Teacher who inspires young readers moves onto a broader plain

Class skills will help new reading specialist assist whole school

August 20, 2000|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a second-grade teacher at Woodbridge Elementary School, one of Gail Kennedy's greatest joys was helping her pupils come alive to the magic of reading.

Now, as the school's new reading specialist, she hopes to help every pupil at Woodbridge.

"She won't be limited to 25 students a year," said Principal Peggy Etzel. "She has had such an impact on the second-graders in her classroom that the impact she will have on the rest of the students will be phenomenal."

Kennedy's primary task will be to help pupils who fall below grade level. But she'll also work with children who need help with a lesson and, if time allows, those who are gifted and talented.

Parents and educators say Kennedy, who earned a master's-level reading specialist degree from Loyola College in 1977, is a great choice for the job because of her ability to help children reach or exceed expectations.

"I can't say enough good things about her," said Patricia Auld, whose son, Chad, was taught by Kennedy last school year - reading a little above average when the year started and at seventh-grade level by its end.

"And several of the children in her class have the same story," Auld added. "They just shot up. She is clearly amazing."

To prepare for her new role, Kennedy, 51, read every book her pupils will have to read, from the Amelia Bedelia series by Peggy Parish to E. B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

And she has read the Baltimore County Reading Resource Guide, heavily marking it with notes and sticky tabs.

The volume requires that pupils in grades one through three spend 2 1/2 hours each school day focused on reading, and children in grades four and five spend two hours.

The time will include periods of direct and small-group instruction and independent reading.

Woodbridge, home to about 500 children in kindergarten through fifth grade, is an "open classroom" school.

The classrooms are not separated by walls - a system designed to make it easier to group pupils according to need. A child can surge forward in one area while getting additional help in another.

"Everybody grows at different spurts," Kennedy said. "With flexible grouping, we're practically doing an individual program for students."

Children will be given quick diagnostic tests to determine areas that need improvement. Then Kennedy will focus her attention on those who need specific help.

"I'm to be an intervention person, helping the children before they get in trouble," she said. "What I do doesn't replace all the other things they get from the teacher. It's in addition to that."

People who know Kennedy say her focus has always been on the children.

"Her objective is to make sure every child reaches their potential," said Sandra Elliott, whose twins, Ryan and Lauren, were taught by Kennedy four years ago. "She believes a child can do anything. My children loved her. To this day, they say she was their favorite teacher."

Kennedy loves her pupils and is proud of their accomplishments.

The small room that will serve as her new home base is decorated with photographs of pupils, as well as their artwork and writing.

She said she believes that one key to fostering a love of books is letting children read independently.

Pupils who get used to reading while they are in school develop a lifetime habit, Kennedy said.

To achieve that goal, she created a program that rewarded children who read independently with tokens, which they could redeem for stuffed animals and other items.

That program, said Auld, "totally motivated those children. It was a competition, but it was a healthy competition."

Another of her techniques was to encourage children to read to stuffed animals.

"You ought to see the most macho, sports-oriented second-grade boy reading to a stuffed bear," she said. "They get all excited, and that spurs them on."

Kennedy, who lives in Catonsville, was named a 1999 Teacher of the Year by the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce - an honor that summed up what parents, pupils and fellow educators knew.

"She is a dynamo," Etzel said.

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