Are Children Learning

Teachers seek clarity, training at Common Core summer sessions held by state DOE

Renia Williams and Jeffery Mister participated in the summer common core training.

Renia Williams waved her blue-painted finger nails in the air at a training in Memphis last week as she shared her classroom experience teaching Common Core with fellow middle school teachers.

“Common Core is forcing kids to think,” she said, eliciting finger snaps from the other teachers in the room, like at a poetry jam.

Williams is an eighth grade teacher at Treadwell Middle School in Memphis. She was one of 187 teachers trained at Ridgeway High School last week as “learning leaders,” who will go back to their own schools and train other teachers how to teach Common Core standards. About 14,000 teachers in all will be trained in sessions held by the state department of education this summer at 40 sites across the state.

Common Core  is a series of baseline reading and math standards Tennessee adopted in 2010 that determine what children should learn in each grade. Unlike standards used in the past, Common Core emphasizes that students build critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills that often require a different style of teaching. Instead of  children calculating math problems and presenting their answer, for example, they instead must now show how they arrived at their answer.

Initially adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, the standards have been subject to political controversy in recent years, with many states  passing laws that have repealed or weakened their impact. This past spring, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to delay the use of PARCC, a national test designed specifically with the standards in mind.

Teachers have complained that the new standards come at a time of more pressure to boost test scores.  They have pointed out that, with districts’ constrained budgets, professional development opportunities have decreased while standards have increased.

Last week’s training offered by the state department was geared toward providing teachers with pedagogy skills such as encouraging students who don’t pick up new skills right away or helping students organize their thoughts while preparing to write an essay.

The teachers did not receive compensation for attending the three-day training sessions. The department’s spokesperson, Ashley Ball, could not provide the cost of the summer trainings.

Williams considers teaching math her destiny. She had dreamed of being a math teacher from the age of four, inspired by a devoted kindergarten teacher and her late mother who was a math teacher. She opted out of more lucrative career options her engineering and computer science degrees proffered to go into the classroom.

Williams had been teaching for almost two decades when Tennessee first rolled out the Common Core standards as a way to boost student achievement.

She said she felt like she was good at her job, and already knew what her students needed to succeed without Common Core. The new standards seemed an unnecessary departure.

“At first I was reluctant to even deal with it,” she said. “They’ve been throwing Common Core out here, but not helping people realize where the pieces fit.”

But at the recent training, Williams displayed the zeal of the converted.

She said she has grown to appreciate the Common Core Standards after realizing that it helped her teach more like the teachers  who had instilled her love of math, by connecting skills in the classroom to real-world problems. She said her “Aha!” moment came when she received her students’ TCAP scores after the first year of Common Core, and they had improved – despite the fact that she didn’t teach to the test at all.

This summer’s training made the state’s expectations and the national standards clearer.

The content of this summer’s trainings build on the learning from previous summers, but target the areas of greatest need for continued support, which department officials felt were writing and math, Ball said.

“Last year was to make sure teachers understood what the standards were,” said LaShanda Simmons, the site leader for training at Ridgeway and a literacy coach for Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, a cluster of schools that academically rank in the bottom 5 percent of the state. “Now, we can go deeper.”

During last week’s session, elementary English teachers practiced modeling essays for their students and were introduced to a writing strategy called Self-Regulated Strategy Development, for the first time. Teachers use the strategy to give students a “road map” of six stages, including various levels of planning, writing, and revision, that they can use to be successful writers.

Coaches in both the math and English sessions emphasized that harder work must be paired with a culture of encouragement.

“If [a student] sees all zeroes, he’s not going to fix anything,” a literacy coach told teachers. The coach urged the teachers in her session to find things to praise kids for, even when they’re struggling with reaching most standards.

The math teachers worked on a technique where students derive their own mathematical equations from word problems. At least three teachers volunteered that their students found the teaching method frustrating.

Williams said that the key to giving her students such difficult assignments was establishing that she believed they could do it. She attributes her students’ high TCAP scores to high standards and expectations. Talking about how to help guide her students through challenging math concepts was helpful, she said.

“Words can’t describe what I got out of the first day,” she said. “It made me realize we’re on the right path.”


History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.