chalk talk

Tennessee teacher and ‘digital innovator’ on ed tech and why schools might not be ready for online tests

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Fourth grade ELA teacher and PBS digital innovator Sharon Clark helps a student during class at East Side Intermediate School in Brownsville,Tenn.

Last spring, Haywood County reading teacher Sharon Clark joined 99 other educators from across the country as a PBS LearningMedia “lead digital innovator.” The program gives tech-savvy educators dedicated to using digital media and technology in their lessons a year of training. Clark, 46, was one of 30 teachers in the program who also attended a national conference about digital innovation and education in June.

Clark’s participation comes at a time when technology is reshaping what happens in Tennessee classrooms. Schools are preparing for TNReady, a new all-online test that is tied to the Common Core standards and replaces the former state assessment, TCAP. Schools are working now to fix any technology bugs and train students to ditch paper and pencil for computers. Last week, education officials announced that districts across the state, including Haywood, have almost all of the devices and bandwidth they’ll need for the new tests.

Chalkbeat spoke with Clark, now in her fourth year as a fourth-grade reading teacher at Brownsville’s East Side Intermediate School, to learn more about the benefits and challenges that come with using technology in the classroom and why the state’s estimation of schools’ readiness for online testing might be unrealistic.

What exactly does “digital innovation” in the classroom mean to you?

For the longest [time], teaching involved a textbook and paper and pencil, but we’re living in a technological society. We’re getting away from the textbook and we’re getting more into resources that are online. It saves paper and it’s less expensive. The biggest thing is, it’s global. So now instead of my students just interacting with the students that are in this room or in this building, they get to interact with students and authors and information all over the world. And that’s huge because we’re in a small rural community and some of them will never be able to afford to leave this small town. This is a way to connect them to the big world.

What happened at PBS’s “Digital Innovation Summit” and what did you take away from attending? 

Sharon Clark teaches in her fourth grade ELA classroom.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Clark teaches in her fourth grade English language arts classroom.

The way I describe it to people is it was a buffet. And on the buffet, of course you can’t eat everything. You focus on what you can use now and once you get these things down pat then you can delve into other things. It just helps you to constantly grow, constantly have something to feed into the students, constantly give them different avenues because the harder-to-reach students, the struggling readers, a lot of them have given up already.

They’ve always had bad grades, and a lot of them have had behavior problems so they feel like, what’s the use? But they have to come to school, and so I try to give them ways to be able to use their own creativity, to use what they like, what they’re interested in, [to] show them that they can still produce something, they can still design something. And so [technology] helps a lot because now they want to try it. In their minds, to a lot of them we’re just playing on the computer. I praise them highly and I reward highly for effort, because it makes them feel like, “You know, I can do something. I am valuable.” So I’ll ease a little more in and I try to make it where it’s a little challenging. Not to where it’s too hard, but it’s a little more challenging each time. And then I try and show them where they started at the beginning of the year: See, this is what you designed here at the beginning of the year and then I say, “Look at this. Look how far you’ve come.” It gives them hope, and it makes them want to try.

How else are you applying what you’re learning in the classroom?

I would go home with stacks and stacks of paper every night, and I don’t have the time to grade all these papers and sit there and try to figure out the handwriting and what they meant to say. With computers, students can just do the work online and they get automatic feedback. If I have to grade papers sometimes it may take me a little while, and they’ve moved on to something else. When I get papers graded I try to talk to students about it, but sometimes they don’t even remember what I’m talking about. If I have it set up in the computer as soon as they take their test it’s automatically graded. So they not only have the immediate feedback and we know right away whether you need to move on, whether I need to reteach.

So that helps tremendously. I don’t go home with these stacks of paper over the weekend. Which means on Monday morning I come back refreshed, I’m not frustrated and tired because I’ve been grading papers all week long, I already know what your grades are. Monday morning we’re ready to decide who’s going where. So it moves us along a lot quicker and a lot farther than if we were using a paper and a pencil.

Also, we’re using Edmodo [a collaboration platform for education] this year, so I just put a discussion online and they have to all answer the question. I can look quickly —because I also have the app on my phone — and tell who knows how to answer the questions that I’m asking. I can see where all the holes are so that I immediately know who I need to pull into small group and sit down and work on these areas. I’m not teaching the whole class everything every time, I’m just grabbing the ones that need this. Some people are more advanced and ready to move on, and I’m like, okay, if this student already knows how to write a great paragraph, then I need to move them on past what they’re doing while I work with my struggling students on just structuring a paragraph correctly.

You teach at a school in Brownsville, Tenn., which is a primarily rural area. Do your school and your students face any challenges with technology? How is your school preparing for TNReady, an exam that’s administered primarily online.

The trouble is we’re limited with technology, but it’s a technology[-based] test. One reason I use technology in my room so much is last year we didn’t fully implement TNReady, but we had already been introduced to it.

I have a huge issue, because we only have four individual laptops for the students to use. Each classroom has four and the internet works in some rooms, and in some it doesn’t. In mine, as long as we’re hooked to an ethernet cable we’re good, but there’s no  Wi-Fi in [my part of] this building. [The state says Haywood has all of the connectivity and 80 percent of the devices it needs for online testing.]

And with the four computers I have to divide it up where some students can work on computers and some students can work elsewhere. But if I’m trying to do an assessment for the whole class, it takes a while for everybody to get their assessment done because we’ve got to rotate and shift and some students take longer than others, so it’s a huge struggle.

The Android tablet Clark received from the PBS LearningMedia digital innovator program.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
The Android tablet Clark received from the PBS LearningMedia digital innovator program.

Not only that, PBS gave us an Android tablet to use in the classroom, but there is no Wi-Fi. A number of my students don’t have computers at home that they can use so that’s huge as well.

The children have no typing skills; they’re not used to being on computers. So I wanted to start early, giving assignments on the computer. And I’ve already been able to find some of the holes. Some of them don’t know how to use the shift key. So if you’re going to look at their punctuation and their capitalization, the question is do they know which keys to push to make a capital letter? If it’s online then the student doesn’t have to deal with trying to write a letter. Don’t get me wrong, writing letters correctly is important, but if your assessment is going to be online and they’re not going to test you on that then I don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to get you to make an “A” correctly. I need to make sure you know where that “A” is on that computer.

Students at East Side Intermediate Elementary in Brownsville, Tenn. watch a video during class.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Students at East Side Intermediate School in Brownsville, Tenn. watch a movie trailer of “Because of Winn-Dixie” during class.

Why do you think technology is so important to your students’ education?

All of my classes are called “the success team” because I want them to be successful and I call them that every day. It doesn’t mean they have to have a whole lot of money in the bank, if they can support themselves and take care of a family if they so desire or whether they decide to join the military or go to college or get a trade, I just want them to be successful in whatever they do. And with us living in a technological world, they’ve got to know how to operate technology. And here’s what gets me. We’re living in a technological society but it’s the schools that don’t have the technology that they need. So that’s backwards and I try to use it as much as I possibly can.

Aside from how to use new technology, what is the most important thing you’ve learned so far from this program?

I feel like I have an opportunity now to make an impact. To share what I’m learning because I’m not in a county that has a lot of funds [or] has this mega program that everybody is coming to see. We’re in a rural community, we have 100 percent free and reduced-price lunch [a measure of students’ poverty], but we can make it. It’s a struggle, but it can work. I think that’s the message I want to get out to the world. Use what you have, and make it work until you are given something else.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.