First Person

How collaboration can really work: A Bed-Stuy middle school principal explains

As the principal at M.S. 267, a middle school in a high-poverty neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, I’ve always believed our wealth lies in the expertise and passion of our educators who work hard every single day in service of our students — our community’s biggest treasure.

But until recently, no matter how hard our team worked, we found it challenging to get students where they need to be. Two years ago, only 11 percent of our students were reading and writing at grade level.

So when Chancellor Carmen Fariña introduced the Learning Partners program to help schools learn from each other, I signed us up. We knew it was our responsibility to explore new strategies developed beyond our own school doors as well as to share our challenges and discoveries.

In our first year, we were paired with two other schools — a “host” school and another school that, like M.S. 267, had a lot of room to grow — to actively share and bring new practices into our schools. Now in our second year, we’re part of Learning Partners Plus, so we have six partners working with a host school.

Both years, our host has been the School for Global Leaders in Manhattan, which faces challenges with literacy just like us but is farther along in developing strategies to improve instruction. The school’s principal, Carry Chan, is a master principal in every sense of the word who runs a school where teachers work together and instruction is rigorous.

Working with Carry last year, we focused on improving our own instruction by making stronger connections between teaching and assessments. Practices that we took back from the School for Global Leaders include their use of data trackers and exit tickets to collect informal student data, plan instruction, and design interventions for students that need them.

We constantly grapple with questions like, how do we monitor how much students read and write? How do we get students to read more than just fiction, and increase their vocabulary? How can teachers ensure that every single lesson can meet the needs of all students?

Instead of just looking for answers on our own, we’ve explored possible answers together by visiting each other’s classrooms. Teachers in the host school willingly open up their classrooms for a period to showcase a particular practice, and then teachers from all of the schools dissect the lesson together.

Throughout the process, our schools created a deep bond. And along the way we have been lucky to have Maureen Wright, a facilitator from the Office of Interschool Collaborative Learning, guide us as we plan our learning activities and push us to get more specific about our schools’ needs.

This year, those needs shifted and the program shifted with us. We are now focused on how best to make literacy lessons appropriate for students of differing skill levels, and how to foster high-level questioning and discussion in each classroom. We have also benefited from seeing how other schools run their team meetings, and are thinking about their methods as we try to make our own meetings more efficient and effective.

Classroom practices have improved dramatically. We learned new ways to make sure student performance today informs tomorrow’s lessons. We learned how to use powerful data tools that allow us to know our students better and provide them with a more supportive environment, especially our students with disabilities and English language learners. And, we learned how to foster student leaders, who have already mastered content, who can teach other students.

Teachers aren’t the only ones learning. Carry taught me new ways to empower teachers by giving them opportunities like taking charge of professional learning, leading meetings, mentoring each other and running school visits. Our school is stronger — and our strength more likely to survive over time — the more our teachers rise as leaders.

All of our hard work translated into higher test scores for our students after one year in the Learning Partners program: Nearly twice as many students hit the state’s reading and writing proficiency bar last year. We think this year’s scores will be even higher.

But the biggest benefit goes far beyond test scores.

School walls can be confining, and the Learning Partners program is intentionally collapsing them all across the city. Being a principal or a teacher can feel very isolating, but as a result of our participation in Learning Partners, all of us are communicating with each other nonstop, by email, text, or phone.

We feel like we are part of one big school, and as we work together, share ideas and collaborate we know that it will be our students who benefit the most.

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.