Students work with faculty and school principal Dr. Darwin Mason, Jr. on a new museum installation shown here among the collections the school owns. Standing l-r; Da’Mantez Garner, Dr. Darwin Mason, Jr., Anna Beltran, Kenyon Blackman, Terry Smith and Ashlea Washington; Front row l-r; Eric Ochoa, Janiya Starnes and Breanna Washington

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — Every morning, middle school students at John Early Museum Magnet school are asked to talk back to their teachers. It’s a deliberate part of a teaching strategy that uses the “Socratic method” (from the Greek philosopher Socrates) where a teacher poses an open-ended question to get students to think through problems. Getting student opinions on solutions to some pretty tough problems is all part of the school culture introduced by a dynamic young principal, Dr. Darwin L. Mason, Jr.  

“The question can be as simple as what are the things that we can do to be the most successful school in North Nashville? Or how do we reduce violence? Or how do we change our neighborhood? We try to make sure the question is meaningful…something they are living or need to address in their daily life,” said Dr. Mason. 

Some of Dr. Mason’s ideas such as community meals with students and teachers came from his observations and experience teaching at a local private school for four years after working as a music and history teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). He then returned to the MNPS system.

“We do a community lunch so our teachers eat with our students. They can hear conversations at lunch to find out what students are dealing with. And we try to find solutions. It allows us to be proactive. We even learn some manners and protocols. In my home growing up, we learned a lot over the dinner table.” The system means the same student/teacher ratio is maintained which eliminates large masses of students in lunch rooms or playgrounds with relatively little supervision. “We don’t have cafeteria fights. We don’t have disruption.”

A museum inside the school is part of what makes it unique.  

“We are the only school in North America with an accredited museum inside of it,” says Dr. Mason. “We carry over 10,000 pieces [artifacts/art/crafts] and our students do all of our exhibits. They do the research and then we put them up for public view. Right now we have an exhibit on women’s suffrage.” One class of students is working with their teacher Lynn Edmondson on a new exhibit opening September 22nd.

 “We use a lot of project based, hands-on learning. The design is for students to really engage in their learning process and explore from a critical thinking process,” said Dr. Mason.

In addition to coding and STEM programs, Mason sees music as a way to help students learn. He graduated from Fisk as a music vocal performance major where he was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, so he has a passion for music as a part of the school’s program.  In fact, he used music to help him pass his own teaching certification exam by setting concepts he would be tested on to music. 

“We have collaborated with Pearl Cohn High School. Their band director comes over twice a week and works with our eighth graders.” 

A flexible class period called personal learning time at the end of the day lets students pursue music or other subjects such as coding, tumbling, dance, or get remediation.  An organization called “Fly Girls” does a dance program for girls. “We make sure we expose our students to everything they can in the arts, in addition to coding, and STEM, because sometimes that is your intellect – in the arts.” 

The school also started a program to address social emotional learning – You Only Live Life in Excellence for young men. Sugar and Spice is a program for female students led by a social worker works with a group for the whole four years students are in school. 

“There are a number of things we do to make sure our students are whole.” The school includes some children of mothers in a nearby women’s shelter so the educators have some challenges. “When our student is upset, we walk in as a therapist – we want to know why. [we ask] ‘What’s going on’ versus ‘what’s wrong with you?’ So much of middle school is impulsivity so we get them to slow down and think. We even have that conversation with our parents.” A program for parents reviews developmental stages their children will experience and what behaviors they can realistically expect.

The school has a dress code requiring blue, black or khaki pants and button-down shirts. The administrators keep a closet of clothes if a student shows up in jeans, for example. “The Mom calls and says the washing machine is broken. We can’t spend time arguing about jeans. Let’s find him some pants. Or allow him to be in jeans and continue the learning. This limits the conversation between have and have-nots.“

Dr. Mason earned a Masters Degree from Tennessee State University and a doctorate from Lipscomb University. Dr. Mason’s father also was a school principal and he now volunteers at the school so the students know both Dr. Masons–Sr. and Jr. “We feel like our students in fifth grade are still very impressionable, and if there is a chance that they are not on the right path, we can turn that. We care for them, love them, protect them,” said Dr. Mason, Jr.