In the Classroom

TeachPlus names 30 new fellows to study teaching policy

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

The Indianapolis chapter of TeachPlus, a national organization that aims to get teachers involved in education policy making, has named 30 new “teaching policy fellows.”

It’s the fourth group of TeachPlus fellows named in Indianapolis since the group launched locally in 2009. The fellows in August will begin the 16 month fellowship during which they will study problems that face teachers and work to find and promote possible solutions.

The group, which is led by IPS board member Caitlin Hannon as its Indianapolis executive director, has been a catalyst over the the past six months in spurring discussion about the problem of teacher pay in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Some ideas suggested in response to the group’s work have prompted debate among board members.

In March, the group invited every district teacher, with the union’s blessing, to attend a simulation run by Education Resource Strategies, a Boston-based non-profit that consults with school districts to help them better utilize their resources.

In small groups, they conducted an exercise in which they tried to create a new pay system for an IPS-like fictional school district. Several of the teachers said the activity helped them better appreciate the difficult challenge of finding new ways for teachers to make more money while living within the confines of the current system. Based on the options the majority of teachers chose during the exercise, a report authored by the fellows made recommendations for how IPS might change its pay system.

Working with top IPS administrators and Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, Hannon has since suggested hiring ERS to help the district with planning and preparation for offering new pay proposals as negotiations with the teachers union are set to begin in August.

But some of Hannon’s fellow board members balked the the potential cost and asked for any such contract to be competitively bid. Talks on the issue continue.

In 2013, TeachPlus fellows issued a report based on a survey of 500 IPS and charter school teachers that questioned systems of hiring and assigning teachers. The report found 85 percent of teachers surveyed had changed schools at least once by their fourth year of teaching, most against their will.

The new cohort will search for issues to study as it meets to discuss education issues in Marion County.

Of the 30 teachers, nine work for IPS, seven for township schools, 11 for charter schools and three work at former IPS schools now being run independently in state takeover by groups that contract with the Indiana State Board of Education. Five of them were named teacher of the year at their schools.

The new fellows are:

Charter Schools

  • Daniel Allen of Indiana Math and Science Academy West
  • Monique Keck of Indiana Math and Science Academy North
  • Jacob Kettlewell of Avondale Meadows Academy
  • Nicole Russell of Avondale Meadows Academy
  • Sabrina Roberts of Paramount School of Excellence
  • Jessica Monk of Paramount School of Excellence
  • Andrew Pillow of KIPP Indy
  • Melissa Scherle of KIPP Indy
  • Megan Kuehl of Tindley Renaissance
  • Ronak Shah of Tindley Prep
  • Becky Boruff of Christel House Academy South
  • Liz Retana of Carpe-Diem

Township Schools

  • Nikki Babladelis of Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township
  • Erin Currie of Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township
  • Robbie Foote of Ben Davis High School in Wayne Township
  • Dane Butts of Warren Central High School in Warren Township
  • Carlota Holder of Creston Middle School in Warren Township
  • Sadie Stevens of Greenbriar Elementary in Washington Township
David Wheeler of North Central High School in Washington Township

State Takeover Schools

  • Chelsea Easter of Arlington High School
  • Brittany Scherer of Arlington High School
  • Sue Brennan of Manual High School

IPS Schools

  • Eve Montgomery of Arsenal Tech High School
  • Caitlin Smith of Arsenal Tech High School
  • Madeline Mason of Harshman Middle School
  • Eddie Rangel of Key Learning Community
  • Courtney Singleton of School 99
  • Julie Metcalf of School 61
  • Rebecca Johnson of School 58
  • Jessica Watson of Cold Spring School and School 56

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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 this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”