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

Asked and answered

Are special education reforms moving too slowly? Chicago monitor responds to criticism.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Just four months into her role as the powerful independent monitor overseeing efforts to reform special education in Chicago Public Schools, Laura Boedeker already faces angry, public criticism.

The state created the monitor’s office earlier this year after a public inquiry found that Chicago was systematically delaying and denying educational services — guaranteed by federal law — to special-needs students. But on Monday, advocates for special education charged that Boedeker and her superiors at the Illinois State Board of Education have failed on many counts to improve services and to communicate with parents.

At the same time, the advocates released findings of a survey of 800 parents and teachers that backed their charges. The next day, Chicago parents finally received an email from Boedeker and her boss, state board General Counsel Stephanie Jones, that linked to updated special education protocols and parent trainings, and suggested that the state was working on a plan for families who want to file grievances.

In an interview with Chalkbeat on Tuesday afternoon, Boedeker responded to the criticism, described the work she’s done, and outlined what’s ahead.

What exactly is your job?

Being that one person in ISBE who is dedicated to overseeing, correcting, and addressing concerns about special education in Chicago Public Schools.

Do parents know you exist?

I hope so. They seem to. The word is getting out there, I can tell that.

We’re getting more attendance at our parent workshop sessions, and there’s a new topic every month. I’m seeing more parent emails. Not so much in the sense of  “I’m complaining about services,” but “I wanted to let you know this is something going on at my school.”

Why did it take several months to introduce yourself to parents and tell them what you’re doing as monitor?

We really wanted to.

But where it got really complicated is we really wanted all the information to be in the letter, including the student-specific corrective action, rather than sending out two letters. We also saw delays in trying to come to an agreement on language along with the advocate groups as well. It was hard to reach an agreement about not just appropriate language, but the level of the language of the letter.

A survey released this week indicated that special education reform in Chicago has been slow and under-resourced. How do you respond to that?

We are talking about very pervasive, systemic issues that were already problematic before the advocates submitted their letter last November [an action that helped put in motion events that led to the state monitor overseeing Chicago schools]. This is going to take a long time. There’s been a lot of broken trust between parents and schools, parents and central office, parents and administrators.

There’s a lot of restoration and repair we need to address even before we can go in and dig really deep into those corrections.

And as far as resources go, we have been wanting to take this first month or two to get a better idea of where I need more assistance. That’s something you’re not going to know until you start the job, when school is in session. We have regional offices that we work with and that I will be partnering with as specific to CPS. As far as my surrounding staff goes, that’s something that I’m discussing with [the office of the general counsel].

How many schools have you visited?

A small handful — less than 10 so far. That’s something we’re just starting to schedule because we’ve been getting a lot of feedback over the first two months of school, so we now have some action items, some investigatory points. I’ve had a lot of district representatives go into schools and do investigations. My plan is to go in and see if I’m seeing the same things they are reporting.

From the schools you’ve been to, what have you seen?

What’s been fascinating is that there’s so many stakeholders in special education. At the center of everything is the student, of course, and then you have the laws that surround special education — federal and state laws. And then you have a group of all these adults that have different understanding of special education. Even if they have the same understanding, they have different interpretations and beliefs about how things should be done.

So it’s really about getting inside of that story. For example: At a school I went to last week, I [received a] lot of staff outreach. And if I’m just going on the staff outreach, then I think the principal is assigning special education teachers to gen ed classrooms when a teacher doesn’t show up. But when we got in there, it was a little different than what was portrayed via the staff.

What was happening?

In this particular instance, four teachers called off that day, so they had four absences they were trying to deal with. It came down to [the principal asking special education teachers] can you please go to this classroom, unless or until we get a substitute who is arriving within the next 10 minutes, so these students aren’t alone without an adult.

What are some other concerns you’ve heard from schools you’ve visited?

Paraprofessionals being assigned to roles that aren’t IEP-based [referring to individualized education programs, which schools must create for each special-education student]. For example, covering lunchroom duty. That’s not a proper use of a paraprofessional.

A lot of scheduling concerns go back to schools being trained to properly schedule their teachers, so if a teacher does call off there can be a better contingency plan for covering those students and classes.

Messaging to IEP teams. Making sure the right people are in an IEP meeting for the duration of the meeting. We’ve been really hammering home the message that the only person that can excuse a member from an IEP meeting is a parent. But sometimes we have reports that the principal directed teachers to go somewhere else. So we have to really train principals on the law, and proper use of the teachers.

In the advocates’ survey, three out of four teachers reported knowing one or more students were not receiving services due to staffing shortages. What can you do about that?

Let’s take the example of a principal taking a special education teacher and sending them to a gen ed class because they need an adult in the room.

As I was telling the principal, that’s when your scheduling needs to be really tight so you have the flexibility to come up with a contingency plan. You know teachers are going to be out. It’s kind of hard to have a contingency plan for four teachers that are out, but one or two, there are ways to get creative. You can split up a gen ed class and integrate them into a few other age-appropriate classes for instruction, or bring them into a large group and do a social emotional learning circle that addresses a current academic issue.

Your first or second solution should not be going to the special ed teacher.

A lot of the inquiry boils down to this: students who have needs being delayed or denied services. Do you see that’s still the case at CPS from what you can tell so far?

Issues of delays and denials of services — such as paraprofessional assistance, separate day school, transportation — those have dissipated some. From the data we’ve pulled and from the feedback from schools and parents, those are not nearly as big an issue as they were before, primarily because those blocks that were put on the electronic system were lifted.

Before, the only way transportation could be added to an IEP was if a district rep was there to approve it, and that’s no longer the case. Most of the power has gone back into the hands of the IEP teams, which is exactly what the public inquiry recommended.

What should the student-specific corrective action process look like, and how does it compare with what’s going on now?

We’ve been discussing this process with an office within the U.S. Department of Education. One thing they have been very clear on is that IEP teams need to be front and center of that decision. They’re the ones on the front lines with these students, so the Education Department is insistent that the IEP teams are involved when we’re talking about sending notices out to families, alerting them that you may have a child affected by the public inquiry.

That leads us to identifying who that class of students is, and then after we have those families and students identified, that’s when the IEP team comes in to say, “Yes, we do know there was a delay or break in services — what was the harm to that student?”

We hope to provide them with a set of instructions, like, “Here are the talking points, and if you find the student was harmed, here’s a menu of remedies that would be appropriate.”

Those are the conversations we’re working through right now with the department of education, CPS, the advocate representatives, and ISBE. As you can imagine, those are some pretty hefty and lengthy conversations. We’re all trying to get on the same page, and all trying to come to an agreement about what that would look like. But also, what’s fiscally responsible?

This is a three-year process. What should parents and students expect to happen between now and the end of the school year?

We’re holding schools more accountable now and we have them on our radar.

There’s going to be a lot more eye-opening information that emerges from this role, and it’s the first time it’s really been done in this way. This is truly a way for one person to explore CPS through the special education lens like nobody has ever done before. I find that really exciting.

 

Going to court

Memphis charter school sues former principal at center of student protests

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students say Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School has been uneasy since the principal was fired in August.

A Memphis charter high school is seeking $300,000 in damages — alleging that its former principal has been encouraging students to transfer from the high school and that he has violated his severance agreement.

In recent weeks, many students and parents have insisted that Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School’s’ former principal, Reginald Williams, was fired unfairly. Parents who support Williams and Patricia Ange — another educator, who was recently let go — crowded into a recent school board meeting to register their disapproval of the school’s decision. And earlier this week, students led a walkout in support of both educators.

Florence Johnson, the lawyer for Memphis Academy, argued in the complaint filed late Wednesday that Williams “conspired” to “disrupt the operations of the school, to lure students away from the school, and to cause financial harm and public embarrassment to [the academy’s] standing in the educational community.”

Williams said he has neither been on campus since he was fired Aug. 10, nor has he spoken with Memphis Academy parents since then.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

“All of this is embarrassing to me,” he told Chalkbeat, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and “frivolous.” “I haven’t, nor will I ever, impede students’ progress.”

In the court filing, the charter network noted it “allowed Williams to retire early rather than fire him outright for poor performance,” which differs from what school leaders had told parents and students. Parents were told Williams resigned and did not know his departure was about poor results on the state’s test this spring. But in internal emails obtained by Chalkbeat, the network’s executive director explicitly tied Williams’ departure to the scores. Using state test scores to fire teachers is illegal this year in Tennessee after major technical glitches to computerized testing, but it is unclear if the law applies to principals.

Under Williams’ severance agreement, the charter school gave him about $40,000 in exchange for assurance he would not speak ill of his former employer or speak about the agreement. Johnson argues Williams violated that during an Oct. 16 board meeting.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift was at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School to protest firing a beloved principal and teacher.

Ange, a vocal supporter of Williams, had called the former principal and put him on speakerphone during the meeting as parents demanded answers. Williams said at the meeting that he did not have a problem with the decision to let him go.

“My only concern was how it was done,” he said. “If I’d known in the summertime, I could have found another place.”

Markayla Crawford, a senior at the high school who was among those who led protests after Williams and Ange were fired, said Williams did not ask her to protest on his behalf and had not heard of Williams contacting other students.

School leaders are “still not giving us answers about what happened,” she said. “All the kids are basically saying the same thing. The school is falling apart and no one knows what’s going on.”

A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 in Memphis chancery court.