new model

What if high school were different? Memphis stakeholders key in on ‘project-based learning’

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Precious Boyle discusses how to improve the high school experience with others after the Memphis screening of "Most Likely to Succeed," a 2015 documentary on project-based learning.

What if Memphis decided to “do high school” differently from its current approach, shifting to a model where students gain deep knowledge by actively exploring real-world problems and challenges through extended study?

There would be no textbooks and little homework. Teachers would rarely lecture. School subjects wouldn’t dictate the day’s schedule, and achievement wouldn’t be based on written tests.

Instead, students would learn and demonstrate their knowledge almost exclusively through projects. The goal would be to equip them for 21st-century jobs that require soft skills such as collaboration, innovation and learning from failure.

About 40 Memphis parents, students and educators explored such possibilities this week during a special screening of “Most Likely to Succeed.” The 2015 documentary highlights High Tech High, a California school that gives its teachers complete autonomy on content and methodology in the classroom.

The downtown screening, which was followed by a panel discussion on project-based learning, was sponsored by Crosstown High Inc., Lausanne Learning Institute and Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School.

The Crosstown group is seeking to create a new high school in midtown Memphis with innovative approaches to teaching, including project-based learning.

Those attending the screening marveled at the way High Tech High was able to excite students about the projects they were researching and creating; others questioned the feasibility of training teachers and addressing all student needs under the model.

Here are four stakeholders who weighed in the prospect of a Memphis high school grounded in project-based learning:

Kassidy Falk, a rising 10th-grader at Germantown High School

You don’t have to have project-based learning to inspire kids to learn, says Kassidy, who recently moved to Memphis from California. She recalls having teachers who sparked — not squashed — her curiosity through more traditional methods. An example was her second-grade teacher, who worked one-on-one with Kassidy to break down the process of reading so that, after initially falling behind her peers, she eventually was able to surpass her targeted reading level. But Kassidy also realizes that she may have a deficit in her soft skills training. “You can turn those skills into building blocks for later in life,” she said.

Leigh Mansberg, assistant head of St. Mary’s Episcopal School

“There’s a lot of culture shock” in the switch, said Mansberg, who observed confusion on the faces of parents who watched as the filmmakers presented their arguments for overhauling the school day. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to take away some lessons and incorporate them into classrooms now, she said. “Do you have to do it all the way? Things take time,” she said. “I’m interested in some sort of hybrid.”

Mansberg said the most powerful part of the documentary and learning model was seeing the growth of one girl’s confidence, maturity and creativity. “If education silenced that in her … what a big failure of education,” she said. “It’s that relationship piece. There is no technology that can help her find her voice. It took human power and empathy and experience.”

Leandra Oliphant, an 8th-grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy

While High Tech High looked fun, the lack of curriculum made Leandra pause.

Leandra Oliphant, an 8th-grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, spent a summer evening thinking about improving education.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Leandra Oliphant, an 8th-grader at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, spent a summer evening thinking about improving education.

“Usually a school gives stuff to cover and covers it,” she said. “At my school, it’s a STEAM school, so we learn concepts you don’t usually learn like coding. It’s a little similar to what we saw in the film.”

Leandra struggled to imagine going to a school with so little structure. High Tech High didn’t have bells ringing letting you know that a class was over. It focused on group learning, and the students and teachers collaborated on what they would cover that semester. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I can’t imagine the teacher not being in front or in charge. I’d talk the whole time.”

Precious Boyle, Memphis program director, Leading Educators

During a group discussion after the film, Boyle asked the audience how Memphis educators could combine the project-based learning concept presented in the documentary with traditional schooling.

“We don’t live in that world in the state of Tennessee, in the city of Memphis,” said Boyle, who questioned the adequacy of training programs that prepare teachers for less than the bare minimum. “How can we ask them to do so much more?” she asked.

Boyle also noted the model is not conducive to students who aren’t planning to go to college after graduation. “This is great, but this not the reality,” she said.


‘Genius grant’ writer to Memphis: ‘We’re losing the only gains we’ve made’ against segregation

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning New York Times Magazine writer, speaks on school segregation during her first public appearance in Memphis.

Memphis is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about school segregation, a nationally renowned journalist said while visiting the city this week.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes about race and school segregation for the New York Times Magazine, was in Memphis as part of a speaker series sponsored by Center for Southern Literary Arts, Chalkbeat Tennessee and MLK50: Justice in Journalism.

She was among the 24 recent winners of a no-strings-attached prize known as the MacArthur “Genius Award.” (Read more about her work here.)

Her award-winning piece, the “The Resegregation of Jefferson County” was a deeply reported  article on how racially motivated school district secessions are contributing to school segregation in Alabama.

In her talk, Hannah-Jones compared what happened in her article with what happened in Memphis in 2014, when six mostly white municipal districts broke away from the large, predominantly black Shelby County Schools.

Listen to part of Hannah-Jones’s story:

“The resegregation in Jefferson County is exactly what’s happened here,” Hannah-Jones said.

“It’s white communities breaking off from school districts,” she said. “They can wipe their hands of it and say it’s not about race, we just want districts to represent my community. It is about race.”

Hannah-Jones said resegregation is a trend recently documented by national researchers — both in the relatively new trend of district sessessions and in white Americans moving into communities of color but refusing to send their children to neighborhood schools.

Schools were segregated in Tennessee during the first part of the 20th Century. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts in Tennessee slowly began to integrate and then stalled. Now, researchers and journalists say segregation is getting worse.

“As the south resegregates, we’re losing the only gains we’ve made,” Hannah-Jones said. “We want to pretend that our decisions aren’t impacting other kids, but they are.… You cannot say you believe in equality and seek to advantage your child every step of the way. ”

Hannah-Jones wrote in 2016 about choosing a school in New York City for her own daughter. She eventually settled on a neighborhood school — one that is majority black and poor. She challenged Memphians, in particular white, middle-class Memphians, to think more equitably about where they send their own children to school.

“White children aren’t hurt at all by going to these schools — their test scores don’t go down,” she said, a statement backed by research. “But look in Detroit, inner-city Memphis, Chicago. No one is coming.”

“The piece I did about my daughter, the reason it had such an impact is that I was honest. It wasn’t an easy choice when I had my own child. Morals and values in abstract are great, but reality is more difficult.”

She began the Tuesday night event with a story about a student she grew close to — and whose story embodies some of the issues of segregation —  before participating in a panel with MLK50 founder Wendi Thomas and Tami Sawyer, a Teach for America director and local activist.

Hannah-Jones said she’s now working on a book about Detroit — specifically looking at how poverty makes educating children “impossible.” (To learn more about schools in Detroit, go here).

In talks

Hopson asks state to let struggling Memphis school remain with local district

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is in talks with state officials about the future of American Way Middle, a struggling Memphis school that the state has identified for conversion to a charter school under Shelby County Schools or takeover by Tennessee's Achievement School District.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is asking Tennessee’s education chief to let Shelby County Schools keep control of American Way Middle School and place the struggling school in its own turnaround program, the Innovation Zone.

And Commissioner Candice McQueen is hinting that she’s willing to talk.

Hopson’s official request came this week despite McQueen’s plan for the Memphis district to convert American Way Middle to a charter school or risk having it placed in the state’s Achievement School District.

“Our Board voted to place American Way in the iZone next year,” Hopson wrote McQueen on Tuesday. “The Board was uncomfortable waiting for an additional year before taking action.”

McQueen wants the school to become a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. The board voted to place it in the iZone a year earlier than that.

But Hopson said the district’s concerns extend beyond timing.

“During its robust discussion regarding a district-led charter conversion, the Board was particularly concerned because we are unaware of any middle school charter operators who have strong track records of success in the turnaround space,” Hopson wrote. “For these reasons, the Board indicated that it will not approve a district-led charter conversation.

He added: “Given the I-Zone’s progress, we respectfully request that the State allow American Way to remain in the I-Zone for at least 3 years. Notably, one of American Way’s feeder schools is also in the I-Zone.”

McQueen said Friday that her office needs more information about the district’s proposal for American Way Middle before she makes a decision.

“We had a conversation with the district this week to make it clear that simply saying the school will be in the iZone next year does not tell us what the plan for that school is, and we still need more details on what it would look like for the school to be served by the iZone,” McQueen told Chalkbeat through a spokeswoman. “It is also not clear what charter options the district explored.”