Lincoln & Lawrence Counties Push Rigor for the Real World

teacher_tourAs 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 Lincoln and Lawrence Counties on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

During my final Classroom Chronicles visit of 2015, I had the honor of seeing classrooms in Lincoln and Lawrence Counties. In both counties, I was inspired by students rising to meet the higher expectations of the Tennessee State Standards in math, as well as the collaborative spirit of the high schools’ CTE classrooms, where students were learning job skills to prepare them for potential future careers.

At Highland Rim Elementary, a 2014-15 Reward School in Lincoln County, I was inspired to see a high-level of student engagement, particularly as students were working together to solve challenging math tasks. The energy in the school swelled as I saw a class of students perform their favorite multiplication songs, an example of whole brain instruction that Principal Debbie Foster credits as one factor contributing to the high level of student engagement at Highland Rim.

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Ms. Steelman’s students singing their multiplication facts song.

In Mary Ruth Golden’s first grade classroom, students were learning the steps to solve a word problem. Down the hall, Holly Steelman’s third graders were working in pairs to solve word problems using different strategies. Students showed me how they could check their work using a different method than they originally used to solve the problem. It was encouraging to see students not only know how to approach a problem using different methods, but also why it was important to develop this skill and the ability to verify their answers.

Collaboration was a driving force in Ms. Steelman’s classroom, and when I asked the students why they thought it was important to work together, a student named Maverick told me that “two heads are better than one.” His classmate Vincent elaborated on his idea, explaining how he and his partner had just helped each other when one of them forgot a step in a cross multiplication problem.

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Students in Ms. Buchanan’s class using Google docs to peer edit.

Students were also working together productively down the hall in English language arts classrooms. Sherrie Buchanan’s sixth grade students were using Google docs to peer edit each other’s writing. Dana Casey’s eighth students worked together in small groups to analyze the state writing rubric, leading to rich discussion about the qualities of effective academic writing that will prepare them for the expectations of high school and beyond.

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Randy Anderson explains the importance of hands on experience in high school.

Intentional collaboration was also a common theme at nearby Lincoln County High School. Randy Anderson’s manufacturing class and Don Bukar’s welding class both had students engaged with hands-on skills to prepare them for future careers. The career and technical education (CTE) program at Lincoln County High School has an established partnership with NASA, which provides students opportunities to engage in real-world projects, such as the International Space Station and Deep Space Habitat programs. Preparing students for the realities of the workforce isn’t limited to CTE classrooms. The CTE program teachers and students recently collaborated with teachers and students in core academic courses, such as geometry, to build an off road vehicle called a rock crawler.

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Ms. Durham encourages a student during a review session.

In nearby Lawrence County, at Lawrenceburg Public Elementary School, Kesha Durham’s fourth grade math students were practicing three strategies for solving long division problems. Students discussed which of the strategies was their favorite and why. Ms. Durham described her students as “go-getters” who are always open to learning new ways to solve problems and said that when the students work together, they frequently experience “aha moments.”

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Ms. Wheeley shows off a shirt created by her students.

I also enjoyed visiting several classrooms in Lawrence County High School’s extensive CTE program. In Sandy Wheeley’s graphic arts course, students not only learn the creative side of graphic design, they also learn the business side. Students were engaged in running their own business, creating products for real clients from the community. Their business earns money that they can then reinvest in the resources for the program. During my visit, students were hard at work creating t-shirts for Abigail’s Plan, a local non-profit that expands recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

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Students at Lawrence County High School refine their carpentry skills.

There is a high level of collaboration among the CTE teachers at Lawrence County High School. Many of the teachers and students work together on a very important project  – each year they build a residential home that is sold to a member of the community. The students do the vast majority of the work on the home through courses such as Architecture and Construction, Plumbing and Electric, and Masonry. These students develop skills that prepare them for the workforce, and the passion that the teachers and students share for a goal as challenging and important as building a home is evident throughout all of the classrooms.

The hard work of teachers, students, and administrators in Lincoln and Lawrence Counties is a testament to the idea that if we work together and set high expectations for all students, we prepare them for successful futures. I am even more energized than ever before to see and share your work as we enter 2016!

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. Pat Marsh, Dr. Wanda Shelton, and Dr. Bill Heath, for taking time to experience the exciting and inspirational work being done in classrooms across our state. Follow more of my travels here on Classroom Chronicles as my tour continues in the spring semester.