Tennessee

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

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Some research shows academic performance improves when students learn how to work together in groups, such as these Whitehaven Elementary students at a 2014 STEM expo in Memphis.

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.

 

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.