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Project LIFT schools embrace ‘No Nonsense Nurturing’

Teacher Jonnecia Alford leads her class using No Nonsense Nurturing techniques.
Teacher Jonnecia Alford leads her class using No Nonsense Nurturing techniques. WFAE

Teachers are learning a new way to teach students in the nine Project LIFT schools in CMS. Directions are often scripted and praise is kept to a minimum in an effort to manage classroom behavior. It’s called No Nonsense Nurturing.

It requires specific directions and dropping the niceties. Druid Hills math teacher Jonnecia Alford has it down pat, as she talks to her sixth-graders.

“While Taylor is at the board explaining a problem, your pencil is in your hand. Your voice is on zero. If you got the problem correct, you’re following along and checking off the answer,” Alford instructs.

She also describes to the class what everyone’s doing.

“Phonetia’s looking at me. Denaria put her pencils down, good indicator. Monica put hers down. She’s looking at me,” says Alford.

This is how all teachers in CMS’s Project LIFT zone are trained to manage their classrooms. Denise Watts who heads Project LIFT says No Nonsense Nurturing allows these schools, in West Charlotte and north of uptown, to create the consistency students need to learn.

“It just provides the language and the system for how to implement the behavior management component of it,” says Watts.

No Nonsense Nurturing is partly the brainchild of Kristyn Klei Borrero, a former principal, now CEO of the Center for Transformative Teacher Training based in San Francisco. She says the foundation of the program isn’t new. It just puts into practice what she’s observed from high-performing teachers.

Teachers keep expectations high, by only praising outstanding effort. They give specific directions and observe out loud what students are doing, something Klei Borrero calls “positive narration.”

“It notices students that are doing the right thing. It creates this positive momentum, but also gives the students who might’ve missed the directions another way of hearing it, without being nagging, and also seeing it in action,” says Klei Borrero.

Teachers are also given ways to build close relationships with students. For example, calling parents when a child is doing well.

The center has worked with over 250 schools across the country since 2009. Many are charters, some are district schools, but all have similar populations: students from low-income families, many of color.

Klei Borrero says she focuses on these kids because they have the least access to a good education. Project LIFT’s Watts says her students especially need the structure No Nonsense Nurturing provides.

“Sometimes in their home lives they don’t have that structure and consistency. So we’re just providing that opportunity for them to know that there are certain behaviors and certain things we have to comply on because it’s part of the setting of what teaching and learning is all about,” says Watts.

They’re students that have been historically marginalized, says Barbara Stengel an education professor at Vanderbilt University. That’s why No Nonsense Nurturing makes her uncomfortable. In her view, the priority is compliance, not engagement.

“Maybe we are doing them a favor by teaching them codes of power, but maybe we are also participating in some kind of, I don’t know, I’ll call it colonization. That we’re simply teaching kids to look like me,” says Stengel.

The center has a contract with Project LIFT to train CMS staff. Project Lift wouldn’t say how much it’s paying the center. Watts says she doesn’t have to because they operate under a public-private partnership. But she did let WFAE watch training sessions with teachers like Kelly McManus at Druid Hills.

“I would say, ‘Students please raise your hand on a level 0, if you…” begins McManus.

“Stop,” interrupts her coach Vanetia Howard. “’Please?’ You want them to do it. There’s no opt out. Drop the ‘please.’”

The two have been colleagues for the past seven years at the school. After this one-on-one session, it’s time to put what she’s learned into action, while still being coached. McManus wears an earbud. Howard stands in the back of the class. She whispers directions to McManus through a walkie-talkie, as she teaches her first-graders.

“Ask for complete sentences when students respond,” whispers Howard.

“We’re going to respond in complete sentences,” McManus tells her class.

Also in the room is a coach from the center, who gives instructions to Howard.

McManus finds these sessions stressful, but valuable. Her complaint with No Nonsense Nurturing, and you hear this a lot, is that she feels like a robot at times.

Barbara Stengel, the Vanderbilt professor whose official title is Professor of the Practice of Education, sees how the scripted directions and narration help, but she worries it becomes too much of a habit.

“I just don’t want these teachers, particularly if they’re going to stay in the profession, to think this is all there is to developing children toward autonomy and responsibility,” says Stengel.

No Nonsense Nurturing encourages teachers to lay off the narration over time. By then, the hope is it’s not necessary.

Druid Hills is in its second year of No Nonsense Nurturing. Some Project LIFT schools are in their third. Watts of Project LIFT says she believes it’s led to a significant drop in out-of-school suspensions at Thomasboro, students missing fewer days at Ashley Park, and all around more student engagement.

The training extends at least through this year. Eventually, the plan is all these schools will have their designated staff of No Nonsense Nurturing coaches.

WFAE is a member of the Charlotte News Alliance.

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