And the award goes to

Three lessons from the Nashville English teacher who won a shocking $25,000 prize

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Misty Ayres-Miranda greets a student shortly after being surprised with a $25,000 cash prize.

At Nashville School of the Arts, it’s usually the students who are primed for the spotlight.

But on Tuesday all eyes were on English teacher Misty Ayres-Miranda, when state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the Milken Family Foundation surprised her at an school-wide assembly with a check for $25,000 — one of thousands of awards to individual teachers that the foundation has handed out since 1987.

The foundation doesn’t share how it chooses awardees, who do not need to apply to win. Ayres-Miranda — who teaches ninth- and 12th-grade English and directs her school’s new Literacy Arts Conservatory performance program — had not heard about the prize before winning it. She said she would be giving much of the money back to her fellow teachers and her school.

“I’m so shocked,” she said. “There are honestly so many great teachers here. It could have been any teacher, and I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Nashville School of the Arts is different from most schools — students audition for admission; arts are incorporated into every subject; and test scores are in the top quarter of schools in the state. But Ayres-Miranda said she believes some of what makes it special can be replicated elsewhere.

Here’s what the award-winning teacher had to say about testing, standards, and her students:

Why the Common Core State Standards don’t limit creativity in the classroom, as some have charged 

The good thing about these standards is that they are so open-ended. They give us a lot more freedom to tailor them the way we want to use them. Before the standards were a lot more detailed and specific, and some of the things weren’t necessary. Common Core English gives us more flexibility to play around and still meet the standards the state wants us to. I’m a lot more of a supporter of our current standards than the ones we had before.

A lot of teachers — and I understand why — get set in a certain way of teaching, and sometimes they are scared of trying something new, and afraid it won’t fit with the standards. Probably not every type of art will fit into every lesson, but there is a way to adapt it. If you’re open to that it will help your scores, because it will help keep your student’s interests. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have some type of artistic — even if not necessarily strong — ability, some sort of love, and I think tapping into that, and making the kids care, makes everything easier to teach.

Why lessons should be guided by more than what’s on the end-of-year exam 

When I went to college, the first paper I turned in, I got a C-minus. I was really upset, because I had gotten all As in high school. I had a great college professor, and she told me what I needed to do differently. I was like, I never learned about citations, I didn’t learn about writing … I made a decision that I wanted to be a teacher, and really teach kids what they needed. Not, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, the stuff some tests say they have to know, but really what I know kids need.  To be honest, I don’t really focus on the [end-of-year] test itself until right before we take it, because it’s more important for them to work on their writing skills and the things they need to know for college.

This year, I am having to prepare them a little bit more for how to take a computer-based test. A lot of kids get testing anxiety when they have to scroll down and can’t see everything, and can’t mark things the same way. It’s really about telling them that yeah, you can do it, it’s just different. Honestly, it’s early in the year. I still have a lot of time to have fun with my kids before focusing on the test.

On the benefits of teaching at a school that chooses its theme and its students 

We are in a rare environment where kids aren’t judged based on their gender choices or whether or not they’re homosexual or heterosexual or different races. Our kids block themselves off based on their art. And the fact that we have an environment where everyone is accepted for who they are as a person is pretty amazing.

I would say to other schools, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a kid being who they are and being unique. And when you celebrate that, they accomplish so much. I really think we have a community that is very rare [and] that shouldn’t be so rare. It should be all across the board, at every public school.

after parkland

As Trump doubles down on call to give teachers guns, the growing #ArmMeWith movement offers an alternative

Counselors, time, diverse classroom libraries, money — these are some of many things American teachers say they need in their schools instead of guns.

The pleas are coming via a social media hashtag, #ArmMeWith, that has spread quickly this week as teachers grapple with the aftermath of last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Some lawmakers and advocates — including President Donald Trump — have responded to the shooting by arguing that teachers should be armed. That idea has drawn scorn from educators who argue that more guns in schools would make students less safe and do little to address the underlying issues that contribute to violence in schools.

Now thousands of those educators are offering an alternative, using a template that two teachers shared on Instagram on Tuesday. Olivia Bertels and Brittany Wheaton already had substantial social media followings when they asked others to join them in starting a movement.

“My friend @thesuperheroteacher and I think that we should find more practical solutions than giving teachers guns,” Bertels wrote on her post with the template, where she asked to be armed with school supplies. “I hope you’ll take the same stance.”

More than 5,000 people so far have done exactly that on Instagram, and the hashtag is also trending on Twitter, bringing educators together in a cross-country conversation.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” wrote one Texas teacher, HowsonHistory, in a comment on a Rhode Island teacher’s post. “But am so glad that so many teachers are. Maybe soon we will be listened to.”

Here are some of the posts that have caught our eye.

“We, the teachers, have a few ideas.”

“#armmewith not guns, but counselors who do not double as test administrators and more than one overbooked, crowded therapist option for families with Medicaid and social workers without overloaded caseloads.”

“#armmewith the liberation of our students, a microphone to speak out against the policies you make from people who aren’t teachers, resources to empower our children, and love to keep our babies safe. We refuse to be armed with guns. #teachingwhilemuslim”

“Because there are so many other things to be arming ourselves with that will do more good than harm. I choose to #armMeWith kindness not violence and teach my students to do the same #jointhemovement”

“I took my first teaching job the year Sandy Hook happened. And the thing is, in that year and in all the years I have been a teacher since, I have stood in my classroom too many times and wondered where I would put my children if someone came into my classroom with a gun. I have stood on playgrounds and in hallways with dozens of students and wondered what would be the best action to take. I have sat through too many of my lunch breaks with my colleagues hashing over the best strategy for protecting our students. There has to be change. Teachers and students deserve to work and learn in peace. #armmewith #thingsteachersshouldnothavetosay”

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.