First Person

Reflections on My Fourth Year

This year was surprising in a lot of ways. When the year began, I felt immediately behind and a little out of sync. This was in part because I started the year with 10 more students than the year before, but I wouldn’t put all the blame on that change. It wasn’t just the number of students that threw me off, but the personalities, performance and behavior of many of my new students. It was clear early on that this was a talkative group, there were more “rebels” than my previous years, I had five students who weren’t speaking English, including three who were brand new to the country, and six students were reading at an early kindergarten level. It was clear early on that this year would be a challenging one, and I admit to feeling a little overwhelmed.

But despite feeling myself on somewhat shaky footing, there were glimmers of hope. There was also a surprising confidence and persistence to try new things and create a classroom culture this year where my students learned to love to learn. This was an exciting realization, the moment when I understood that it was exactly because this year was going to be a great challenge, it was also a great opportunity.

Looking back on this year, there were many highs, and some pretty low lows. At times I feltdiscouraged with my own teachinga lack of confidence from my administration, and I felt anxious about the needs and progress of my students inside and outside of the classroom. However, I think this past year, perhaps more so than any year prior, I rose to the occasion.

This was a year where I really tried to follow through on my intent to try new things. These weren’t all groundbreaking changes. For example, on each week’s homework sheet this year, I included an inspirational quote. I introduced an idiom of the week to mixed success and each week my class read a poem of the week, which the kids truly enjoyed. Instead of using a prepared spelling list each week this year, my students were given a spelling sound to study, similar to the program Words Their Way. I believe this helped my students get a stronger grasp of phonemes than in past years. These were somewhat minor changes, but they refreshed my teaching all the same.

This year I also tried some changes to the fundamental approach to my teaching. One way I did this was in the development of a project-based approach to my social studies lessons, and the other was a yearlong study of art as storytelling. In social studies, the third grade curriculum is communities around the world. This year, each of my students was given a passport, and when we traveled to a new place we “visited” different landmarks that allowed us to learn about the culture, history, geography and economy of that community. While I think these lessons were more effective practically speaking in terms of what students learned, I also saw a new level of enthusiasm in my students that was truly exciting for me.

It was our year long study of the visual arts though that was my proudest accomplishment of the past year. It was an astonishingly simple idea, but it was perhaps the most powerful project I’ve attempted as a teacher. This year we took eight field trips to seven different museums around New York City – The Met twice, Museo del BarrioThe WhitneyThe International Center of PhotographyBronx Museum of Art, the MoMA and the Rubin. Each of these visits was accompanied by a literacy focus — setting, characters, plot, author’s purpose — and supported by a pre- and post-visit lesson. Several of these lessons and almost all of the tours were carried out by museum educators who were incredibly helpful, cooperative and friendly towards the students and me.

This year-long project was inspired by a simple goal: I wanted to take my kids on more field trips. I was surprised to find the depth and breadth of learning that this project opened up for my students and me. Getting my students out of their neighborhood to see world-class art was definitely a worthwhile goal in itself, but in the meantime, my students had a chance to learn about artists like Chagall, van Gogh and Hopper. These visits also tied into other content areas like social studies, sometimes in unexpected ways. Each visit also included at least one art project for the students, so they had a chance to develop their own artwork, and hopefully see themselves as artists in their own right by the end of the year. At the end of the year, thanks to DonorsChoose.org, each of my students was able to choose from a dozen pieces of art he or she had made, and frame one to take home.

I know I’ve expressed plenty of disappointment in myself, when I feel I haven’t met the mark in helping all my students progress. I think these frustrations are valid, and something for me to build on in the future. However, I also look back at this year, one full of challenges, some new and some old, and I see a lot of excitement and promise in the changes I made and the risks I took.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.