“All of a sudden I just yelled: ‘Everybody stop!’” she said.

The startled group put the lesson aside and she began to teach the concept a different way.

“You can’t be afraid to just throw out what’s not working,” she said. “That’s how to get through to these kids.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.