'tough conversations'

These seventh-graders started the school year talking about Charlottesville and what they can do about racism

On Thursday morning, 10 seventh-grade girls sat in a circle in a third-floor classroom decorated with world flags and quotes from Maya Angelou, Sitting Bull and Abraham Lincoln.

They were soft-spoken as they passed around a talking stick — delving tentatively into a topic that last weekend’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., put in stark relief: racism in America.

The girls, students at Denver’s McAuliffe Manual Middle School, had already read copies of a news article about the events that left three dead — one counter-protester mowed down in the street and two state police pilots monitoring the rally who died in a helicopter crash.

Now, they jotted down questions on colorful sticky notes. There were straightforward ones such as, “How did the helicopter crash?”

There were also bigger, more complicated questions: “How can people live in hate?” and “What is our president doing to stop this?”

Teacher Sarah Frederick shares a group hug with her seventh-grade students after they discussed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Mirroring conversations happening in classrooms nationwide, social studies teacher Sarah Frederick walked the class through a discussion not just about the events in Charlottesville, but the students’ own brushes with prejudice and their nascent ideas for tackling racism.

While some Colorado schools aren’t yet back in session and others are just getting started, many educators plan to follow suit in the coming weeks — incorporating Charlottesville into lessons on everything from history to media literacy to creative writing.

To help arm Denver-area educators with resources for covering the recent news along with a tangle of related issues, Hayley Breden, a social studies teacher at Denver’s South High School, is planning a meet-up Saturday morning at a public library in Arvada.

“It could be three people who show up. It could be 50,” she said. “I just wanted to provide teachers with a place to talk about what happened and I wanted them to feel confident in addressing these things with students.”

In Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, Superintendent Jason Glass released a statement on Charlottesville and asked for community feedback on it.

Glass, who is new to the role, included the statement in a letter sent to families Wednesday, writing that the district respects free speech but won’t tolerate threats or harassment.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg alluded to Charlottesville as he made the rounds of district schools that got an early start this week.

“We have an important role in giving supports and resources to teachers as they head back to class to directly address the events of the weekend, and the important reflection and learning we must do as a community in the face of such repugnant actions,” he told Chalkbeat.

Resources for teaching about Charlottesville are available from a number of sources, including Teach Plus, Facing History and Ourselves and the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum hashtag on Twitter.

Breden said it’s important to get beyond a simplistic “racism is bad” message and dig into bigger issues such as the distinction between free speech and hate speech, the impact of racism locally, and the many forms of racism beyond slurs and chants at a rally.

Manual High School history teacher William Anderson feels much the same way. He sees Charlottesville as a high-profile example of overt racism, but just the tip of the iceberg. He wants his 11th- and 12th-graders — most of whom are students of color — to understand how deeply embedded racism is in the fabric of American life.

“Why are we OK with talking about individual acts and we’re not so interested in talking about these things at a systemic level?” he asked.

He plans to do both once the school year starts on Monday — weaving Charlottesville, which he knows will be fresh in students’ minds, into broader themes he’d already planned on racism’s role in American history, the media landscape and even the college experience for students of color.

In Frederick’s class, where about half the students are black, half are white and one is Latina, she made sure the seventh-graders knew that Colorado had its own racist realities to confront.

“How many of you have heard of Stapleton?” she asked, referring to the northeast Denver neighborhood named for a former Denver mayor and Ku Klux Klan member.

The girls turned their attention to a black and white photo on the screen at the front of the room showing scores of hooded klansmen marching through the streets of Denver. The events in Charlottesville weren’t so far away.

The students were most vocal in recounting experiences where they or someone they knew had experienced racism.

One girl, whose mother is African-American and whose father is white, said her parents had been called names. Another said her African-American father had been stopped in customs for extra questioning while the rest of the family had sailed through.

One girl, who wore a sparkly crown in honor of her birthday, said she and her mom had been pulled aside by a store employee after buying party supplies.

“This white lady, she kept looking through the bags and kept looking at the receipt and then she pulled us over,” the girl said.

After the girls shared their experiences Frederick thanked them.

“I know that’s really heavy stuff,” she said. “But what I want you to understand is that that does not have to be the world we live in.”

The hardest part for Frederick’s students, who are just 11 and 12 years old, was figuring out what they could do about racism and hate.

As Frederick wrapped up the 40-minute discussion, promising it would continue on Monday, she asked, “What’s our responsibility? … What do we do now?”

Most of the students sat silently. A couple said they couldn’t do a lot, but offered tentative suggestions: Maybe they could share their thoughts on social media, attend local peace marches or communicate their views to more powerful people.

One girl had a different take.

“I think we could do something really big if we wanted to and if we tried really hard,” she said. “I don’t think there’s really a limit for us if we put our mind to it.”

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed information to this report

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”