Opening doors through literacy for Tennessee students

By Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

Since starting the Classroom Chronicles tour over two years ago, I have had the pleasure of visiting 111 districts, 739 classrooms, and over 13,000 teachers. This year, I intentionally split the tour into two focus areas. First, I spent several months in high schools while leading a dozen or so high school student roundtables to better understand high school student aspirations, experiences, and readiness for college and career. Some of these experiences helped inform the Seamless Pathways report released by the department in January.

The second part of this year’s Classroom Chronicles Tour is focusing on early literacy and the progress being realized in Read to Ready districts and summer camp sites across the state. The tour started after the department released our year two reading report: Building the Framework. To date, I have visited Perry County, Wayne County, Jefferson County, Clinton City and Germantown Municipal. This week, First Lady Chrissy Haslam will join the tour in Bristol, Johnson City, and Elizabethton. Let me share some takeaways from these visits and what I believe these takeaways mean for next steps.

First, I am seeing an intentional focus on reading engagement and vocabulary and knowledge building as a direct result of the interactive read-aloud training and coaching cycles. Teachers are prioritizing more authentic read-alouds with more student participation coupled with a range of questions that allow for depth of learning. In addition, teachers are choosing texts that require this deep dive into knowledge based competencies and are working to connect the dots between content expectations and reading selections. This was illustrated when I observed a lesson in Jefferson County where two fifth grade teachers had selected realistic fiction chapter books with a focus on natural disasters and storms. The teachers were able to both build upon the scientific knowledge the students had on these topics while engaging students in an interesting genre in which science and literary vocabulary were both being built.

Second, the Read to be Ready districts are prioritizing scheduling for literacy and professional learning for their early grades educators through direct training, coaching, and through professional learning communities (PLCs). I was particularly impressed with the intentionality of Clinton City in how they had approached their seven-day reading cycle for grades 1-6 and specific literacy frameworks for kindergarten and first grades. Additionally, they have teachers planning their shared and interactive read-alouds together with intentional feedback loops on progress with school and district administrators. In Germantown, teachers are building in close reading and focused on professional learning around common curriculum. And in Perry, Wayne, and Jefferson Counties, the Read to be Ready coaches are delivering both group and individualized professional coaching as they support teachers in interactive read-aloud planning and delivery.

Finally, district leaders are excited about this summer’s opportunities to engage more students in summer reading camps across the state as we support our students who are struggling the most in reading. Several inaugural camp directors from last year are now supporting multiple camps sites that will double or triple the number of students served over last year in their communities. As of today, we have 174 sites being awarded grants for this summer – this means over 6,000 students will be served. In addition, close to 1,500 teachers will be trained in three locations across the state in the next month as we prepare for summer reading camps around best practices in reading.

It is an exciting time to be in Tennessee and see the energy and focus on reading – from pre-K into high school. This was best illustrated at Lipscomb’s Allen Arena last week when Newbery winning author Kwame Alexander led a literacy pep rally for over 500 students across Middle Tennessee. Not only were kids engaged in reading poetry in a concert-like setting, but they were getting jazzed about books and anticipating new ones from a favorite author. As Kwame reminded the audience, “reading opens possibilities” and I would add that our laser-like focus is beginning to open doors for all students across the state.

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