Cooking with KayKay’s parents were divorced. She spent half of her nights at Dad’s and half at Mom’s. Both parents were unemployed and could not read. Kay missed school often because she had lice. When she did come to school, she often went to the nurse’s office with complaints of stomach problems.
Her hair was seldom combed, she smelled bad and her clothes were wrinkled. Not surprisingly, Kay had not made friends. She was the kind of at-risk child who could go either way.
In class, Kay was subject to shutting down just like a computer when it freezes. If she felt insulted or offended, she simply stopped communicating. She wouldn’t move, look up or respond.
To make matters worse, Kay was disorganized and slow-moving. She was just about ready to start her math assignment when the class moved on to English. She was the last one on with her sneakers when the class had already gone to gym. She never had a pencil with a point or homework papers ready to hand in. Her desk, locker and backpack were so messy that she lost important papers.
I asked myself, "Where in the world will I find Kay’s strengths and interests, so that I can find the key to unlocking her reading potential?" I looked hard to find the key to Kay’s learning. I remembered how Kay would give me a knowing smile when she got a joke. Something sparkled in her eyes that told me she understood my humor even more deeply than the other children. She would even giggle to herself. It was enough of a response that it gave me hope that she could be reached if I appealed to her creative streak buried deep within.
I knew that Kay needed to feel good about herself. She needed positive attention to build a strong and loving self-image. Kay was star material, but her role was that of a misfit. She needed to have a different role to play –the role of a successful reader!. About the time I figured out the key we needed to use, the class was making a social studies video about the rain forest. Most students had paired up to become reporters or interviewers or to do little skits. Kay had no partner. I asked her if she would do a cooking segment, using products from the rain forest. This way she did not have to write a script or read a report. She could be a TV chef and actually prepare something which could later be enjoyed by her classmates.
We made Kay a chef’s hat and got her some authentic Guatemalan clothes to wear. We brought in all the cooking props she needed. The children in the art department designed her a colorful set. We used spotlights and a microphone. Kay researched recipes and decided to make a trail mix. She used a computer to type the recipe in large print and then placed it in a three-ring binder. One of the other children set up a podium for the binder so that Kay could refer to it during her segment.
Kay asked if some other children could sit around her set and be an audience. She wanted them to come up and taste the finished product at the end of the segment. The children were delighted to oblige. It turned out that Kay’s spot was the most entertaining part of the video. She was an absolute ham. She knew exactly what to say and how to say it. She was the center of attention, but this time in a positive way. She was no longer Kay the outcast; she was now a star chef on TV.
For weeks after the video was done, Kay would work at home to find more recipes to add to her three-ring binder. She spent hours copying the recipes and cutting out pictures to go with them. She even asked family members to contribute their favorite recipes to her collection.
Kay capitalized on her new celebrity. She began to work at other things. She began keeping up in class, raising her hand to participate, and engaging in conversations with other students. She paid more attention to her appearance and worked on remembering her assignments.
At last we had reached Kay! We were now able to assist her in improving her reading skills. We knew, and Kay knew, that she was blessed with a sense of humor and a cute little personality. She had proven to herself and others that she was worthy of respect. She had a voice.Since Kay’s biggest problem was disorganization, we provided Kay with a notebook in which she was to write all assignments. We asked that her parents sign the book each night and that they write comments as needed. Each day we also checked the work and signed it.
In class I became her guardian angel. I saw to it she did not fall behind. I helped her to choose what she had to do right away and leave out what was unnecessary. I also hurried her along making sure she did not pause to daydream.
Kay came up with the idea of giving me some of her books to read. She would bring them in and give me a week to read them. Then she and I would just talk about our favorite part of the books or our favorite character. I actually read them! I wanted to encourage her to have ideas and to think about what she was reading. Sharing with me brought an extra challenge to her reading. We worked on thinking about and reacting to story lines.
During Sunrise class, I encouraged her to increase her sight word vocabulary and to work with word families. Each day she would attempt to read the words in a family. The words on each list became longer and longer as letters were added to both sides of the root word. If she missed a word, I told her what it was and we put the list away for the day. The next day, she tried reading the same list again. We did this until she knew all the words in that family and then went on to a new family.
Kay’s handwriting was awful. She needed practice writing letters. I gave her a new empty notebook and encouraged her to practice writing letters in the lines. She could write words, sentences, or just circles within the lines. She just needed to get control of the pencil.
I also worked with Kay on organizing her own stories. She had a tough time with writing. She needed a way to organize what she wanted to say. I taught her to use a graphic organizer to plan before writing. She learned that writing was easier and faster when you follow an organizer. I think that Kay has learned that it takes a lot of hard work to be a good student, and she is now willing to do whatever it takes.
Kay is now more organized, and she smiles more than ever before. She still shuts down on occasion, but we can usually get her back on track quickly. Her attendance is excellent, and she even comes to school an hour early each morning for extra help. She is still reading below grade level but she knows that she is improving, and that’s what counts!
About Marianne Morin
I have been a teacher at Watkins Glen Elementary School for 21 years, and I love my job! When my children were young, I went to Elmira College to get a Masters degree and a Reading Specialist Certificate. At this same time I had a private Nursery School at home which all of my own children attended for free.
I am currently a Reading Teacher working with 3rd and 4th grade at risk students, and the Elementary School Technology Coordinator. These two occupations, along with a husband who is a technology consultant, have been my inspiration to incorporate technology into the reading and writing process for at-risk readers.