How I Teach

Why this Bronx music teacher uses science — and bananas — in her classroom

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Melissa Salguero uses technology and science experiments to teach her music class at P.S. 48 in the Bronx.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Melissa Salguero returned from spring break to find that thieves had raided her music classroom.

Faced with empty instrument cases, torn drum heads, and missing recording equipment, Salguero did the only thing that felt right. She grabbed a guitar and held music class in the auditorium of her school, P.S. 48 in the Bronx, while police dusted for fingerprints.

“It was important to me that they had music that day to show the kids that we can survive anything,” she said.

A marching band devotee in high school and music lover since childhood, Salguero spends three hours a day commuting from Connecticut, arriving by 7 a.m. for early-morning band practice. During the school day, her classroom can feel like a science lab as students learn about sound waves and electricity through experiments — such as when Salguero recently connected a banana to a computer in order to play it like a piano.

Most of the materials she uses for these lessons are donated. Salguero has raised more than $200,000 for the music program at P.S. 48, including $50,000 presented to her on the Ellen DeGeneres show. This year, she is one of 25 finalists nationally for a Grammy Music Educator award. The winner will attend the Grammy Awards.

Here is why Salguero asks her students for “brutally honest” feedback on her lessons, builds pianos out of playdough, and makes sure to remember birthdays.

Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What do your students get in music class that they can’t get in any other subject?

Music education teaches my students the value of working together and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards performances. In my music class, students are able to express themselves, explore the questions they may have, and develop their curiosity for learning.

When you went on Ellen, she described the neighborhood your school is in as “scary.” What do you you wish people understood better about your students?

It is a rough neighborhood, but I see potential in every one of my students to rise above their circumstances. I want people to understand how music education can foster a love for learning, especially in Hunts Point. The kids are bright, talented, and have so much to give; their voices just need a chance to be heard.

Why do you mix science with music?

Science helps my students better understand musical concepts because they’re encouraged to try to understand how things work. Some musical concepts are abstract, such as a sound wave. Performing experiments in class gives them something concrete to explain these abstract concepts. Performing experiments teaches my students resilience because if something doesn’t work out as planned, there’s always another way. For example, instead of my students becoming discouraged if something doesn’t work, they problem solve and think of new ideas.

What is the best compliment you’ve gotten from a student about your teaching?

I love when my students tell me how I helped them overcome a fear. Because of my core teaching values, I encourage my students to make mistakes and to keep trying, and this is where they gain the confidence to overcome their fears.

What does being nominated for a Grammy Educator Award mean to you? What would winning it mean?

Besides the accolades and the cool trophy, it means that music education and the work that music educators do is important and is being recognized on a national level. I’m just one music teacher in a world of many. There are so many music teachers that are changing so many lives. If I can help spread the message that music education is important and is worth supporting, I would love for that message to be a global one.

Why did you become a teacher?

The leadership skills I learned in high school and college music programs help shape the person I am today. I want to help my students discover who they are and I want to help shape them into tomorrow’s leaders.

What does your classroom look like?

If you were sitting in my room watching a lesson you would probably see lots of students asking questions and lots of cogs turning inside of their heads. I foster a curious culture in my classroom that encourages students to ask questions: What is that? How does this work? What is happening? How are you doing that? When the students drive the lesson the engagement is 100%. They are driving the bus I’m just the tour guide.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My humor and my patience get me through each day. If a teacher can learn to laugh and be patient, it is a recipe for a great classroom culture. Students want to feel respected, and sometimes they unaware how to achieve this.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

I love teaching my “Science of Sound” unit; I get to see students be amazed with some of the experiments. For example, I have used nothing but a needle and a piece of paper to play a record and we have made pianos out of playdough.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Every student is different, and it is my job to ensure that every student has the unique tools they need in order to be successful. I teach concepts from many different angles and give my students different methods to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. If a student still doesn’t understand, I ask myself what I can do differently.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I often ask my students for “brutally honest” feedback on lessons. I’m not scared to admit to myself that my lesson ideas might not be as engaging as I thought. It’s important for teachers to reflect and adjust their future lessons accordingly.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Part of being a good teacher is knowing your students! I sincerely care about them whether that is in the form of: remembering birthdays, writing positive notes home, or maintaining communication with parents. Above all, it’s important to me to give the students 100% of my attention when they speak to me. It damages the relationship when the students feels that you are not present and their voices are not heard.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a student that had some really extreme behavior problems in school. Before getting to know her, because she was labeled as a “bad kid,” I had preconceived notions about her. I decided to take her under my wing and mentor her. We worked on positive ways to express her emotions. I helped her write songs and we even recorded a CD. She had somebody that was willing to invest time in her, and I noticed a drastic change in her behavior. I learned that every student, when given the opportunity, can do great things.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.” – Dr. Kevin Maxwel

In the Classroom

Carranza aims to speed up anti-bias training for educators, calling it a “cornerstone” to school improvement

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Chancellor Richard Carranza, bottom right, joined New York City principals and superintendents for an anti-bias training in Brooklyn.

After bending fluorescent pipe cleaners into loopy and angular shapes, a group of about 100 New York City principals and superintendents paired up for a chat. Their assignment: to recount their childhood aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

This was no arts and crafts class — and no ice breaker, either. The Wednesday morning session at Brooklyn Law School was an example of anti-bias training that the education department will now require for every employee who works with students across the country’s largest school system.

After committing $23 million to the work this year, Chancellor Richard Carranza announced at the session that the trainings will be mandatory, and that the city aims to speed up how quickly they happen. The goal is to compress the original four-year roll out to two.

“It’s about us as a community saying we want to change systems so that it privileges all of our students in New York City,” Carranza said. “The evidence right now, I will tell you my friends, is that not all students are being served well.”

Advocates had long agitated for the training, citing disparate rates in school discipline for black and Hispanic students, and high-profile incidents of schools accused of teaching racist lessons in the classroom. They argue that teachers need to be better equipped to serve diverse students as the city moves forward with plans to integrate its starkly segregated schools.

“We have to make school environments the most welcoming places possible for our young people. That includes adults doing personal work,” said Natasha Capers, a coordinator for Coalition for Educational Justice, a parent organization that lobbied for the training.  

Their advocacy has gotten a boost since Carranza became schools chancellor in April, bringing an approach that is bolder and more frank than his predecessor when it comes to addressing the system’s racial inequities. On Wednesday, he spent more than an hour participating in the training session just like the other school leaders, calling it “God’s work.”

“This is going to penetrate everything we do,” he said.

Wednesday’s session was lead by experts from the Perception Institute, a research and training organization, and Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), which provides leadership training. The pipe cleaners helped bring to life a metaphor about “bending” expectations for what educators might learn throughout the day. The one-on-one conversations were a way to “interrupt” stereotypical assumptions about other people by having sustained conversations with them, said trainer Dushaw Hockett.

“This isn’t some touchy-feely, get-to-know-you exercise,” he said.  

There is some evidence that, when done right, anti-bias trainings can work — and improve outcomes for students. But there is also research that shows it can often be ineffective.

Carranza said the city is committed to doing the work for the long-term, with the trainings designed to be ongoing and build on each other. He also said the department will keep an eye on measures such as student attendance and whether teachers report improvements in school climate to gauge whether it’s having an impact.

“This is going to be one of those cornerstone pieces in terms of, how are we going to continue to transform this immense system to really, truly serve all students?” he said. “This is going to be something that’s not going to fall off the radar. We’re going to keep pushing.”

outside the box

How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel

Test scores were rising at Fuller Elementary School when Marilyn McCottrell took over in 2016. Yet troubling trends loomed behind the numbers.

“A lot of growth has been made,” said McCottrell, Fuller’s third principal in six years. “But that growth is not equal among students.”

She’s talking about black boys.

Black girls had driven most of Fuller’s academic improvement since the 2012-13 school year, when Chicago Public Schools handed management of the Bronzeville school over to the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership, which replaced the staff and principal in a turnaround effort. Black boys had improved much slower. They got most of the school’s Ds and Fs, and were much less likely than girls to meet or approach expectations for college readiness on state tests.

PARCC Scores

Last school year, McCottrell and her staff crunched the data and made changes at Fuller to shorten the gaps between boys and girls. The stakes are high. Black boys, especially those from low-income households, are more prone than their sisters to falling behind in school and running into the juvenile criminal justice system. As adults, they are more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, or chronically unemployed. McCottrell believes what Fuller did, starting with painstakingly crunching data at the school, classroom and individual levels, could help other schools do better for black boys.

But she wants to be clear about something: Black boys don’t need to be “saved.”

“They need to be respected and appreciated for the differences and the unique gifts that they bring to the educational experience,” she said.

Black boys
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Fuller Elementary School students (from left)Tyrese Robinson-Guy, Terrell Johnson, and Jasean Waters at a community garden in Bronzeville.

 

Fuller, a Level 1 school in good standing, occupies the corner of St. Lawrence Avenue and 42nd Street in Bronzeville. Nearly all of its 370 students are black and come from economically disadvantaged households. About half of the teachers are white, and about half are African-American. When CPS turned over management of Fuller, it was seeking to lift up a school that had been on academic probation five consecutive years. Fuller still has far to go. In 2017, only 10 percent of Fuller students were ready for the next level compared to 26 percent across the school district and 34 percent across the state. Growth has been above average, but, as McCottrell said, that growth hasn’t been equal.

PARCC Scores

Last August, McCottrell arrived at Fuller for a training session for teachers bearing handouts packed with data on black boys’ grades and test scores. Middle school reading teacher Arlicia McClain was shocked to see the stark disparities.

“It made me buck up and say I need to talk to these students,” she said. “I need to know what is going on that is preventing them from improving. Is it me? Is it something going on with them individually? Is it something they are missing?”

Girls’ math scores had increased by 193 percent compared with 90 percent for boys since the turnaround effort began in the 2012-13 school year. The gender performance gap was even more striking in reading, where black girls’ scores jumped 140 percent compared with 31 percent for boys. 

As McClain and other teachers reflected on the numbers, they recounted their  own experiences in the classroom. For example, they could all name which students were removed from class the most for disciplinary reasons, and nearly all were black boys.

Arlicia McClain
PHOTO: Courtesy of Arlicia McClain
Fuller Elementary School teacher Arlicia McClain.

McClain realized she tended to call on black girls more in class.

McClain, African-American herself, wondered if she was favoring girls or failing to challenge boys enough, and how that could affect their learning. She resolved to push black boys more during her second year at Fuller. 

She also left the session with another big take-away: A lot of boys who wouldn’t participate in classroom-wide sessions engaged more in small groups. Wedding the data to her realizations has helped the young teacher come up with tailored approaches for struggling students.

“Look at them as individuals who want to learn, but who sometimes need the individualized attention to do that,” McClain said. “If you really are about the progression of black youth, you’re going to need to be individual-focused, and you’re going to need the data to do it.”

In the 2016-17 school year, for the subjects of English language arts and math, about 70 percent of all Ds and Fs at Fuller went to black boys.

In the first quarter of last school year, McCottrell and her staff revised Fuller’s grading policies in hopes of addressing the disparity.

They switched to what McCottrell called “a more equitable grading scale,” where the lowest a student could score is a 50, adopted a “no-opt out policy” for homework, so children who failed to turn in their homework by deadline wouldn’t automatically get a zero and had to make up assignments, and allowed students to redo certain parts of failed tests and quizzes after reteaching.

By the end of the first quarter, the numbers of Ds and Fs had decreased by nearly half.

But black boys were still getting about the same percent of them as before.

So McCottrell decided to go in for a closer look.

“The numbers only tell part of the story,” she said.

McCottrell ate with boys in the lunchroom. She played flag football with them at recess. She sat with them in class, assisted their teachers, and taught her own lessons across grades and subjects.

She talked to the boys — and listened.

Jasean Waters, a black boy

Jasean Waters, 13, said he found it hard to focus on his school work.

Some distractions come from inside the classroom, like the bullies Jasean’s run into. Other distractions live in the world outside Fuller, like the gun violence whose victims are overwhelmingly black males.

“It’s a big struggle for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people dying around here, so we gotta watch our backs, and when we’re walking home we feel like we’re unsafe, so we just focus on us being safe. It’s hard to focus on school.”

Boredom is another issue. Jasean said that he does well in math, but struggles sometimes with reading, and that his interest wanes with the lack of characters and authors he can relate to in school texts. That sounded familiar to McCottrell.  When she spoke with boys, she heard that school amounted to a seven-hour suppression of their personalities, interests, and voices — especially in reading and English classes, where black voices and black writers were missing.

“When kids have to pick a book for independent reading, they don’t relate to the characters in those classroom libraries,” she said. “It’s really hard coming to a class everyday when nothing relates to you.”

Parcc Scores

McCottrell decided to teach an optional African-American literature class every Friday during a weekly “intervention time” for students needing help in reading and math  About 17 boys showed up on the first day and read excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” whose protagonist proclaims, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

McCottrell said many of the boys could expertly analyze the Harlem Renaissance classic, because they related to the idea of not being heard, seen, or understood for who they really are. The students offered examples like the portrayal of black men in the media.

“Many of them were saying things like, ‘I’m not a gangbanger, but this is what people think I am, because I’m dark or because I’m tall,’” she said. “They talked about it in the context of their teachers not knowing who they are.”

The class soon doubled as word of mouth drew others in. Jasean, a C student at the start of the class, joined them. He said he learned things he hadn’t been introduced to before. He read about segregation, speeches by Martin Luther King, and books like “Bud, Not Buddy,” about a 10-year-old black orphan during the Great Depression.

He said he rededicated himself to doing 100 minutes of reading a night and by the end of last school year earned an A in reading. He said he raises his hand to ask and answer questions in class more.

“It feels good,” he said.

Jasean’s grandmother, local school council member Regina Waters, praised McCottrell’s hands-on approach with students and her efforts to build one-on-one relationships with the boys.

“She’s upfront with the kids, and she knows all the kids by name which is unusual in the short time she’s been there,” Waters said.

McCottrell
PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Marilyn McCottrell

Fuller’s boys closed the gap with girls in several ways over last school year.

They went from getting 70 percent of the Ds and Fs in English and math to 60 percent. In 2016-17, 46 percent of boys compared with 55 percent of girls were on track, meaning they earned a C or higher in reading and math and had an attendance rate of at least 95 percent. In 2017-18, the percentage of boys on track increased by 23 percentage points compared to 19 points for girls. But sitting in her office at Fuller one day earlier this summer, McCottrell admitted something about her efforts for black boys.

“Nothing is solved,” she said.

Despite some progress last school year, when the 2018-19 school year starts, black boys at Fuller will still lag behind black girls. Forces outside of education like poverty, mass incarceration, and racial discrimination will continue to disadvantage black youth in ways that manifest in classrooms, where they land heaviest on black boys.

The odds aren’t yet even for black boys at McCottrell’s school, or at most schools across America. However, McCottrell believes that educators learned a lot that they can build on down the line.

Next year, McCottrell said she’s urging teachers to incorporate more of the black experience and black voices into lesson plans and to increase small-group instruction.

Teachers are having more data conferences with McCottrell and with each other to guide instruction and target specific students’ needs. McCottrell is also promoting more social-emotional learning techniques and restorative practices rather than punitive approaches to discipline, and incorporating cultural awareness and bias training into teachers’ professional development.

Marlene Aponte, the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s director of coaching,  said that in some ways Fuller’s story resembles other schools’ in the years after turnarounds. After focusing on rigorous instruction and ambitious growth targets,“we’re starting to really hone in on some of the pieces that we may have overlooked, such as gender bias, gender equity, access in equity,” she said.

McCottrell wants her boys to have the tools to succeed. She knows there are some issues that her school won’t be able to solve.

But it’s a start.