Future of Teaching

How Indianapolis teachers are connecting Holocaust survivor Eva Kor’s story to their classrooms

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
"The Story of Eva" was screened for teachers at the Indianapolis Centra Library on Wednesday.

As she watched a documentary retelling how Eva Kor survived Nazi experiments during the Holocaust, Melissa Humpfer was struck by how relatable the story was — to her personally, and potentially to her fifth-grade students.

Kor, a native Romanian who made her way to Terre Haute after being liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, endured medical experiments along with her twin sister at the hands of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who tortured hundreds of twins in the name of eugenics. When she came to America, Kor still felt intense anger about her past and was treated as an outcast.

That feeling of exclusion struck a chord with Humpfer.

“I am actually a mother of twins who’ve had a big struggle — they’re autistic” said Humpfer, a teacher at School 107, also known as Lew Wallace. “They have been (excluded) from a lot of community things. So with education, I see that there are a lot of kids like Eva …  there’s a lot of kids out there who are like her and grew up with being an outcast of some kind.”

The “Story of Eva,” created by Ted Green, Mika Brown, and WFYI Public Media, was screened on Wednesday at the Indianapolis Central Library. After, Teach Plus, a teacher advocacy organization, put educators into groups to talk about how they could use Kor’s story in their classrooms. Kor has been making headlines for decades in Indiana and across the nation for her activism aimed at hunting down Mengele and, more recently, for eventually forgiving him.

The film highlighted themes of tolerance as well as dealing with anger and trauma — all issues the educators said were familiar to their students, even though the Holocaust ended more than 55 years before they were born.

“I kind of wish her message was antiquated,” said Andrew Pillow, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle charter school and former Teach Plus fellow. “I wish that I couldn’t find context to teach this today.”

For Humpfer’s students, many of whom are refugees who have fled their native countries, learning about a woman who was forcibly removed from her home and suffered severe hardship isn’t some far-off concept — it’s incredibly relatable. One student in particular, she said, has struggled to come to terms with coming to America. He’s resentful, angry, and stubborn. He refuses to learn English as a way to keep himself distant from a country that isn’t his.

“I see the anger she had, and it’s almost the same even though she went through so much with being tortured,” Humpfer said. “I see parallels with him, and I can’t wait to show him this, and I can’t wait to have that discussion.”

Schools, particularly those in poor urban communities, have long had to figure out how to address the trauma students might bring with them into the classroom. In Indiana this year, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly that would have had the state survey schools about how they address the social and emotional needs of their students, but the bill was not heard in committee.

Other state agencies have discussed and advocated for “trauma-informed teaching,” and local schools are pulling together community groups and businesses to support students, but the programs can be expensive and hard to coordinate.

For teachers in the classroom, a compelling, relatable story can be an easier way to help a student adjust. Humpfer said she especially liked that in the film, Kor explained that dealing with her anger wasn’t a fast process. It happened over time, but it was essential to improving her mental health.

And in a time when even young students might be dealing with the effects of racism, the importance of learning to be more tolerant can’t be overstated, Pillow said.

“It’s transformative to know that there are different groups of people who deal with the same things as your group is dealing with,” Pillow said. “Your group is not the only group that’s ever been discriminated against in the past, and probably won’t be in the future. I think that, in and of itself, is a powerful tool for acceptance.”

You can learn more about the documentary and educational resources that are available for teachers at the film’s website.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.