First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

The idea of the American Dream works against my students. Here’s how ethnic studies could help.

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

A recent study laid out an uncomfortable paradox: For students of color, believing in the American Dream — namely the “bootstrap theory” that hard work and perseverance lead to success — predicts a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during middle school.

As Melinda Anderson put it in The Atlantic recently, this belief can become a liability for students “once they become keenly aware of how institutional discrimination disadvantages them and their group.”

That research only looked at a few hundred students in the southwest, and it’s always risky to draw broad conclusions based on a single study. But as a white teacher of mostly black students in Brooklyn, I’ve seen this firsthand.

My students reliably pick up on nuance, particularly when it comes to issues of fairness. If you are told that your world is a meritocracy, and your neighborhood looks like a disaster zone, you may reasonably come to the conclusion that your options are limited and internalize the idea that they should be.

Educators have a responsibility to confront and fight against these beliefs. This is where our own curriculum can work against us — and it’s time for that to change.

New York’s students deserve a class dedicated to ethnic studies, focused on the historical struggles and social movements of ethnic minorities, conscious of the ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with power and oppression. For too many young people, white students as well as students of color, school rarely connects to these critical concerns.

I’ve seen the promise of this approach, thanks to my experience working with children who do not look like me. Their engagement in lessons that deal explicitly with ethnic studies content convinced me that this emphasis should become part of my curriculum in every course. In addition, I am grateful for mentoring from a number of brilliant, experienced teachers and administrators, most of whom are black. They have convinced me that good teaching for all students must be approached in a culturally responsive way.

During my economics class this past semester, we looked not only at Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, but also at labor organizers such as Dolores Huerta and A. Philip Randolph. This did not require an overhaul of the curriculum, but it necessitated reflection about how best to connect with the students in front of me. This was a simple first step, wholly insufficient.

In San Francisco, where full ethnic studies courses have been offered to ninth-grade students for several years, a study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis demonstrated a remarkable, significant positive impact:

“Assignment to this course increased ninth-grade student attendance by 21 percentage points, GPA by 1.4 grade points, and credits earned by 23. These surprisingly large effects are consistent with the hypothesis that the course reduced dropout rates and suggest that culturally relevant teaching … can provide effective support to at-risk students.”

In the past year, California passed a law that will bring ethnic studies to every school in the state, building on popular programs in many of the state’s largest districts.

The most controversial discussion of ethnic studies at the K-12 level has taken place in Arizona, where state legislators banned a popular Mexican American studies program in the Tucson public schools in 2010. That ban was just overturned last week — making this an important moment to discuss how these classes could help students across the country.

Meanwhile, for my students of color in New York City, racist violence animates their lives to a degree many fail to appreciate.

I was struck recently by two stories in the news — reflections on the death of Mike Brown, three years ago on August 9, and a look back at the brutal assault of Abner Louima by the NYPD, 20 years ago on the same date. Sadly, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville will join our collective memory, to be filed next to these two important parts of our history, along a continuum that also includes Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and the victims of race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wilmington, North Carolina, and so many others that do not appear in our standard history books. These omissions must be corrected.

White students as well as students of color will benefit from ethnic studies courses, which expand on the core curriculum by including diverse voices and perspectives. Most importantly, these courses analyze power structures in a critical way, empowering students to challenge the status quo.

That’s what the state of New York should want for all young people. The 44 credits now required for a high school diploma, including courses in economics and a foreign language, are missing this component that is key to creating good citizens. In 2017, we can no longer suffer public schools that fail to meet this crucial obligation.

Will Ehrenfeld is a social studies teacher at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn.