BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
GLEASON (February 3) – Last week when early-arriving Gleason fifth-graders entered Paige Vaughn’s classroom, they were greeted with a poem proclaiming the value (or not) of The Homework Machine and asked how the somewhat-absurd verse made them feel.
When all 15 students were settled at their desks, what followed was a 90-minute exploration of how words and stories reflect meaning and mood: word work on how verbs can sometimes be transformed into nouns; a read aloud from “Adeline Falling Star” that took listeners beside a river they could hear babbling over the speaker; a shared reading of an excerpt from “The Call of the Wild” to further explore the unit’s emphasis on survival; students reading independently; and small groups – based on the student’s reading level – reading together and aloud for Vaughn’s assessment.
While the process is mimicked across the county as teachers explore the new Benchmark Advance curriculum based on the science of reading, the attributes that secured Vaughn’s being named Weakley County’s Teacher of the Year for grades 5-8 were clearly evident. She manages the classroom from the moment students cross the threshold. Student comments are heard and affirmed and, if needed, quickly rerouted to stay on topic. Her broad smile welcomes feedback and her eyes lock into the questioner to assure them that she is not just hearing their comments but listening to what they are not saying as well.
She reads with the dramatic flair of an audible book’s theatrically-trained narrator, and feigns stumbling over a phrase when a grammatically-incorrect use of language is used as dialect and takes the time to wonder aloud what exactly was inferred by an unfamiliar phrase. When she concludes the reading, the moans in unison from the students express the desire to continue, though they know from experience, it will be another day before they rejoin their heroine’s journey.
“I know that part of student success is measured by academic performance,” Vaughn wrote in response to questions posed as part of the Teacher of the Year process. “Every day students in my classroom are exposed to high-quality, rigorous texts that require them to think critically and respond in a variety of ways. Students work toward individualized reading and writing goals. Anecdotal notes, running records, daily exit tickets, performance on tasks, and quick checks help me to ensure my students are learning appropriately.”
Daily checks help her catch struggling students early and change her instruction in order to address specific struggles, she says. Three times a year, through the use of a universal screener, the students’ reading skills are assessed.
When students returned after the long, COVID-related break this fall, 66.7 percent of her students were considered to be average or above-average readers. In December, the screener was once again administered and 94 percent of her fifth-graders had reached that level.
However, as the school’s data team chair, she is also aware that while such a jump sounds impressive, some students may be just at that line defined as average. So she values helping place students in the most-appropriate intervention group to continue to grow and improve reading skills. As the school’s literacy leader, she serves as a coach to help fellow teachers apply best practices for encouraging and challenging students.
She credits the training she received for the Ready to Be Ready state initiative launched in 2016 for providing her with the opportunities to learn from other teachers and then sharing that learning with other educators. Ideas she’s picked up and passed along are using #hashtags such as those found in social media to help students summarize subject matter and first chapter Fridays when she reads aloud only the first chapter of a book and leaves them with a cliffhanger for the weekend.
Encouraging reading as a family at home, mystery readers who visit (in pre-COVID camps) and ways to create a safe and well-organized environment for learning are among the shared ideas for promoting growth in reading.
“Student readiness is important to creating successful students,” Vaughn writes. “Students need to feel ready to accomplish any task they are given. They need to feel supported and confident to master grade level expectations. This can only be accomplished through daily practice at or above grade level in a ‘safe’ environment. Students should know that failure is likely when attempting new tasks. Successful students are determined by how they handle those failures. Teaching students to persevere is vital to success.”
To set the mood in her own classroom, Vaughn and her students begin the year with a contract. This year their pledge to one another hangs on the wall: “… we vow to be responsible, respectful and have positive attitudes at all times. Our class will maintain ‘good vibes’ and make you feel right at home (guests included).”
One means of accomplishing their goal is to regularly engage in “collaborative conversation.” The rules are posted in the room and can be recited by the students: 1) Keep eyes on the speaker, 2) Use appropriate body language, 3) Calm the body, 4) Practice active listening, and 5) Respond. Those responses can be in the form of disagreement – I disagree with ____ because ____ or affirmations – I want to add on ____.
“We are grateful for Paige Vaughn’s commitment to always be learning and her willingness to share that learning with not just her students but her peers as well,” said Terri Stephenson, Weakley County Instructional Supervisor for Elementary. “I would encourage anyone who wants to see an enthusiastic educator skilled at practices we know will help children become better readers to view her work in the RTI series on our district’s YouTube channel. One short video will be all it takes to help anyone see why she is definitely worth celebrating.”