Model Lesson

Polakow-Suransky tries out the teaching he's been pushing for

AP English students at Bronx Academy of Letters debate different types of affirmative action as top Department of Education official Shael Polakow-Suransky looks on.

When the 18 seniors in Amy Matthusen’s Advanced Placement English class entered Room 104 at Bronx Academy of Letters on Wednesday, they were surprised to see an unfamiliar figure at the front of the classroom.

Instead of their teacher, they found Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s second in command, who signed up to guest-teach in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. Polakow-Suransky is leading the department’s efforts to make instruction more challenging but hadn’t taught a class of students since working as a principal in 2004.

“When I thought about a good way to express my appreciation, I thought doing some teaching and getting a feel for what our teachers are working on day to day would be a powerful way to do that,” he said.

Matthusen’s students had analyzed three essays about affirmative action, each arguing that a different kind of student should get an edge in university admissions. One argued for race-based affirmative action; another pushed for poor students to get a boost; and the third said admissions preferences could bring more male students to college campuses, where they are under-represented.

Polakow-Suransky didn’t want to pull the class away from its trajectory. So after speaking with Matthusen twice, he prepared an activity that used all of the same materials. His twist: Students would argue the positions contained in the essays before a “Board of Regents,” a group of students responsible for setting admissions policies for a hypothetical university.Of course, he made sure his lesson was aligned with the city’s new curriculum standards, known as the Common Core. The standards require students to be able to interpret dense informational texts, synthesize multiple arguments to develop positions of their own; and locate evidence to support a position they don’t necessarily hold.

The students leaned on the texts they had read, but they also drew on their own experiences. And some of them found themselves tasked with arguing positions they didn’t personally support.

Armando Pascual said he didn’t believed students should be evaluated based on merit alone. But as a member of the group advocating for affirmative action for men, Pascual argued that as the only male student in the advanced class, he uniquely understood the need for colleges to create role models for male students.

(Just three boys applied for the AP class and only Pascual was as qualified as his female classmates, Matthusen said; Principal Anna Hall said the school is hoping to win funds through the city’s Expanded Success Initiative to help push boys into advanced classes.)

Angelica Flores said she had not supported affirmative action until she realized that she had benefitted from it when a theater school recruited South Bronx students — and offered them scholarships to enroll. She wouldn’t have gotten the education without the assistance, and everyone benefited, she said.

“They don’t know how to act around us,” Flores said about white students from affluent families. “It’s the same way with us. We don’t know how to act when we see white people in our school — it’s weird.”

Ultimately, the student-Regents ruled that colleges should practice race-based affirmative action, since it would likely create socioeconomic diversity as well. But they rejected the idea that male students should get an edge. “If affirmative action is only on men, what about minority women?” one student asked.

In all, Polakow-Suransky spent fewer than four minutes addressing the whole class. The rest of the time, he and Matthusen circulated among the groups, pushing them to refine their arguments, and watched students debate each other. That’s exactly as it should be, he said, even if it means that teachers sometimes don’t step in when students struggle or show confusion, as some students did about the purpose of affirmative action.

“We have to develop skills in kids to be able to push each other,” he said after the class ended. “The main role for the teacher is to set that up.”

Matthusen said she would have liked to see students tackle the essay authors’ logic and style in their class discussion — topics that Polakow-Suransky said would make good fodder for follow-up writing assignments. Those issues could also have gotten more attention if there had been more time for the activity, he said, adding that ideally students would have spent one day researching their arguments and a second in debate and discussion. “It wasn’t quite enough time to do all three steps,” he said of the single class period.

But even when a lesson is imperfect, it can be a success if “emotional content” creates a lasting learning experience, Polakow-Suransky said.

“Part of what I was interested in as a guest was trying to create a space where kids could apply their knowledge,” he said. “When you have some kind of simulation-type experience it changes the dynamic in a way that’s hard to do without some public-facing, performance-based element.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.