Building Better Teachers

How this teacher lost it in homeroom and still managed to win her student’s trust

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
KIPP Indianapolis teacher Katie Johnson, left, with her former student Ronasiea Holland, a freshman at IUPUI.

Educators from around Indianapolis gathered to tell heartbreaking and inspiring stories from the classroom earlier this month at an event hosted by Ash & Elm Cider Co. and Teachers Lounge Indy, a new group that organizes social events for educators.

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity. We start with a story shared by Katie Johnson, a teacher at KIPP Indianapolis.

It was my second year of teaching. I have a student who one day I was very impatient (with). I was asking my class, “Be quiet.” I got an eye roll. “Please stop talking.” I got a lip smack. And that’s when lip gloss was popular — when everybody was real bright and glossy.

That day, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling like being patient. I said, “Get out of my room!”

And Miss Holland, if you know her, had to do a lip pop. She had to do an eye roll. She had to talk to her friend. That was Miss Holland.

It was the end of the day, afternoon homeroom. And I’m sitting in the middle of the classroom. I have the afternoon announcements in my hand, and I had to make sure all our students got those documents. So when Miss Holland was walking out, I said, “Come back here and get these papers!”

I was not very mature at this time. At this point, I’m like 23 years old.

She comes back in, and she takes these papers, and when she does, she snatches them, and all the papers fly.

Our students wear these really nice uniforms, bright blue shirts, nice ironed collars. Before I realized it, my hands were around the collar of this nice, beautiful polo.

And I was like, “No! Katie, don’t lose your job, Katie Johnson. Don’t lose your job.” I said this out loud in a room of eighth-graders.

She proceeds to walk out. I proceed to like, get my life together. I know I have made a mistake.

It was the end of the day, she was a walker, and her mom usually came to pick her up. I knew, either I was going to lose my job that day, or I had to talk to her parent.

I walk downstairs, and I saw her mom. I walk up to her mom, and I say, “I jacked your baby up.” At this point, we had a relationship, but not enough for me to ever put my hands on anybody’s baby, ever. Her mom said, “Ms. Johnson, you should have beat her ass.” And I knew I had my job after that!

Her mother knew that I cared for her. And the reason why I was really tough on her was because she was extremely intelligent — very smart. And when she had good days, they were amazing. She could lead a class. She could quiet the class. She was great. When she wasn’t having a good day, she could also be a culture-killer and tear my class apart.

I had to get her on my side. And that relationship began to build. Outside of school, I’d take her places. We’d have one-on-one conversations in the cafeteria. Miss Holland was an amazing young lady.

As an eighth-grade (teacher), I got a chance to work with our kids during promotion, and I looked at her and I said, “You know what Miss Holland, not if — but when — you graduate high school and go to college, no matter where you go, I am taking you dorm room shopping. And on my teacher budget, that’s a lot of money.”

For four years, I’ve been engaged with this woman. She’s met my family. And this August, I got a chance to keep my word because she kept hers. She graduated from high school, such a mature and beautiful young lady.

And she called me saying, “Miss Johnson, I’m ready. When are we going shopping? What’s my budget?”

But it was my honor to take her. This is the reward that I get to have for all these years of being an immature teacher. She took it, and she learned, and she grew.

She is now a freshman at Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

She tells me that she wants to be a teacher, and I tell her, “Lord, I cannot wait until you get a Ronasiea Holland in your class.”

Watch the full story:

For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”