SCORE sought out students to write essays about innovation happening in their classrooms across Tennessee. We received many inspiring stories about schools and teachers rising to the challenge to improve student achievement and narrowed the list down to five semifinalists. More than 2000 people voted in the Facebook semifinalist poll, and three finalists were selected: Charlene Hong, Rolanda Mack, and Gracie Murray. The three will be interviewed for a chance to win the competition and speak at the SCORE Prize event on October 8 in Nashville.

Bryson Altvater

8th grade, Rose Park Math and Science Magnet, Nashville

Many events that occurred at Rose Park Middle have been embedded in my mind forever. I am very grateful that my whole middle school experience has been here at Rose Park, and I look forward to each day and the new challenges that come my way. The teachers here have invigorated me to be the best in the class. I want to get outstanding grades and be the best person I can be. The Rose Park staff has made me truly realize the importance of education. College has become more than just a desire for me – it has become a necessity.

In a student’s education, there is always a teacher who stands out. Last year in seventh grade, I had an instructor named Ms. Nabors who was not only a teacher to my classmates and me, she was a second mother. She encouraged us to believe that we could accomplish anything no matter what our situation in life. Even students who didn’t want to put forth an effort at the beginning of the year showed vast improvement by the end due to her commitment. In my four years at Rose Park I have had many exceptional teachers. The teachers here not only care about the education their students get, but are concerned about what goes on in the students’ personal lives. Every teacher here has put their best foot forward – not only by making sure the students get the necessary schooling, but by always striving for excellence.

One aspect of Rose Park that makes it special is its student diversity. I have developed friendships with people of many different ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. It has taught me that no matter what someone’s race, religion or nationality, we’re all the same inside. There are no bullies at our school. Everyone accepts and respects one another. Students at Rose Park trust their peers. Being a part of this environment has helped to prepare me for a future in a multi-cultural world.

Rose Park offers a wide variety of sports and extracurricular activities. Last year I played goalie on the boys’ soccer team. Being a part of the soccer team gave me a sense of school pride and loyalty. We may not have had a winning record, but my teammates encouraged and believed in each other. During a game against HG Hill we were down 2 – 0, but our team didn’t give up. We SCOREd two goals to tie the game and went into overtime. Penalty kicks ultimately decided the game and Rose Park was the victor. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride.

I was tenth on the waiting list for entry into MLK at the beginning of seventh grade. My parents were certain I would get into MLK and would be leaving Rose Park. I dreaded the thought of leaving and was ecstatic when I found out I’d be staying at Rose Park. I’m glad I was able to stay and watch the school develop and help be a part in making Rose Park what it is today – one of the top schools in the state of Tennessee. My time at Rose Park has been unforgettable. It has paved the way for my acceptance into one of the best high schools in the nation at MLK and helped me to look forward to a bright future. Rose Park has provided an atmosphere of learning, respect for others, a sense of loyalty and a commitment to success. Thank you, Rose Park!

Charlene Hong

12th grade, Ravenwood High School, Brentwood 

Little did I know, ambling into my English Honors class one day during my freshman year that my classmates and I would be involved in an airplane crash on a desolate island. The moment I had taken my seat, the teacher gave the instructions: to pretend that our plane had just crashed on an island, we possessed minimal resources, and that immediate rescue was necessary. Our mission was to unite and cooperate on designing and building a vessel capable of transporting us from the island to the nearest populated area. (Unfortunately, the classroom had an obvious scarcity of trees so desk chairs would have to suffice as building materials.) We needed to “find rescue” by the end of the class period, all without the intervention of the teacher; in fact, on this island of a classroom no adults existed.

In only fifteen minutes chaos filled the room. A few of my peers, those who were task-oriented, immediately began to design a vessel for all 22 of us. Regrettably, there also existed the outspoken troublemakers who declared anarchy against the task-oriented and convinced others to abandon ship and indulge in the freedom of no adult supervision; these firebrands reveled in their newfound power. Eventually, as the task-managers began to argue among themselves how best to build the ship, and my fellow classmates realized they would never leave the island, many drifted away and joined the self-proclaimed anarchists in the corner of the room, determined to do whatever they pleased until the teacher regained control of the situation. At the end of the class period there lay a mangled, half-built “vessel” of desk chairs and 22 extremely confused freshmen.

Thus began our unit of studying William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, essentially a tale about the same situation as our experience: a horde of English schoolboys stranded on an island who must learn to work together to achieve rescue or else fight to the death, literally. Even though our simulation failed, the lessons we learned from it enriched our reading experience. When examining the power struggle between Ralph and Jack, the main protagonist and main antagonist, all the students felt the deadly consequences of their original choices as if they themselves were characters in Lord of the Flies. We sympathized with the schoolboys; after all, we had survived the same emotional hurricane. Most importantly, we could not condemn the malicious nature of Jack and his cohorts as we had discovered the same hunger for power in ourselves during the simulation. With that realization, we fully comprehended Golding’s purpose to highlight and criticize the part of human nature that surrendered to instinctual desires for sovereignty and abandoned reason in the most critical situations, the same human faults which plagued the simulation and brought about its doom. The class material became more than a fiction novel; we could only shudder at the thought of what Lord of the Flies would have looked like in society instead of safely inside an experimental, imaginary setting.

I have since experienced many innovative classroom activities throughout my high school career, thought up by some of the most talented teachers I have come across. Yet this activity stands out to me because it marked the headstone of my classmates’ and my journey with English. After Lord of the Flies introduced to us the concepts of societal criticism and the investigation of the human psyche – the id, ego, and superego – through fiction, these observations arose again in our class readings of Othello, 1984, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many more. For most of my classmates, this simulation gifted them with the ability to personally relate to the message of novels read throughout the rest of high school. For myself this simulation allowed me to fall in love with the subject of English and marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship with literature. There will be many more learning experiences to come in my future, but the moment my class failed to leave the island and save ourselves will always be a special one marked with success.

Rolanda Mack

11th grade, Covington High School, Covington

In any classroom, students, like me, have some difficulty comprehending what it is they are being taught. We search for things that will help us remember a topic rather than actually learn it. We all have different methods of fully understanding a subject. Sometimes one will find a special bond with a certain teacher that is able to make a difference in his or her life or find inspiration and understanding in a project or experiment that helps him or her grasp a difficult concept. As for me, it was not merely one contributing factor that taught me, but many. A certain teacher, project, and various assignments all contributed equally to my still newly-discovered confidence, self-esteem, assertiveness, and drive. I realize that these things do not involve science, math, or history, but while that may be true, these things mean everything in learning how to get by in the real world. For this reason, I have chosen my former dance and drama instructor, Ms. Deborah Walker, to be the topic of my essay.

During my middle school years, I attended Covington Integrated Arts Academy. In the fifth grade, I would stay after school and watch as my sister, Eboni Gude, grew in her dancing, acting, and public performances. I remember thinking I would never be able to dance, act, or perform like her, especially in front of large audiences. As I continued to tag along to these practices, I began see to how encouraging and motivating Ms. Deborah Walker was. It was then that I decided I wanted to be a part of Ms. Deborah’s Drama Club.

In the sixth grade, when I was finally eligible to become a member, I joined the Drama Club. I learned French terms and the history as well as how to do several different dances including Jazz, Square Dancing, Ballet, Hip Hop, African, and Contemporary. Ms. Walker taught me to be upfront, to listen, to watch, then do. She taught me to stop holding back on what I wanted to do for the sake of not feeling like an embarrassment. I was insecure.

Ms. Walker was the ultimate pusher. She constantly reminded me to look up, to get in front, to be confident, and to show the emotion I felt when I danced on my face and through my movement. To me, as simple as some may think those few words seem, they mean so much more to me. A teacher who doesn’t give up or lose faith in you, but instead guides you, motivates you, then watches as you grow, is what every student should find in every teacher.

In seventh grade, I had become a little more confident, a little more enthusiastic, and a little more driven, but I still was not there yet. So, what does Ms. Walker do? She decides to make me a monkey and a dancing lady in an upcoming play at the historic Ruffin Theatre called Doctor Doolittle. Can you imagine my nervousness and excitement when I discovered I would have to audition for these roles in front of everyone else auditioning in Covington. I pulled through and at the end of the summer, I was acting as a monkey! Confidence, check.

By eighth grade, I was more driven, confident, and assertive than I had ever been. I was practically a star at school if you can believe that. I acted in front of large crowds constantly, taking on the role of the infamous Ms. Janet Jackson, which eventually became my nickname at school. Ms. Walker appointed me Dance Captain of Drama Club, and I was eventually elected President. Because of the leadership abilities and assertiveness in me, enhanced by Ms. Walker, I was recognized by several teachers. Due to this, when I graduated from eighth grade, I had the privilege of being the recipient of the Rubye W. Heaston Award. My teachers came to a unanimous decision that I, Rolanda Mack, was the most deserving of this award.

So, how does this relate to my education and schooling currently? Well, if you don’t know, let me tell you. Shy, insecure Rolanda from back in the sixth grade has evolved into someone who is not afraid to ask the questions in class, speak to the right people, or join organizations. Because of the drive instilled in me, I hold a 4.0 GPA. Because of the confidence drilled in me, I am involved in several organizations such as National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Health Occupations Students of America, cheerleading, Mentoring, Peer Tutoring, and Total Youth. I could only imagine what my high school career would have been like if not for the inspiration I sought in Ms. Walker and the motivation she shared with me. As I stated previously, there are many contributing factors leading to my success in high school, but Ms. Deborah Walker and her Drama Club is what brought out the best qualities in me.

Arts incorporated schools such as Covington Integrated Arts Academy are, in my opinion, excellent ways to get students active and willing to learn in school. Arts incorporated in everyday class skills plays a major role in students’ education. It is fun and something we love. By blending the two, arts and education, I believe students would take more interest in learning. Top that with teachers displaying such qualities as Ms. Walker, and you have sky rocketing SCOREs and very, appropriately, outgoing students. These things have helped me to grow. They have taught me that I will never get ahead in life, or at school, standing in someone else’s shadow. The arts have taught me to be confident in my choices and not the ones others have laid out for me. Now that I think back, I realize that my journey was one big project in itself, and the outcome, to me, is worth sharing.

I now seek to learn things rather than find ways to simply memorize them. The lessons that Ms. Walker taught me, to be confident, to get motivated, to do your best, and to never say can’t, I will never forget because I did not simply memorize them, but I learned them instead. My name is Rolanda Mack, and I will continue to work hard, do my best, and never give up. Is that not what is most important?

Gracie Murray

6th Grade, Sulphur Springs School, Jonesborough

Sulphur Springs School is in Jonesborough, Tennessee, the oldest town in the state. Sulphur Springs is a small community in Washington County, a lot like Mayberry, where everyone knows each other. Sulphur Springs School may be the only school in the state where its real-live mascot, a gamecock, otherwise known in literature as a chanticleer, struts and cock-a-doodle-doos every morning in the front yard. The best part about my school is that it is a place where a kid can grow, learn, and change. Sulphur Springs School and its faculty and staff have helped me to be a successful student, and they have put me on the right path for an exceptional future.

My most unforgettable teacher at Sulphur Springs School was Mrs. Mary Beth Larimer in fourth grade. Mrs. Larimer was the funniest, the loudest, and the most energetic teacher I ever had. She made learning fun, and I loved going to her class every day.

Mrs. Larimer liked to challenge her students. She put math challenge problems on the board weekly. The questions were hard, but they made us better math students. She gave out math trophies at the end of the year to the students with the most math challenge points. Mrs. Larimer always said, “I love math because math makes sense.” Also, she told us to keep science journals and draw colorful pictures in them about science lessons. I still remember the water cycle because I drew it, colored it, and labeled it, and it turned out to be a beautiful picture. I still have my science journal, and it is full of creative science diagrams and visuals. At the same time, Mrs. Larimer motivated me to love reading. She introduced us to the 39 Clues book series, and we read the first one in the series together in class. I was hooked! I couldn’t stop reading the rest of the collection. At the end of the school year, she gave a trophy to the student with the most Accelerated Reader reading points. Lastly, Mrs. Larimer taught me to be a good writer. She always said, “Write like you talk.” She said: “If you write about Dollywood, you wouldn’t say, ‘I went to Dollywood. It was fun. I rode the Wild Eagle. It was fun.’ You would say, ‘I went to Dollywood with my Nana, Papaw, and cousins. It was awesome! I rode the Wild Eagle, and it was so fast that I nearly had a heart attack!”

She encouraged me to write a speech and an essay for a 4-H contest. I won third place at the county competition for my speech, and Mrs. Larimer was there to cheer me on. The following year, I won first place for my 4-H essay and was asked to read it for our county commissioner’s meeting, and then I won first place at the regional competition for my speech. That summer First Lady, Michelle Obama, sent me a letter congratulating me on my accomplishments. Mrs. Larimer always encouraged her students to enter competitions, and since having Mrs. Larimer in the fourth grade, I have collected many ribbons, trophies, and prize money.

Another thing about Mrs. Larimer that is unique is how she taught us to love Tennessee culture and to love our school. She persuaded us to wear our Sulphur Springs or Tennessee Volunteers T-shirts on Fridays. She taught us how to square dance, and she took us to the University of Tennessee’s Clyde Austin 4-H Center to learn canoeing, archery, and riflery. She even encouraged a fellow student to bring his fiddle to class and play Rocky Top for us. Mrs. Larimer also attends almost all of our school’s athletic events, and when I play soccer, I can hear her cheering and yelling my name. When I look at the crowd, I can see her with her bright red hair. She will be wearing her Sulphur Springs T-shirt, and cheering for us.

Sulphur Springs School has put me on the right path for a successful future. The math lessons, the science guidance, the writing encouragement, and the cultural experience that I have received from my teachers will help me be a better student in high school and college. I want to be a teacher when I grow up, just like Mrs. Larimer. I want to make learning fun like she does, make kids laugh like she does, and show love like she does.

Sulphur Springs School is not only a small Tennessee school in the country, but it is a place where kids grow and learn to be successful. My future looks bright because of Sulphur Springs School and its faculty and staff. I will always be thankful for Mrs. Larimer and all of my wonderful teachers, and I will always be proud of my Sulphur Springs School.

Emma Purgason

5th grade, Alpha Intermediate School, Morristown 

Oh my goodness! That was my expression when my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Kinder told me I was moving up from Mrs. Walker’s reading class to Mrs. Chambers’ class. Was I ready? I remember walking into her class and the other students asking me, “What are you doing here?” The first few papers were so hard. But it got better. Not just the papers, but with Mrs. Chambers.

At first I was horrified. A lot of bad things had happened, and I was under a lot of pressure. When I moved to Mrs. Chambers’ class I realized something. Mrs. Chambers is an amazing teacher! She introduced me to many things. Like one of my favorite books, Tuck Everlasting. She actually pushed me to do my best, in a nice way. One of my favorite lessons was on the four types of sentences. I remember them very well thanks to her. Another lesson I really liked was a STEM’s activity. It’s where you would make sentences with blanks and another student would fill the blanks with the week’s STEM words. A STEM is a weekly prefix with activities.

Not only did Mrs. Chambers improve my education, she improved my life. She made reading enjoyable, understandable, and full of new things to learn.

She improved my life in many ways. But mostly, she improved my reading skills. While doing this, she introduced me to new reading and writing that I never knew I could use! I began fourth grade reading on a fourth grade level and left on a tenth grade level. Is there a way I can ever thank Mrs. Chambers for everything she taught me?