First Person

The Student Engagement Puzzle

Kate Quarfordt is the founding director of the musical theater program at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

I know you’re going to think I’m making this up, but I swear it actually happened, earlier this week, exactly as follows:

I’m on the D train heading up to the South Bronx, where I teach theater to students in grades 5-12. The commute from Brooklyn is a long one.

Out comes the laptop. I try to work on a draft of an article I’m struggling with. I’m supposed to be writing about making education engaging and relevant for today’s “urban youth.”

At West 4th Street I look up, my eye caught by the bouncy swagger of an attractive young kid with his hair in long thin braids. He’s maybe 13 or 14, wearing those jeans that somehow look baggy and skinny at the same time.

The kid sits down diagonally from me, takes out a Rubik’s Cube and starts working at it feverishly. He’s twisting and flipping it again and again at top speed, moving like he’s hypnotized.

People are glancing up from their iPods at him, mildly curious. The 30-ish guy in the rumpled T-shirt who’d been slouching half-asleep across from him is now sitting bolt upright, riveted.

After a minute or so he lets out a long whistle and asks, “Can you solve it?”

The kid grins and, without hesitating, tosses the Rubik’s Cube to the guy, who catches it.

“Yup,” he says. “Mix it up. I can solve it.”

So the guy scrambles it. He’s about to hand it back, but he hesitates. “Damn,” he says, wistfully. “I haven’t messed with one of these in years. Can I try solving it?”

“Sure,” says the kid. “But I’m getting off at 59th, so…”

The guy starts working furiously.

Now everyone on the train is watching. I try to pry my eyes away and go back to my laptop. But the article can’t hold my interest. I’m magnetized by the blur of the Rubik’s Cube in the guy’s hands.

The kid is, too. I catch his eye as he watches and smile at him. “So, you really know how to solve it?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, whatever. It’s just algorithms.”

“Right,” I say, trying not to let my jaw drop. “Listen, you gotta forgive me, but I’m a teacher so I’m kind of fascinated here. What do you mean, ‘just algorithms’?”

The kid looks at me like he feels a little sorry for me, and explains. “Well, an algorithm is just like a pattern of steps, like a sequence of moves to get you where you want to go.”

It occurs to me at this moment that it’s around noontime. This kid is skipping school.

“So … who taught you these patterns?” I ask.

“My friend,” says the kid. “This dude Lewis. He had a Rubik’s Cube and I thought it was cool, so I bought one and he showed me. It only took me a few days to figure it out.”

“Yeah,” the rumpled guy across from him chimes in, not looking up from the cube in his fast-moving hands. He’s got the red, yellow, green and white sides all matched up now, only orange and blue to go. “It’s just like in computer programming,” he says. “Everyone uses algorithms. And there’s some statistics involved, too, because when you —” he stops violently midsentence, as if he’s been stung by a bee, drops the Rubik’s Cube in his lap and throws his hands up. “Aw, damnit!” he says, “I just HAD to go and hit the asymptote!”

He displays the orange side, marred by a symmetrical pattern of four pesky blue squares, then flips the cube to reveal the same pattern in reverse on the other side.

“Oh snap,” says the kid, nodding sympathetically. “Yeah, the asymptote’s a bitch.”

“Wait a second,” I say. “What do you mean, the asymptote?”

The kid looks at me. “Thought you were a teacher.”

“I teach theater,” I explain.

The kid nods. “So, the asymptote is the curve?” he makes a swoop with his hand. “You know? The curve that keeps getting closer and closer to the line but never hits it?”

An image of the soup-green textbook from my ninth-grade geometry class, which I barely passed, flashes dimly in my memory.

“So what do you do when you hit the asymptote?” I ask. I am completely hooked now, my laptop closed on my knees.

“Well,” says the kid. “You gotta go back to go forward.”

“Like in life,” the guy agrees. He scrambles the cube up again so it’s totally random and hands it back to the kid, who holds it up and says, “Wanna see?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I definitely want to see.”

A few minutes later, we pull into 59th Street, just as the kid solves the whole puzzle. There is a smattering of applause. He says, “See ya, miss,” and gets off the train.

I sit there for a second. Then I open up my laptop.

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.