Are Children Learning

'Superman' a hero at connecting music, math and reading

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Hulk, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman.

What seems like a simple list of superheroes from rival comic book publishers turns into a lesson on rhythm and musical notes in Amber Price’s fourth-grade music class at Indianapolis Public School 70.

“Batman, Batman, Superman, Batman, Batman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk!” the kids chant, falling into a sing-songy cadence as Price keeps time by hitting a tall, African drum at the front of the room.

It’s fun, and the kids love it, but Price has a stealth purpose: meet Indiana standards by using superhero names to get kids to understand music notes.

Price tells the kids the name of each comic book character is also a music note: “Hulk,” with just one syllable, or beat, is a quarter note. “Batman,” with two beats, is two eighth notes. “Superman” is three uneven beats, or one eighth note and two sixteenth notes. And “Wonder Woman,” with four quick beats, is all sixteenth notes.

Soon, the kids are chanting, clapping, stomping and snapping their fingers as they recite the whole song. It’s a noisy, lively lesson, and once the kids get instruments, Price can barely be heard above the din of drums, tambourines, maracas and mallets hitting wood blocks.

She continues to conduct at the front of the room, leading the class to the end of the song with a loud “HULK!” and a flourish of her arms to silence them.

When the kids leave for their next class, filing out quietly in two lines, Price exhales. It might take a lot of energy, but she’s just that much closer to crossing one more fourth-grade academic standard off her list: “Superman,” or rather, teaching her kids to read and interpret an eighth note attached to two sixteenth notes.

Indiana has seen rapidly changing standards in English and math. The standards were first revised in 2009, then the state made a switch instead to nationally shared Common Core standards and then it made one more change to the new Indiana-created standards that followed in 2014. That last change was a big battle between Common Core supporters and skeptics of the shared standards.

But expectations for what kids should be learning in art and music have stayed the same since 2012, said David Newman, the arts curriculum director for Indianapolis Public Schools. Even so, teachers and schools are doing things differently to keep pace with other subjects.

Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.
Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.

 

Newman, formerly principal at School 70, a fine and a performing arts magnet school, is trying to emphasize to his teachers that the arts can’t be taught in isolation from core subjects such as English, math, science and social studies, echoing moves he made at School 70.

“You can’t sit on your hands and have everything come to you and you do your little music and art things and you are not fused to anybody else,” he said. “What we did was we did fine arts collaboration in the classroom. We use fine arts in everyday curriculum.”

Connecting arts to classroom learning

Unlike core subject teachers, Price said IPS doesn’t provide her with a curriculum.

She uses her own training in strategies that combine music, movement and literacy to figure out how to make sure her kids know what is expected by the state.

“Everything is written for classroom teachers, what standard to do and lesson to do,” Price said. “I’m not given anything by textbooks, which I don’t really use. I don’t want them to sit there singing out of a book. I want them to read music, to write music and be able to enjoy playing music.”

Most students in IPS have art and music class about twice per week, usually for an hour or so total. That’s not a huge amount of time, Newman said, and though teachers have multiple classes and sometimes multiple schools, they also need to be working with core subject teachers to “push-in” to classroom lessons and show how the subjects are connected.

“Go to the teachers and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re studying Day of the Dead (a Mexican holiday) in first grade. I know some songs or we can create masks,’” Newman said. “Put yourself in there.”

That philosophy drove how he structured one program in partnership with the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra. Former teachers wrote lessons aimed at third-graders, and all grade level teachers participated. The kids learned about composers and their compositions, and after a few months the classes and their teachers got to see the orchestra play the music they’d been learning about.

Price said she teaches songs in her music class that can apply to English or math, such as a song about prepositions. Classroom teachers might also have students act out their reading for the day instead of just reading their chapters from the book. The key is finding small ways to infuse the arts into other areas, she said.

Cindy Huffman, curriculum director in Pike Township, said all performing arts standards have literacy components in them, so when the state transitioned toward Common Core, and then to new standards a year later, the district talked with teachers about how to make sure those standards were taken into account in all subjects — even the arts.

For example in sixth grade, students might be asked to determine the main idea of a piece of music and summarize it — an English standard for written passages — or identify important details and write about the style of art an artist chose. Just like with core subject teachers, performing arts teachers also had to develop tests and growth measurements so their instruction can be assessed, she said.

“All the teachers have been involved in the entire movement to Common Core as well as the Indiana Academic Standards, to those higher-level thinking and asking higher-level questions,” Huffman said.

Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.

Music and math, for example, are already heavily linked, Newman said. Music notation uses fractions in deriving musical notes, beats and rhythms. Price’s superhero lesson, for example, reinforces the concept of fractions in beats. Connecting music to English can happen through poetry, song lyrics and even history, he said. Integrating fine arts and traditional classroom subjects, Price said, really enhances both lessons.

“It makes it more fun, I think, for learning really, instead of just sitting there with your paper and your pencil,” Price said. “You’re up moving, you’re having fun singing and stuff like that. I learned the preposition song in sixth grade, and I can still sing it — It does help with remembering.”

The wider arts community offers support

It’s not just teachers who try to find innovative ways to connect arts and classroom studies. Schools also depend on outside partners for help.

For example, The Indianapolis Museum of Art can equip teachers to use visual and performing arts strategies in their classrooms.

This year, the museum started a STEAM club — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — that pairs traditionally disparate subjects. Four teachers-in-training from Butler University and six Indiana teachers are part of the group learning to integrate those strategies in their teaching.

“Too often we compartmentalize learning,” said Heidi Davis-Soylu, who oversees the museum’s education initiatives. “For a long time in the history of education, it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t ‘the sciences’ and ‘the arts’ — they were together.”

For now it’s just a pilot program with 10 teachers, but the museum also offers summer training workshops for teachers who want to learn more about the arts. There are also materials and other training programs available that support Indiana’s new academic standards.

Davis-Soylu, a former teacher who later went back to school to study art education, said kids, especially younger ones, can learn a lot from experiencing art alongside typical core subjects.

Hands-on activities can teach them to fine-tune motor skills and help them become better problem-solvers, she said. There’s not just one right answer in music or art, like on a standardized test.

“They are not trying to have to get to A, B, C or D,” she said. “And that just challenges the mind and gives opportunities for critical thinking.”

For older students, she said, developing more ways to express themselves and build on basic artistic skills learned in elementary school can help them discover their own voices. It also offers an avenue for building community and could motivate kids to learn more about the culture that surrounds them, Davis-Soylu said.

She cited research that found that those who participated more in the arts actually were better citizens — they voted more and had higher levels of education. Plus, she said, there are few downsides to being exposed to other cultures and types of expression.

Academic standards provide a framework for that experiential learning, Newman said, but it’s challenging for teachers when they have so little time with each class. It can be almost impossible to cover both the “performance” standards — literally whether they can “do” the art well, such as by playing an instrument competently — and the ones about theory or history, he said.

“Understanding music in relation history and culture and why it’s important, where things came from and how music and art shaped history, you know, we don’t get to talk about that enough,” Newman said. “People like to use time as an excuse — I’m just as guilty as anybody — but you have to think past that.”

Price, for example, has just 37 class sessions with her students. That means she has to make the most of what she has. She focuses less on history except when it corresponds with another teacher’s lesson, but she does very clearly outline the music-reading goals she has for each grade level she works with.

Theory is especially important to what “college- and career-ready” standards, like those Indiana has adopted, make a focal point: critical-thinking, problem-solving and question-asking skills.

“Teachers need to understand: You aren’t just teaching music, you aren’t just teaching art, you aren’t just teaching social studies. You don’t teach in isolation either,” Newman said. “Some of (the standards) are pretty powerful, and if you can use them and address some topics, you can also support social studies and math and science, which I think is better for everybody.”

focusing in

Black student excellence: Denver school board directs district to better serve black students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Mary Getachew, 15, right, laughs with her peer mentor Sabrin Mohamed,18, left, at Denver's North High School in 2016.

Every Denver public school soon will be required to develop a plan to boost the success of black and African-American students by embracing their strengths rather than focusing on the challenges they face.

That’s according to a resolution unanimously passed Thursday night by the Denver school board. The resolution, which would also require district employees to take training on implicit bias, was shepherded by Jennifer Bacon, who was elected in 2017 to represent northeast Denver and is one of two black members on the diverse school board. Longer-serving board members said it was overdue.

“With good intentions, we were battling the idea that singling out a group of students was not acceptable,” said Happy Haynes, who has served on the board since 2011. “We were always talking about, ‘all students, all students.’”

In doing so, Haynes said, “we lost sight of so many of our students. So I really celebrate this change in our thinking.”

Denver Public Schools’ data show big disparities in how black students are served by the district. While 13 percent of the approximately 93,000 students are black,

  • 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions last year were given to black students,
  • 16.5 percent of students identified as having a disability were black,
  • Just 10 percent of students enrolled in rigorous high school courses were black.

The focus on black students comes after more than a year of relentless and high-profile advocacy from black parents and activists, and 2½ years after a damning report about how black teachers and students are treated in Denver Public Schools.

Known colloquially as the Bailey Report, it was based on interviews with black educators conducted by former school board member Sharon Bailey, who has studied racial dynamics in Denver. It found that black educators feel isolated and mistreated by the district, and perceive that black students are more harshly disciplined in part because the young white women who make up a sizeable portion of the teacher workforce are afraid of them.

The report led to a task force, which presented the district with 11 recommendations. Among them: offering signing bonuses to help attract more black teachers, making student discipline data count toward school ratings, and requiring each school to create a plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools.”

Nearly two years later, none of that has happened. And much of what the district has done has been voluntary for teachers and schools. Meanwhile, the data keeps mounting.

Last year, 67 percent of black students graduated on time, meaning within four years of starting high school, compared with 78 percent of white students. On state math tests, 17 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored on grade level, compared with 65 percent of white students. The literacy gap was similar.

Avery Williams, a senior at George Washington High School, told the school board at a work session in December that “there’s an awkwardness around being black” in Denver schools.

“Teachers, specifically white teachers, don’t know how to act around me,” Williams said. Many of her classmates, she said, “do not know how to have respectful conversations because they’re afraid of being offensive or because they’re not educated in the right terminology.”

Michael Filmore, a junior at East High School, spoke about being one of only a few black students in his more rigorous classes, an experience Williams shares. After taking remedial classes his freshman year at East, Filmore said he decided to take all honors classes as a sophomore. He also took the public bus to school and was often late for first period.

“I would walk in the classroom and I would feel like I didn’t belong there,” Filmore told the board. “I felt uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be in these classes. I was pressured. I eventually dropped the class. My junior year, I felt that I would never let myself down again.”

At that December session, Bacon expressed a desire to more explicitly address issues affecting black students. The district has put that kind of focus on students learning English as a second language, many of whom are Hispanic, after a federal judge found the district was violating their rights. Under that order, the district has developed specific methods for teaching English language learners. It requires all new teachers to get certified to teach them.

Bacon and others questioned why that hasn’t happened for black students, as well.

“It’s not because there’s a lack of effort, will, or love,” Bacon said in an interview. “I think it’s because we’re not organized properly and we don’t have an internal stake in the ground around expectations, outcomes, and accountability measures. People want to see DPS is doing that.”

Her fellow board members agreed. On Thursday, they took turns thanking her for bringing forth the resolution, which directs the district to do several things:

  • Require all schools, including district-run and charter schools, to review data about student academic performance, discipline, and referrals for special education to understand how each school’s black students are doing “on an individual level”
  • Require all schools to set goals for supporting black students that prioritize giving them “access to grade-level and more rigorous coursework”
  • Require school leaders to articulate how they will monitor progress toward their goals
  • Train all district staff on implicit bias and culturally responsive education
  • Conduct an “equity audit” to understand what the district is doing well and what it is not to figure out how it “can better prioritize the success of our black students”

It will now be up to new Superintendent Susana Cordova, who made equity a cornerstone of her bid for the district’s top job, to carry out the directive. The resolution gives her until May 31 to come up with a plan that would go into effect by the start of the next school year.

“We know that we have a painful and inequitable history of outcomes for our students,” Cordova said. “But facing this with courage, facing this in community, facing this with our stakeholders, our parents, our family members, our community members, and our students holding us accountable, I believe deeply in the ability of people to come together to solve these problems.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.