Making Memphis Home

Author: Olivia Besel | MTR Class of 2017 | MTR Intern (2015-16)

I knew the second I stepped out of that packed mini van, inhaled air that was 90% water, and made an awkward “hello” gesture to my future roommate, that operation ‘Make Memphis Home’ had begun.

My story is a little different. I got the unique opportunity to move to Memphis and live in the Georgian Woods Apartments for a whole year before starting the residency with the Class of 2017. This somewhat unintentional “gap” year has given me a chance to learn about Memphis, love all (well most) of its quirks, and begin the homemaking process. By definition, Memphis is home the second you agree to be a part of MTR and wade your way through the thick summer air. Why is this? Well, because you are now an established resident of the legendary Georgian Woods, and because you have entered into a family. And that is what this place is, that is what MTR is: one big family. It is nothing short of a beautiful collision of eager, justice driven people from all over the states coming together to make a difference through the passionate profession of teaching and education. However, easing into that truth takes time. I am going to list out some necessary housekeeping tips that I have learned in the last year in hopes that you either relate, or find some comfort in this process that is “making Memphis home.”

1. Let’s get this out of the way. Cockroaches. No one warned me so I am here to warn you. Roaches will try to rule the world, carry a bug bomb and raid on you at all times. Now, maybe that is dramatic, maybe it isn’t. For me, the only bug I had ever seen that looked anything like a cockroach was in the movie “The Mummy,” and nothing ended well any time those creatures were present. In order to feel at home here, you either need to conquer the fear of these bugs, or conquer them all together. Whether you decide to be like me and fumigate your house monthly, or you decide to just name each one and consider them as another roommate, may you at the very least not be caught off guard by the presence of a roach.

2. Stop and listen. Coming from a west coast state, Memphis meant entering into a whole new conversation. Memphis is rich in history and there is much to learn. Being here has meant a season of listening; listening to the history of this city, to the stories of others, and to the greater conversations that are very present and real even now. Come humble, come knowing that here is much to learn, and come vulnerable.

3. Establish a home base. This meant finding a church. Moving to a new city brought a hunger and need to belong. A home church is the perfect place to be known in this city apart from MTR. Now, we pride ourselves on being a family and completely community based, but it is nice to have a group of people outside of the sphere of education. There is a great work going on in our world, a beautiful story of redemption, but education is just one slice of the pie. So get out there, know, and be known. Great things are happening in this city and you can find many of the people involved in this work of restoration in places like community gatherings and churches.

4. We are inherently needy creatures, and that is okay. If you don’t believe that yet, we can work on that together because it is still a tension even I am wading through. For this to be your home, you need to let people love you and love you well. I can tell you with full confidence that you will step on Memphis soil and not have it “all figured out,” you don’t have to pretend. Approach this season as a learner of all things. When you run out of quarters and someone offers to let you do laundry at their house FOR FREE, do it. When someone offers to buy you coffee because your stipend is low and you look like you need it, TAKE IT. When there is free food at MTR, don’t be shy. This is the time for you to grow, learn, be humble, hungry and excited… don’t rob yourself of the joy of being loved and don’t rob others of the joy of serving you.

5. I hope you like your food BBQ’d and deep fried. I remember when I first moved here, I would walk around asking random people what they liked to do or places they liked to go. I am not kidding you, each suggestion revolved around food. I also remember ordering vegetables at a restaurant once and they appeared in front of me battered and fried. Here in memphis, we like blues and food. Don’t fight it, just go with it.

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6. Find your spot. I believe The Lord loves to give us rest and longs to speak to us in that rest. The hustle and bustle of a new city, new friends and a new family is not always restful. That being said, be intentional to find the places and the times in your weeks that bring you rest. Maybe that is rock climbing at Bridges. Maybe it is walking around Shelby Farms. Maybe it is visiting one of Memphis’ many fabulous coffee shops. Whatever it is, frequent that space that brings you peace. In rest we are reminded why we are loved, so do those things that make you feel most adored.

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I have been here almost exactly one year now. I can’t give you the best tour guide tips, or the top 20 most romantic roof tops in Memphis. Quite honestly, I still get lost and have never been on top of a roof here. I may name drop some restaurants and I will certainly recommend many coffee shops. I have lists of suggestions, journals full of learning moments and paradigm shifts, and even a quote board in my living room to serve as a hilarious reminder of what this year has meant. Those things have made this place home, but it all comes back to you and how you will make Memphis your home. The good news is, it’s pretty easy to fall in love with this city. So kill those roaches with confidence, do the things that make you feel loved, serve this city well, be fully present in the culture as a learner, and allow yourself to be welcomed into a space where you already belong.

Welcome to Memphis, welcome to MTR, and welcome home.

View More: http://gretchenshawphotography.pass.us/mtrresidentsclassof2016

Who Do You Play For?

Author: Tory Lang | MTR Class of 2016

On Friday, May 20, the MTR Class of 2016 celebrated their Union University graduation and completion of the Residency Year at the MTR Victory Party. Family and friends flooded in from across the nation to support and celebrate the accomplishments and commitment of the 2016s. Tory Lang, MTR c/o 2016, made the following Resident Address.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you family and friends for traveling from near and far to join us for our victory party. I asked my fellow residents to share words that they felt described this last year of our lives, and I’ve tried to incorporate some of them into this address so that each of our voices can be heard, shared, and remembered to reflect this glorious and beautiful struggle of a year. As I mention them, you’ll see them pop up on the screen.

The last time the majority of us were in this room, was almost exactly a year ago: May 28, 2015. We all remember this exact date since its permutation enables us 24/7 access to one of the greatest assets of residency year: unlimited printing. #blessed But really. That was the evening of our Welcome Dinner. We stood on this stage and announced with pride to the immense sea of people who we were, where we came from, what school we graduated from. We hadn’t seen the inspiring hockey movie Miracle en masse yet, so we didn’t know that we’d ultimately have to also answer the question: Who do you play for?

But on that first day of this transformative adventure, we were in this very room.

Later that week, again in this very room, we would learn the unforgettable names of Josh-Mo-Josh and Shelley-Ellie-Molly-Mary. We would eat Holiday Ham for the first of many times and create life maps. Telling our story to one another and listening to where each other came from and the lengths God had taken to bring us all there to that moment as we embarked on the hardest but most joyful year of our lives.

We have acquired so much more to add to our life maps in these last 358 days. We’ve loaded our bookshelves and brains with 16 different texts. We’ve developed and practiced strategies for both the classroom and for life that encompassed everything we didn’t know we needed. We’ve gained deliverance from the double life of an almost full-time classroom teacher and an actual full-time graduate student. Those summer days of we-actually-had-so-much-time-how-could-we-have-been-complaining-so-much seem surreal. Cultural Foundations and the CAP project, Exceptionalities and Classroom Leadership. All of the Bloom’s taxonomy. All of the alignment. We are one day away from a Master’s Degree in Urban Education that we completed in one year. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

In this last year, we’ve grown up and accomplished a lot, but we’ve done it together. We explored Memphis: the scavenger hunt, the Redbirds game, and the tours of FedEx, St. Jude, our neighborhoods, and, of course, Graceland. Community was bolstered as a surprising number of us found ourselves strengthening our immune systems at the Back to School Bash. We ran 5ks, half-marathons, and full marathons. We went to Grizzlies games (#GritandGrind) and the Brooks Museum (both of which provided complimentary drinks *wink*). And through this year of challenge and self-discovery, posts to the Facebook page about free events were abundant.

Hey, the stipend life was real. And if just mentioning the month October isn’t enough to make us all shudder in retrospect, a moment of silence is needed for every dollar paid to ETS that month for each PRAXIS exam. This year of high highs and low lows was epitomized in the fifth and fourth of each month respectively. Talk about beauty from ashes.

Though this year was hard for each of us in different ways, each daunting day cumulated in an impactful year.

We came here knowing who we were and where we came from, but this year taught me to remember to ask: Who do you play for?

Because speaking for myself, especially during those Lead Teach 5-day weeks, if the answer wasn’t God, I felt like I was failing. Or as one resident put it, like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV without the gratification of knocking out the Russian.

But really! We’ve all had those days, those weeks, maybe even months for some of us when we feel like we were the Russian. Knocked out and down for the count and drowning in it. We were physically spent and emotionally drained from brokenness. The brokenness of our city, our schools, our students, and ourselves. So for me in those moments, if the answer to: “Who do you play for?” was any of these, then I was perpetually on the side of this brokenness that I could see each day.

But when the answer to “Who do you play for?” was my Abba, the exhausting became refining. The overwhelming became sanctifying. The transitional became enlightening. As another resident put it, “it’s like that scene in Divergent where Tris jumps off the building not knowing that there will be a net at the bottom.”

Retroactive spoiler alert.

Such grace we have been given to serve a God who is constantly our net in the darkness. Remembering this truth has personally been one of my biggest lessons this year. When I felt like I was falling or on the precipice of doing so, which was often, I needed to remember to ask: Who do you play for?

Given all that we’ve accomplished this last year, the late night lesson plans and procrastination papers, the miserable mornings and the queue for the copier. A year in the classroom and a Master’s degree under our belts. For me, that answer to this question can’t be anyone other than God. He is simultaneously the humbling and redemptive force loving me when I lack the capacity to do so. Holding me in balance when I can’t even stand. Listening when I can only cry. When I remember to ask this question, I am reminded of whom I get to play for. So even in the midst of the hardest of hardship, which for some of us looks like lots and lots of puberty, I can find myself learning joy. It is not easy or simple or formulaic. It is my grace-filled God.

Dearest, 2016s, let’s take a deep breath and look at where we are. Look at where we started. The fact that we’re alive is a miracle. So remember to ask: Who do you play for?

Interested in learning more about MTR and the Residency Year? Check out the MTR website.


View More: http://gretchenshawphotography.pass.us/mtrgrads2016

Ultimate Victory Party Address

The MTR Class of 2013 celebrated fulfilling their four year MTR commitment on April 21 at their Ultimate Victory Party. Aubrey Adams made the following address to her fellow cohort members. 

Well, we have made it. We are a few steps away from the finish line of our final year in the Memphis Teacher Residency. I for one am going about my days with surreal tint.

There are several good reasons to have a gathering like this: celebration, reconnection, libations, but I think a deeper one might be practicing remembrance. Scripture speaks several times about the art of remembrance. There are vows to remember the deeds of the LORD and his wonders of old. One way that we do that is to read his word, and remember that there is nothing so big and mighty as to stay His hand. The church calendar also helps us not to forget that God interacts and permeates all of life. Most profoundly, God beckons us into sacred remembrance with communion, and yet another way is what we are doing tonight: remembering the wondrous deeds of God in our own lives. In the Old Testament, God’s people set up simple altars of remembrance at places where God did an especially powerful miracle, taught an important lesson, or where he dramatically rescued them. I think that I speak for many of us in saying that these years have been quite formative and worthy of remembering, so I want to describe a few of the stones on this metaphorical altar.

Day In, Day Out

First, there’s the day in, day out nature of these four years – the shaping, grinding moments. Four years is a short but long time. It’s a lot of papers to grade; it’s innumerable moments of conflict resolution and shaking dirty hands. It’s late nights of work, heart breaking stories, and many mornings of praying yourself out of bed. It’s a lot of pouring out your life.

It’s learning how to love when the lovely, becomes unlovely, and then surprisingly lovely again. It’s working within the illogical for its good even when it hurts you. It’s tearful IEP meetings, raging emotions, and beautiful resilient souls sitting before you. It’s the weight of the brokenness and the beautiful all in one room, every day for a whole school year.

It’s a short but long time to watch, to work, to wait, and to pray. Our moments make our life’s liturgy, and I think we have a rich one to look back on.

A Great Good

Second, there has been great good to come from our work. We have furthered the cause of equality in urban education, increased students’ reading levels, taught them multi-step equations, and seen the light go on at a first understanding of mitosis. We have developed wonderful relationships with our MTR class, our coworkers, our students, and others in the city of Memphis. We have celebrated many significant life moments in the past four years: marriages, new babies, and professional achievements and grieved with and depended on each other in losses as well. We have been gifted joy and growth and memories to smile at.

Deeper Learning

Third, there’s the deep learning that’s happened here. I remember one of the pastors during our church preview week saying, “God has brought you here not so much to redeem this city or the students in it but to sanctify and work on you.” At the time that statement felt a little deflating to my idealistic vision, but now it’s undeniably true. We have been molded here. When I look over my classroom, I see my students as soldiers often living with joy amidst unbelievable difficulty. I see their smiles at the simplest of things and see their ingenuity fill in the gaps. I see the effects of the inner city on my students, and yet the fighter still remains in them. My students resilience draws me, and I learn from them endurance and perseverance and to be still while God fights for me.

We’ve learned to trust God’s sovereignty and the eternal significance of our work when the ugly question of “why am I doing this?” keeps entering our minds unbidden, and we feel like we are not sowing seed, not watering, but plowing concrete. We have sat in the space where the flesh and Spirit meet and prayed to be led by the Spirit.

We’ve learned to be courageous because like our fellow 2013 Stephanie Milazzo wrote awhile ago, “While we may have never considered ourselves particularly courageous, maybe courage is nothing more than understanding the cost of life as a disciple and still walking. To know the weight and pain and brokenness of this world, and to kneel down and pray, (even in a fearful and weak voice), Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

We’ve learned more of true joy and compassion as we’ve spent time amongst our students and learned to celebrate God’s image in them.

What We Take From Here

The fourth stone I want to place on our altar of remembrance is a vision for what we take from here.

I think we can take two thoughts. First, we can borrow from Thomas Merton in that we must not depend upon the hope of results. We must face the fact that our work here or in the future may be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all. We must not strive to build an identity in our work to protect against nothingness. We must simply commit to allow ourselves to be, in the obedience of faith, used by God’s love. The big results are not in our hands. We will continue to work and hope for them, if they come, we will rejoice, share, and celebrate, but we must focus on Christ’s truth and abiding in him.1

Second, we can dig deeper into hope both of change here on earth and longing for the second coming. We can echo Isaiah’s sentiments as he looked at a desert of rocks, dreamed of the future, and said, “until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. The effect of righteousness will be peace and the result of righteousness, quietness, and trust forever. My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.”2

I’m thankful to have spent four years here with you and to have learned and served along side you. Let us look forward in hope and backwards in gratitude with a deeper sense who and whose we are.

See photos of the entire MTR Class of 2013 in this Facebook album and their MTR Life videos from four years ago here

1 Forest, Jim. “Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton.” Revised Edition. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2008), 174-175.

2 “Isaiah 32:15-18.” The Holy Bible: New International Version, Containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible, 1978. N. pag. Print.


An Open Letter To Robin

Robin Henderson, Director of MTR, concluded her seven year career at the Memphis Teacher Residency in March. As the MTR family prepares to celebrate her this weekend at the MTR Spring Formal, the time is right to share an open letter to her written by MTR President, David Montague. 


It is impossible to describe in one going-away letter the contribution and influence you have made to MTR.

The growth in both quantity of teachers served and in quality of program effectiveness during these seven years of the Robin Henderson Era has been nothing short of amazing.  While I have greatly enjoyed playing a role in this effort, no one has made a greater impact than have you.

Your leadership and skill both academically and relationally have formed a community of professionalism and high expectations alongside one of grace and joy.  I will miss many things about you, but your steady spirit, beautiful smile and quick-to-laugh personality are at the top of the list.

In our staff Robin Henderson HugFest yesterday afternoon, I closed with two comments about you that I want to put in writing…

First, everybody hears of, understands and feels the weight of your glowing reputation that precedes you, and you are – in fact – even better in person.  Your reality is greater than your reputation.  That’s a rare accomplishment.

Second, a mark of a great leader is how well organizations continue on after their departure.  Poor leaders leave organizations that implode with their departure. Great leaders leave organizations that thrive after their departure.

Thank you for how you have left MTR.  You gave us more than one year’s notice. You were able to spend meaningful time equipping Molly and others for their new roles.  You have allowed a potentially stressful organizational transition to be done in the most calm and normal way possible.  These are great gifts to MTR and will help sustain and fuel our future.

You have left MTR in a wonderful place today and I have no doubt that the best days for MTR lie ahead… largely because of the culture, community and people you have nurtured these past years, and now leave behind for us.

I know you love MTR.  And, as I hope you have felt over the past few weeks particularly, all that is the MTR family loves you.  You will be missed.

I know you will be tremendously successful in Kansas City.  You cannot fail.  For I’m reminded of the wisdom of Clarence the angel at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life… “Remember, no one is a failure who has friends.”   And boy do you have friends, especially and forever at MTR.

May God bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you… as He has done for as long as I’ve had the great pleasure to know you.

Your friend,


For information on Robin’s new pursuit in Kansas City, visit her school’s website. To learn more about the core values of MTR that Robin has significantly influenced, visit this MTR page

Alexandra van Milligen teaching at KIPP Collegiate High School

Classic Literature in a Contemporary Classroom

Author: Alexandra van Milligen | MTR Class of 2015

“Find the juiciest part of the story, and use that to market it to the kids.”

This was the advice given to me by my instructional coach when I found out I was teaching The Scarlet Letter, a book I hadn’t read since I was high school. My kids aren’t going to like this, I thought. A bunch of extremely conservative white people living in 17th century Boston? Like many of the books on my curriculum, this is going to be a hard sell.

How can we engage our students in literature that, to them, seems out-dated and culturally irrelevant? In a world where “fun” and “passive entertainment” are synonymous, how can a novel about a Puritan seamstress compete with The Hunger Games?

Through conversations with my coach, I realized we need to convince our students that The Scarlet Letter isn’t only about a Puritan seamstress—it’s also about shame, lust, loyalty, and revenge. If you want students to fully engage with a text, it’s important to first engage them in the elements of the texts that transcend cultural and temporal barriers.

Here are some ways I do that in my classroom:

Part I – Visualizing Complex Concepts

  1. When introducing a new novel, identify between one and four timeless central ideas. If, for example, I’m teaching The Great Gatsby, I’ll focus on success, identity, heroism and the American Dream. These concepts should be at least a little ambiguous to leave plenty of room for students to bring in prior experiences from other books, history, current events, and their own lives.
  2. Formulate an essential question for each concept. For example, I might ask, “How can you tell that someone is successful?” or “Can anyone be successful?”
  3. Give each student a manilla folder and a marker. Have students write a central idea in the center of each page so they are left with room above and below the term.
  4. Once the folders are set up, give students three silent minutes to use the space below the term define the first idea (“success”) using only pictures. Students should use only the marker given to them.
  5. Have students pass their folders one person to the left (or right, or ahead, or behind). Say, “When you have a new folder in front of you, I want you to silently, interpret the picture and compose a single sentence in which you define the term in the center of the page. On this page, your sentence should start with ‘Success is….’”
  6. Take five minutes to discuss the central idea in a large group setting. Have students compare the picture they interpreted to the one they drew.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 without passing folders back to the original owners. By the end of the exercise, every folder should have four students’ thoughts represented.
  8. At the end of the exercise, explicitly connect the activity to the novel.

Part II – Identifying Foundational Beliefs

  1. Use essential questions generated in Part I (step 2) to create a graphic organizer in which students can a) articulate beliefs, and b) justify with evidence.
  2. Give students clear instructions on what “evidence” is. Many students will be tempted to simply rephrase the question (e.g. “Anyone can be successful in America, because anyone can get what they want in life.”). I use the acronym “CHORES” to help my students think of evidence.

C – Current Events (e.g. “Last week in the news…”)

H – History (e.g. “In 1920…”)

O – Own Experience (e.g. “My mom always says…”)

R – Reading/Literature (e.g. “In Lord of the Flies…”)

E – Entertainment (e.g. “In the movie The Hunger Games…”)

S – Science/Statistics (e.g. “95% of doctors tell us…”)

  1. Use a think-pair-share format to give students time to generate and justify their own opinions before moving into a large group discussion.
  2. At the end of the unit, have students answer questions again–this time from the author’s perspective. At KIPP we call these themes “lasting understandings.” I like to have my kids make posters with a novel’s lasting understandings to put up around the room. It reminds them of the power of literature to change our perspectives.

These activities gives students a forum in which they can visually and linguistically process the big ideas presented in a canonical work. Much like a gallery walk, it allows students to have a silent discussion with their classmates. It also forces students to form independent thoughts before being swayed by the ideas of the group.

One of my favorite teaching moments took place this semester as a student finished the second chapter of The Scarlet Letter. He closed his book, shook his head, and said, “When you think about it, they really just like us.”

Visit MemphisTR.org to learn more about the residency model for teacher training.

Caitlyn Kennedy training with the Memphis Teacher Residency.

Making the Most of Make-Up Work Days

Author: Jessica Johnson | MTR Instructional Coach

Many teachers have periodic or ad hoc days devoted to students’ making up work that they didn’t complete on schedule or revising work that didn’t exhibit mastery. These days are designed to foster student learning and improve students’ grades. But sometimes they end up being unproductive, or students’ modest gains from the day may not be commensurate with the considerable time the teacher spends in advance planning.

Melrose High tenth grade English teacher and Memphis Teacher Residency 2015 graduate Caitlyn Kennedy has developed a system for make-up days that sets students up for success in improving their understanding and their grades–and that entails a manageable amount of planning on the teacher’s part. (You may remember Caitlyn from the blog post about seating charts. She has a knack for systems!) Here are specific, transferrable strategies from Caitlyn’s classroom that you can use in your classroom.


Use Customized To Do Lists so that each student knows exactly what to do.


  • Include the student’s current grade to add motivation, especially for students on the cusp of earning a higher grade or with grades they’re not happy with.
  • Caitlyn generates these through PowerSchool’s “Missed Work Assignment” report. For an assignment to show up on this list, it has to be entered as Missing, rather than have an empty cell. She adds a header to this report and types in “Current Grade: ____” and then handwrites the grade on each student’s report. Caitlyn’s students and their parents can access this information directly through PowerSchool, but handing each student a slip of paper with the missed work report on the make-up work day is essential for removing obstacles to every student getting right to work.



Display and label assignments that need to be done, and have plenty of copies of each assignment on hand.


  • Caitlyn posts each assignment that needs to be done on a whiteboard at the front of the room, with a label that correlates with the assignment name on students’ missed work reports.


  • Caitlyn also provides copies of each assignment on a back table that students can easily access.  To know how many copies of each assignment are needed, Caitlyn uses the PowerSchool “Missing Work by Assignment” report.



  • For students who are absent or in in-school suspension, Caitlyn staples together each student’s customized to-do list and every assignment the student needs to complete. She then delivers the packets to ISS for suspended students and hangs onto the packets for absent students when they return.


Provide clear expectations for what students do during the make-up day.


  • Caitlyn posts a checklist on the screen to guide students’ work. She includes the step of checking your folder for work that is partially completed or fully completed but not submitted–she has identified this common pitfall and is addressing it. Caitlyn went over this list orally too.


  • Caitlyn orally reminds her students to be sure their name is on their work so that they get credit for it–work submitted with no name is another common pitfall she wants her students to avoid. You could add this reminder to the checklist slide too.



Motivate students and show them that hard work pays off.


  • Caitlyn narrates for students how damaging missing work is to a student’s grade, and explains, “Your grade is lower than you want because you are missing work, not because you are doing poor work.”


  • Some teachers also pull up an anonymous student in the grade book with missing work and let the class watch the student’s grade rise as the teacher fills in grades for missing work that is submitted.


Have a strict deadline and clear procedures for submitting missing work to foster a purposeful and urgent tone.


  • Caitlyn’s students submit missing work in a special bin over a three-day period that begins with the make-up day. She then grades it ASAP and enters the grades so that students immediately see how their hard work has paid off, and so that make-up work doesn’t distract students from the current work.


Provide extension opportunities for students without missing work.


  • For Caitlyn’s students, that’s reading interesting nonfiction articles.


Are you wondering how Caitlyn thinks of everything in advance?! She chalks it up to  “emergency preparedness from living in Florida” (Go Gators!) and to the frequent reminder from her mom who is a Kindergarten teacher, “You have to be ready.” Whatever the source of Caitlyn’s uncanny preparedness, we hope it will be a help to you in preparing for make-up days in your own classroom.

Interested in learning other principles Caitlyn is trained in through the Memphis Teacher Residency? Check out details about the Masters in Urban Education here.


MTR Talk: Building Community Through Physical Space

Brooke DeBoard is an MTR graduate from the Class of 2015. She taught her residency year at Cherokee Elementary School and is now a Kindergarten teacher at Cornerstone Prep School, Denver campus in the Frayser community. She was a recent guest speaker at MTR Talk and shared how she builds community through physical space in her classroom. Included here is the transcript of her presentation at the MTR Talk

Author: Brooke DeBoard | MTR Class of 2015 | Cornerstone Prep – Denver

I learned a lot during my residency year. One thing that I learned early on from my mentor was the importance of keeping the classroom bright, colorful, and neat. I saw, first hand, the impact that had on the students’ learning. They came into a warm and welcoming classroom which promoted happiness instead of a stale, dark room that was disorderly and gave a feeling of chaos and carelessness. Something else I noticed during my residency year was how students interacted with each other at the age of 8. The students were not always kind to each other and I got the feeling that they were competing with each other instead of working to support one another. This was one of the most influential factors that I experienced during my year there. I wanted to be a part of training my students how to respond and treat people with kindness and love. Genuinely caring for one another. I knew that in my classroom I wanted to foster a caring, joyful and productive community. I wanted to teach them skills that would help them beyond the classroom, into their careers and life.

With these things in mind, and a year of residency under my belt, I began my first year teaching kindergarten. At Cornerstone, kindergarten is a co-teaching grade. I am very fortunate to have someone to work, plan, and teach with. We started out the school year with 36 students! As you can imagine, having 36 kids with 2 adults in one room can be kind of crowded and chaotic. As we planned for the first day of school, we knew that the physical space could either hurt us or help us. We wanted to foster a strong community within our classroom while at the same time being efficient and functional, so we knew that we had to be strategic when planning and organizing our room. I’m sure my co-teacher and I looked crazy during Professional Development at the beginning of the year before the kids arrived, sitting in the small chairs at the small tables and transitioning from the seats to the cubbies and from the seats to the carpet ourselves, trying to determine the best way to teach our students to transition. We wanted to make sure that all of the things that our students would be asked to do during the day could be efficient and orderly.

Regardless of the numbers, physical space can foster and create a community of learners. When you walk into our classroom you will notice bright colors. The tables are colored with bright, red, green, blue, and yellow tops. There is a bright rug at the front of the room which is where we do comprehension in the mornings. There is green tape on the floor which is the path the students take to put their backpacks in their cubbies as well as to their seats. This keeps kids from roaming around the room and running into each other. It also allows us to have order in the room despite so many bodies.

The students sit at tables, in groups of four. This allows for them to learn together and develop social skills. This also allows for them to interact with each other which is monitored by myself and my co-teacher. When we hear something that is unkind we immediately stop and ask them, “What’s a better way to handle that?” The students will correct their sentence and then ask for forgiveness. The other student forgives and they hug. We love having tables instead of desks because it promotes a more collective culture rather than an individualistic one.

As much as we love having tables in our room rather than desks, we had to be strategic about the student’s resources at their seats. On their chairs they have chairbags which contain: whiteboard, eraser, marker, crayons, scissors, and glue.

In front of them (at the top of their tables) they have their name tag and to their left is their pencil basket for their pencil and eraser. We knew that since it is a shared space it could have led to arguing over whose pencil someone had so we had structures in place to avoid this situation.

In the front of our classroom is a rug that has rectangles on it which provides each student their own spot to sit. This is significant to develop a sense of community while at the same time being intentional with the space. Everyone is on the carpet, but each person has their own spot.

On one wall we have a huge word wall which has the alphabet on it. Underneath the letters are the sight words that the students are learning and also our students’ names. During independent work time the students practice writing sentences with their friends’ names. We also have the word “COMPLIMENTS” spelled out and each time our classroom receives a compliment from someone in the hallway we mark off our letters and each time we spell it out we have a little party. Before the students are allowed to eat at the party we ask them, “Who earned this?” they reply, “We did.” Then we thank them for making good choices.

We have a quality work board in the back of the room with student work. This is used to promote hard work and pride in CBU K. The students see work of their friends that we are proud of. The work that we recognize isn’t always a “3”, the highest grade students can earn, but it is work in which a student did his or her best. This encourages and motivates other students to try their best because they want their work recognized. It also encourages those students who are on the board to continue to give it their best because they love the feeling of the class being proud of their work.

Our school itself is beautiful. The walls are freshly painted and bright which sets the expectation of excellence and caring for our environment. The students are greeted by an adult outside upon arrival and then greeted by their teachers in their classroom. The school has a commons area in which our students meet with everyone in their grade for a morning meeting once a week. During this time all of kindergarten gathers and is led by one of the other faculty members while we have meetings. This allows for the students to bond and grow not only with our class, but also with the entire kindergarten section. In the cafeteria the tables are set up so that they can face one another while they eat so that they are able to continue to build community and friendships. Utilizing space to promote community is something that is valued school wide.

Our goal is to provide the class with student ownership. When the students start the beginning of the year they walk into a room that belongs to the teachers. They are taught all of our expectations and procedures. However, as the year goes on we let go of the ownership which allows them to have student investment. We taught them the CBU chant at the beginning of the year and then started having students lead it. Now our students and my co-teacher and I all share a sense of ownership and responsibility for our room.

All of these factors foster academic success, as well as, develop a classroom community in which they learn how to care for one another. We recognize the value of being intentional with space and a quality environment to build a strong community.

MTR Applications are open until March 13 to join the Class of 2017. Contact Alison Martin if you have questions (alison@memphistr.org). MTR Camp Applications are open until April 1 for a summer 2016 internship. Contact Candace Obadina (candace@memphistr.org) with questions about applying to MTR Camp or visit the website.

Community Partnerships

A Lesson on Quality Education from Hutchison Rogers Scholars

Hutchison’s Rogers Scholars Field Trip to MTR

Author: Lauren Livesay | Rogers Scholars Co-Vice President

On Friday, October 30th, Hutchison School’s Rogers Scholars traveled to the Memphis Teacher Residency and visited 3rd grade classes of MTR teachers at Kingsbury Elementary. Rogers Scholars is an academically oriented organization that exposes Hutchison students to current events and issues in Memphis through discussions, speakers, and field trips. Through this trip to MTR, we learned about one of the most important issues facing our city today: education inequality. Since education is central to empowering individuals and crucial for a city to thrive, we learned about the many ways in which MTR is effectively combatting the problems surrounding urban education.
Through mentorship, a Master’s degree in education, an intensive internship, and the support of a Christ-centered community, MTR fosters the development of dedicated teachers who can give children from low-income neighborhoods the high-quality education that all children deserve. By providing rigorous training to teachers and emphasizing the importance of relationships between teachers and their students, MTR is effectively improving the futures of children in several target neighborhoods. One very important aspect of MTR is the organization’s ability to work alongside their communities. Many of the teachers live in the communities in which they teach, allowing them to further connect with the students and their families. Also, MTR partners with organizations that develop children’s lives outside of school, emphasizing the importance of an individual’s holistic development.


While at MTR, we had the opportunity to attend an MTR Talk and hear from several leaders within the MTR community. Mrs. Erin Myers shared her story and truly captured our hearts as she described her experience working with MTR after she accepted God’s call to teach. We found her talk to be very interesting because students today often don’t hear about the rewarding aspects of being a teacher, particularly in inner-city Memphis. As she spoke, her commitment to her community was evident, and her enthusiasm was contagious. Before this field trip, many of us were unaware that we could pursue our passions (such as political science or biology) in college before applying for MTR and getting our Master’s in education. Myer’s talk was informative, but it was also very moving because it was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. We’re grateful to have been able to hear her personal testimony as an MTR teacher.

After the MTR Talk, we went to Kingsbury Elementary to help with a math activity. The third graders were very excited to impress us with their new multiplication skills. We were amazed at how well-behaved the students were and how excited they became when talking about school. Their little faces just lit up whenever they correctly described an array or the commutative property. After witnessing their enthusiasm for learning, we had a much deeper understanding of the impact of MTR teachers. A positive, patient, and encouraging teacher makes all of the difference for these children, especially for those who do not receive the support they need at home.

Our time at MTR definitely sparked interesting discussions when we returned to Hutchison. We couldn’t wait to discuss the long-term effects of MTR’s work. From this topic, we then began discussing the importance of preschool education, considering the effects of a teacher’s Master’s degree in education, contemplating the importance of mentorship, and exploring the need for a well-rounded/holistic approach to learning. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at MTR and Kingsbury Elementary, and we look forward to using the knowledge we gained from this trip to influence our future Rogers discussions as well as our future plans as we leave for college.

Join us for the next MTR Talk on Friday, January 29. RSVP by Tuesday, January 26 to Jessica at jessica@memphistr.org. If you would like more information about a field trip with MTR, contact Alison at alison@memphistr.org.

Downline Summit

Downline Summit: Register Today!

Have you registered for the Downline Summit yet?!

Downline Summit

The 2016 Downline Summit will be here before you know it! Register today and invite your friends and family to come with you! As a part of MTR, we are giving you an access key for $20 off your 2016 Summit ticket! Just follow this link or go to the 2016 Summit website and use the access key: MTR

The Summit speaking team consists of passionate, experienced and faithful Christ followers, such as Dr. K.P. Yohannan, Jen Wilkin, Robby Gallaty and Dr. Robert Coleman. We have no doubt you will leave the 2016 Downline Summit encouraged, inspired and refreshed to stay the course and continue investing your life into others for the sake of Christ.

Please make plans to join us on February 5 and 6 at Hope Church in Memphis, TN, and invite others to come with you! This is a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness and clarify the vision of your brothers and sisters to live a life that will echo in eternity through biblical discipleship.


Downline Ministries Church Leadership Lunch

Are you a pastor or church leader?

As an early preview of the amazing Summit weekend ahead, join us for the Church Leadership luncheon. As a pastor or church leader, you will have the opportunity to hear from main stage Summit speakers, including Dr. Kennon Vaughan, Dr. K.P. Yohannan, Robby Gallaty and led by Bobby Harrington of Discipleship.org. The panel will discuss how to make discipleship a core principle in churches, including why discipleship is lacking today, how leaders can turn it around and what practically matters most. The Church Leadership lunch costs $10 and will be at Hope Church 8500 Walnut Grove Rd, Memphis, TN 38018 on February 5 from noon to 1:30 p.m. To register, click here.

Wait there’s more – Come to the Choose 901 Summit After Party!

There will be live music, dancing, food and plenty of opportunities to rehash everything you just learned at the Summit! With various food vendors and local businesses from all around the city, this will be a great way to get a little taste of Memphis! Best of all, it’s free with a Summit ticket! The After Party will be held on February 6 at 7:30 p.m. at 409 S. Main St. Memphis, TN 38103. Remember to RSVP when you purchase your Summit ticket.

View More: http://gretchenshawphotography.pass.us/mtrresidentsclassof2016

The Task at Hand

How quickly the magic of Christmas fades in the cold of January, especially with the stress of a new semester in the classroom. MTR President, David Montague, shared these words with MTR teachers on the first day back to school this month. They are just as applicable and relevant a couple weeks into the semester. Every morning is another moment to remember “the task at hand.”

Andrew Wong, MTR Resident, teaching at Cherokee Elementary. Andrew Wong, MTR Resident, teaching at Cherokee Elementary.

Author: David Montague | MTR President

And so today is the day to get back at the task at hand… to live in such a way as to display to the world the love and character of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Or, said another way, to teach.

Yet it is not simply the rest of the break that equips us to return, but it is the truth of the break.

Over the holidays I researched and read several of the Christmas Mass sermons preached by Popes over the past century.  For the Christmas dinner my family hosted for our extended family, I placed selections from a variety of these sermons under each place mat to be read during the meal.

I’ve copied below several of these readings. As I’m sure we can all use a reminder to the big “Why” question that we often ask, especially at the return from Christmas break, I present to you selections 13-17 (Pope Francis, 2013) from the Montague Christmas Dinner…

  • On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).
  • The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
  • The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’s birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.
  • Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence. Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake.
  • You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made  yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.

As I think about why I come back to work today, these readings center me. My takeaways:

  •  Jesus Christ is the grace of God who provides for me that which I most need and could never obtain: forgiveness, salvation and peace with God.  Therefore, I know to be grateful in all things and fully His.
  • He is the meaning and purpose of life.  Therefore, I am not.  Life revolves around Him, not me.
  • He has demonstrated a particular care for and desire to dignify the “shepherds”… the outcast, the manual laborers, the night-shift workers.  Therefore, so will I.
  • His grace and love silences me.  Therefore, it quiets my talk and concern about myself with talk and concern about Him and His goodness.
  • Christmas has set for me a Way… to become smaller and more vulnerable for the sake of bringing life and blessing to others.  Therefore, I now return from a break with an understanding and a picture – a Story – to live.  To understand and to willingly become more weak, small, vulnerable, and uncomfortable for the sake of others as a means of obedience to and proclamation of His love.

Consider joining in the work of urban education. Apply now for the MTR Class of 2017!