Complex text

A harder English curriculum arrives in Memphis elementary schools next week. Here’s how teachers are preparing.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Carolyn Coe prepares her fifth-grade classroom at Winridge Elementary School for the introduction of a new curriculum in English language arts. Expeditionary Learning is aligned with more Common Core learning standards and will offer students more complex texts to read and understand.

Kicking off a lesson using a new curriculum for English language arts, Rachelle Taylor reads aloud to elementary-age students and then invites questions about the text and a few related photographs.

Under Shelby County Schools’ new curriculum known as Expeditionary Learning, the point isn’t for students to understand every little detail, but to get them used to asking good questions. Instead of lecturing, the teacher becomes a facilitator and guide who lets students do most of the discovering.

“This is what good readers do: ask questions,” explained Taylor, a district adviser for elementary English. “We’re building (reading skills) in order to go deeper.”

This year, Shelby County Schools is adding Expeditionary Learning to its curriculum mix as the district seeks to expose its students to more complex reading content. Last school year, only a fifth of them met the state’s expectations in English language arts on the state’s new standardized test known as TNReady.

The change officially starts on Monday for grades 3-5, then in January for grades K-2. Middle schoolers began using Expeditionary Learning at the beginning of this school year.

The goal is to better equip students to take TNReady, which is based on the Common Core learning standards. Ultimately, it’s about giving them a better foundation for college and career by shifting emphasis from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.

PHOTO: SCS
Sharon Griffin

“This is going to afford our students the opportunity to see the same type of information and questions every day that they’re going to be tested on in the spring,” said Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin. “We feel really good that exposing the kids to this curriculum will not only help them master the content but that we’ll see those results in a couple of years in our data.”

For middle schoolers, Expeditionary Learning has replaced Journeys, an English curriculum that’s been in place in Memphis schools for several years. For grades K-5, Journeys will remain, but will be supplemented with the new curriculum.

“Journeys was not rigorous enough,” Griffin said. “It had a few complex texts, but we needed our students to be exposed on a daily basis. We’re trying to make sure we’re practicing exactly like we’re going to play.”

Expeditionary Learning was created by a nonprofit network of schools in New York in partnership with that state’s department of education. It’s already being used in the Memphis area by Germantown Municipal School District, which last year had the highest TNReady scores in Tennessee in English. Several Memphis charter schools also use Expeditionary Learning.

For teachers with Shelby County Schools, preparation for and training on the new curriculum has been going on since the end of last school year.

But Carolyn Coe has known the change was coming for a long time, and is excited that it’s finally here. The fifth-grade teacher at Winridge Elementary has been following other states using Common Core-aligned curriculum and began incorporating the approach gradually into her own classroom instruction. Last year, her students were filmed in a training lesson that was led by a district literacy adviser. As she watched her class, she observed that her quieter students were chiming in and her stronger ones were helping those who were struggling, reinforcing their own learning.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

“Before, I was doing a lot of lecturing. But with Expeditionary Learning, the children are doing the bulk of the work,” Coe said. “They’re learning by doing. They’re piggybacking off each other and learning from each other.”

Criticism about the change is based mostly on its November start for grades 3-5. School has already been in session for 12 weeks.

“If you start in the middle of the year, you won’t get through the curriculum before the test,”  said Lisa Jorgenson, a kindergarten ESL teacher who is also a teachers union representative.

Griffin said Journeys has been sufficient for the first few months of the school year. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t just cold turkey snatch the Journeys curriculum,” she said. “Journeys is not a bad curriculum. The amount of complex text just wasn’t enough to take us all the way to June.”

The district had a bumpy rollout of professional development for Eureka Math, which launched this year following several pilots. Some materials arrived late. Griffin said all the materials are in place for next week’s introduction to Expeditionary Learning, and the school board this week approved the purchase of more K-2 materials for next semester.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Rachelle Taylor (standing) leads elementary school teachers in a training on Expeditionary Learning, a new curriculum for English language arts being introduced in Shelby County Schools.

Teacher training has been happening up to the last minute. Some schools, like Winridge, brought in substitute teachers on Wednesday so that English teachers could plan lessons together and prepare materials.

Schools are also being asked to replace at least one faculty meeting each month with a “collaborative planning” period for educators to practice lessons and work through issues. Collaboration has been a cornerstone of success behind the Innovation Zone, the district’s school turnaround model. District leaders want to see that practice spread.

Teachers for and against the change spoke to board members this week. All agreed the current curriculum has not prepared students well.

“The curriculum we teach is vitally important to achievement,” said Corey VanHuyster, an English adviser who helped implement Expeditionary Learning for middle schoolers. “It will be one of the major factors on whether or not our students perform on end-of-year testing and more importantly if they are literate and well-read students.”

state of the union

New York City teachers union braces for Supreme Court ruling that could drain money and members

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew (standing) met with teachers during a school visit in 2014.

A few dozen labor leaders gathered recently at the the headquarters of New York City’s 187,000-member teachers union to hear a cautionary tale.

In a glass-walled conference room overlooking downtown Manhattan, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew settled into a chair facing a colleague from Wisconsin. He asked the state teachers union president, Kim Kohlhaas, how her members have fared after an aggressive rollback of labor’s bargaining power there.

She described rampant teacher turnover, fewer job protections, and ballooning insurance and pension costs. In short, a union’s worst nightmare.

For the UFT, Wisconsin is a harbinger of what could result from a Supreme Court case known as Janus, which revolves around the ability of public unions to collect mandatory fees. Oral arguments begin on Feb. 26, and the decision, which is expected in a matter of months, could dramatically alter the landscape for unions across the country.

The impact will be felt especially by the UFT, the largest union local in the country. If the court rules that teachers are not required to pay for its services, the union is likely to shed members and money — a war chest that has allowed the UFT to be a major player in New York politics and to secure robust benefits for its members.

“This is dangerous stuff we’re getting into now,” Mulgrew told Chalkbeat. “They’re trying to take away people’s ability to come together, to stand up and have a voice.”

While the case deals with different issues than Wisconsin’s anti-union policies did, New York City labor leaders say the limits on their membership and funding would weaken their ability to fight against further restrictions on their organizing and bargaining power.

In anticipation of the ruling, union leaders have reportedly already considered downsizing their operations. And they have undertaken a preemptive information and recruitment campaign to hold onto members — who, soon, may be free to choose whether to keep supporting the union financially.

“Much as I oppose Janus, it’s kind of a wake up call for entrenched union leadership,” New York City teacher Arthur Goldstein blogged recently. “People need reasons to pay, and it’s on leadership to provide them.”

At issue is whether public unions can continue to charge “agency fees,” which are payments collected from people who are not members. Sometimes called a “fair share” fee, it is meant to help unions cover the cost of bargaining contracts that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. Only a fraction of New York City teachers currently opt out of the union and pay the agency fees rather than dues — but experts expect many more teachers could leave the union if the Supreme Court bans the fees.

Mark Janus, a government employee in Illinois, is challenging the fee on the grounds that it violates his right to free speech. The Supreme Court deadlocked on a similar case in 2016 after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia. With Neil Gorsuch now on the bench, observers expect a conservative-leaning court will side with Janus. If that happens, workers covered by unions — including the UFT — will be able to opt out of paying the fees that help keep the unions in operation.

“What that means is there will be a lot of teachers — potentially a lot of teachers in New York — who do not invest in the union,” said Evan Stone, co-founder of the teacher advocacy group Educators for Excellence. “There will be potential growth in free riders who are benefiting from the work of the union without contributing to it.”

That’s why the UFT is kicking into action. The union has trained scores of members to knock on doors and talk to fellow teachers about the case. In about two months, the union estimates its members have knocked on 11,000 doors, sharing stories about how the union has helped them and hoping to convince teachers to keep financially supporting the work, even if the courts decide they’re no longer required to.

Union leaders are also launching “membership teams” in every school. Tasked with “building a sense of unity,” the union is asking the teams to engage in personal conversations with members, and plan shows of support for the union. Stone said his organization is organizing focus groups across the city to inform members about the case.

New York City teachers automatically become union members. They pay about $117 a month in dues, while social workers, paraprofessionals, and members in other school roles pay different amounts. Members can also choose to contribute to a separate political fund, which the union uses to lobby lawmakers and support union-friendly candidates.

About 2,000 educators opt-out of the union and pay agency fees instead — which are the same amount as regular dues, according to a UFT spokesman.

Ken Girardin, who has studied the potential fallout of Janus for New York’s unions as an analyst for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy, said the number of agency-fee payers is low compared to other unions. But the Janus case could change that.

Girardin looked at what happened after Michigan enacted a “right to work” law, which forbid mandatory agency fees. The result: The Michigan Education Association, among the state’s largest unions, saw a 20 percent drop in dues and fees. Among full-time teachers, membership declined by 18 percent.

Girardin estimates an equivalent decrease in New York would mean the state’s teachers unions would take a $49 million hit annually. The UFT relies on dues and agency fees for about 85 percent of its $185 million budget, according to federal documents.

“It means they’d have to make up a course change,” Girardin told Chalkbeat, referring to the potential impact of the Janus decision. “They would have to treat their members like customers instead of people who are going to pay them regardless.”

Behind the scenes, the union is reportedly making contingency plans to deal with the potential budgetary fall-out. The New York Post recently cited unnamed sources who said union leadership is considering reducing the staff at some of its borough offices and cutting back on discretionary spending.

Girardin said public-sector unions in New York have already begun to fight for state legislation that would make it harder for members to drop out — a potential work-around in case the court sides with Janus.

Some UFT members say the threat of Janus is already being felt. The union recently voted down a resolution to support Black Lives Matter after leadership said it was a divisive issue at a time when the union can’t afford to lose members, according to an NY1 report.

Rosie Frascella, a Brooklyn high school teacher who helped organized Black Lives Matter at School events across the city, said she was disappointed in the leadership’s decision. But despite those internal disagreements, she said the threat posed by Janus should compel all teachers to speak out in support of their unions.

“You need to be in a union because it protects your right to teach,” she said. “And it stands up for our students and it creates the schools our children deserve.”

student discipline

Looking for the ‘why’ behind student suspensions, Memphis schools turn to behavior specialists — again

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialists Clarence Shaw and Inger Spikner speak with a student at Kirby High School in Memphis.

On paper, one student’s suspension from Kirby High School was routine. She had told her teacher to “shut up!” after the teacher made multiple attempts to stop her from talking during the day’s lesson. There had to be a consequence.

But in a meeting later, behavior specialist Clarence Shaw sought to understand the “why” behind the student’s misbehavior.

“What was going on right before you told him to shut up?” he asked the student.

“He’s got a short temper, just like I do,” she answered. “And I started saying one thing and he started getting loud. And I told him to shut up and he put me out of his class.”

The teen continued: “He wasn’t telling anyone else to be quiet. He kept calling my name out.”

That’s when Inger Spikner, another behavior specialist for the 900-student Memphis school, chimed in — and then helped to reframe the incident.

“You feel like you’re being singled out,” said Spikner, a former teacher. “When in actuality, you are because as a teacher I’ve identified you as a leader and I know if I can get you to be quiet, then everybody else will follow suit. So when a teacher singles you out going forward, I need you to know that there’s this kind of, like, an unwritten or unspoken code. You’re a leader and you don’t even realize your status.”

By the end of the 10-minute conversation, Spikner and Shaw had identified what triggered the student’s behavior, helped her think through the consequences of her words, and planned to follow up with the teacher to make sure a suspension was truly the last resort.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools hired 19 behavior specialists for the 2017-18 school year.

Shaw and Spikner are among 19 behavior specialists hired this year by Shelby County Schools to serve nearly all of its 145 schools. By giving students individual attention, they seek to pinpoint the root cause of misbehavior and then work with those students to make better choices. The goal is to help avoid school suspensions, as well as to acclimate suspended students back to school.

And it’s working. Two years ago at Kirby, the administration suspended students 333 times in the first 80 days of school. This school year, the number of suspensions during the same time period was cut in half. And the number of in-school suspensions has gone from 346 to just 47 this year.

That’s especially important because the Memphis district has the highest rate of suspensions in Tennessee, significantly contributing to racial disparity when it comes to how students are disciplined across the state. Statewide data from 2014-15 shows that Tennessee students were more likely to be suspended if they were black boys or live in Memphis. And if students aren’t in school, they’re more likely to fall behind in their schoolwork and get frustrated, creating more behavior problems.

Steevon Hunter, Kirby’s first-year principal, said behavior specialists are a welcome new resource at his school.

“When I get together with my administration team each week, one of things on our agenda is our frequent flyers … particularly with behavior. And we’ve seen those frequent flyers decrease (with the help of behavior specialists),” said Hunter.

“It’s one thing to suspend a kid,” he noted, “but it’s another to get to the ‘why.’”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Michael Spearman and Ron Davis lead Shelby County Schools’ behavior specialist team.

Behavior specialists are not new to Memphis schools. Memphis City Schools had them, but the department was cut when city and county schools merged in 2013. Then last year, the consolidated Shelby County Schools hired Michael Spearman, who is also a longtime detective for the Memphis Police Department, and Ron Davis, a former behavior specialist under Memphis City Schools, to go into 30 schools as a pilot program. They reduced suspensions by 5 percent, convincing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to invest $1.5 million to hire more behavioral specialists to serve the entire district.

Next year, the plan is to add even more.

Behavior specialists are different from counselors because they don’t have power to recommend or impose punishment. They visit weekly with students and also meet with teachers and principals to develop behavioral improvement strategies.

“You can have an impact on kids one-on-one,” Spikner said.

“We’re not so punitive,” adds Shaw. “We create that safe space. Once they open up, then we can focus on changing their behavior.”

Memphis schools haven’t used corporal punishment for more than a decade, but have been slow to provide alternative disciplinary measures. Meanwhile, there’s increasing recognition of the need to help students who are dealing with personal trauma, which sometimes can lead to behavioral problems. Behavior specialists are helping to bridge the gap, according to Roderick Richmond, who oversees the district’s student support services.

“I think that everyone throughout the community is realizing the importance of being able to provide social and emotional support for students,” he said. “We’re seeing some of the trauma that our students are experiencing — both students and parents — and when they’re experiencing some of that trauma, how we address that in the school buildings is very, very important.”

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
This “progressive discipline” chart is being implemented in schools with the help of behavior specialists.

Some actions still must result in automatic expulsion — for instance, seriously injuring a school employee, possessing or selling drugs, and having a gun at school. And the policy for automatic suspensions is also unchanged for fights, assaulting a school employee, or maliciously damaging school property.

In other cases, the goal is to “suspend appropriately” — and not to overlook harmful or disrespectful behavior to make their numbers look better, said JB Blocker, an attendance and discipline hearing official for the district.

“Everything should not result in suspension. And there are a plethora of things to happen before you suspend,” said Blocker. “But I don’t want to go to a school where teachers can get hit in the jaw or stabbed and there are no appropriate, serious consequences. So, we have to find a balance of what that looks like.”

For students suspended for more than five days, state policy requires school leaders to create a behavior plan outlining what is and is not acceptable, strategies, and potential consequences. That practice wasn’t consistent across the district, Spearman said, so behavior specialists have taken that job on.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Behavior specialist Kimberly Long congratulates a student at Gardenview Elementary for making progress on his behavior goals.

At Gardenview Elementary School, behavior specialist Kimberly Long carries a half-dozen binders in a small roller suitcase, including one with copies of “contracts” students have created to identify ways to improve their behavior — as well as the rewards they’ll receive for meeting their goals.

One Gardenview student wants to erase the teacher’s dry erase board as his reward when he’s done a good job of listening in class and respecting his peers. If he doesn’t, he wrote, his mother should get a phone call from the teacher.

Another student has a sketchbook to draw in when he gets upset. His teacher knows that drawing helps when he needs to calm down.

Weekly check-ins with Long reinforce the behavior lessons that teachers don’t have time to go over individually. She finds that elementary-age students crave attention, and her job is to help them channel that desire appropriately.

“They come here at school and expect that’s what they have to do: act out in order to get the attention,” she said. “They just have to be taught there are other ways.”