One of the main themes of our book Smart on the Inside is the importance of giving back to the community. Two months before I officially retired from teaching in the public schools, I won $1200.00 worth of reading materials from the Really Great Reading Company. At my retirement party my friend, Linda, told me that she had a new job as the first Literacy Coach at a low performing high school in a neighboring district. She had no budget for materials and no personnel. I told her that I had won new reading materials called Phonics Boost and that they were geared for struggling readers. I also said that I would have the time to volunteer.
We decided that we would use the Phonics Boost program with a group of students when school started in the fall. Linda and I did a reading screening in all the English classes and found the lowest readers in the school. Students in high school should be able to read an eighth grade passage at 150 words per minute. These students read between 30-65 words a minute with 5 or more errors. We placed six students in a Reading Intervention class that would meet daily for 90 minutes and I volunteered to come each day and co-teach the class with Linda. In this class there were 2 freshmen, 2 sophomores, 1 junior, and 1 senior.
Jennifer was the senior and she had been in Special Education classes since elementary school. She’d been given modified work and many accommodations but she’d never been given explicit, systematic instruction in decoding skills and fluency. The Phonics Boost lessons increased her phonics knowledge and reading accuracy. Jennifer charted her reading fluency and accuracy percentages daily and she was thrilled to see that her scores were improving. She was always conscientious in class and would ask to do extra reading practice activities.
At the end of October, Jennifer told me that her grandmother needed to talk to Linda and I after school. We were actually nervous since we were not sure why she wanted to see us.
Jennifer made the introductions and her grandmother said, “I just wanted to meet with you so I could thank you in person. Jennifer has been in many Special Education classes and has had many teachers who were nice. We always knew that Jennifer was smart and that she could learn but no one has helped her as much as you and Linda. For the first time Jennifer is actually starting to read books at home. She’s been reading out loud to me and I can’t believe how much she’s improved. Jennifer has gained confidence in her own abilities and now she’s even started talking about attending a junior college. It’s unbelievable!”
Linda and I were speechless.
Her Grandmother looked at us with tears in her eyes and said, “You know that my husband, Jennifer’s grandfather, died right before school started. It makes me so sad that he was never able to see Jennifer’s progress. He would have been so proud. Our whole family thanks you for finally teaching her how to read.”
Jennifer continued taking reading intervention classes throughout her entire senior year and she became a huge “cheerleader” for the reading program. On the first day of any new reading intervention class, she would come to tell the students that it was worth the effort to spend time improving their reading skills. Her only regret was that she had not had the chance to learn these skills when she was younger.
In the spring, I asked Eileen if we could establish a scholarship for a student who had been in reading classes and planned to attend college. In order to win the award, the student needed to be motivated, hard working, and a positive role model in class. On Senior Awards Day, Jennifer was totally surprised to receive this new award in front of 2500 students. Her grandmother had tears in her eyes as she proudly watched her granddaughter confidently walk up to the podium to accept the Eileen Gold Kushner Scholarship.
Jennifer started college in August and she volunteered to come back to the high school to speak to the students in reading intervention classes. She also decided that she wanted to ‘give back” so twice a week she worked as a volunteer in my Reading classes.
Jennifer was “smart on the inside” and always had the potential to learn to read. She just needed the right tools to help her develop her reading skills.