Are Children Learning

'Superman' a hero at connecting music, math and reading

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Hulk, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman.

What seems like a simple list of superheroes from rival comic book publishers turns into a lesson on rhythm and musical notes in Amber Price’s fourth-grade music class at Indianapolis Public School 70.

“Batman, Batman, Superman, Batman, Batman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk!” the kids chant, falling into a sing-songy cadence as Price keeps time by hitting a tall, African drum at the front of the room.

It’s fun, and the kids love it, but Price has a stealth purpose: meet Indiana standards by using superhero names to get kids to understand music notes.

Price tells the kids the name of each comic book character is also a music note: “Hulk,” with just one syllable, or beat, is a quarter note. “Batman,” with two beats, is two eighth notes. “Superman” is three uneven beats, or one eighth note and two sixteenth notes. And “Wonder Woman,” with four quick beats, is all sixteenth notes.

Soon, the kids are chanting, clapping, stomping and snapping their fingers as they recite the whole song. It’s a noisy, lively lesson, and once the kids get instruments, Price can barely be heard above the din of drums, tambourines, maracas and mallets hitting wood blocks.

She continues to conduct at the front of the room, leading the class to the end of the song with a loud “HULK!” and a flourish of her arms to silence them.

When the kids leave for their next class, filing out quietly in two lines, Price exhales. It might take a lot of energy, but she’s just that much closer to crossing one more fourth-grade academic standard off her list: “Superman,” or rather, teaching her kids to read and interpret an eighth note attached to two sixteenth notes.

Indiana has seen rapidly changing standards in English and math. The standards were first revised in 2009, then the state made a switch instead to nationally shared Common Core standards and then it made one more change to the new Indiana-created standards that followed in 2014. That last change was a big battle between Common Core supporters and skeptics of the shared standards.

But expectations for what kids should be learning in art and music have stayed the same since 2012, said David Newman, the arts curriculum director for Indianapolis Public Schools. Even so, teachers and schools are doing things differently to keep pace with other subjects.

Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.
Amber Price leads a lesson on singing the school song for her fourth-grade class at IPS School 70.


Newman, formerly principal at School 70, a fine and a performing arts magnet school, is trying to emphasize to his teachers that the arts can’t be taught in isolation from core subjects such as English, math, science and social studies, echoing moves he made at School 70.

“You can’t sit on your hands and have everything come to you and you do your little music and art things and you are not fused to anybody else,” he said. “What we did was we did fine arts collaboration in the classroom. We use fine arts in everyday curriculum.”

Connecting arts to classroom learning

Unlike core subject teachers, Price said IPS doesn’t provide her with a curriculum.

She uses her own training in strategies that combine music, movement and literacy to figure out how to make sure her kids know what is expected by the state.

“Everything is written for classroom teachers, what standard to do and lesson to do,” Price said. “I’m not given anything by textbooks, which I don’t really use. I don’t want them to sit there singing out of a book. I want them to read music, to write music and be able to enjoy playing music.”

Most students in IPS have art and music class about twice per week, usually for an hour or so total. That’s not a huge amount of time, Newman said, and though teachers have multiple classes and sometimes multiple schools, they also need to be working with core subject teachers to “push-in” to classroom lessons and show how the subjects are connected.

“Go to the teachers and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re studying Day of the Dead (a Mexican holiday) in first grade. I know some songs or we can create masks,’” Newman said. “Put yourself in there.”

That philosophy drove how he structured one program in partnership with the Indianapolis Philharmonic Orchestra. Former teachers wrote lessons aimed at third-graders, and all grade level teachers participated. The kids learned about composers and their compositions, and after a few months the classes and their teachers got to see the orchestra play the music they’d been learning about.

Price said she teaches songs in her music class that can apply to English or math, such as a song about prepositions. Classroom teachers might also have students act out their reading for the day instead of just reading their chapters from the book. The key is finding small ways to infuse the arts into other areas, she said.

Cindy Huffman, curriculum director in Pike Township, said all performing arts standards have literacy components in them, so when the state transitioned toward Common Core, and then to new standards a year later, the district talked with teachers about how to make sure those standards were taken into account in all subjects — even the arts.

For example in sixth grade, students might be asked to determine the main idea of a piece of music and summarize it — an English standard for written passages — or identify important details and write about the style of art an artist chose. Just like with core subject teachers, performing arts teachers also had to develop tests and growth measurements so their instruction can be assessed, she said.

“All the teachers have been involved in the entire movement to Common Core as well as the Indiana Academic Standards, to those higher-level thinking and asking higher-level questions,” Huffman said.

Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amber Price plays while her students sing at IPS School 70.

Music and math, for example, are already heavily linked, Newman said. Music notation uses fractions in deriving musical notes, beats and rhythms. Price’s superhero lesson, for example, reinforces the concept of fractions in beats. Connecting music to English can happen through poetry, song lyrics and even history, he said. Integrating fine arts and traditional classroom subjects, Price said, really enhances both lessons.

“It makes it more fun, I think, for learning really, instead of just sitting there with your paper and your pencil,” Price said. “You’re up moving, you’re having fun singing and stuff like that. I learned the preposition song in sixth grade, and I can still sing it — It does help with remembering.”

The wider arts community offers support

It’s not just teachers who try to find innovative ways to connect arts and classroom studies. Schools also depend on outside partners for help.

For example, The Indianapolis Museum of Art can equip teachers to use visual and performing arts strategies in their classrooms.

This year, the museum started a STEAM club — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — that pairs traditionally disparate subjects. Four teachers-in-training from Butler University and six Indiana teachers are part of the group learning to integrate those strategies in their teaching.

“Too often we compartmentalize learning,” said Heidi Davis-Soylu, who oversees the museum’s education initiatives. “For a long time in the history of education, it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t ‘the sciences’ and ‘the arts’ — they were together.”

For now it’s just a pilot program with 10 teachers, but the museum also offers summer training workshops for teachers who want to learn more about the arts. There are also materials and other training programs available that support Indiana’s new academic standards.

Davis-Soylu, a former teacher who later went back to school to study art education, said kids, especially younger ones, can learn a lot from experiencing art alongside typical core subjects.

Hands-on activities can teach them to fine-tune motor skills and help them become better problem-solvers, she said. There’s not just one right answer in music or art, like on a standardized test.

“They are not trying to have to get to A, B, C or D,” she said. “And that just challenges the mind and gives opportunities for critical thinking.”

For older students, she said, developing more ways to express themselves and build on basic artistic skills learned in elementary school can help them discover their own voices. It also offers an avenue for building community and could motivate kids to learn more about the culture that surrounds them, Davis-Soylu said.

She cited research that found that those who participated more in the arts actually were better citizens — they voted more and had higher levels of education. Plus, she said, there are few downsides to being exposed to other cultures and types of expression.

Academic standards provide a framework for that experiential learning, Newman said, but it’s challenging for teachers when they have so little time with each class. It can be almost impossible to cover both the “performance” standards — literally whether they can “do” the art well, such as by playing an instrument competently — and the ones about theory or history, he said.

“Understanding music in relation history and culture and why it’s important, where things came from and how music and art shaped history, you know, we don’t get to talk about that enough,” Newman said. “People like to use time as an excuse — I’m just as guilty as anybody — but you have to think past that.”

Price, for example, has just 37 class sessions with her students. That means she has to make the most of what she has. She focuses less on history except when it corresponds with another teacher’s lesson, but she does very clearly outline the music-reading goals she has for each grade level she works with.

Theory is especially important to what “college- and career-ready” standards, like those Indiana has adopted, make a focal point: critical-thinking, problem-solving and question-asking skills.

“Teachers need to understand: You aren’t just teaching music, you aren’t just teaching art, you aren’t just teaching social studies. You don’t teach in isolation either,” Newman said. “Some of (the standards) are pretty powerful, and if you can use them and address some topics, you can also support social studies and math and science, which I think is better for everybody.”


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.


Denver parents worry budget changes will hurt students with special needs, despite district assurances

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

Denver parents of students with disabilities are concerned that an impending reorganization of the school district’s special education department will have a negative impact on their children.

Specifically, parents are worried about cuts to the number of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teacher’s aides that one advocate called “the backbone of special education,” the people who often help students follow directions or focus on their schoolwork.

District officials insist the reorganization does not cut paraprofessional or teacher support. Any reductions families are experiencing, they said, are the result of school-level budget constraints as the number of students with disabilities at those schools ebbs and flows.

In fact, officials said the reorganization is meant to increase the number of adults working inside schools – a change they said will benefit all students, not just those with special needs. The plan calls for trimming $4 million from the district’s billion-dollar budget by shrinking the pool of central office staff who help school principals serve students with disabilities. That money would be reallocated to fortify mental health services for all students, including by providing every district-run school with at least one full-time social worker or psychologist.

Some parents of students with disabilities are skeptical. Their feelings speak to the tenuousness of resources for special education students and distrust that they’ll get the services they need. Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a “free and appropriate” education. What that means in practice can a subject of disagreement among districts, parents, and advocates.

“The improvements that they’re proposing to make, they’re all great,” said Jeanne Posthumus, whose sixth-grade daughter has a rare genetic disorder and receives special education services at a Denver charter school. “But don’t do it on the backs of kids with special needs.”

About 10,000 of the 92,600 students in Denver Public Schools have disabilities, according to district statistics. They have historically lagged far behind their peers in reading, writing, and math. Last year, 44 percent of Denver fourth-graders without disabilities met expectations on the state literacy test, while just 8 percent of fourth-graders with disabilities did.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said the reorganization, which is set to go into effect on July 1, is meant to “dramatically improve academic outcomes and truly meet the promise of special education.”

Part of the problem with the system as it exists now, Greer said, is that the central office staff who help school principals end up spending too much time putting out fires related to student behavior and too little time working on improving academic instruction.

The proposal calls for eliminating about 30 of those central office positions, as well as some supervisory and vacant positions in the same department. The positions that remain will focus on academics, including coaching and training special education teachers, Greer said.

Managing student behavior will become the responsibility of a bigger corps of mental health workers hired with the savings, he said. Most schools already have social workers and psychologists, but not all of them can afford to have one on staff five days a week.

That’s despite a tax increase approved by voters in 2016 that included $10.9 million to hire more mental health workers and nurses. The money was split among schools based on enrollment, with extra allotted to those with high needs, district officials said. But it still left some smaller and more affluent schools without five-day coverage, which principals have said is crucial.

“We’re seeing so many more young children in kindergarten with severe behavioral needs,” said Robin Kline, the principal at Steck Elementary, a high-achieving school in southeast Denver that serves a wealthier student population. “Whether or not they’re special education, they require a level of special education, figuratively, that requires a lot more one-on-one.”

The proposal also calls for hiring eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained professionals or paraprofessionals who can be deployed to schools for weeks at a time to help manage behavior crises. The district has seven behavior techs this year.

In addition, elementary schools with special programs for students with emotional needs would get an additional $50,000 to spend on paraprofessionals, mental health workers, or teachers.

The reorganization, Greer said, “creates role clarity and enables the instructional specialists to do what they do best.” He emphasized that the district is not cutting its special education budget, and he said it would continue to provide services to students who qualify. The district spends $1,300 more per student on special education now than it did in 2013, he said.

Parent Danielle Short said families are confused by the changes. Her 7-year-old son, Micah, has Down syndrome and was treated for leukemia. He’s currently in a kindergarten class taught by one teacher and two paraprofessionals. Though the paraprofessionals are there to help all of the students in the class, she said they spend a lot of time with Micah, helping him in the lunchroom and the bathroom, and keeping an eye on him in the hallways.

The first grade class at Micah’s school has just one part-time paraprofessional. To keep Micah fully included with his peers, rather than in a separate classroom, Short said his special education team has determined he needs a dedicated paraprofessional next year.

“It’s not my vision for him to have para glued to his hip,” she said. “But he needs one right now.”

She’s worried the reorganization will affect Micah’s ability to get one, especially since families at other schools said they have been told their students’ one-on-one paraprofessionals may be cut next year. Greer denied that’s the case, but he said he understands the parents’ reaction.

“When we try to make this system change, it can create incredible anxiety because people remember just a generation ago how hard it was to get students with disabilities through the schoolhouse door,” Greer said.

His assurances haven’t completely assuaged parents’ fears. Short said that while she’s grateful that schools will get more mental health support next year, she wants to make sure her son’s more specific needs are met, too.

“The psychologist has been helpful for my son,” providing strategies to help with some of his behavior, Short said. But, she added, “his needs are not met by increasing the psychologist from half-time to full-time. He has other needs that should be funded by the district.”

Short was among a group of parents who pleaded with the school board at its monthly meeting Thursday to, in the words of another mother, “stop pillaging special education funds.”

Christy Pennick told the board her son’s school, Swigert International in northeast Denver, is already feeling the effects: Instead of two special education teachers, it will have one next year.

Swigert principal Shelby Dennis confirmed that the district’s formula for allocating special education funding, which she said is based on the level of service students need, has allotted the elementary school one fewer special education teacher next year.

But Dennis said she doesn’t know if that’s a result of the reorganization or not. Since the district ran its formula for Swigert, one student with disabilities has transferred into the school and three more have qualified for special education services, she said. Given that, she said she’s hopeful the district will increase Swigert’s allotment in the fall. Even if it doesn’t, she said she was able to find $30,000 in her budget to hire a part-time teacher for next year to fill in some of the gap.

Pam Bisceglia, executive director of Advocacy Denver, a civil rights organization that serves people with disabilities, said it’s stories like that that raise red flags.

“What parents are hearing once again is where cuts are being made is to special education,” Bisceglia said. “It says their kids aren’t as important.”