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Meet Inspiring Educator Bernell Jones from White Station Middle School in Tennessee

Meet Inspiring Educator Bernell Jones from White Station Middle School in Tennessee

Every now and again, you might hear a ruckus coming from Bernell Jones’s 7th grade math classroom at White Station Middle School. His students can be a little competitive, especially when he holds his weekly Study Island classroom competitions, and sometimes, all that excitement can drum up a little noise.

Mr. Jones, who has taught 7th grade math at White Station Middle School in Memphis, Tennessee, for the past 16 years, was recently recognized as one of Edmentum’s 2019 Inspiring Educators. He was distinguished for his outstanding commitment to his students, his creative use of technology in his classroom, and the encouraging and supportive environment he has curated in his classroom with his students. We had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Jones about the ways he uses technology to support his instruction, how he gets his students to love math, and how he uses Study Island to make some noise in class.

Can you tell me a little bit about what made you want to become an educator?

Well, I spent 20 years as a Marine, and at the end of the tenure in the military, you go through different occupations that you might be interested in. One of the things I learned was that there was a shortage of quality teachers, and especially math teachers.

I did a lot of teaching in the military, and math was my favorite subject. When I was growing up, my nephews and nieces, they were always like, "You're a teacher; you're always trying to teach everyone." So in a real sense, teaching was my second calling.

You’ve been using Study Island to supplement your classroom instruction. Can you tell me a little about what program features come in handy when you’re teaching?

The great thing about Study Island is it’s aligned to our texts. So, for example, if I'm talking about probability from our textbook, then I can go into Study Island and get some probability questions. And, they're not identical, but it’s the same concept; so, you're looking at extending the students’ understanding and using a different context.

Another thing about Study Island is that it gives you a lot of good word problems, for more challenging work. The problems are not just true or false or multiple choice, they are fill in the blanks or complete the sentences or simply solve a word problem that includes multiple steps to solve the word problem.  This allows me to take that one problem out of Study Island and then assign it on the board as a Bell Work and let the students actually work together or work individually to figure out problems.  Teamwork and peer tutoring help students to better grasp concepts and gain more confidence in math.

You are using Study Island to run classroom competitions every two weeks for top individual performances and top class performances. How do you use those competitions to motivate your students?

I call it a pizza challenge, and the kids like that. The winners are invited to a winners’-only pizza party twice per month. This encourages competition, but more importantly, it encourages students to work on their math skills. We do a pizza challenge for each class, and if your classroom does not qualify for it, I'll take the top three to five students in each class as the winners. That way several students get an opportunity to participate and they do not feel like only the “smart” students qualify.

So, if the lesson that we're spending time on is probability, for example, first, I will teach from the textbook. Next, I will assign Study Island to the students. Finally, each of my classes will compete to see who gets the highest percentage.

Students will come in Monday morning and say, "Who won? Who won?" If their class period did not win, then they’ll ask, “Did I qualify as an individual?” Once they find out either their class period or they qualified individually, they'll get extremely excited about it.

The results of the Study Island competition allow me to have readily available data to see what standards I need to either reteach or spend more time on. Therefore, my lessons are more data driven rather than simply standard driven. This is really what the district strives for, but really any educator should strive to achieve.

You have also been utilizing Study Island’s new Challenge Mode for Group Sessions not only to get students involved and excited to learn in your class but also to identify where students need help. How does that work?

I try to incorporate the group competition in my weekly Friday activities to get the students involved. This competition causes a little noise, but I think it is great to see how students who normally do not enjoy math get excited and involved. So, we put up the challenges on the board, and when time is up, if the answer's B, and most people get B, they all get excited about it. Conversely, if the time runs out some of the students stress about it. Nevertheless, I try to encourage them to try and to speed up their math solving abilities. I also remind them that this is not a grade per se, but rather it’s just a way to help you as a student to understand and solve math problems in a competitive environment.

During the challenges, I can also see who missed the answer, and then we can sit down and explain to them why they missed it and hear other students explain how they solved it. So, I am incorporating the peer tutoring concept to help the students help each other. And, of course, some kids want to say, "Well, I mistakenly clicked the wrong answer." But, I tell them, "I'm not trying to put you on the spot. I just need to explain to you how it's done."

Another thing I enjoy about Study Island is that it provides an explanation for the answer on all questions. When a student misses a question, I’ll explain the answer in my own words and occasionally I'll click the Study Island explanation. Other times when a multiple step problem is being used, I’ll use the Study Island explanation, so my students can compare how they solved the problem with the way it should have been solved, and then find their mistakes. This is another great teaching tool available through Study Island.

I try to encourage the students to not be afraid if they get a question wrong, even at home. I say, "Look, if you miss a problem while you're at home, look at the explanation. Don't just go on to the next problem, but click the explanation." They learn from that, and I think that's a really beneficial part of the Study Island program.

You hold your students to a high standard, and you’ve been successful in getting them to meet you there. How do you let your students know that you’re there for them and that you want them to succeed?

I try to tell them, “There's no reason why you should fail. We have all these concepts in place to help you to be successful. So, there's no reason why you should not be successful.”

I think that's important for them to understand, too, that I understand they may have been absent or may have forgotten homework, and that's no problem. I explain to them two things at the beginning of the year: I don't accept late work, and I don't do extra credit. But I do have a program called ZAP "Zeros Are not Permitted,” where if you miss a homework assignment or a Study Island assignment, you can come in on your own and complete assignment.

What do you hope that your students take with them when walk out of your classroom at the end of the school year? What's the lasting impact that you want to have on the students who come in and out of your classroom every year?

One of the things that inspires me at the end of the year is that when I get a note from the student and it will say, “When I first came to your class, I didn't like math,” or “Math was challenging,” “Math was tough,” or “It was no fun.” And, at the end of the year, they enjoy math; they've had fun, and they've enjoyed it. Plus, they've also learned.

If they can end the school year looking at math, not as an enemy, but as a friend, and liking it and saying that they've learned a lot, then I'm happy. I think I've done my job. And, a lot of times, if you can just inspire one student, you know you've been successful.

I had a student, about 10 to 12 years ago, and she wrote me a letter and said she's teaching math. And, she gave me credit for her inspiration. She said if it wasn't for me, there's no telling what she would be. And, it's that type of response, not this day or this year, but down the road when a student that you've had years ago comes back and tells you that you're one of the reasons why they're successful. It makes you feel like, “Oh, it's worth it.” Because teaching, you're not going to get a lot of moneybut, the reward of helping the student and helping someone to be successful and keeping them from falling through the cracks. Those things are important to me, and I take pride in that.

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s Educator of the Year Awards and this year’s Inspiring Educator honorees? Take a look at this blog post announcing all of this year’s winners, and check back for more winner profiles coming soon!

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