symbiosis

At newcomer school, teachers step back to help students learn

Blendi Brahimaj, Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario working together

On a recent day at High School of Language and Innovation earth science teacher Katie Walraven did very little.

Walraven’s choice to take a back seat to her students was strategic: She was letting her students, who are almost all recent immigrants, do most of the teaching.

Her approach reflects one answer to a tricky question: How to teach high school students grade-appropriate content — while at the same time teaching them English. It’s a question that teachers at newcomer high schools such as High School of Language and Innovation or International High School in Prospect Heights, the subject of “The New Kids,” a new book by Brooke Hauser, confront daily.

For help addressing the tension, High School of Language and Innovation’s founding principal, Julie Nariman, turned to Learning Cultures, a curriculum designed by New York University education professor Cynthia McCallister. The basic philosophy of Learning Cultures – which is used in a dozen other city schools – is that students learn best through social situations. “The social interaction is what allows the writing to happen, the reading to happen, the learning to happen,” McCallister said.

While Learning Cultures is not specifically designed for ELL populations, Nariman says it is the perfect fit for them because it allows students to pool their knowledge of English and content to help each other. Nariman is well-versed in the needs of ELL students, having previously been assistant principal of English as a Second Language at Long Island City High School, and having taught English as a Second Language in Korea.

“This really spoke to me,” she said about Learning Cultures. “It’s a system of teaching students to work interdependently in the classroom and to use independent work time effectively. The content is still all there but in order to get to that content we are first working on social practices.” 

Walraven’s classroom – one of four that the brand-new school currently occupies in the basement of the Christopher Columbus Educational Complex – is filled with light dribbling in from high windows and with wafting smells of gravy and fries from the nearby cafeteria. During Thursday’s earth science class, Walraven’s students split into five groups to learn about earth-sun-moon cycles. Nariman and McCallister, who was visiting the school, sat in with some groups.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Principal Julie Nariman

In one group, leader Blendi Brahimaj, from Albania, tapped his pen on an open page in his earth science textbook, counted to three and led teammates Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario, both from the Dominican Republic, in the synchronized reading of a passage about Daylight Savings Time.

Reading aloud together is a key component of Learning Cultures, which calls it Unison Reading and says studies have proven the strategy effective. In Unison Reading, a small group of students reads a passage of text aloud together, stopping each time one of them feels confused or lost. Because the process is dictated by students’ own self-declared needs, according to McCallister, it can be more powerful than a teacher dictating information to a group of students, all of whom are in different stages of their English acquisition and all of whom are confused about different things.

After a few fumbles to regulate their reading speed, Brahimaj stopped the group: “What does that mean? ‘Ahead’?”

Hernandez offered an answer, explaining, “‘Ahead’ is like first, like if you’re ahead of me, you’re first.”

It sounded a lot like “in front of” to the other boys so Hernandez kept at it, pounding his textbook with his hand and contorting his mouth while thinking of another explanation.

“Like if I don’t know something and you know it, you’re ahead of me,”  Hernandez said. Satisfied with his answer, Brahimaj counted to three and the boys continued: “…ahead of standard time… ”

With no teacher over their shoulder, the boys still managed to keep each other on task, raise their questions and concerns and help each other comprehend the text.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Students using technology to help bridge the communication gap

In another group, Nariman looked on as Eury Cerda, who was born in America, got frustrated with teammate Aida Sarr, a native French speaker who immigrated from Senegal this school year, when she didn’t immediately understand his instructions to open her textbook.

Nariman nudged the group towards finding a solution to these issues so that they were all on the same page. Ultimately she brought them a laptop so they could take advantage of Google Translate. Cerda agreed to type a passage of the textbook into Google Translate, share it with Sarr and then lead the group in reading the English version of the text. At first, the group members were reluctant to risk losing time to study for an upcoming quiz, but by the end of the lesson they were working together. After each segment, Cerda turned to Sarr, asked if she understood and then cued more reading. By the end of the period, not only did they make their way through the passage, but they agreed to be friends.

“I said sorry and she asked if I wanted to be friends and I said yes,” Cerda reported on his way out the door.

Nariman recognizes that typing an entire textbook into Google Translate isn’t a sustainable strategy, but it is exemplary of the types of shared problem solving techniques her students employ to ensure that they and their classmates are understanding the language and content of their reading.

While Nariman coached Cerda’s group, McCallister worked with Walraven and a pair of girls as the girls struggled through a diagram of the earth’s rotation and revolution. McCallister and Walraven did not give them any answers, rather they helped them ask each other questions and watched on as the girls articulated the answers for each other. They prompted the girls with statements like, “Ask her if she understands” and “Ask her to explain it to you.”

After McCallister and Taina Guerrier, from Haiti, spent several minutes swirling around the room, rotating and revolving around each other, Guerrier grasped the concept enough to explain it to her partner: “She is the earth, I am the sun. She is moving. I am not moving. That is the day. When she moves, that is the dark.”

Her partner understood, the student had successfully become the teacher. Guerrier was glowing.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede