How one Memphis teacher brings the lessons of MLK to life – and how his students teach him back

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kyle Grady, a 12th-grade government and economics teacher at Freedom Prep Academy in Memphis, uses a free curriculum about Memphis in 1968 to teach his students about the life and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Memphis educator who frequently teaches about Martin Luther King Jr. says his students have taught him as much about civil rights as they’ve learned from him.

Kyle Grady, a 12th-grade government and economics teacher, said the activism he has seen among his students has been inspiring. He points to their involvement in the recent March for Our Lives protest against gun violence as an example.

“I feel like my students have been preparing me to celebrate the life of Dr. King,” Grady said. “They’re reminding me that the civil rights movement isn’t over, but it’s really coming back in student activism. As an adult, I don’t own legacy of the civil rights movement or Dr. King. It belongs to the next generation, and they decide how to build upon it.”

Grady was a philosophy professor at Rhodes College in Memphis before switching to teach in K-12. For the last three years, he has taught government and economics at Freedom Preparatory Academy, one of Memphis’ highest-performing charter networks.

We asked Grady about how he incorporates King’s life into his classroom, especially during the year that marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, as well as how he uses Memphis 1968, free curriculum from the education group Facing History and Ourselves. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach about the civil rights movement?

One thing I did this year in my government class that I really enjoyed was to have my students write a political manifesto. A lot of the academic papers my students write deprive them of their voice, and this was a way to encourage them to own their own voice. I want to encourage them to learn about government, not just about how it works, but to see themselves as potential agents of change. Writing a manifesto forces them to take what would be otherwise abstract academic concepts and think about how they could have an impact on the world around them.

Asking them to write a manifesto is a challenge because most have never been introduced to that concept. So we started with some examples, and one they are really familiar with: the Declaration of Independence. Then I showed them the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. This is a powerful way, I think, to draw on work of the civil rights movement.

How is the upcoming anniversary bringing MLK to life for your students? Did they already know a lot about his story? What did they not know?

We did a unit on the theory of capitalism and Marxism. To bring that down out of the clouds, we used the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the anti-poverty campaign of the later years of Dr. King’s life. We can relate this to what’s happening in Memphis right now.

Most of my students have this picture in their heads of King as passive, non-violent resistance, and don’t understand the full depth of his economic interests. Yes, you can get voting rights, but if you’re economically disenfranchised, you’re no better off.

I think my students walk away with an understanding — it might sound obvious, but it’s eye-opening to them — that poverty is not an individual issue but a cultural problem. They have a responsibility, not just to lift themselves and their family out of poverty, but to care about the economic freedom of those around them. It’s helpful for them to study economics, the civil rights movement, and the life of King all together to help deepen their understanding that freedom is not just about appealing to government for new laws or electing someone aligned to their beliefs. Rather, every decision we make in lives and communities has an impact on our own economic freedoms and that of those around us.

How do you view other textbooks or curriculums related to the civil rights movement?

One of my favorite texts is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I love it as a teacher, because I think he’s modeling what using your own education looks like. To write this letter, he’s metaphorically taking books down off his shelves and reading through them. He’s using his education in a moment of political and personal crisis. That’s what I would love for my students, and all students, to be able to do — not just answer teachers’ questions but take their wealth of information and use it in a totally creative way. That’s what Dr. King did. He drew on disparate sources to show the gravity of the project, and that the movement was not just about this group of people in this moment of time, but about universal themes of humanity.

Tell us about the Teaching Memphis 1968 curriculum. How has it enhanced your instruction?

I’m not from Memphis originally, I came here to work at Rhodes from California. Before reading this curriculum and attending the sessions on it, I didn’t understand how the events of 1968 impacted the way Memphians viewed themselves.

I had no idea that many Mempians had this false sense that Memphis was ahead of the rest of the South when it came to integration, and that Memphis prided itself as not having much racial tension prior to the strike. I brought these lessons into my classroom when we were doing a unity on community — what strengthens and what threatens people’s sense of community.

We used Memphis in 1968 and prior as an example of how communities carry around a sense of identity that can be out of sync with reality. Sometimes, it’s these moments of crisis that tell us who we are. It’s only when our communities break down that we see how they really worked, right?

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.