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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 Wingate 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.

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.”

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Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.