From Literacy to Alignment: Learning from Two Exemplary Districts

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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 McKenzie and Huntingdon Special School Districts on the Classroom Chronicles tour. 

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

I believe early, strong foundations in reading and literacy will equip our students to become lifelong learners, and I saw excellent examples of that earlier this week when I traveled to Northwest Tennessee.  Here I visited classrooms in two school districts, both of which had earned Exemplary District status for the 2014-15 school year. It was a privilege to spend time in these two districts and to learn from their teachers.

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The hallway lined with books read by McKenzie Middle students this year.

As a strong proponent of literacy, I have always seen the value of inspiring a love of reading in our students from a young age. While in McKenzie Special School District, I was encouraged to see a focus on intentional and analytical reading skills at McKenzie Middle School. As I visited various classrooms and spoke to the principal, Dorethea Royle, and her teachers, I saw that students are encouraged to read for school, but just as importantly, also for fun. The halls were adorned with book covers of the books read this school year by McKenzie Middle students, and they varied from biographies, to fantasy, to classic novels.

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Mrs. Glapa reading “Wonder” aloud to her students.

It was a pleasure to see this love of literature come to life as I visited the classroom of a fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Haley Glapa. Her class was exploring one of my favorite texts, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, and talking about the ways students could identify with the main character. Mrs. Glapa practiced close reading with the students as she intermittently stopped to ask them more in-depth questions on the text.  While doing this, she used “think aloud” techniques to help students better understand the metacognitive work that goes on while reading and making connections to the text. This strategy is a great resource to help students in their own understanding and is especially useful for those students who are furthest behind.

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Commissioner McQueen high-fives Carson after he answered a math question correctly.

This love of learning at McKenzie Middle School can be found in more than just English language arts classrooms. While visiting Mrs. Amanda Norris’ class, I observed a lesson on place values and decimals that challenged students to estimate the sums and differences of numbers in word problems. The students worked in pairs and rotated around the classroom working through a set of problems without ever skipping a beat. I attribute this to the high academic and behavioral expectations Mrs. Norris set for her students, and they clearly rose to the occasion. One student, Carson, said it best, “I like math because it makes me think.” Students at McKenzie are being challenged to think critically across all subject areas and have embraced a love of learning in the process.

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Kindergarten students in Mrs.Todd’s class work independently on computers.

Not far down the road, at Huntingdon Primary School, I was able to see the value of alignment and data-driven instruction to provide every student the individualized support they need.  In the first classroom I visited, it seemed like a regular day in kindergarten to the outside observer. However, Mrs. Lisa Todd was using a variety of methods to help support her students with individualized support and practice.  Some students were reading books independently, while other students were practicing their phonics skills on a computer, as a third group worked on letter fluency in a small group.  All of these students were working on improving their literacy skills, but each one was receiving the kind of interventions they needed as an individual student.  The only way Mrs. Todd was able to structure her class with such intentionality was through the collection of data on her students’ progress. I am inspired by this focus on early foundations and know that Mrs. Todd’s students will be much stronger readers because of this work.

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Commissioner McQueen was inducted as a member of Huntingdon’s “Mustang Nation” which celebrates the district alignment of K-12.

In Huntingdon Special School District, the work being done at the primary school does not end when the students move on. Pat Dillahunty, the district’s superintendent, has worked to make sure that the data-driven instruction provided to students carries over as they progress from primary to middle to high school.  This alignment allows teachers to know exactly how to best serve students and meet their individual needs throughout K-12. Though this work is just in the first few years of implementation, I am confident that this strategy will help teachers meet the needs of all students and allow students the opportunity to grow to their potential.

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. Follow more of my travels here on the Classroom Chronicles blog as my tour continues throughout the school year.