Seth Whitehouse, an agent with the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Extension Office in Scott County, talks to third grade students at Burchfield Elementary School about the process of making honey.

By Melanie Garrett

The research is staggering — less than half of Tennessee’s third and fourth graders are reading on grade level, based on state assessments. On top of that, research has proven that students who start behind stay behind. Data from the state says that less than 3 percent of students at the lowest reading performance level in third grade catch up by grade five. 

The state needed a change, and the Read to be Ready (RTBR) initiative seems to be one of the answers.

What is RTBR?

At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, all schools across the state of Tennessee had the opportunity to become a part of this new approach to reading instruction in the elementary classroom. Burchfield Elementary School became a part of the RTBR program during the 2017-2018 school year. The overall goal of this initiative is for “75 percent of third graders to be reading on grade level by the year 2025."   

Read to be Ready is a three-year program for grades K-3 that provides training, support, resources, and numerous opportunities for collaboration. During its development, the state realized that teachers are busy and stressed already, and that change is extremely difficult. Therefore, RTBR focuses on implementing one new instructional strategy at a time. This provides teachers periods of time to practice each instructional strategy, so that these changes are not so overwhelming.  Also, RTBR focuses on engaging students in a variety of high-quality, complex text, higher-order questioning, and writing about what they are reading on a daily basis.

The RTBR initiative helps to supply the teachers with the materials and training to make it successful in their classrooms.

Ruth Lindsey, a reading consultant with the Tennessee Department of Education, has helped to provide the teachers with professional development and support.  Emily Brooks, the school’s consulting teacher, also works closely with the teachers to help them plan their lessons and use the state’s pre-planned units. 

“RTBR is all about reading — students being read to, reading with peers, and reading independently," says BES Principal Tonja Crabtree. "It teaches them how to think about reading and turns the on to the joy of reading and learning."

A RTBR Classroom

At Burchfield Elementary School, the RTBR program is entering its second year, and the classrooms are reflective of the changes that the initiative has introduced. Gone are the days of a typical reading textbook being the main focus in the classroom.

“One of the aspects that I love about RTBR is the numerous texts that the students are exposed to,” says Crabtree.

The children are reading picture books, excerpts from newspapers and magazines, and more nonfiction than ever before. Teachers are incorporating the state’s science and social studies standards into their reading and writing curriculum, and students are making the connection between reading and the real world.

Second grade teacher Michelle Stephens says, “Our students are learning to read in a whole new way. We are all used to a basal textbook, and the outside world is not a basal. They are applying reading strategies to read brochures, directions, recipes, and so much more.”

RTBR is bringing the real world to the students at Burchfield in more ways than one. Teachers are collaborating with various guest speakers to enhance the students’ learning experiences.

Seth Whitehouse from the UT Extension Office recently visited the third grade classroom of Rachel Sexton to talk to the students about his knowledge of honeybees and the process of making honey. 

“We learned so much about bees, honey, and pollination in our unit," Sexton said. "Seth was so engaging with the students and everyone loved sampling some sweet honey!”

First graders completed a RTBR unit on weather and invited local weather enthusiast (and IH publisher) Ben Garrett to speak to their classes. 

“I was impressed with how much our students had learned about weather during our unit. They were able to discuss the weather with Mr. Garrett using vocabulary and accountable talk, and their reflections on what they had learned were wonderful," commented teacher Cory Day.

Students are also getting experiences outside the classroom that relate closely to the various texts they have been reading. Recently, the second grade classes were able to visit the Big South Fork as they finished a unit on the culture in the Appalachian Mountains long ago. Students participated in a ranger-led hike at Bandy Creek, toured the Oscar Blevins farm, and had lunch at East Rim Overlook. Throughout the trip, they made connections to things that they had learned about in the classroom.

“It was exciting to see the students relating things that they had read about and written about in class with what they were actually seeing on the trip,” said second grade teacher Paige Brooks. “It was amazing to see them apply what they are learning in the classroom while at the same time building on that knowledge.”

A Change For the Better

Many educators talk about the changes that the state implements and how they cycle through after several years. However, RTBR is an educational shift that is making a positive impact for the students at Burchfield.

“As I visit our RTBR classrooms, I have seen deep conversations around the text, students asking their own in-depth questions, and an increase in excitement to learn from all students," said Brooks. "Also, I have noticed that teachers are choosing text for the students to be engaged in for a specific purpose, and that are rich in content and vocabulary. 

"The changes that have been implemented so far are amazing, and I am excited to see where the next year and half leads us with the RTBR initiative," Brooks added.

Melanie Garrett is a second grade teacher at Burchfield Elementary School. Have a story idea about educational initiatives that are being implemented in Scott County's classrooms? Email it to newsroom@ihoneida.com.

This article is the October 2018 installment of Focus On: Education, presented on the third week of each month by S.T.A.N.D. as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the October 18, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.