school snapshots

Vocabulary camp at Sharpe Elementary keeps students focused on reading this summer

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Twenty students at Sharpe Elementary are spending the summer in the school's vocabulary camp. Sharpe teachers are working to increase the literacy of its students. Earlier this year, 70 percent of the school's students were not reading on grade level.

Sharpe Elementary student Kyla Reed, 11, was once a shy reader. But she recently raised her hand with confidence to read a passage from her textbook during the school’s summer vocabulary camp this month.

When Kyla’s teacher Dawn Sledge asked about the difference between high and low pressure to make sure they understood what they were reading, Kyla and her classmates wiggled in their seats with their hands in the air.

Reed’s face held a satisfied smile as she answered Sledge’s question correctly.

“I want to be able to read faster and more fluently,” Reed said after class.

Twenty students are enrolled in the school’s first summer reading camp, which began on June 2 and will last through July 1.  The students and three teachers spend six hours a day, Monday through Friday,  focused on reading skills and vocabulary expansion. The program is paid for with the school’s Title I money, federal dollars geared toward low-income children.

Sharpe’s summer program is one of about 30 summer enrichment, intervention or speciality camps this summer. This year Sharpe Elementary’s goal on annual state tests was to increase student literacy from 28.1 to 45 percent – a 60 percent jump.  It is a large undertaking for a school with 70 percent of its students reading below grade level.

Whether Sharpe teachers and students were able to attain that goal will be released to the public by the state later this summer. School officials received ‘scale scores’ or early estimates of test scores in late May, but the information is for internal use only right now. Whatever the outcome of the scores,  Sharpe teachers said their work must continue to get every student reading on grade level.

This is the first year they’ve held a summer reading camp.  During a recent class nine students, some heading to fourth, fifth and sixth grades in August, began the day with word association.  The word of the day was ‘beautiful.’   Students tossed out synonyms and filled up a white board with their suggestions.

Sharpe Elementary students spend each morning doing word association to build vocabulary skills during a four week summer camp.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students spend each morning doing word association to build vocabulary skills during a four week summer camp.

“They’re going to study etymology (the origin of words),” said Sledge, who teaches third grade at Sharpe during the school year.  “By the end of the summer program, they’ll be studying SAT words.” Some of the students involved in the summer vocabulary camp were also part of the school’s Emerging Readers program, which started last October and was held on Saturdays.

“We met for 33 consecutive Saturdays,” said Stephanie Gatewood, Sharpe’s family services specialist and the facilitator of Emerging Readers and administrator for the summer vocabulary camp.

In the summer vocabulary camp and Emerging Readers, students receive computer instruction using a system called Istation, one-on-one and small group instruction, read in groups and also read independently. After word association, Sledge’s students used Istation to work on their reading skills before lunch.  Even during the lunch break, small reading lessons are common place. During the “share around” activity, every student is asked to stand in a circle and tell what they’ve learned during the day.

Kyla, who will be in fifth grade this fall, is in both programs and has seen bumps in her reading and vocabulary abilities, according to Istation reports.

Sharpe Elementary students share what they've learned during summer vocabulary camp.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Sharpe Elementary students share what they’ve learned during summer vocabulary camp.

In another Sharpe classroom, seven second grade students in Amber Perry’s class had a discussion about vegetables that grow underground.  The students shared their favorite foods and Perry helped them with their spelling.

That afternoon, Perry’s students learned adverbs, verbs, adjectives and sight words. Back in the cafeteria, Sledge’s students discussed the characters, setting and plot from a story titled, “A Package for Mrs. Jewls,” an excerpt in their “Journeys Common Core” textbook. The students grew excited when Sledge explained they would be acting out the story. They all raised their hands to claim which characters they wanted to portray.

One student clamored to portray the teacher in the story, ‘Mrs. Jewls,’ while another wanted to be ‘Louis, the janitor.’

Sledge ended up drawing their names from a box to determine which parts they would read. When it was time for the run-through, students began to prepare the props they needed and held onto their textbooks to read their lines.

Sharpe principal Gary Zimmerman said the school has spent a year in a ‘hyper focus’ on reading. “We want to raise our students for the next grade level,” Zimmerman said.

Joel Jordan portrays Louis the janitor during a class read-through of 'A Package for Mrs. Jewls' from Wayside School is Falling Down.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Joel Jordan portrays Louis the janitor during a class read-through of ‘A Package for Mrs. Jewls’ from Wayside School is Falling Down



Contact Tajuana Cheshier at and (901) 730-4013. Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn. Like us on Facebook: Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news:

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

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.”