Geoff Davis teaches English and math to fifth and sixth graders at Indianapolis Public School 56.

He also teaches them to play the ukulele.

Why the ukulele?

On Tuesday Davis told a gathering of educators and others at IUPUI that he knows the 45 minutes his students spend playing the ukulele gets some of them through the day.

“It doesn’t sound terribly relevant but it gives kids a reason to come to school,” he said. “I know a boy who is smart, but resentful and difficult. He taught himself the chords I have up on the wall. Then I started to teach him to play the ukulele. Now I can talk to him about anything.”

He’s not the only one, Davis said.

Davis was part of a panel Tuesday that addressed about 40 educators as part of the university’s annual Cohen Lecture.

The Cohen Lecture series began in 2014 to honor Michael Cohen, a retired professor in science education who taught at the school of education from 1968 to 2003 and authored an elementary school textbook called “Discover Science.”

Along with Davis, the panel included Tiffany Kyser of the Great Lakes Equity Center, Parent Power co-founder Delana Stardust Ivey, city of Indianapolis Education Director Ahmed Young, and Robin Hughes, executive associate dean of the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis.

The conversation grappled with the complex challenges of the 21st century classroom, such as how to ensure equal treatment for students from all backgrounds, how to connect with students’ families and even how to define a quality educator.

Kyser, who earned a doctorate at IUPUI and now works for a U.S. Department of Education regional center that supports equity training around race, gender, national origin in Indiana and five other states said her organization has a different definition of what makes a high quality educator.

Kyser described a traditional definition of a quality educator as one who has credentials, good evaluations and produces good test scores. The center instead suggests a high quality educator views students’ cultural backgrounds as assets, works to empower them and fosters not just academic learning, but also social and emotional growth.

No matter how you define it, quality teaching is too rare in many schools, Kyser said.

“We have to be very overt in acknowledging not all students have had the benefit of how that local community defines as a high quality educator,” she said.

Young, who oversees more than 30 charter schools sponsored by Mayor Joe Hogsett, said his definition of a quality educator might surprise some people because it is not based on credentials or test scores.

“For me it’s someone who is able to inspire, lead, educate and foster a sense of confidence and efficacy in a child that brings out their innate gifts,” he said. “If they are able to bring that out, that is a teacher. I think we have become beholden to these very confined definitions of what at teacher is.”

Ivey, an IPS parent, said quality teaching is affected by the mandates laid on teachers’ shoulders. She said she sees teachers who are uncomfortable with requirements that they focus on specific skills with the sole goal of boosting test scores.

Education leaders, she said, have not listened to the teachers, to the parents or to students. For example, her son told her he didn’t like school anymore after recess was eliminated.

“Students were speaking out, but we labeled it as acting out,” she said. “The truth is they are being used. It’s a ‘disorder’ if they aren’t sitting quietly all day.”

Hughes said test scores correlate so strongly with a student’s family wealth that she is not sure how much is learned from those results, even if students succeed on those measures.

“I’d want to think about folks being ‘humanity ready,’” she said. “We talk about people being ‘college ready’ but that just means being able to perform well the first year in college. If we think about ‘humanity ready’, that is what ‘does it mean to be truly educated and really thoughtful?’”

Davis praised his school for its healthy approach to teaching, which allows him to take risks, like teaching ukulele. But he’s felt the pressure to abandon creative teaching methods in the past.

“High stakes testing has completely changed what occurs in the classroom and it hasn’t been good,” he said. “It breaks instruction down into tiny skill bytes. I had to do it — 10 or 15 minutes skill lessons without any depth, discussion, connectedness or relevance.”

It’s a frustrating way to teach, Davis said.

That’s not how we use information or share information,” he said. “And it’s so time consuming.”