SHANNON – The eighth-graders clutched yellow markers and carefully read the story printed out before them, highlighting sentences that used strong language that they particularly liked.
Patiently waiting in front of the classroom was Kim Patterson, the director of the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute and the special instructor for that day’s lesson at Shannon Middle School.
Patterson was not just teaching the 18 students in Ashley Finch’s literacy class about figurative language and author’s intent. She also was demonstrating to four of the school’s language arts teachers how to better teach the rigorous writing, reading and thinking skills demanded by Mississippi’s new curriculum.
As Patterson led the lesson, the teachers sat in chairs along the side of the room.
“When you quit learning new ideas, you might as well retire,” said Shannon seventh-grade language arts teacher Kathy Pippin, one of the teachers observing Patterson’s lesson. “We learn like the kids learn. When we quit learning, the children will quit learning.”
A laser focus on literacy is central in the effort to turn around Shannon Middle School, whose 2009 state test scores ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the Mississippi’s secondary schools.
In addition to their regular English periods, many of the school’s 269 students also are enrolled in 90-minute classes focused on literacy skills. Each school day begins with a “Word of the Day,” which also is repeated at the start of many class periods. The school’s language arts teachers are receiving intensive professional development from the Mississippi Writing/ Thinking Institute.
“The best approach we can have is to be strong in literacy here,” Principal Keith Steele said. “That is so important to everything. Every test is a reading test.”
Formerly the Lee County School District’s assistant superintendent, Steele became the Shannon Middle’s principal in May as part of the district’s efforts to improve the low-performing school.
Steele moved into the position after the district applied for a federal school-improvement grant that required it to replace the Shannon Middle’s principal.
Although the school did not win the grant, the district has continued its focus on turning around a school ranked At Risk of Failing by Mississippi’s Department of Education in 2009. That is the second lowest of seven rankings in the state’s accountability model.
Under former Principal Ralph Green, now principal at the district’s Belden Center, the school’s teachers produced gains on last year’s state tests and it was ranked Academic Watch in the latest state ratings that were released last month. That’s the fourth best of the seven tiers.
As Steele seeks to build upon those gains, he has made literacy education the focus. All of Shannon Middle’s students are enrolled in English, math, science and social studies during the school’s eight-period day. Nearly all of them also are enrolled in a supplemental reading class.
Some of those supplemental classes only last one 45-period, but more than half of the student body is enrolled in either Read 180 or Finch’s literacy class, which each span 90 minutes or two class periods.
In Read 180, students rotate through three different stations: computer terminals, an independent reading space and a table where they receive smallgroup instruction from a teacher. Programs also allow them to record and then listen to themselves reading, helping them to boost that skill.
“The kids feel less embarrassed to read in the small groups,” said Sherry McGaughy, one of the school’s Read 180 teachers. “It really helps them build self confidence.
“They also like rotating. They always say that the class seems to go by quickly.”
The literacy class is designed to give an additional boost to students who were close to moving up to a higher level on their state test scores. During the class, they will devote time to a reading program, to independent reading and to writing. As she meets with students in the larger group, Finch said she encourages them to think beyond the text.
“The goal is for the students to think critically,” Finch said. “That is difficult for middleschool students. It takes effort for teachers and students to delve into students’ knowledge and get them to express themselves. It is a deeper level of thinking.”
Steele would like to be able to add 90-minute classes for math intervention in the future but said they could not fit it into the schedule this year. As it was, he had to decrease the amount of time for athletic practices from 90 minutes to 45 in order to make the new schedule work. Some students not enrolled in the literacy class or Read 180 are able to take a 45-minute class that helps with math.
Meanwhile, the school’s new “Word of the Day” is intended to encompass all subjects. Teachers from each core area met one day and composed a list of key words from that subject’s curriculum.
They selected words for for sixth, seventh and eighth grades, although some days the word is the same for all three grades. Many of them are words that students are likely to encounter on state tests.
Assistant Principal Rodney Spears reads the word and its definition over the intercom at the beginning of each school day. Teachers are then urged to review the word with their students at the beginning of each class period. The goal is for students to hear it several times each day.
“It helps them build vocabulary,” McGaughy said. “The more words they know, the better reader they’ll be. It might be a word they don’t hear in the lesson.”
Then there is the Mississippi Writing/ Thinking Institute, which is working to help the school’s language teachers boost their techniques. Patterson, who also is working with other schools in the Lee County School District, will meet with the teachers throughout the year and will even model lessons for them to observe as she did earlier this week. She said the objective is to help teachers understand the new state curriculum requirements and to be able to more effectively teach writing and reading.
“The effectiveness of the teacher is a critical component of turning around a school,” Patterson said, adding that she has been impressed by the Shannon Middle teachers she has encountered.
“It will be easier for the students when the teachers learn this,” said Pippin, who has taught for 16 years but said she is not humbled to learn even more about her craft. “Whatever we have to do to help the students is what it is about.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHRIS KIEFFER / NEMS Daily Journal