brave new world

At Quest to Learn, large support staff fuels gaming curriculum

Before quizzing his middle school students on the features of the Neolithic Revolution, C. Ross Flatt had them play handmade board games about it. Acting as leaders of a budding civilization, the students managed a flash-card supply of food, settlements and other key resources, and built an army to protect their territory — marked on a laminated map — from invaders.

Then, rather than ask them what struggles they think Neolithic societies faced, Flatt had them describe the scenarios that tripped them up during the game.

“Did you ever get in trouble during the play of game and realize you didn’t have a stable food supply?” he asked. One student said he experienced a drought, while another said a cold snap not only depleted her resources but left her open to raids from other starving players.

For Flatt, one of a dozen teachers at Quest to Learn, a Chelsea middle school, these game-centered classroom exchanges are routine. But they are also the result of behind-the-scenes tinkering from a fleet of non-teaching, in-house curriculum specialists.

I visited Quest to Learn, which is in its third year of operation, after touring its sister school, ChicagoQuest, during a conference about digital learning earlier this fall. I wanted to see how the model developed by the Institute of Play, a nonprofit that works on game research and development, looked here in New York City.

What I saw was that Quest to Learn is flooded with specialists, whom the school calls learning strategists and game designers, at a time when one trend in school management is to devote as much funding as possible to teaching salaries, even if it means scaling back on support staff. The specialists are helping the school pioneer a multi-tiered curriculum development approach that tailors technology and hands-on, multi-player games to individual classroom teachers.

The approach has yielded mixed results so far. Last year, the school got a B on its first-ever city progress report. But it is also providing a rare alternative for middle school students who learn best when they are learning independently and doing hands-on projects, according to Arana Shapiro, the school’s co-director.

“We don’t think the test scores are the be all and end all of what’s happening at the school,” she said. “We measure things like systems thinking, digital media tool use, social and emotional learning, collaborative skills, teamwork.”

In place of traditional class subjects like pre-algebra or English, Quest to Learn classes have names like “Being, Space and Place,” and “Sports of the Mind.” Assignments are called “quests,” and they add up to a completed “mission” at the end of each 10-week-long trimester.

In Lencey Nuñez’s eighth-grade science class, “The Way Things Work,” on a recent morning, students were working in small teams to map the topography of various cities using the computer game SimCity.

Eliza Spang, a learning strategist, said the project is building off a trimester-long unit on geology that began early this fall, when students played a scavenger hunt game on 18th Street outside the school, and later another board game.

But planning for the unit began in the late summer, when Spang met with Nuñez and Shula Ponet, a game designer, to outline the fall trimester’s “mission”—in other words, the final project that the classrooms lessons and assignments would build up to. From there they worked backwards to imagine what lessons to teach and how to integrate gaming into them. They met weekly, first to design the games and then to play them with each other and with eighth-grade students.

“They give us feedback on what worked, what didn’t work, what we’d change,” she said. “We have teacher feedback and student voice to create a game that is engaging to students. Teachers are super creative, but game designers bring a different view of the world.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede