BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
MARTIN (June 25) – First, cotton fibers are separated from seeds. Next, cotton is used to make T-shirts. Then T-shirts receive a screen-printed design. Last, shirts are sold and worn.
When children discover “first/next/then/last” and apply such sequencing to their thinking and writing, they are on their way to mastering a foundational skill. Martin Elementary Summer Scholars have been introduced to this concept and more as they spent the last four weeks in a summer camp atmosphere building on the theme, “Earn While You Learn.”
Program planners note that following steps and building on prior knowledge are basic building blocks in reading and math for rising third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. So, the integration of real-life experiences with making jam, art projects such as screen printing and setting up a mock business became illustrations of the importance of observing and listening,
A mandate by the Tennessee Legislature in January saw schools across the state devoting hours this spring outside their regular school days to create a multi-week response to address anticipated learning loss due to the pandemic. Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier received a waiver to limit the additional classroom time to four weeks, six hours per day, due to the fact that Weakley County students had been face-to-face with teachers since classes resumed in the fall.
That left elementary literacy leaders in Dresden, Gleason, Greenfield, Martin and Sharon and county administrative staff to determine how those four weeks would be filled. First, they selected a unit focused on natural resources and U.S. economy from the new curriculum implemented last fall. Next, school-based teams brainstormed on what would make their students want to return to school after only a week of being away. Then, the chosen camp-like atmospheres were supplemented with community support. And lastly, students and teachers integrated visual and culinary art, music, experiments, and physical education to make each day’s skill-building for reading and math an adventure.
Martin Elementary Summer Scholars were introduced to the camp concept the moment they arrived on May 28. The first day they were issued name and photo lanyards, started what would become regular gatherings for beginning their day with motivational moments, and completed a craft – a wallet made out of duct tape. (The wallet would prove valuable as the primary project for the summer was revealed.)
“Our goal was to motivate students every day and have fun while learning,” explained Amy Tuck, MES counselor and reading interventionist, who played a key role in the collaborative Summer Scholars effort. “Each day built on the day before. It motivated the kids to wonder what’s happening next, to make sure they showed up. It’s been our glue. Once we had our business set up, they didn’t want to miss having the chance to do their job.”
A Tennessee Ag in the Classroom Foundation consultant for 22 years, Tuck’s wealth of knowledge on how to integrate lessons learned on the farm to the classroom led to a list of high interest activities that took stories off the page and into real life experiences for the children.
For MES, that meant when they were reading texts and addressing basics like phonics, phonological awareness, writing, addition, and subtraction they were also painting pictures derived from the stories, learning soft skills such as the value of strong handshakes and eye contact, and mixing and measuring to make butter and jam.
For example, the text on Resources and Their Impact prompted the use of a table-top cotton gin. The readings on How Money Is Made underscored cotton is a key ingredient in the production of paper money. The first day’s hands-on craft of making a duct-tape wallet made even more sense as students explored texts on Making a Budget and Spending Time and Money. And reading about Starting a Business became a real-life enterprise as students launched a mock T-shirt business of their own.
Those resources were in addition to the content students were enjoying in English Language Arts, which ranged from subjects like the Great Chicago Fire to Farmers Markets and their home state of Tennessee.
“Some of these kids have never been to a farmers market,” noted third grade teacher Shannon McMillin. “They don’t know what these people are doing to get what they are making and selling to where it needs to go. Reading about it is one thing, but if they don’t have that prior knowledge or the understanding of what it is, they are not getting it.
“So, to do something like making jam makes them more aware of ‘oh they had to do a lot to prepare to sell it.’ I think it’s very beneficial,” she added.
Teacher Rebecca Drewry agreed.
“Seeing real-world applications like that math applies to trips to the grocery store and time in the kitchen adds value,” she said, noting that when students miss foundational aspects, it’s hard to recover. “If they don’t have a basic understanding of adding and subtracting when they go to multiplying and hear us say, ‘It’s repeated addition,’ they will have trouble.”
While filling in those gaps was the rationale behind requiring the additional classes, how districts and schools approached teaching the standards varied.
At MES, teacher collaboration resulted in a project – starting the mock T-shirt business – that accompanied the classes in phonics and learning to read words, reading stories from the English Language Arts curriculum, math classes and physical education.
“It was good motivation because we would say ok let’s do our letters, our sounds and our stories and our fluency and when we finish with that we are going to work on our business,” Tuck pointed out.
The “business” required signage and advertising. They applied for job roles in marketing, customer service and graphic design; and even conducted market research and sales. They then saw their exercises come to life in the form of actual t-shirts they could purchase using Charger Cash they earned for attendance, good behavior, and hard work.
Retiring Vice Principal Jane Hudgins was MES Summer Scholars Director. She, along with Principal Patresa Rogers, served as customers for the business. Both celebrated the academic achievements evident in the project as well as the soft skills that were utilized.
“They promoted their business with flyers, posters and a sales call. When we showed up as customers, they greeted us, made eye contact, and had firm hand shakes,” Hudgins recapped. “And then they wrote thank you cards.” She was so pleased with their efforts that during the marketing feedback to the students she awarded them a 5 out of 5 for her experience.
As for those frequently mentioned “real life experiences,” she smiled while sharing a conversation she overheard between a teacher and students.
“We made a LOT of money,” the student exclaimed after doing the required addition.
“Oh, but we have lots of expenses,” the teacher replied.
Amber Gentry, art teacher at MES, MPS and Dresden Elementary proved to be invaluable, agreed Hudgins, Tuck and Rogers. But such an approach can be demanding.
“It’s more exhausting brainstorming ideas that will help the kids better understand what they are learning in the classroom,” acknowledged Gentry of the difference between the integrated approach and the typical approach of independently determining how she would meet art standards. “But it’s worth it because the kids are retaining information better whereas if they just read the book, later on they would probably forget what the book says.”
To make for those memorable experiences, when students read about the Chicago Fire, first they painted their version of events. Then she introduced a technique for using smoke in art and reinforced the fire imagery with the addition of smell. The T-shirt business required graphic designers to submit their designs for approval. Gentry helped explain the role of graphic designers and walked students through the process of screen printing before they trekked to nearby Angie’s Custom Apparel to see the chosen design imprinted on shirts they would soon be able to buy. When the topic turned to Farmers Markets, she introduced paper Mache and weaving to form baskets of fruits and vegetables.
As April Fishel’s students studied Tennessee, Gentry integrated math concepts of symmetry in student’s paintings of irises, the state flower. And they also learned a practical life skill when they used wood blocks and nails to outline the state to do string art.
“I had a student tell me, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever used a hammer,’” she reported. “And now they know how to do it and the responsibility of it. They know what you should do with a hammer, what you should not do.”
The community played a large role in the success of the summer venture as well. Matt Fennell with Tennessee Farm Bureau set up and helped explain the cotton gin. Weakley County Farm Bureau Women made sure students enjoyed ice cream during the dairy month of June. Representatives from TN Wildlife brought animals. First Community Bank set up a mock bank and student savings accounts for their Charger Cash. They also sponsored the purchase and printing of the T-shirts.
Other teachers involved in Summer Scholars were Ciera Wood, Tina Brown, Brittan Knott, Layla Forsythe, and Latessia Shane.
Amy Glasgow provided the required daily physical education instruction. In the typical school year students have 40 minutes per week. During Summer Scholars they were allotted one hour per day. She used the time to focus on building skills such as those used in soccer, basketball, and kickball and even creatively utilized scooters for a life-sized version of Hungry, Hungry Hippos. During the last week, students who had been building their stamina were rewarded as they completed the gym laps required to make a mile.
“I wanted to keep things fun and moving,” she said. “It is summer after all. They need to be moving and having fun.”
All involved admit to wishing that the academic year reflected more of the approaches taken for Summer Scholars. But Tuck acknowledges class size and scheduling can be hindrances.
Principal Rogers understands the struggle. Reflecting on the typical school calendar, she acknowledged, “To cover the standards, we’ve crammed everything we can in the day. Teachers feel like science and social studies takes the back burner. I’m a social studies teacher at heart and that breaks my heart.
“I’ve had teachers say, ‘I would love to do this all year long,’” she added. “My statement is, ‘You can.’ It just takes planning. You need to incorporate your literature and your social studies. You can bring in that art project that supports the concepts that you are teaching in reading and math and science and social studies. It just takes planning and supporting each other.”
In a gesture of support of her own, she plans on creating a dedicated space for art instruction that will remain in place even when Gentry moves to her other assigned schools to serve as a resource center for activities that can be suggested based on the coordinated curriculum now in place.
“Summer Scholars has been a huge collaboration. From the beginning Jane and I agreed that it had to be fun,” Rogers said of the initial days of planning with her vice principal. “We knew we had to find a way that all of the learning would happen, and we had to fill those gaps. But we also knew that it would need to be something these kids will never forget. And I think the teachers have taken that and run with it. The kids have been so excited coming in the door.”
She expressed gratitude for the teachers, nurse, SRO, cafeteria staff who provided breakfast and hot lunches each day and the bus drivers who delivered nearly of 80% of the 50 students each day.
“I’m thankful,” she said and, based on what’s she is hearing, trusts that next year will be even more successful. “Once kids start talking about what they’ve done I think we will have more next summer.”
To recap: First, summer classes were mandated. Next, educators brainstormed and collaborated. Then students who showed signs of struggling eagerly attended the Summer Scholars program. Last, planners anticipate even more participation next year.
While Weakley County Schools await the results of whether students showed academic growth as pre-tests and post-tests are compared, this sequencing suggests success.