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.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.