Welcome to Chalkbeat Tennessee, your new home for education news

Dear readers,

We are very excited to introduce Chalkbeat Tennessee, a news site focused on delivering you the most relevant news about education policy and practice right here in our community.

Since first soft-launching in October, we have leapt right to work, hiring two reporters, writing stories about lots of change in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, and (as you can see) building a lovely new website to improve your reading experience.

This is an exciting period for Tennessee schools. In 2010, as part of the Race to the Top initiative, Tennessee received $501 million to fund several initiatives to turn around low-performing schools, improve teacher quality, and provide more school choice for students. Meanwhile, less than a year after Shelby County Schools underwent one of the largest school system mergers in the country, six municipalities are splitting to form their own school systems.

To hone our efforts, we have selected three areas of focus that each of our reporters will cover over the next year: implementation of the Common Core, admissions and enrollment, and efforts to improve teachers’ effectiveness.

  • Tennessee’s adoption of Common Core has fundamentally changed what students learn in the classroom. Our entire team will be exploring how those changes affect teachers’ jobs, schools’ test scores, and taxpayers’ pockets.
  • Tennessee’s legislature has opened the doors to the creation of new school districts, charter schools, and a state-run district. That’s created more choice for parents. Jaclyn Zubrzycki will be exploring how parents navigate those choices and what these changes mean for the state’s lowest-performing students.
  • Finally, Tennessee’s teachers are undergoing dramatic changes in how they’re hired, placed, supported, and evaluated. Tajuana Cheshier will be reporting on how effective those efforts are in improving Tennessee’s teaching force.

But our stories will be strongest if we get your help. Here are a few ways to pitch in:

First, meet our community editor, Tajuana Cheshier, who will be creating more opportunities for you to interact with our reporters, share your experiences, and help deepen our coverage of public schools. To start, please consider submitting to our new First Person section, which will highlight the experiences of teachers, administrators, students, policymakers, and parents. To find out more or pitch an idea, e-mail Tajuana at

Another way to share your experiences and thoughts with us is through our comments section. Here is a look at our comments policy, which we will be enforcing aggressively with the help of our engagement director, Anika Anand. We want Chalkbeat Tennessee to be a place where educators, policymakers, and families can come to voice their concerns, talk to one another and ultimately, act in a way that leads to better schools for everyone. So please, be courteous and respectful in your comments so that we can all learn something from each other.

Here are some other ways to stay up to date on our reporting and help us make our reporting the best it can be:

  • Sign up for our morning Rise & Shine newsletter, which includes the day’s major education Tennessee and national headlines.
  • Follow us on Twitter  and Like us on Facebook
  • Got a story idea for us? Send an e-mail to
  • Fill out our survey to tell us what stories you want to read and learn more about Chalkbeat.

Happy reading,

Daarel Burnette II, Chalkbeat Tennessee bureau chief

Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat editor-in-chief

We're listening

What are the Newark education stories you want to read?

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This is a historic moment for Newark’s public schools.

After 22 years of state takeover ended last month, the city school board is re-empowered and gearing up to pick a new superintendent. Candidates are lining up to vie for three board seats that will open next month, even as Mayor Ras Baraka — who as a former principal promised to usher in a new era for the city’s schools — runs for reelection in May.

And, just in time to help make sense of it all, Chalkbeat Newark officially launched this week.

I’m Patrick Wall, Chalkbeat Newark’s founding reporter. I hope to spotlight some of the city’s education movers and shakers, track the growth of Newark’s charter sector and the pressure it’s put on the district’s budget, and show what’s happening inside city classrooms. And that’s just this month.

To do all that, I need your help. At Chalkbeat, our readers are the people who shape the local schools and rely on them. They’re also our sources. As we start in Newark, I’m hoping you’ll not only read our coverage but also help steer it, suggesting stories and making sure we reach a wide audience. Here are three ways you can help:

  1. Sign up for the weekly Newark newsletter. In it, I’ll share my reporting and round up the great coverage by other outlets so that you know everything you need to about Newark schools. The first newsletter goes out this Friday.
  2. Tell me what you want to read. Which power brokers or inspiring students do you want to meet? What arcane policies or tangled politics do you want to understand? Which schools or programs do you want to see up close? Please send your questions, ideas, and tips to
  3. Come say “hi.” I’m planning to host regular “office hours” throughout the community to meet readers where they are. The first edition will be at the Springfield Branch library during their college fair from 4 to 7 p.m. on Weds., March 14. (Details here.) Say hello and share your story ideas as you pick up college applications and talk to recruiters.

As Chalkbeat Newark gets up and running, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

getting to know you

These Teach-Off finalists unlock math for students with real-world context

Terrance O'Neil, left and Tim Livingston will participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off March 7.

For Houston educators Terrance O’Neil and Tim Livingston, math is all about context.

Too often, they say, students give up on math because word problems feature information or elements students can’t relate with. One recent example that stumped students, Livingston said, was a math problem featuring a person purchasing an $85 thermal to go camping.

“Some of these kids have never been camping,” he said. “And they were confused. One girl asked what a thermal was and why would a person buy one for $85.”

So they say students, especially those from low-income families, often need context — or information they can relate too — to help them better connect equations to real-world problems.

“A student should be able to relate to the problem,” said Livingston, a math coach in the Spring Independent School District. “The context grants them access.”

Together O’Neil and Livingston represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.

Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.

Before O’Neil and Livingston head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to go into teaching?

TIM: I guess I always had a knack for teaching. When I was in the military, I spoke to my wife and said, “I think this is something I want to do.” I love children. They were always drawn to me. And I could always communicate with them in a way they understood. Once I finished up my second enlistment, I went forward. And once I got into it, I saw what I wanted to be true, came true.

TERRANCE: The initial push came from my parents. I grew up in one of the roughest communities in Houston. They continually pushed us to get a good education. It was a nonnegotiable. They believed it was key to escape the community we grew up in. Once I left the community — because of education — I knew I needed to go back to that same community to help. I went back to my former community as a teacher. I fell in love with the kids. I learned quickly how one teacher can change the perspective of a student who might not get any sort of positive reinforcement when he leaves the school.

How would you describe your teaching style or method?

TIM: When I first began teaching, I would give out all the energy. My students would point out how my armpits would sweat. It was high energy, 24/7. But as I matured as an educator, I’ve learned to let it not all come from me, but put it in the mathematical task.

TERRANCE: I try to demonstrate that I’m passionate about the content — math or science. I always try to start with some sort of real-world connections. And I feed into that. I want to see the students excited about what they’re learning. Depending on the demographics of your class, you learn to use different real-world connections. I want them to do the work. To get them do that, I have to demonstrate some passion first.

Why did you want to be part of the Teach-Off?

TERRANCE: Probably because we think we’re better than any everyone else. [Laughs]

TIM: Next question! Honestly, I was intrigued by the vision of what Chalkbeat was trying to do. It got me hook, line, and sinker. Teaching is an art. And to hear that someone understands it’s an art and craft, I said, “This is it.” And my heart is for mathematics.

How were your schools affected by Hurricane Harvey?

TERRANCE: We had well over 100 students that lost everything. Everything. The devastation affected us severely. It was dramatic for a while. But our kids are resilient. Some are still displaced. But the district has done an excellent job of serving these students. They’ve done things that I wouldn’t have expected them to do. Some students had to move to outside the district, into other suburbs. And our district sent buses to get them so they wouldn’t have to switch schools. Not to mention, the district and many campuses have developed grant programs to serve those families. Here at McNabb, we’re still helping families with food and clothes. It’s been something amazing to watch.

What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?

TIM: Everything! All of it! They should expect laughter, energy. I love impromptu. That’s one of my strengths. So the whole notion of the event that something is going to change, that doesn’t make me nervous. That brings me in.

TERRANCE: That genuine love for teaching. Sincerity. That passion. And of course that content. You have to be passionate, and you have to be teaching something.

TIM: They can expect a demonstration of the depths of what it takes to teach mathematics correctly. It’s more than just adding and subtracting. It takes effort to plan to teach and reflect, and that’s what I love about this.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received regarding teaching?

TIM: The issue is never mechanical, it’s adaptive. Meaning, there is no fix that someone can prescribe to me that does not consider my students, the school we’re in, the story that is our classroom. Every problem is adaptive. I can’t go find an answer. I have to collaborate with teachers and students. All those things have to be considered.

TERRANCE: My first superintendent would tell us all the time, “If you are really teaching how you’re supposed to teach and what you’re supposed to teach, it will be seen in the learning in students.” Your success is not what you do as a teacher, but what your students can do after they’ve been with you for a year. That difference there, that determines how effective I am as a teacher.