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Across the city, in room 250 at John Overton High School in South Nashville, there are six snakes, two legless lizards, a couple of scorpions, and several tarantulas. And as if that weren't unusual enough, there's the teacher's first instruction to his class.
"OK, get a partner," Adam Taylor says, "and get on Tweetdeck."
In an act of pure educational jiu jitsu, Taylor is using typical causes of student distraction and teacher irritation for his own purposes — redirecting technology typically used to peruse Kanye West's latest short-form missives toward a study of lipids, proteins and amino acids.
"Most teachers are telling them to get off YouTube, and get off Twitter," Taylor tells the Scene. "And so to do the opposite, it helps me make another connection with the kids. Especially when they're great educational tools anyway."
On this day he is getting his 10th grade students started on group presentations that will serve as their final exam. Each pair of students starts up a 3G Netbook, made available to the class because of a grant Taylor won. He instructs them to choose from a list of topics, which includes the aforementioned along with others such as mitochondria, eukaryotes and characteristics of life. When they've picked a topic, the students are instructed to tweet what their group will be presenting on, with the hashtag #taybio.
As the students mull their options, Taylor tells them he needs to run down the hall to make copies of the outline for their presentations. He expects them to keep working, he says, and just to make sure he'll be watching them on his smart phone by way of a camera positioned in the front right corner of the room. His students are dubious.
"Nah, you can't do that," says one skeptic.
"Oh, yeah?" Taylor says, walking over and showing students the feed streaming on his phone.
The exchange typifies the easy rapport Taylor has established with his students. In this instance, as in others, he manages to keep them in line without appearing as if he's coming down on them. And they respond to him.
As if to further prove his technological capabilities, he returns after a few minutes and tells several students who had been mingling about the classroom to stay in their seats, before leaving again to finish making copies. Minutes later, when he returns, tweets tagged #taybio have begun to appear on a projector screen at the front of the room, as the various groups submit their topics.
Their presentations will include photos, and videos of their subjects, and Taylor instructs the class to tweet information as they go, sharing what they find with their classmates as they work.
"Por qué?" says a girl near the front of the room, asking "why?" in Spanish.
"Por qué no?" he responds quickly — why not?
If giving teenagers a green light to post photos and videos for their whole class to see sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, you'll be all the more impressed by what Taylor has accomplished in his classroom — the exercise never goes off the rails.
"That's awesome," he says to a student who calls him over to show off a video. "Tweet that for us."
As the students continue to work on the presentations, he gives them instructions about how to turn in their final work. They'll be turning it in online, he says, "so it can't be left at home."
Overton is the only school Adam Taylor knows as a teacher. After growing up in Utah, he spent time as a missionary in Taiwan. It was there that he learned Chinese, which he still speaks fluently and teaches. He began college pursuing a Chinese major and a business minor, but soon realized that he didn't like to travel. Having also spent a couple of years as a counselor at a youth camp, he says he decided to combine his passion for working with kids and his lifelong love of science, and pursue teaching.
He took courses at Iowa State University and Iowa University — his parents had moved to Iowa after he graduated from high school — but eventually came home to Utah. He finished his undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, who is originally from Nashville. With her, he came here and landed at Overton.
It was a challenge he relished. Virginia Pupo-Walker, a former faculty member at Overton and current director of family and community partnerships for Metro schools, tells the Scene that when Overton started an advisory period, Taylor asked her to assign him a group of ninth-graders who did not speak English well.
"He created a great community in his room," she said, in an email full of praise for Taylor and his work. "Advisory classes stay with the same advisor all four years, and he wanted to make sure to provide a home for those students."
Technology coupled with Taylor's readily apparent devotion to his students makes it possible for that community to extend beyond the classroom. He broadcasts each of his classes live on the Internet, allowing for students who are home sick — or for curious parents — to stay in touch with what's going on in the classroom. He has even held test review sessions, open discussions, and full classes on snow days by video.
Dr. Andrew Pellham, Overton's executive principal, says Taylor's finest quality is his "constant quest for self-improvement." By pursuing new ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, he says, Taylor has upped his game and created a model others can follow.
"We started off small," Pellham says of Taylor's embrace of social media in the classroom. "And over time, he has built trust, and he has realized that he has been a custodian and a steward of technology and opportunity in his room. So he has a sense and the realization that this is bigger than just [him] and [his] classroom. [He's] creating opportunity for lots of teachers in our school district and other school districts, by modeling best practices and by modeling responsible use.
"So what that has done is it has shown principals like myself, and also district level administrators, that teachers can be trusted to do this and do it correctly."
Pellham says Taylor's experimentation with counteracting a streak of snow days by live-streaming instruction caught the attention of people around the district. Soon, he says, Taylor was helping to facilitate meetings with teachers from around the district who teach advanced placement courses to work out a plan. In the event of another spate of cancelled classes, one teacher would provide live-streaming instruction on a particular topic to students taking that course around the district, followed the next day by another teacher for another subject.
"His use of technology goes beyond just helping to engage students in his classroom, and help them learn more effectively," says Pellham. "It has gone to blazing a trail for teachers, really, all over the country."
Whether by technology, exotic animals, or friendly back-and-forth with a student, he seems able to maintain the distance necessary to lead students effectively while earning their trust and respect.
"One of the interesting things that does transpire is as your kids become teenagers, all of a sudden as adults, you go from a position of being intelligent to being completely stupid," says Mark Lange, whose daughter Samantha is currently in one of Taylor's 11th grade science classes. "For me, when I was younger and I spent time with teens, I enjoyed the role of being able to be that cool adult that could reach out and spend time and relate and all these things. That's no longer my position in life or my role in life with my own kids, of course. But Mr. Taylor has this uncanny knack, a special gift of being able to reach out to young people and engage them."
One can simply log onto Twitter and view the evidence. On Friday, after the devastating massacre at Sandy Hook, Taylor tweeted a message to some of his students through one of his class-specific Twitter accounts.
"STUDENTS: I'm sure you have heard about the terrible shooting by now," he wrote. "If you guys ever need help, I got ur back! #tayverts #taybio"
At a place like Overton — "It's not Brentwood," Lange says, "it's 'Brenthood,' as we affectionately refer to it" — teachers like Taylor give parents more peace of mind. "It's because of teachers like Mr. Taylor that we feel comfortable sending our kids to this school," Lange says, adding that Taylor is "one of those teachers these kids don't forget."
His daughter agrees. Samantha says she had Taylor in ninth grade for biology and chose to take Invertebrates and Vertebrates this year to ensure she could be in Taylor's class again. She has set up her phone to receive notifications when Taylor tweets, so she is alerted to extra-credit opportunities and homework assignments. She also participates in Twitter chats, like the #scistu chat Taylor encouraged his students to join one recent evening.
On this occasion, starting at 8 p.m., students would discuss the topic of life on other planets with students from five schools in five different states, as well as at least 10 scientists. Taylor joined in the conversation as well, reproducing online much of what seems to make his class so successful. In one tweet, he directed students to a chart of stars closest to Earth. In another, he playfully responded to a student's suggestion that the class take a field trip to the moon.
"Agreed," he fired back. "Can you pay?"
But the unique connection between Taylor and his students shows up most in a ritual that might best be described as a confessional of sorts. At the end of each year, Taylor will ask each of his classes to divulge potentially damning information. And they do.
"Well, you know, kids are always finding ways to cheat and I always found it's fun to catch cheaters," he says. "Mostly because I like the kids to know I'm not an idiot. And so many of the kids think that we are idiots, and most of us are fairly intelligent.
"So every year I would ask the kids at the end of the school year, hey, so tell me how you cheated in my class this year. And they would share with me — and so I would share with the faculty."
The changing demographics of Nashville, and the challenges facing its school system, are major reasons why teachers of Taylor's and McDonald's skills will be crucial in years to come. While the state saw double-digit improvement in high school graduation rates from 2002 to 2009, the statistics currently facing Davidson County public schools are troubling.
On Monday, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce issued its annual education report card. While the district topped the state average in year-to-year growth, The City Paper's Andrea Zelinski reported that students in Davidson County still trail the state average and neighboring districts in reading and math.
"Last school year, 40.6 percent of students in grades three through eight were proficient in reading and language arts," Zelinski writes. "Of students in those same grade levels, 39.8 percent were proficient in math. Less than 30 percent of students who took the ACT exam scored a 21, the benchmark necessary to qualify for a lottery-funded Hope Scholarship."
Economically disadvantaged students in neighboring states such as Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas and North Carolina now score higher in every tested area than do poor students in Tennessee. That makes the need for first-rate teachers greater than ever, even if Tennessee school systems may not be willing to pay for them. According to the National Education Association — not a disinterested party — Tennessee teachers' salaries in 2009-10 ranked 45th in the country. At an average of $45,497, Tennessee teachers that year made just 82.5 percent of the average national salary.
"What we've got to do as a school system is figure out how to support high-performing teachers no matter what environment they're operating in, and what challenges they're up against," says newly elected Metro school board member Will Pinkston.
"The entire year almost has been defined as an argument between traditional public schools and charter schools, and there's one camp or another camp. But the camp that has been missing so far is the teacher-quality camp. It's time for all of us to step back, take a deep breath, and recognize that no matter what kind of school we're talking about, the most important factor in driving student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom."
Pinkston doesn't know Taylor, but he knows the neighborhood, the school and its situation well. He grew up just off of Nolensville Road and graduated from Overton High, and he says he was inspired in part to run for a seat on the school board because of the changing dynamic in his part of town — one of the biggest challenges the city's public schools will face in coming years.
"What has happened over the last 20 or so years," Pinkston tells the Scene, "is the school, much like the rest of South Nashville, has become almost like a mini United Nations." He describes the Nolensville Road area as not only one of the most diverse parts of the state, but perhaps the region and the country. Home to growing Hispanic, Kurdish, Somali, Sudanese and Egyptian communities (to name just a few), he says, the thoroughfare nicknamed "Nashville's Avenue of the Americas" has developed into a "bona fide international corridor."
Positioned near that corridor, Overton is the most diverse school in the city. According to Metro Nashville Public Schools officials, Overton's student population of 1,700 students is about 13 percent Asian, 25 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American and 37 percent white. As a visitor walks down the halls toward Taylor's class, literally dozens of languages and dialects bounce off the lockers, and the students have the many cultural backgrounds to match.
In 20 years' time, city officials predict, Nashville will look a lot more like present-day Overton than Overton will look like present-day Nashville.
With that incredible diversity, of course, comes opportunity and challenges alike. While the chance to grow up in such a culturally rich environment is indeed rare, much of the way we assess the public education system — from standardized testing to teacher evaluations based in part on student proficiency and the results of such testing — is based on an assumed baseline ability to read, write, and generally communicate in English.
In Nashville's public schools, the challenge is particularly apparent. While Metro schools have 8 percent of the public school students in the state, it contains 29 percent of the English Language Learners (ELLs). Pinkston says he's currently looking into the numbers, but he suspects there's a shortage of ELL-certified teachers, as well as a shortage of translators, to help navigate the myriad language barriers found in a school like Overton.
"If you have students who are having trouble reading English, then they're obviously going to have trouble taking standardized tests, and then that creates a bigger set of issues for how we measure student proficiency in the school system and how we measure student growth and student achievement," Pinkston says. "We have a whole teacher evaluation system, for example, that's based on student growth as measured by standardized testing, among other things."
Charter schools will undoubtedly shoulder more responsibility for ELL pupils as the city's student population grows. Meanwhile, the need for ELL teachers will make instructors like Taylor even more valuable in coming years. Recently, he won a grant allowing for his ELL students to do recordings in their native languages about science topics. As a result, next year he will be able to have an ELL class.
Even so, he recognizes how much hard work must be done to bring the many tongues and cultures of Nashville's sprawling immigrant communities together on common ground.
"Obviously the challenge is having the kids have their own little groups, all speaking in their own native language, and not really embracing English like I hope they would," Taylor says. "Not only because it makes it easier for me, but more importantly so they can have an increased chance of employment when they're not at school."
Therein lies the ultimate challenge that both charter and district teachers face: how to give Nashville's schoolchildren, no matter what their background, a fighting chance to reach their brightest future. Toward that goal, Nashville Prep has already posted impressive strides. Not only did a 2011-12 Stanford University study find that Nashville Prep was the state's highest-performing charter, the school had the highest fifth-grade math, science and social studies TCAP scores of all open enrollment MNPS schools in 2012, district or charter.
Back in her classroom, Christina McDonald kneels before a scholar seated in the back row. While the rest of the class has been participating, he's been slouching, disengaged. After asking him to sit up more than once, she gives him a demerit. It is a disappointment to them both, plainly, and her expression calls to mind the moldy old trope about this "hurting me more than it hurts you."
But her hushed, authoritative yet pleading tone makes it clear that when she looks at him, she doesn't just see a kid slouching through his fifth-grade class. She sees him slouching through a college course, or through the job interview that could buy a ticket out. She's not there to make him sit up straight. She's there so one day he'll want to. She's there to make him realize he can do better.
"I'm not doing this to be mean," McDonald says, moving her head occasionally to keep eye contact with him. "It's just that you're so smart, and I believe in you. You can do so well."
Later on in class, his attention begins to slip. McDonald catches his eye with a stern look. This time, though, he responds by sitting up and tracking to her once more. She immediately flashes a smile, a wide smile that's evidently just the report card he needs.
And once again, the class begins to sing.
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