Critical Thinking Empowers Students and Staff

Teachers want the best for students...they get that with ThinkUp!

Christal Calhoun
Tool Elementary School

Critical Thinking Empowers Students and Staff at Tool Elementary School

Take one step into Tool Elementary School, and you’ll encounter a small, yet mighty staff of educators who are passionate and excited about student learning.

Located in Tool, Texas, Tool Elementary lies on the outskirts of Malakoff Independent School District. The school has a large number of economically disadvantaged students and a high mobility rate – but that hasn’t dissuaded Principal Christal Calhoun from creating an effective learning environment with a robust curriculum.

These teachers want the best for their students and they know they can get that with ThinkUp!

“Every school has different needs, and the principal’s role changes with those needs,” said Calhoun. “I wear many hats – I give input on Response to Intervention, I’m the point-person for our instructional environment and curriculum support, but most importantly, I’m lead lover.”

Principal Calhoun’s dedication to providing students with a healthy and challenging learning environment is echoed by her colleagues, including third grade teacher Gentry Phillips.

“I started at Tool Elementary as a teaching aide, and was later hired on as a third-grade teacher,” Phillips said. “I’ve learned everything I know from Principal Calhoun, and the other teachers here – it’s my home away from home.”

Currently in her sixteenth year as an educator, Principal Calhoun set Phillips and other teachers up for success by implementing Mentoring Minds’ ThinkUp! program, ensuring that Tool Elementary’s 250+ students are exposed to an education rooted in critical thinking, social and emotional support and compassion.

Creating a Culture of Critical Thinking

When she first discovered Mentoring Minds eight years ago, Principal Calhoun knew it would be instrumental in helping Tool Elementary reach toward a new level of achievement. Over the years, educators at Tool Elementary have used Mentoring Minds’ classroom resources to build a school-wide culture of critical thinking.

“We set the stage for students with an ‘I do, you do’ philosophy,” said Phillips. “By using songs, games and modeling techniques, we’re able to introduce students to critical thinking in a way that isn’t intimidating.”

With ThinkUp! Standards Mastery System, teachers are guided in creating a thinking culture that promotes student engagement and deeper understanding, using cross-curricular activities to introduce students the 9 Traits of Critical Thinking™.

“We’re all in this student achievement and growth, and ThinkUp! provides a curriculum that challenges our learners, and helps them think through problems on a deeper level,” Phillips explained.”

When it comes to change, Principal Calhoun believes “you have to start somewhere, otherwise you’ll be dreaming and wishing forever.” Her belief in ThinkUp! and the power of critical thinking is embedded in Tool Elementary’s school culture, contributing to the lifelong success of students. Calhoun attributes successes at Tool Elementary to the dedicated teachers who always “go the extra mile.”

“These teachers want the best for their students and they know they can get that with ThinkUp!,” said Calhoun. “Our teachers are the real heroes that carry a vision for their students, and they work hard every day to achieve it.”

Using Classroom Time to Bridge Gaps in Experience

Students who are economically disadvantaged don’t always have exposure to the same experiences that shape vocabulary and comprehension as their peers. For those students, teachers are their experience and models for vocabulary. ThinkUp! provides age-appropriate resources to help build student context and stamina for taking exams and completing assignments.

Just like anything else in life, if knowledge is easily obtained we tend not to appreciate it as much – learning is a process, and making mistakes is a critical part of the journey.

Educators at Tool Elementary understand that every learner is unique, and even if students are struggling, they are still learning. ThinkUp! emphasizes the importance of growth and risk-taking during instruction, helping students become confident learners.

“Modeling is a key strategy for teaching a curriculum like ThinkUp!,” Phillips explained. “We equip our kids with strategies for success, and work through the curriculum with them until they’re able to take over – this helps build confidence.”

An Effective Framework for Educators

Many educators who enter Tool Elementary are in their first year of teaching, and Principal Calhoun is there to provide guidance.

“My first year of teaching, Principal Calhoun was in my room every single day taking notes, and would provide helpful strategies after I was done with a lesson,” Phillips said. “For a principal as busy as Mrs. Calhoun to take that extra time to provide support is almost unheard of.”

Principal Calhoun believes in helping teachers become well-rounded instructors who are able to support students’ social and emotional needs in addition to academic ones.

“Teachers need to meet students’ needs first, and those needs aren’t always educational – they’re social and emotional, too,” said Calhoun. “When educators understand this, they’re able to build stronger relationships with students, and in turn, become well-rounded instructors.”

Phillips takes relationship-building to heart. “We’re big on building relationships with learners and their families. We’re also a small, Title I school – we have a large concentration of economically disadvantaged students and a high mobility rate. It takes extra work to establish and nurture solid relationships, but it’s always worth it.”

The ThinkUp! Teachers Edition reinforces the importance of self-reflection for staff and acts as a support to educators throughout curriculum. Teachers are able to read through guiding questions that help adjust lessons to needed levels, and are encouraged to self-reflect throughout the semester to identify instructional challenges and opportunities.

Students were using strategies they learned to do on paper to work through the exams, and we’ve attributed that to ThinkUp!’s digital activities.

“After implementing ThinkUp!, I had faculty members running to my office to share data with me because they’re excited about the outcome,” Calhoun said. “Our teachers feel comfortable using ThinkUp! data to gauge student growth and identify what adjustments they can make in the classroom to support the process.”

Tool Elementary is a 1:1 school, and beginning in third grade, every student receives a Chromebook to use for schoolwork.

“Our goal is to make sure every student feels comfortable using their Chromebook before leveraging it for actual schoolwork,” said Phillips.

As education continues to go digital, more and more states are moving student assessments online – making it imperative that learners feel comfortable using technology.

“Our third through fifth grade teachers recently started giving online interim assessments in English, reading and math, and were shocked when students were using tools on their Chromebooks, such as the highlighter, without being prompted to do so,” Calhoun said. “Students were using strategies they learned to do on paper to work through the exams, and we’ve attributed that to ThinkUp!’s digital activities.”

Every three weeks, faculty at Tool Elementary meets to examine student data and pinpoint how well each grade is performing. Teachers use ThinkUp! assignment results to track student performance and see if mastery has been achieved.

“There are many things teachers can lean on to get their students to demonstrate success, and because we truly believe in the quality and rigor that ThinkUp! provides, we trust it as a reporting method.”

Tool Elementary also has Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that meet each month, where teachers discuss instructional strategies.

“During our PLC meetings, we’ve been discussing new ways to teach ThinkUp!,” said Phillips. “For example, our fourth-grade reading teacher made up a rap to help students memorize the nine traits of critical thinking.”

Creating STAAR Students

In third through fifth grade, Texas’ elementary students are required to take STAAR exams, which cover reading, writing, math, science and social studies. To help students prepare for these assessments, teachers at Tool Elementary use ThinkUp!’s Concept Checks to help students review key subject matter.

“I love the online portion of ThinkUp! and the ability to create customized assessments with Mentoring Minds’ Itematica solution,” said Phillips. “We’re able to prepare students for the STAAR exam by giving practice tests, and evaluate how well they’ve mastered their skills.”

ThinkUp! lessons are used to anticipate state expectations for student mastery, and are incorporated throughout curriculum to supplement student learning.

There are many things teachers can lean on to get their students to demonstrate success, and because we truly believe in the quality and rigor that ThinkUp! provides, we trust it as a reporting method.

“The worst feeling for any teacher is to work so incredibly hard to prepare students, but have it not be deep enough to help them succeed on a state assessment – ThinkUp! helps us avoid that,” said Calhoun.

Every three weeks, Principal Calhoun meets with teachers to ask about student averages with Mentoring Minds to make sure student performance aligns with mastery goals. Since ThinkUp! sets learning targets at the beginning of every lesson, teachers feel confident that their students are working toward the appropriate skill targets.
“If you aren’t a critical thinker, or able to problem solve, the questions on the STAAR exam are going to be incredibly tough to solve,” explained Phillips. “We’re reducing a lot of test anxiety for students by giving them ample opportunities to prepare.”

Over the years, Tool Elementary staff have surpassed their goal for each student to pass the STAAR exam, and now produce high percentages of mastery in each grade level for reading and math.

Mentoring Minds Nurtures Students and Staff

Tool Elementary has earned national and local recognition for its successes, including being named a National ESEA Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon Schools nomination. And, as testament to her hard work and passion for education, Principal Calhoun was named 2019 NAESP National Distinguished Principal for Texas.

Teachers at Tool Elementary do everything they can to help students experience a great level of success.

“Our school performs well because of how strong we are as a team. The entire Tool Elementary staff plays a tremendous role in learners’ success, because we all have high expectations for our students. We treat them as if they’re our own children,” Phillips said.

To provide a top-of-the-line education for students, faculty invests in products that prioritize quality over quantity, and offer a level of rigor that meets the expectations they have for students.

“The support that Mentoring Minds has shown us means everything,” said Calhoun. “From providing sponsorships to product support, their team does so many things that show that they are working in the education industry to positively impact the lives of students and educators.”

Through critical thinking, teacher support and a principal who prioritizes compassion, students at Tool Elementary are set up for success – no matter their background. “I want every student who leaves Tool Elementary to leave feeling like they can walk into any environment and feel like they belong at the table.”