Tennessee

Laughter may be the newest way to meet academic standards, research says

Teachers poked fun at each other and made off-the-cuff remarks about the everyday stresses of working at low-income schools during a recent conference in Nashville. It’s a little-known fact that laughter is key to making students memorize lessons, a trainer told teachers in between quips about Teach For America recruits and unruly students.

The conference was geared toward training teachers to help students cope with social and emotional stresses that can sometimes distract from classroom learning.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has installed new learning standards, built academic academies in high school and increased the demands on teachers. But the district has also made a concerted effort to get teachers and students to bring a positive attitude to the classroom.

In 2012, they became the first district in the state – and one of only a handful in the nation –to hire a director of social and emotional learning. The director, Kyla Krengel, trains the district’s staff, from principals to bus drivers, on ways to help students cultivate skills like anger management, relationship building, and mindfulness. The thinking is that happier kids, with fewer discipline problems and the skills to cope with situations ranging from arguments with their best friend to extreme poverty, will more easily be able to focus on classroom lessons, leading to higher test scores.

“It’s not a curriculum that you have to sit back and teach,” said Tony Majors, the director of support services for Metro Nashville Schools. “It’s how you interact with children, it’s how you interact with adults.”

More than 400 educators from across Tennessee and eight other states attended last week’s conference at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch. The conference was sponsored by Metro Nashville Schools and Alignment Nashville, a non-profit committed to bring together community resources to help support public schools. For the first time this year, the conference was expanded to include more than 300 people outside the education sector, including mental health professionals and representatives from juvenile court.

Metro Nashville's director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.
Metro Nashville’s director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.

Teachers should share with students tasks that they find challenging, and tell students the tactics they use to overcome those challenges, said the keynote speaker, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s school of education.

Knowing that even adults find certain tasks difficult helps students feel like their struggles with academic material aren’t exceptional or insurmountable, she said. Throughout the conference speakers like Rimm-Kaufman emphasized that social and emotional learning is as much about teachers’ state of minds as students’.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our teachers, as well as our students,” said Dottie Critchlow, Nashville’s head of instructional support.

An example of how teachers’ own feelings impacts classroom learning caused one outbreak of laughter in a session called “Brain Scans to Lesson Plans” led by Tara Brown, president of an education consulting agency.

Brown was reminding teachers that students can sense their attitude by how they carry themselves in the classroom, which impacts the overall learning environment.

“Kids in poverty read non-verbal cues, too,” Brown told the classroom of teachers. “We’ve all seen scared little white teachers from Teach for America and lord have mercy, we know they’re going to get chewed up and spit out.”

Brown told teachers that showing their enthusiasm and excitement for teaching will demonstrate to students that they are “actually worth listening to.”   

Rimm-Kaufman also specifically addressed how social and emotional learning can help students master new Common Core math standards. In Tennessee, curricula based off the standards often promote group work. She said that show-and-tell in the morning, where students learn to listen and ask each other questions, helps students work together on complex math problems later in the day.

Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.

Administrators in the Metro Schools say they can feel a difference in schools since the district expanded social and emotional learning through a grant from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). But that difference can be hard to measure.

Krengel’s next project is to quantify the impacts of the districts’ work on social and emotional learning, which is so often manifested in intangibles, like laughter and relationships. She’s working to combine data on school discipline, attendance, drop-out rates, test scores, and classroom observations so Nashville can help share the impact of their work with other districts.

“The district is open to finding what really works,” she said.

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede