First Person

Pushing Through

It’s true that high school applications are not all there is to eighth grade, but that doesn’t mean that thinking about high school and transitioning isn’t a big part of it either.

As I stayed up late talking with my close friend last night, we realized something huge: In some way, elementary school and middle school are connected to each other. Fifth grade to sixth grade is a smaller jump than sixth grade to eighth grade, and as you get closer to eighth grade, you get closer to realizing that your years of being a younger student are over. Entering high school is all about entering as a much bigger person than the student you were entering middle school.

That’s why it was so rough for me when I didn’t know what high school I was going to. I had to imagine a time that would come very soon even though I didn’t know where to imagine myself. Then I did. I’m going to the Beacon School next year. When I found out, I felt like I could finally breathe. All of the waiting was worth it because I got into the school that I wanted and I felt this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. How unusual, though, that a month ago I thought I was the biggest failure ever but it turns out that I actually got into my first choice.

Ironically or not, Beacon is a school that doesn’t even consider a student’s score on the Specialized High School Admission Test, a test that I felt I had failed. I no longer felt alone and embarrassed. From sixth grade on, I worked hard to achieve good grades so I could get in to the school that I wanted to. Although the SHSAT score was upsetting to me, I realized later on that it had no effect on the school that I really and truly wanted to get into. I took the test in hope that I would just find out early, and that didn’t happen. But it didn’t lower my chances of getting into the school that I actually cared about.

So then the high school part of my year was over, and all I could do was sit back, relax, and see where the rest of the year would take me.

I learned soon enough of the things that fill up your last year of middle school. Turns out it was not just my friend and me who were observing the transition and thinking about how we were really growing up and becoming adults.

Eighth-graders around us are realizing the same thing, but instead of just thinking about it, they are taking action and doing grown up things assuming that it’s okay now that they are graduating middle school.

As they smoke and drink I ask myself why they are rushing to grow up. I am using the rest of my middle school experience to look back at how much I’ve grown and get ready for my high school experience. But other people around me are using the duration of middle school to rush forward. I feel separate from them.

When I am an adult, I want to look back at my childhood and know that I was happy and that I lived it full. These last few months in middle school are filled with the pressure to end childhood on a good note and the sadness knowing that it’s coming to an end. I don’t rush because I know that I don’t have much longer to be kid, but I have the rest of my life to be an adult. 8th grade for me is about savoring the moments that I have left and living them well.

As we come to a time in our lives where we have to leave our childhood behind, people do strange things. For me, I try to hold on to my younger years. Others try to do adult things that show other people that they aren’t babies any more.

I know that I am going to high school next year and I know that I am ready to grow up, but not as fast as others and not in the way that others are. We all want to grow up but we’re choosing different ways to make us feel like we actually are. Others are rushing into the feeling of growing up by doing grown up things, and others are using reflection and remembering the past in order to prepare themselves for the future.

I fall into this second category: For me, eighth grade isn’t as much about looking ahead to high school as it is about looking back at your childhood and pushing yourself forward to a new world of learning. Come to think of it, I’m actually doing both.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.