War on illiteracy

This year, Shelby County students will read, read … and read

PHOTO: Creative Commons
Residents in the Munger Elementary School neighborhood will receive hundreds of books over the next three years to build better reading skills in youngsters.

As Shelby County students settle into classes this fall, they’re likely to notice some big changes: dedicating more minutes to daily reading, breaking off into smaller groups, and lesson plans that span multiple days.

The changes come as part of the district’s new war on the abysmal literacy rates in Memphis schools, reflecting a battle that’s being waged across Tennessee. Standardized test scores were released this week, and the percentage of students proficient in elementary and middle school reading dropped statewide by 1.1 percentage points. So did the percentage of students proficient in Shelby County.

In Memphis, fifth-grade teacher Donald Dyer is among district troops who are mobilizing colleagues at summer training sessions and talking up the necessity of improving reading skills across the curriculum. After all, when only 30 percent of an urban school district’s third-graders and half of its 8th-graders read on grade level, it takes a village.

“We’ve got to empower teachers in all different subject areas to teach literacy, because the problem is so large,” said Dyer, a teacher at Kate Bond Elementary School, while leading a recent training event. “We’ve got to get everyone well informed on what’s changing.”

Teachers with Shelby County Schools gather this summer at Hickory Ridge Middle School to learn about the district's new literacy guidelines.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Teachers with Shelby County Schools gather this summer at Hickory Ridge Middle School to learn about the district’s new literacy guidelines.

Approximately 3,500 of more than 7,000 teachers in Shelby County Schools will have participated in the district’s literacy training by next month when the new school year resumes. And they’re not just teachers of English, language arts or reading. They’re teachers of math, science and social studies. They’re elementary school teachers with multiple subjects.

“We want rigorous texts and solid reading and writing strategies in all classrooms and inside of all content areas,” explained chief academic officer Heidi Ramirez about the district’s shift in strategy.

Ramirez, who came to Tennessee’s largest public school system last fall, has spearheaded the district’s comprehensive literacy improvement plan. She implemented a similar plan at Milwaukee Public Schools, where she served as chief academic officer from 2010 to 2012.

Because student reading skills are foundational to learning, graduation and career readiness, literacy training is high on the district’s summer professional development options for teachers, reflecting Ramirez’ philosophy that all teachers should be literacy teachers.

But Shelby County Schools has its work cut out for it. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s Destination 2025 vision plan aims to boost third-grade reading proficiency from 30 percent to 90 percent by 2025. That will require annual boosts of 5 percent, or 470 students.

And as this year’s test data showed, Shelby County students are back-tracking. To combat the slide, the district is using tools that range from across-the-curriculum interventions to literacy-based partnerships with churches and nonprofit organizations.

In February, Ramirez unveiled her plan of action before the Shelby County Board of Education, where she contended that though the district’s reading and language arts proficiency rate is increasing, it’s not fast enough. From 2013 to 2014, the rate for grades 3-8 increased by 1.6 percent. At that pace, it will be 2050 before the district reaches its 90 percent goal.

“It’s an ambitious project with many different groups that all need to be on the same page,” said Ramirez, who briefed principals on the instructional changes last spring. “That’s why this summer training is so important.”

New teaching strategies in classrooms will include:

  • Increased daily reading times in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade — specifically 50 minutes of reading in pre-K, and 90 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing in K-5 classrooms;
  • Use of “whole group” and “small group” instruction, in which the teacher teaches the whole classroom a skill and then directs students to practice that skill in smaller groups;
  • Lessons spanning multiple days at the high school level, a change from lessons traditionally spanning a single day.

For math and science teachers, it will be challenging to incorporate literacy into instruction, since they haven’t had to in the past, according to educators. That’s why the district-level trainings are critical, said Josalyn Tresvant-McGhee, a teacher at Knight Road Elementary School.

“This time is so important because it’s a planning session; we get practical ideas from it,” Tresvant-McGhee said. “Teachers learn best from each other.”

Still, some teachers say the literacy plan guidelines have been muddy at best.

“The vision is good, but practically, how is this going to be implemented and implemented at all levels in schools?” asked Nikki Wilks, an English teacher at Kingsbury High School. “There’s no overnight fix to this, and while this is a step in the right direction, I’m worried that teachers won’t make the necessary changes because practical application and reinforcement lack.”

Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez visits a class at Southwind High School.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez visits a class at Southwind High School.

Wilks said the district’s new curriculum maps, which diagram a curriculum to identify and record data that identifies core skills and content, emphasize the importance of incorporating the literacy plan into instruction and aligning instruction with the state’s new standardized exam, known as TNReady. However, the map doesn’t specifically say how.

“The curriculum map’s extremely vague, which is interesting considering everyone keeps telling us we have to follow them to a T,” said Wilks, who attended multiple training sessions throughout the summer.

Others warn that to truly stall the literacy slide, it’s going to take a village of more than just teachers. A child’s earliest years have a huge influence on their lifelong academics, and parents have to know that literacy starts as soon as they are born, said J. Helen Perkins, an associate professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in literacy.

“We have to emphasize the crucial importance of encouraging and teaching parents to speak to their children at home, to read with them, to teach them their ABCs,” Perkins said. “Too often, we see children come to us well into elementary school without even knowing how to write their own name. Teachers alone are not responsible for that.”

Perkins said she believes the district will make gains in literacy when teachers are well-trained and well-supported.

“Trained and expert literacy coaches would really help in this district as they support the classroom teachers,” Perkins said. “Administrators must be aware of what the best practices are and assist teachers in implementing those best practices in their classrooms with fidelity.”

Support will come in 35 literacy coaches, a first for the district, who have been hired for the fall. Their full-time role will be to support quality reading and literacy, Ramirez said.

She added, however, that it will take time, and some growing pains, to implement all of her plan. She said increased teacher participation in summer trainings is a good sign.

Dyer, who has helped lead some of those trainings, says the professional development sessions are a good first step.

“We can’t hold teachers accountable for what we haven’t told them to do,” he said.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”