by Daniel Hoilett
2nd Grade Teacher at Brushy Creek Elementary

October of 2015 had arrived. Many veteran teachers had warned me that this would be the most difficult month to get through, but in my first year of teaching, all I could think was, “Well, I thought that August and September were pretty difficult!” Nevertheless, October brought parent-teacher conferences, adding yet another new experience to my first year — one that I was not sure I was ready to tackle. To say I was anxious would be a severe understatement. It was when I realized that there are parents coming to me who are just as anxious as I am that these feelings began to alleviate. I’ll never forget the day that I sat across the table from Tyler’s* father and watched him shed tears about his son’s progress. I forgot about the nerves and remembered again why I wanted to teach.

Tyler immediately won me over during my first year. He had a smile as wide as the sun and a heart that shone through in everything he did. He was the definition of pure innocence. His curiosity around learning made every lesson meaningful. Whether it was wondering what this “funny sounding” word was that I just read aloud or wanting to do a cloud simulation again so he could “watch the magic one more time,” Tyler tried day in and day out to keep a positive attitude despite being dealt many cards that created countless obstacles for his learning. As the year went on, he grew very open with me about how he viewed his ability. We often described it as a car engine that needed a few more turns of the key before the engine started. It was not that it would never turn on, but it would take more time than for others. And that was okay.

What I found most difficult that year was how to structure my reader’s workshop so that I could give Tyler and other students on his level the time and uninterrupted energy they needed to improve their skills. I’m highly conscious of the importance of daily workshop time because I know that being able to read is one of the top factors that influences how students will perform across other content areas. Whether my second graders came to my classroom needing more support phonetically or comprehension strategies, I wanted all of my students to feel confident and capable when tackling a new text and all that it has to offer them. Regardless of where the student is in that journey, though, it takes time and work. With a room of 23 students on varying levels of independence, the logistics of structuring this time so that I could rotate throughout the week working with small groups of four to five readers was a management and preparation conundrum.

This challenge magnified my gratitude for Furman University’s preparation.

In his time as the Site Coordinator for Providence Day School’s Freedom School in Charlotte, NC, Daniel Hoilett’s team hosted a morning read aloud during a gathering called “Harambee,” a Kiswahili term for “Let’s Pull Together!” Hoilett continues to use this classroom strategy, beginning each day enjoying reading with his students.

During my undergraduate period, my favorite courses were the primary and intermediate literacy classes. Reading has always been my favorite subject, and these classes took that passion to a new level for me as both a teacher and a reader. The combination of being taught about current and widely diverse literature with strategies that I would implement with my own students made these courses effectively empowering. The overarching message from both semesters was that learning to read is going to be an important hurdle for student achievement, but all students have their place on the continuum of success, and all will get where they need to be in time. When teachers start where students truly are and work with them from that point, it creates a more open environment for growth along that continuum as both learners and human beings. Developing a strong sense of the “why” behind reading allows for students to experience and thrive more off of success during the “how” so they can become lifelong readers and writers.

I found myself fondly recalling some of my own teachers who worked with me to develop my “why.” I honestly could not tell you today whether I was progressing below, on, or above grade level as a reader because that was not my teachers’ goal for me either. Good teaching will always bring that about, but the lasting goal is that I willingly pick up a book (MANY BOOKS) to read and grow with today — and always will for the rest of my life. That love was born and nurtured in the daily conversations with my first grade teacher, Mrs. Colotta, about the silly scenarios in the Arthur books that I had brought from home. It was in how my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Harris-Evans, opened my eyes to the world of murder mysteries by always detailing the mindset of the one she was reading at the time. It was in the unforgettable conversations outside of class with my high school advisor, Ms. Fishman, about books like A Lesson before Dying by Ernest Gaines and The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle that illuminate how complex humanity is. These are just three of the teachers I think of now as I work to show my students that reading brings us so much more than just the words on the page.

Thankfully, through Furman’s Teacher Residency Program, I was supported in developing a complementary and effective “how” next. I was blessed to have literacy professors and other Furman mentors who cared and were right by my side during my first year to help me navigate how to structure my workshop time — by experimenting with several models before finding the right fit for my students. It can be so easy to stay on the micro level during the first year when you are constantly rethinking things. But I learned from mentors that nothing changes, if nothing really changes. We worked a great deal on how to take information gleaned from specific data that I was gathering during small group work and individual conferences to make more macro level changes for workshop time.

For example, from analyzing what they turned in after stations each week, I was noticing repetitive errors on their focus skill for the week in comparison to skills that I included as a review. So I worked to pare down the station task more to match our small group work and developed goals with them to tape on their desks as reminders. Not only did this help them to focus more while around the room, but when I checked in with groups the second time in the week, we started with “warm reads” to review our progress. As time went on, I was able to layer on the complexity of other skills around their focus skill again. With hard work, we eventually became a well-oiled machine where the music would start and they knew what to do! I eventually felt much more secure in meeting the needs of all of my students!

A second grade unit on Tall Tales included dropping clues each day about a “special guest” coming to share a story. Daniel Hoilett (aka Paul Bunyan as retold by Steven Kellogg) reads/re-enacts Bunyon’s story to help students clearly visualize the hyperboles of Tall Tales as part of his teaching approach to strengthen student comprehension.

I could not have done this without the help of my mentors. Having extra support to help prepare my reinforcement stations, followed by the addition of their perspectives on the layout of the classroom space was invaluable. What I most appreciated was their help for me to see the entire classroom better while at the kidney table where I worked with small groups of students. My mentors never overstepped, but they did help me to gain the hindsight of any off-task behavior happening across the classroom. We would brainstorm, try out ideas, and adjust as needed. Together! Our partnership helped both my students and me grow that year. And even four years later, as I work to finish my Master of Arts in Literacy Education, many of my professors at Furman still come to my classroom to offer support and feedback.

Do not get me wrong; this job is tough. The emotional and physical exhaustion is draining. I completely empathize with quite a number of my former colleagues who decided to leave teaching. So what is it that keeps me going? The community around me. I love the empowerment that we bring to a child’s future when we work together! Teaching is not something that we do in isolation. I was beyond blessed to begin this career with unrelenting support for my students and me from my mother, Brushy Creek Elementary family, countless colleagues that I’ve connected with through Freedom School Partners, and mentors from Furman University!

By the end of that first year of teaching, Tyler had worked through and experienced so much success that he went on to third grade starting his engine on the first turn of his key! His teacher often allowed him to come to me to share his accomplishments of meeting his reading MAP goal, being selected for the first time to showcase his writing at an Author’s Cafe in our school, and many more successes.

I’d be taking far too much credit were I to think that I am solely responsible for Tyler’s success. It takes a community of teachers to lift up and support the learning of students. My teacher residency experience at Furman University extended my community into that first critical year and beyond. Knowing what questions to ask and having professors to mentor me as I was figuring out those answers had a huge impact on my practice — and, most fortunately, on Tyler and his classmates.

* = Student name changed.