A Best-Selling Author Called Maplewood’s Jarred Amato The Truth and We Agree

Jarred Amato is no stranger to this blog-space. I first learned of the Maplewood High School teacher through Twitter and noticed the work he was producing outside the classroom. At the time of my introduction, Mr. Amato was collecting books to outfit book bins in book deserts for the community to access through his organization Project LIT Community. Soon after, I learned about the monthly book club open to the community and held at the school during school hours to ensure student attendance.

Since then I have attended two book club meetings where students and community members break off into groups for discussion that ultimately, transforms into teams for the contest portion of the meeting. The books chosen for the book club are stories and characters students at Maplewood might find relatable. Mr. Amato, a white teacher from Boston, believes his students should see themselves in books. And this is why national organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Penguin Random House, and best-selling authors love him.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the deeply passionate teacher prior to an early-morning meeting — standing in the cold. He remarked that he was a little tired from staying up late working on a grant that would allow him to purchase more books, but his excitement about Project Lit Community masked any hint of exhaustion. Mr. Amato is no stranger to these applications or the resulting awards as his ask is simple – more books, please.

The man is serious about getting relevant books into the hands of his students and others like them and “relevant” is the million-dollar word. During our conversation, he referred to a quote by best-selling author Jason Reynolds who told the Washington Post, “The Teacher was like, Read this book about this man chasing a whale,’ and I’m like, bruh…I don’t know if I can connect to a man chasing a whale when I’ve never seen a whale.” Mr. Reynolds did not read a book until he was seventeen years old.

Mr. Amato refuses to be that teacher and is determined students have access to relevant books and the earlier in their learning the better. In his mind, Project LIT Community is as important as state-mandated curriculum. With the support of his administrative leadership and some serious time-management skills, Mr. Amato provides students opportunities to see themselves and take a few books home in the process.

Penguin Random House Teacher of the Year

This passion-turned-LIT movement sparked a flame spreading to middle schools around Nashville, a few more schools throughout Tennessee, and to an additional TWENTY states. So, it’s no surprise to learn that Jarred Amato was recently named Penguin Random House’s 2017 Teacher of the Year at the NCTE annual convention. Oh, and that comes with a $10,000 check that he will use to purchase –more books.

And the accolades don’t stop there. New York Times best-selling author Kwame Alexander had a little something to offer:

Yep, Kwame Alexander, the 2015 Newbery Medal recipient (highest distinction for children’s books) for The Crossover called Mr. Amato – The Truth.

I couldn’t agree more.

But What Does the School District Think?

During a time when 75 percent or more of any group of students (pick one) in our school district does not read at grade level, I would expect to see top-level administration clamoring to get to teachers like Mr. Amato to replicate this work in an authentic attempt to flip the script. I asked Mr. Amato if the district has expressed interest in his work, hesitant to respond (because, you know, trust), he opted instead to share his appreciation for the support of his principal and assistant principal. Message received. I’m puzzled by the lack of district-level support.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Amato and we need to act like it.

Congratulations, Jarred Amato! If you don’t hear it from anyone else, thank you for recognizing the importance of culturally-affirming books and finding a way to get them into the hands and homes of students. You are the truth.

Commissioner McQueen Celebrates Innovation and Calls Out Culture Issues While On Capitol Hill

Note: I wrote this before the news that less than 6% of Tennessee’s 3rd-8th graders are meeting the state’s reading standards. Currently, I am in a RESIST state of mind, but the commissioner’s testimony on Capitol Hill is still worth sharing.


Maybe I need a life or maybe you should stop judging me, but I thoroughly enjoyed Commissioner Candice McQueen’s testimony to a group of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Dr. McQueen was invited to speak about Tennessee’s exemplary Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan submitted in April and approved in August.

At the start of her testimony (at 29:28), Commissioner McQueen rightly and not so timidly points out that Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds was ESSA plan before ESSA was even a thing. And with that, the Tennessee commish’s “just sayin’” moment set the tone for the remaining ninety-five minutes.  

After burning up a minute of high-fiving the Tennessee’s innovation and public engagement efforts, McQueen gradually arrives at the part of the plan that some find controversial. Some, meaning me and a few others who are minorities or work for civil rights. “Here we go”, I think as the hair on my arms stand at attention and the pride of watching my commish testify before the United States Senate takes a backseat. But not for very long.

I dunno, maybe it was the sheer number of seconds she spends explaining the bane of my existence – BHN – the combination of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one super subgroup. I’ve blogged and tweeted endlessly about my thoughts about the state’s statistical creation of combining these three very different groups of students. I’m neither a statistician nor education professional, so my conclusions are mostly anecdotal but solid as a rock. Because as I’ve stated too many times “You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.” (Yes, I just quoted myself)

Still, I appreciate Dr. McQueen’s effort to allay concerns (or end the discussion once and for all) about this issue using as much time as a five-minute testimony on innovation will allow. The gradual transition from celebration to ‘oh, by the way, we did this subgroup thing and here’s why you should like it ” was so crafty I almost forgot my grandiose opposition to the super subgroup. She says the department is committed to equity for every student and illustrates her point using the demographics in a small school in rural Tennessee.

“An example is Camden Junior High in Benton County. There are 31 total students across three individual racial/ethnic groups, so it can be held accountable for all 31 students under the combined group. But it only has 19 Black/African-American students, 11 Hispanic students, and one Native American student – none of which are high enough counts to be included in our accountability system. Because of the combined racial/ethnic group, Camden Junior High is now held accountable for the performance of these students.”

Further, “…we will also publicly report the performance of every individual racial/ethnic student group, provided it meets an n-count of 10. This will equip educators, parents, community members, and advocates to hold each school accountable for how they serve every child. We believe all of these approaches will help to shine a spotlight on all students’ performance and drive a conversation about the needs of individual students, which is our goal, and we are doing more than ever to ensure that ALL students, particularly historically underserved students, are making progress.”

We will have to wait and see.

I’m convinced there is not much, if anything, one can throw at the former Lipscomb University dean and not be met with a swift, perfectly-delivered uncrafted response. The woman knows her stuff. I’m not here to be the good doctor’s cheerleader, because, you know, the kids… I will, however, shout her praises for acknowledging Tennessee’s decades-old problem of disproportionately suspending black males in response to a question about accountability (1:06).

She could have easily swept that tidbit of Tennessee’s unsavory history and culture under the rug, but she put it out there – for America to see. She put it out there in a room full of rich white men and women who are so far removed from public schools they speak of them as if they are little third-world countries. She put it out there against a backdrop of heightened racial tension. When we know better, we do better.

Senator Petty Warren

Finally, I’ve just got to put this in the universe. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the resident smart-aleck brazenly repping Massachusetts was given her time at the mic. She never fails to ask spite-dipped questions accompanied by body language that would not go over well in the hood. After she and the senator from Tennessee had a brief but heated back and forth, she asked those questions. She knew the answers making the targets look like a punchline. But what ticked me off was the not-so-gently lady’s reference to “Ms. McQueen” and one second later addresses the very-male “Dr.” Steiner.

Senator Warren, that’s Dr. McQueen, sis.
Hearing on ESSA innovations in Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Celebrating Tennessee’s Top Teacher Cicely Woodard, Metro Nashville Public Schools

YAAAAAASSSSSSSS!

Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher at West End Middle School and Metro Schools 2017-18 teacher of the year has been crowned Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year! See TN Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s announcement at last night’s ceremony.

In addition to being an amazing educator, Ms. Woodard is also a leader among leaders eager to share her talents with other educators across the state. We are so proud to have a Metro Schools educator as the state’s top teacher! (I’m beaming and I don’t even know her!)

I want to thank Ms. Woodard for putting in the hard work and serving as a source of inspiration for her students and their families. Ms. Woodard is now the standard-bearer for excellence across the state, making her one of the best in the country.

Education in Nashville needed a win and Cicely Woodard’s win is something everyone can celebrate.

Congratulations!

“The classroom presents a unique chance for young people and caring adults to build positive relationships with each other. It’s the place where teachers and students motivate each other to be their best selves. In the classroom we have a chance to help students to fall in love with learning and to understand the power of education.” – Cicely Woodard

Tennessee’s Smallest Urban District Needs Speedy Turnaround for Distressed Schools

According to an article in the Times Free Press, Hamilton County Public Schools is in peril and what happens to children anywhere in Tennessee matters to all Tennesseans. Recently released state test scores show the district produced the lowest possible score in all areas but one. It doesn’t matter if you are not a fan of the type of assessment, standardized testing as a whole, or the robust reliance on high-stakes tests — results are results. We have them and must respond swiftly.

The district’s low performance certainly warrants the attention this article offers, but it misses a critical point that must be addressed. Though the writer points out disparities in performance among schools, he failed to spotlight the characteristics of the higher performing and lower performing schools.

Based on the 2015-2016 State Report Card, the student population at schools performing at the lower end is comprised of 90% or more students of color and high poverty. Meanwhile, the higher performing schools listed in the article are majority white students and minimal poverty. This narrative plays over and over again in school systems across the nation as schools with large vulnerable populations tend to have high concentrations of ineffective and/or the least experienced teachers, minimal parent engagement, a revolving door for principals, and little belief in the kids with the greatest needs.

We must be honest about the disparities among schools and groups of students. To bury or ignore this information is dishonest reporting and parents deserve better.

Incidentally, I have high hopes for the embattled district with its new superintendent Bryan Johnson who, by all accounts, was a strong leader in Clarksville/Montgomery County. Expecting a change in trajectory for our Chattanooga babies.

Read the Times Free Press article in its entirety.

 

As Summer Fades, Education Stories in Tennessee Heat Up and Urban Districts Are on the Hot Seat

And all at once summer collapsed into fall. – Oscar Wilde

I seriously cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in edu-world today – like Wednesday today, not the universal today. I’ve scrolled through a number of articles that forced a pause only to be preempted by the next pause-worthy story. It seems a perfect storm of good-to-great and bad-to-worse is converging upon us as the school year settles in and long-awaited test scores make an appearance. Let’s dig in, shall we?

A bit of good news…

Nashville’s crack edu-watcher and writer Zack Barnes recently went on a data bender and tweeted out the amazing growth outcomes for many of our schools – traditional and charter. The most fascinating chart shows a list of schools achieving the greatest growth (level 5) for the 2016-2017 school year.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 10.51.35 AM

Great for these schools!

Note to ponder: every level 5 performing school on this list is a magnet or charter except for the dual-enrollment Middle College.

Follow @zbarnes for more chart love!


Not so good news…

Did you see the story “Regular Public School Teachers Miss More School Than Charter School Teachers?” 

A study performed by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that on average traditional public school teachers miss 10 more of school than charter school teachers. The EdWeek article explores two possible reasons for this gap in teachers showing up to work — collective bargaining and school culture.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 9.57.47 AM

Teachers in traditional public schools are protected by unions that negotiate sick leave while the majority of charters are not unionized. For instance, Tennessee’s teachers are greatly protected by the Tennessee Education Association (MNEA in Nashville) while not one of Tennessee’s charter schools has union influence. Could that be the reason our traditional public school teachers miss 25.3% of school while charter teachers miss 7.6%?

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, about 1 in 10 have teachers’ unions. According to the report, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools are chronically absent. It’s about half that in charter schools without unions.

Culture is the other possible explanation. Charter schools pride themselves on creating a culture of exceedingly high expectations for students, parents, and faculty.

Teachers who work in charters “agree to go there as an at-will employee in most cases,” said Miller, who once served as a president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, Calif. “This means you’re buying into a school culture and a way of doing business. That doesn’t include the elaborate leave policies you can often find in a collective bargaining agreement.”

But the million dollar question is “does teacher chronic absenteeism affect student achievement?” The article briefly touches on a study by Raegan Miller, a Georgetown University researcher quoted in the article, that concludes math students fall behind and are less engaged when their teacher is chronically absent. I’m no researcher, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the “less engaged” part of his conclusion is pretty important.

For the past two years, Tennessee (and Nashville, specifically) has been plotting and planning to triage the chronic absenteeism problem within our schools — for students. Maybe they are following the examples set before them? Don’t misunderstand me, parents need to be sure their child is in her seat, but if we have a problem with teachers showing up, then let’s make it, too, a prominently acknowledged and measured indicator for student success.


Downright ugly…

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Tragically, the districts with the greatest number of vulnerable students are not growing. Hamilton County has gotten unwanted attention after scoring ones across-the-board except in one area. There is no shortage of articles about Memphis and their academic struggles, but Nashville has avoided the spotlight – until now.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 11.07.00 AM

An overall score of one is a sure-fire way to regain exposure – whether you want it or not.

Admittedly, I’ve been generous to the district that educated my entire family and helped me provide a nice life for us. Additionally, working hard every day are Metro School staffers I care for deeply making it more difficult for me to call foul when foul clearly needs to be screamed.

But where I’ve failed to acknowledge weaknesses in our district, fellow blogger Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild (norinad10) has been on the case- for years. While we tend to see things differently, I understand the importance of respecting different points of view

You never know, there might come a time when the two points of view converge.

Screenshot 2017-09-20 at 11.38.56 AM

TN-ESSA: This Ego Trip Doesn’t Help Kids But…Told You So

I will beat a drum to its death. And through this platform, I’ve beat several drums and lucky for you they still have a lot of life left in them. 😉

Let’s see, there’s the drum designated for Nashville’s marginalized families. A drum for children of color consistently on the wrong side of the achievement, opportunity, and belief gaps. Then there’s the drum for Nashville’s increasing homelessness amongst the shadows of dozens of cranes, taunting those without a bed to lay their head.

You get the point.

In this post, I’m pulling out the BHN drum. You know the super subgroup Black-Hispanic-Native American designated by Tennessee’s Department of Education? Well, if you’re not familiar, here’s a brief primer:

As part of Tennessee’s strategic plan, TN Succeeds (which has just been approved by DeVos & Co.), as directed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Black, Hispanic, and Native American students will be combined into one group for reporting purposes. You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.

I have sat through multiple presentations led by state officials and asked any number of questions about the super subgroup trying to make sense of it. The state insists ALL MEANS ALL as it relates to student success.

As mentioned several times in this blog, Tennessee’s ESSA plan is a good plan according to every external organization that assesses state plans. In this Chalkbeat article, TN Succeeds gets high marks from another independent reviewer in nearly every area. Can you guess the area with the greatest weakness?

“The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.”

Yeah, I told ya so.

Read the Chalkbeat article on Tennessee’s ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s Literacy Initiative Must Work Quickly for Today’s Students

In 2025, seventy-five percent of Tennessee’s third graders will read at grade level. At the present, not even half of third graders are there. This Chalkbeat article shares the good news of Tennessee’s year-old effort to boost reading proficiency with the addition of literacy coaches to school districts that sign on to the initiative.

So far, 99 out 146 school districts are part of the literacy initiative as it begins its second year. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the reading coaches hired in the initiative’s first year made an impact on reading scores, because, you know, no 2017 scores as of yet. Another blog. Another time. But here’s hoping. If Candice McQueen is willing to expand the program, maybe she knows something we don’t.

The Future is Now

Education officials ALWAYS speak in terms of long-term goals that really only benefit the reputation of the system. Think about it: in eight years Tennessee promises all but 25% of its third graders will be able to read at grade level. We are preparing for partial success of students who have yet to be born, but it’s good to know most will be able to read.

What about today’s living, breathing 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who are not reading at grade level? I’m eager to compare the scores of 2015’s third graders and 2017’s fifth graders (same students), these students have just entered 6th grade. See how that works? Accountability requires that we understand the current situation to prepare for tomorrow, whether it’s eight years, eight months, or eight days. Time is not on our side.

Reading to Learn

We know students learn to read in K-2nd grades and begin reading to learn in 3rd grade. To put it plainly, the expectation is that students have mastered basic reading skills by 3rd grade. Students must be able to read and understand what they’ve read in order to learn other subjects.

So when I hear an 8th-grade teacher talk about having to re-work her lesson plans because half of her students showed up on the first day reading at a fourth-grade level –well, that’s quite troubling. 

I’m not knocking the literacy initiative or the 2025 goal, but we must work fast for our older students who continue to matriculate without basic reading skills.

Read the entire Chalkbeat article here.