constant learning

Educators use the summer to bolster math and science skills

Jose Luis Vilson attended a science and math workshop at the Kennedy Space Center. (Courtesy of the GE Foundation)

Some teachers use the summer break to unwind from a busy school year, refine their lesson plans for the fall, or take a short-term second job. Others seek out new knowledge in the subjects they teach.

“If you’re teaching science, you should be learning about science,” said Nate Finney, a Manhattan teacher who is spending the summer working in a physics laboratory.

GothamSchools spoke to a handful of city public school teachers who sought out seminars, workshops, and classes to help them learn more about their fields. Today, we’re looking at teachers who decided they wanted to know more about math and science.

Jose Luis Vilson, I.S. 52, Manhattan

In sunny Orlando, Jose Luis Vilson got the chance to live out a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

Vilson arrived at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in mid-July to take part in a weeklong course created and funded by the GE Foundation. The course focused on integrating math and science instruction and anchoring both in new learning standards that call for more critical thinking.

“They’re working with NASA to try to approach and integrate Common Core standards with current pedagogy,” said Vilson, who teaches eighth-grade math in Washington Heights and maintains a popular blog about teaching.

“I think the biggest thing is trying to find a common language in the content between math and science,” said Vilson. Part of the course involved hands-on activities where Vilson and the other participants built cars using K’Nex, a construction toy, to learn about force and motion.

“There’s definitely a lot of places where we, as teachers, can start talking in a more sophisticated language that the kids can recognize in both subjects,” he said.

Nate Finney, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, Manhattan

A love for science and teaching brought Nate Finney back into a research laboratory several years after conducting experiments as an undergraduate. This summer, Finney joined an engineering research lab at Columbia University, only a few blocks south of the school where he teaches physics and engineering during the school year.

The research opportunity stems from the partnership between Columbia Secondary School and the Ivy League university.

“To be a working scientist while also teaching high school science is a great opportunity,” said Finney. “Ultimately the goal is to have this manifest in some positive change in the classroom, the fact that’s not clear yet in how it’s going to play out I think that’s going to be in the back of my mind as I play the role of researcher.”

Even though the summer gig wasn’t aimed at helping him develop new lesson plans, Finney said he plans to bring some of the experiments from the lab into his high school science classes. He said he hopes that encouraging the students to put down their textbooks and pick up their lab materials will lead them to become enthusiastic about what they’re studying.

“I do feel like these kinds of opportunities are becoming more available. We should start taking advantage of things like this,” said Finney. “I think this is what a professional should do. If you’re teaching science, you should be learning about science.”

Diana Soehl enjoys her oceanography workshop in Annapolis, Md.. (Courtesy Diana Soehl)

Diana Soehl, Columbia Secondary School

Diana Soehl’s search for professional development summer courses led  the self-professed science geek to land a spot in an oceanography program offered by the American Meteorological Society and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

The high school chemistry teacher was one of 25 educators from across the country to participate in the two-week summer workshop in July, which received government funding and was led by Navy scientists. The teachers heard lectures, saw demonstrations, and accessed the Navy’s equipment to learn about the ocean.

“It ties into the environment and ties into how the ocean works,” said Soehl, who will also be teaching 11th grade Advanced Placement environmental science this year. “You can take these modules and use them in your classrooms but the idea is to provide professional development for teachers in your area.”

That shouldn’t be a problem for Soehl, who has been participating in summer professional development courses since 2004. As a member of the National Science Teachers Association, Soehl already has plans for how to present what she learned in Annapolis.

“Every day is a new idea, and I have a little notebook where I can write my notes on what I can do in the classroom,” said Soehl.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede