As a former teacher and teacher of teachers, Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen’s heart is never far from the classroom. In this post, the commissioner recaps her recent stops in Anderson County and Oak Ridge City Schools on the Classroom Chronicles tour.
By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education
After a rejuvenating break, I was thrilled to be back on the road again with the Classroom Chronicles Tour. The purpose of this tour is to both learn from our teachers across the state and to celebrate the work being done in classrooms in every region of Tennessee. So far, I have been privileged to speak to nearly 8,700 teachers in 52 districts, and I am excited to get feedback from even more teachers.
When I kicked off the tour this year, I was greeted by bright students, devoted teachers, school board members and legislators in Anderson County and Oak Ridge City Schools. During my visit, both districts displayed their commitment to propelling student success and to providing meaningful professional learning for their teachers.
At Clinton High School, I was welcomed into the school’s new net-zero building, a standalone structure that produces more energy than it uses. I learned that this building was not only used on a daily basis as a classroom, but also that students at Clinton helped design and build it as a part of their coursework. While I was in the building, I had the opportunity to speak with several engineering students, many of whom are interested in pursuing a career in the field. They expressed that their exposure to the subject through hands-on experiences provided at Clinton sparked their interest in engineering. Students also cited that Mr. Ben Barrington, the engineering and robotics teacher, influenced their passion for the subject; they said his enthusiasm and patience were key to their success.
On the main campus I was equally impressed as we were shown a display of the students in the 30+ Club. Mr. Eric Snider, Clinton High School’s principal, explained that the 30+ Club was created to reward those students who received a 30 or above on the ACT. Member benefits included a free prom ticket, a free yearbook, and open lunch, a concept that allowed students to sign out of school during their lunch break. Snider explained that the club was to motivate students to do their best on the ACT. The entire school is committed to raising students’ ACT scores so they have the opportunity to access the HOPE Scholarship and pursue higher education after graduation.
Teachers at Clinton High School have weekly professional development sessions that are built into the school calendar. Every Wednesday, students leave school approximately an hour and a half early so teachers have dedicated time to meet with their professional learning communities and supervisors. There they discuss how they can improve their instruction using data and share best practices that have been successful in each other’s classrooms. It is encouraging to see the way that Anderson County have a vision for professional learning and have sought creative scheduling to meet its teachers’ needs and work within regular school hours.
Strategic Plan Alignment
My next stop was Oak Ridge City Schools, where I learned about how the district’s strategic plan. The plans alignment with Tennessee Succeeds, the state’s strategic plan, was inspiring. Oak Ridge had identified seven keys that they believe are essential to college and career readiness for their students. These keys were developed with input from educators, parents, and community members and are used as the set of driving beliefs in schools across the district. As I navigated three of their schools, I saw all of these keys in action. However, there was one that specifically stood out to me.
Key 7: All students participate in AP coursework, dual enrollment, industry certification, or military preparation program by graduation.
This key is especially important because it intentionally prepares students for their postsecondary path. By setting this goal, Oak Ridge has put a stake in ground that students will be prepared for whatever coursework they pursue after graduating from high school.
Throughout Glenwood Elementary School, students of different grades were trying to solve the same problem: build a catapult to launch a snowball. Students were engaged in designing prototypes, testing them, and revising them as necessary. They worked in teams to solve problems and critically think about next steps. Even at the elementary school level, Oak Ridge is exposing their students to higher level, critical thinking, a vital component of success in later classes and fields.
At Robertsville Middle School, I saw an engineering classroom with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. These students were working on a project with NASA coordinated by an alumnus who now designs rockets for the agency. The students were tasked to design a 10mm cube satellite that would remotely open in space. They utilized computer design programs and 3D printing to test their designs. Allowing students to participate in project-based learning opportunities is critical in exposing them to not only careers, but also future, enriching coursework.
While visiting Oak Ridge High School, I saw multiple career and technical education classrooms that prepared students for varying skills. In the digital arts classroom, students were engaged in creating designs on the computer. The digital arts teacher, who worked in field for several years before teaching at Oak Ridge, explained that exposing students to these skills early would help them have an edge when preparing for such a competitive field. When I walked into the mechatronics lab, I saw up-to-date manufacturing equipment that students were learning how to use. Additionally, Oak Ridge teachers were focusing on preparing students in ninth and tenth grade to take AP courses in eleventh and twelfth grade.
I can’t imagine a better start to 2016! I am excited that Anderson County and Oak Ridge City put their students at the center of everything they do while developing teachers who will take students to the next level. I look forward to seeing their future success.
I am grateful to all of the educators who allowed me to visit their schools and classrooms as part of my 10,000 teacher tour. I especially want to thank Rep. John Ragan, Larry Foster, and Dr. Bruce Borchers for taking time to experience the exciting and inspirational work being done in classrooms across our state.