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Honoring Christina McDonald and Adam Taylor — a charter-school teacher and a district-school teacher who represent the best of both worlds

2012 Nashvillians of the Year



Every year since 1989, the Scene has awarded the honor of Nashvillian of the Year to the person (or persons) who makes the most significant contribution to the life of the city. It could be a philanthropist or a charity worker; it could be someone who faced a momentous occasion, incident or controversy, and rose to the challenge. The latter was the case with our 2011 nominee, Night Court Magistrate Thomas Nelson, who presided over that year's most incendiary controversy — the Haslam administration's crackdown on citizen protesters and seizure of journalists during the Occupy Nashville protests (including the Scene's Jonathan Meador) — and responded with a stirring defense of constitutional rights.

For 2012's Nashvillian of the Year, we again chose people embroiled in the year's most pressing concern — but not in the way you might expect. If any one issue dominated the civic discourse in 2012, it wasn't presidential politics, city management, or the historic changing of the guard in Tennessee as a one-party state. It was the future of Nashville's public school system, which in 2012 provoked a firestorm of defiance and debate.

In one sense, that was good and healthy. A vigorous public dialogue on the role of charter schools in Metro Nashville was long overdue, deferred for too many years by myopic administrators. Now the pendulum has swung, swiftly, the opposite direction. In remarks Monday, Mayor Karl Dean forcefully underscored the reality that Nashville considers charters — schools where parents actively choose their child's enrollment and shift public funds to their privatized operation — a key component of the city's public education.

Nashville already has 14 charter schools in operation, and the role of charters in the public school system deserves careful consideration and measured implementation. But as Matt Pulle and Jonathan Meador wrote in a Scene cover story earlier this year, charters are hardly a sure bet. The best have posted extraordinary results and shown new hope to students once failed by the system; the worst have not only shown themselves inferior in operation and instruction, they have cut off yet another route for students with limited options. Much needed is serious study of how to emulate the techniques that are working at the best charters, balanced by sober heed to those that have failed, and why.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was largely sidetracked this year by the controversy over Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies, a charter-school operator that met with affluent parents about the prospect of opening a charter in West Nashville. Here, too, was an opportunity for another much-needed conversation: how to attract the resources of upper-middle-class parents and promising students away from private schools and back to the Metro public school system, without a return to the days of segregation by race and class.

That conversation didn't happen. Instead, Great Hearts and its advocates gambled on a big-footed entry into Middle Tennessee politics, courting state officials and pouring unprecedented amounts of money into local races in an attempt to vote in a more sympathetic MNPS school board. Instead of getting the results they desired, the year ended in an ugly stalemate. Now the cash-strapped Metro school system has been docked $3.4 million by the state; Great Hearts is at the moment no closer to getting a school in Nashville; and any discussion of charter schools shows danger of falling into the same fruitless red-state/blue-state bickering as the rest of Tennessee politics.

Perhaps most regrettable, however, was the demonization of teachers on both sides of the charter debate. To charter advocates who argued teachers' unions were the No. 1 obstacle to education "reform," public school teachers were speed humps in the path to progress — tenured clock-jockeys like the one portrayed in the dud propaganda film Won't Back Down, goofing around online while the class goes ape. To public school defenders, charter teachers were moonbeams who'd drunk the reformist Kool-Aid, yet couldn't hack teaching problem students who hadn't been handpicked for them. And yet, despite all the public vilification of teachers this year, last week brought the example of the faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., whose humane and heroic actions during the horrific shootings Friday were among the only notes of grace on one of the bleakest days our nation has faced.

In that spirit, the Scene would like to refocus the discussion of public education not on differences and squabbles, but on the enormous asset that charter and public schools have in common: the teachers who are the most active, direct agents of hope Nashville's children will face outside the home. As our 2012 Nashvillians of the Year, the Scene honors two such instructors: one from a charter school, Christina McDonald at Nashville Prep, and one from a traditional Metro district school, Adam Taylor at Overton High.

They are hardly alone. Space does not permit us to list the many outstanding district and charter teachers who slug it out in Nashville's trenches throughout the school year, fighting the shared enemies of poverty, hunger, troubled home lives, behavioral problems, language barriers, bad outside influences and limited resources. But McDonald and Taylor are sterling examples of what can be accomplished by creative thinking, supportive administrators, and sheer determination. To look inside their classrooms is to see small miracles happen every day — and to see a brighter future for Nashville schoolchildren of all races and backgrounds than statistics sometimes let us hope.

On a rainy morning in a corner classroom on the third floor of Tennessee State University's Avon Williams downtown campus — the current location of Nashville Prep — a fifth-grade class is singing. Not a music class, a social-studies class. The tune is familiar: It's Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." So, weirdly enough, are the lyrics — the names of America's Great Lakes.

"Michigan, Super-ior. Huron, Erie, Ontar-io," the kids sing, with an enthusiasm rarely granted even to the largest bodies of water. "There are five Great Laaakes, you know. They're the largest, freshwater ... "

Among them, Christina McDonald walks up and down the rows of students in matching blue sweatshirts and khaki pants, joining in every now and then, handing out some of the day's reading. When the kids finish, having recited all five lakes twice, the class moves along without a beat.

"The time before the Civil War was called ... ?" asks McDonald, whose curly stawberry-blonde hair and near constant smile seem to evoke the palpable energy in the room.

"Antebellum!" the students reply in unison.

"A civil war is a war between two groups in ... ?" McDonald shoots back.

"The same country!" they respond.

Each portion of the class flows right into the next, from subject to subject, without even a moment of empty space. McDonald's teaching style resembles a soccer drill often used with goalkeepers, in which a coach will stand in front of the goalie, throwing balls left and right. It looks choreographed and yet completely spontaneous all at once.

McDonald keeps her students on their toes, but is always encouraging them, reminding them that they know the steps. Soon, after some introduction to the day's lesson, McDonald starts them singing again.

This time their subject is the 50 states. Starting in the northwest corner with Washington, they criss-cross their way across the map, singing down to the Southern border, then back up again. As his classmates belt their way across the nation, a boy named Carlos marks off the states on a map at the front of the room.

As they sing through the Northeast, McDonald stops them.

"Massachusetts looks like a ... ?" she calls.

"Boot!" comes the response.

By the end of the hour, McDonald's students will have sung and chanted their way through the seven continents, the five oceans, the five freedoms afforded by the First Amendment, and the three branches of government. This musical take on social studies has become a trademark of sorts for McDonald and her students. A video of her classes performing the various educational tunes serves as impressive promotion for the school on YouTube, where it has more than 1,400 views at press time.

All this singing is cute, a cynic might say, but do the students actually learn any critical or analytical skills? On this day, in between songs, the topic at hand is the Civil War era. At one point, in response to a question from McDonald, a student named Marshall explains that in the "House Divided" speech, Abraham Lincoln was comparing the nation to a house, and that if one wall was removed, the house would fall. Later, another 10-year-old student confidently references the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

As their peers speak, Nashville Prep scholars have a way to respond and engage without diverting from the respect McDonald insists they show each other. If they want to build on something a classmate has said, they excitedly roll one hand over the other — think a basketball referee's motion for a travelling violation — with their lips pursed, all but writhing in their chairs as they wait their turns. The technique works. They motion until they're called on, at which point the whole class "tracks" to them.

If they agree with what's being said, they snap their fingers with increasing emphasis, as if the miniature applause were drawing out the correct answer. Often, McDonald joins in with them.

Christina McDonald grew up in Nashville, where she attended Christ Presbyterian Academy and graduated with a degree in music education from Belmont University. Shortly after that, she moved to New York City. There she found a job at KIPP Infinity, a charter school in Harlem, one of more than a hundred in the KIPP charter school network (which includes Nashville's highly regarded KIPP Academy). She worked there with the school chorus, and as an assistant to KIPP co-founder Dave Levin.

And then, she says, Ravi Gupta brought her back.

Gupta, a Yale Law School graduate who has worked as an assistant to David Axelrod during now President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, and as a special assistant and speechwriter to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, founded Nashville Prep in 2010. Just this week, Forbes magazine named him one of its "30 Under 30" young Americans of special note in the fields of law and policy. After asking for the names of bright young teachers who might want to start a school with him, he says, friends and colleagues urged him to talk to McDonald.

For her, it was a homecoming. But with it came a new awareness of a side of Nashville, and the world, much different from the one where she grew up.

"I saw a lot in New York by being at a charter school in Harlem," McDonald tells the Scene during a break between classes. "I had two parents that were very loving. My parents and my grandparents sacrificed so much for me to get a great education. So supportive. And I think maybe for the first time I saw a world in which not everyone had that.

"And I think it was that moment of seeing that it wasn't necessarily fair or equal. How much money people make, or where you live, or what your zip code is, does in fact matter when it comes to what school you go to. And I wanted in some way to be a part of that battle and to do what I could to change it."

As the class powers through a worksheet, McDonald will call on students — "scholars" in charter school parlance — and direct the entire class to look at them as they give their answer. "Tracking Bobby," she might say, at which point the class will turn around at once, to look their classmate in the eye as he speaks. If one of Bobby's classmates is not giving him full attention, the class will wait.

At various points throughout the class period, McDonald will do something that is anathema to the "teaching to the test" method demanded by Tennessee's TCAP dependency: She asks a question to which her students don't know the answer, but might be able to work out based on information they do know. It emboldens students to do more than just parrot answers; it encourages creative problem solving and application of skills.

"You don't know the answer to this," she says, "but I'm looking for someone to be brave." When a student volunteers, she reinforces their courage, urging them to speak up with confidence in what she calls their "college voice." In this way, she supplements the memory work in the songs and chants (which McDonald, a singer-songwriter in her free time, creates herself).

"As far as the wacky, crazy part, I think — we're here for a very long amount of time and hours and days," she says. "And I truly love doing my job, and so I feel like it's a disservice to them to call in or phone in a day. So I find that when I'm positive and excited and energetic, it's like a mirror. That's what they seem to give back to me. I think I'm also just a little wacky."

Be that as it may, a little wacky enthusiasm seems to work.

"She's really good at showing her personality in the classroom, which makes a huge difference," says Kira Walmer, a fifth-grade writing teacher at Nashville Prep. "I think that there are some teachers who might go into a teacher mode, and she really puts herself into it. Which is why the students feel so connected to her, and why they're so invested in doing well in her class — because they can tell that she cares."

Indeed, her classroom presence is exceedingly genuine. Where charter school jargon such as "scholars" or "tracking" might sound like a mouthful of reformspeak from some, McDonald is quite obviously a teacher using a method, not the other way around. Her emphasis on sitting up straight, looking peers in the eye, indulging curiosity, and engaging with respect but enthusiasm springs from a belief that these skills, perhaps as much as academic proficiency, will help her fifth-graders succeed.

That is, of course, what McDonald is paid to do — though it's hard to imagine a salary that teachers of her caliber are not outperforming. Parents who have entrusted her with their children say she does work that's far above her pay grade. One is Joyce Cole, whose fifth-grade son Marshall is in Ms. McDonald's class. She says the teacher's effect on her boy has been nothing short of remarkable. A child who always hated music, she says, Marshall now says he wants to join Ms. McDonald's chorus.

"And it's like, oh my gosh," Cole says. "The little boy that when you sang to him 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' he told you to shut up wants to sing in a chorus."

Other parents echo her astonishment at what the singing social studies teacher has brought out of their children. Gene Smalley holds back tears as he describes the boost in self-confidence he has seen in his son Evan. Sheri Patterson describes how McDonald's persistent enthusiasm gave her and her son Kofi a reason to trust in Nashville Prep while the school was still "just words on a paper."

But it is McDonald's extra-curricular activities that leave the most indelible mark. Cole tells a story of a difficult time Marshall had when his pet turtle got sick, and eventually had to be given up. When many teachers — and even his mother, she admits — might been inclined to tell him to walk it off, she says McDonald made a point to eat lunch with him that day and even wrote him a sticky note telling him to persevere; that he would make it.

"Our kids are her kids," Smalley says. But if one story illustrates McDonald's extraordinary empathy for her students, it may be that of Tylani Hunter.

Described by her mother, Tyese Hunter, as "medically fragile," 10-year-old Tylani found herself in Vanderbilt University Children's Hospital in October for emergency stomach surgery. At one point, she coded. Her mother had to face the devastating possibility that her little girl might not make it through. Spirits fading, she sat with Tylani in the hospital's intensive care unit. Then, Tyese Hunter says, her daughter had a visitor.

Ms. McDonald came to see Tylani — not just one day, but every day, after school. Tyese, who says she has rarely if ever left her daughter's side during multiple hospital stays, was so comforted by McDonald's presence that one afternoon she even allowed herself a few minutes at a nearby Starbucks, just to breathe. When the Hunters left the ICU and moved to a hospital room for a longer stay, McDonald still came, to check on Tylani. To sing the Great Lakes and the 50 States.

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