Lydia Lee, a retired Minneapolis Public Schools teacher, started her second term on the Minneapolis Public School Board this year. She originally ran for the school board because she had been doing middle grade reform work with the schools and found out that the superintendent had taken the program off the table. For Lee, improving curriculum is high on her agenda, as well as making sure that teachers are well trained. Lee talked to TC Daily Planet about some of her work with middle grades and teaching students in poverty.
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Can you tell me about the middle grade reform work that you were involved with?
Lydia Lee: At the time we had many more K-8 schools… There was a lack of consistency for middle grade programming. It was clear too that we weren’t achieving in those middle grades across the district. Of course, there’s always pockets of success. We received a sizeable grant to implement middle grades reform. It was the late eighties and early nineties—across the whole country, there was research about what needs to be done. It wasn’t just Minneapolis, it was everywhere.
TCDP: What were the key components?
LL: First of all we worked on having eighth grade looping. It means a grade of students—the sixth graders are coming together and stay together with the same teachers all the way up to the eighth grade. So teachers don’t have to establish new relationships each year, and students understand the system…
TCDP: Is this model still used?
LL: The platform implementation stopped the year that I got on board in 2005. It was when we had a brand new superintendant.
But the training did take place, and involved principals. It was a different professional development model. Every middle school program had a team leader, and we had funding to buy teacher lead time. We met with them six times a year, and trained them on the model. Twice a year the principal would join us in training. Even now we have a lingering effect—some principals and teacher leaders are still around. They still are trying to keep some of those elements going…
TCDP: Do you have hope that you will be able to bring the program back?
LL: I put a lot of faith and trust in curriculum department. They understand elements that need to be put in place in schools… I don’t see we have to formalize that implementation process. I do try to get on the board’s agenda—and I’ve been trying for several years—revisiting middle grades. That’s where we see many challenges.
TCDP: Is the board receptive to that?
LL: Every one has been sympathetic and agreeable, but here were some other priorities that pushed middle grades down the list.
TCDP: Can you tell me about your work with understanding how to teach students who live in poverty?
LL: A lot it comes out of the work of Ruby Payne. Back when there was a lot more money for education, she traveled all over the country to do presentations about her life’s work around understanding culture of poverty.
TCDP: Can you give me some examples of what this work entails?
LL: It has to do with training the brain to think more systematically—to understand things like sequencing. So much of our thinking is very random. So we were designing activities that understand sequencing. They rely on humor and entertainment. If a school is going to be boring and dull they tune out. There has to be an element of them enjoying where they are doing. It’s about abstract verses concrete. If they get introduced to abstract concepts too soon they are lost to them… While they agree getting a college education translates into getting a job, it’s such an abstract concept, and they don’t have role models. Unless we develop their minds and brains to get from concrete and abstract, their achievement is kind of lacking… Our education system is based on middle class norms and values.
TCDP: What are your goals for the school board now?
LL: We have to change the culture. Lessons have to be very engaging and relevant to students. They have to want to do the activities. They have to see the meaning of what they are learning.
TCDP: Do you feel that the current training for administration is adequate?
LL: That goes back to when people decide they want to be principals. Starting there, we need to really partner with institutions. What’s essential, what’s important for a good administrator? It’s not just about creating a discipline system in your school. What is the art of being an administrator? How do you get the most out of your teachers and your staff? How do you value them, empower them.