School climate

Becoming aware: Nashville schools bring mindfulness into the classroom

Students at USN prepare for a mindfulness practice.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, the sixth graders in Katie Reen’s English class at the University School of Nashville (USN) were chatting at their desks, animatedly discussing the school talent show scheduled for that afternoon.

But when Reen struck a handheld chime, the students fell silent and closed their eyes. Almost no one moved as Reen instructed them to think about what they wanted to accomplish during the day, and about the “jiggles and wiggles” they might feel about the impending show.

The students were participating in mindfulness, a practice of taking time to be aware of one’s thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness has taken hold in the corporate world and beyond as a technique to overcome personal and professional stressors and cope with digital distractions, but educators at a growing number of schools have found that it helps children thrive as well.

USN 6th grader during a mindfulness practice.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
USN 6th grader during a mindfulness practice.

At USN, mindfulness is part of the program: Teachers incorporate different form of mindfulness practice in their classrooms throughout the day and year. The school’s between-class bell even sounds like a handheld chime.

USN teachers and students say mindfulness has helped students cope with academic pressures during tests and quizzes, and manage emotions about at-home pressures, such as divorce. Several studies have shown that it decreases behavioral problems and raises student achievement on standardized tests. Proponents say it makes it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach.

Becoming Aware: A Nashville State of Mind

Both public and private educators in Nashville have been focusing on “social and emotional learning,” based on the belief that students need skills to help manage emotions and relationships in addition to the academic skills they learn in class.

USN was the first school in the Southeast to work with Mindful Schools, a California-based non-profit that offers mindfulness training to teachers, focused especially on urban schools. And Metro Nashville Public Schools is the only urban school district in Tennessee to have a director of social and emotional learning. In 2012, the district was one of eight nationwide to receive a $250,000 grant to expand social and emotional learning from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

Organizations like Mindfulness in Nashville Education and Alignment Nashville bring together area teachers from private and public schools together to exchange resources and ideas about how to improve students’ social and emotional learning.

Mindfulness might conjure up language like “emptying the mind,” but an important component of mindfulness is that the “clutter” doesn’t disappear.

“It’s not about clearing your mind; it’s just about becoming aware,” said Mary Agee, the University School’s mindfulness coordinator.

University School guidance counselor Helen Tarleton illustrates mindfulness by shaking a snow globe. “When you shake the snow globe, it’s really hard to see what’s going on in the present moment clearly,” she said.

“What mindfulness does is, your mind is cluttered like [a shaken snow globe], and you stop and pause, and take time to really focus. All that clutter kind of then settles, so you can see clearly what’s right in front of you.”

Journey to mindfulness

The middle school at University School Nashville began its journey to mindfulness about eight years ago. USN has about 300 students in grades five through eight.

Tarleton said she was frustrated that tactics like anger management groups, self-esteem groups, or support groups for children experiencing grief didn’t seem to be effective for her students, who often didn’t want to discuss family issues at school.

USN students during mindfulness practice.
PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
USN students during mindfulness practice.

Plus, she added, those approaches don’t reach all students. Students without behavioral problems or difficulties at home also have social and emotional needs, but the school’s rigorous schedule didn’t allow time for a wellness class where she could instruct students in stress reduction.

“We needed something the teachers could do,” Tarleton said.

Tarleton learned about mindfulness at a counselors conference in Washington, D.C. in 2006 and recommended that a faculty member attend a conference held by the non-profit Mindful Schools in 2009. Tarleton and Mary Agee, then a photography teacher, flew to Oakland, California to attend.

Agee came back to Nashville convinced that Mindful Schools could be the key for social and emotional learning for the school’s middle graders. Middle school principal Jeff Greenfield also had conversations with the organization and observed mindfulness in an Oakland public school. He agreed.

Sharing the lessons

Greenfield asked trainers from Mindful Schools to come to Nashville and train all of his middle school teachers in the fall of 2010. The non-profit, which also offers online trainings, said they would — but only on the condition that USN partner with a local public school and help foster mindfulness there. Agee and Tarleton connected with Lynn Driver, an art teacher at Rose Park Magnet Middle School who was involved in Mindfulness in Nashville Education.

USN and Rose Park are, in some ways, very different schools: For instance, at USN, middle school tuition is more than $20,000 a year. At Rose Park, about 64 percent students meet the requirements for free or reduced lunch.

At USN, Greenfield asked teachers all to start off their days with mindfulness practice for at least the first six weeks of school. Rose Park’s Driver did not have the formal support of the principal or training. Instead, Tarleton and Agee visited her classroom and gave her feedback, informed by what they had learned in Mindful Schools training.

But, Tarleton and Agee say, despite the differences in school culture and student body, mindfulness has worked in both schools. They say that any teacher interested in the practice can incorporate it into the classroom.

Tarleton said she would advise other interested teachers to find resources in their own community.

“It’s developing so much now, especially in Nashville, that it’s not hard to do,” Tarleton said.

Agee is now the school’s mindfulness coordinator. She prepares materials to help guide teachers and students through mindfulness exercises. She hopes to eventually make the resources, like CDs and cards printed with different exercises, available to teachers at other schools.

Student Response

According to last year’s annual student life survey, 56 percent of fifth graders at UNS reported that they use mindfulness in stressful situations, and 58 percent reported they use it to focus and concentrate.

“It just helps you kind of not think about the test and whatever you’re doing, and it gets your mind off of it, and you can focus a lot more and you’re not like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a test,’” said Alexander Haynes, a fifth grader.

Older middle school students are often less openly enthusiastic about mindfulness, Agee said. Only 41 percent of sixth graders at UNS reported using mindfulness in stressful situations, and 37 percent reported using it for focus and concentration.

But a sixth grader in Reen’s class was quick to volunteer how mindfulness was helpful when it came to schoolwork. If you don’t try to settle the clutter in your mind before studying, “you’re going to be thinking about chicken nuggets or something,” the sixth grader said.

And despite apparent waning enthusiasm in the older grades of the middle school, several students have told Agee they rediscovered and regularly employ mindfulness in high school, even though teachers don’t allot classroom time for it.

USN has held several workshops for parents from USN and the wider community that have been at capacity; Agee estimates 100 parents have now gone through the trainings.

Teacher buy-in

Just as important to the success of mindfulness as student support is teacher buy-in, Tarleton said. “Imagine doing what Katie [Reen] did and standing in front of the class if you really don’t believe it. It’s not going to work,” she said.

In the years since USN formally incorporated mindfulness in its middle school, teacher enthusiasm has only grown. Bakari King, the middle school drama teacher, said he’s embraced it from the beginning.  “Sometimes children, and I’m including myself even though I’m 34 years old, we need a reminder to slow down,” King said.

Mindfulness helped his students stay focused during daylong rehearsals before the school musical in August and reduces pre-stage jitters, he said  But he doesn’t always tell the students that they’re exercising mindfulness when he leads them through exercises to help them be, as he puts it, “alive, alert, and aware,” lest they become wary of the term.

“These are vegetables. But, if you say it’s V8 Fruit splash, they might take it,” King said.

Updated: The description of how USN staff decided to use Mindful Schools was edited for accuracy.

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upheaval

Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”