Kaylynn Jones is so full of life, it’s like she’s bursting at the seams.
After the 11-year-old was interviewed by The Fresno Bee on Thursday about her recent reading achievements, she skipped around a classroom at Temperance-Kutner Elementary in Fresno, chanting “I’m famous” over and over again – despite a classmate’s chant back: “No, you’re not; no, you’re not.”
Kaylynn and Kalia Lee, another 11-year-old at the school who won the same national award from the Read 180 program, could not be more different. Kalia is camera shy and reserved, and she was embarrassed when teachers burst into class with balloons, announcing that she had won $1,000 to be put toward her education for making such strides in reading. “I thought it was a mistake,” she said. “I thought they had the wrong person.”
The girls are two of only 15 students in the country who received the award. The 180 Student Awards recognize students who have significantly turned around their academics using the adaptive program, a blended learning approach that tailors lessons to individual students.
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Kaylynn and Kalia have both excelled despite personal obstacles. Their teacher, Donna Pappas, says knowing what it’s like to overcome adversity may be part of the reason they’re doing so well in her version of the program, which is centered on one question: Do you have the power to change your circumstances?
The ‘growth mindset’
The Read 180 program used in Pappas’ class combines small group work, computer lessons and personal reading time to create a blended learning environment that’s different for each student.
“Every time they click the mouse, it’s calibrating and recalibrating for what that kid needs,” Pappas said.
Pappas has some tricks of her own to supplement the program, which targets struggling readers. She offers “little kid books” that students can take home to read aloud to their younger siblings – not only sparking a literacy movement in the home, but building her students’ confidence by getting them to practice with easier books.
She also keeps a close watch on her classroom library. “When you have a fifth-grade student who is reading at a first-grade level, you’re not going to hand them ‘Hop on Pop.’ It’s not going to work,” she said. “I leverage that. I know my library, and I know my kids. If I know a student is really interested in animals, I sneak books about animals in, and then I crank up the reading level.”
My family is proud of me. It’s all over Facebook.
“Reading has not been a fun thing for most of these kids. What we try to do in here is to make it fun,” Pappas said.
But Pappas’ real secret is something called “growth mindset,” an idea coined by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck. Her work says that some students have a fixed mindset – the belief that they can’t read or write well because they weren’t born that way. Others have a growth mindset, believing they can improve their skills with hard work.
“We tap into students’ social-emotional and behavioral growth by encouraging them to develop a resiliency to obstacles and learn to embrace their mistakes and constructive criticism as a path to mastery,” Pappas said.
When she explains it to students, it’s much simpler. Imagine if Michael Jordan had a fixed mindset, she says. His career would’ve been over the moment he didn’t make the varsity basketball team in high school. But he persevered.
“These kids know what it is to feel defeated. Some think if you’re meant to be a reader, it should come easily. The implications of that are huge. If you have that attitude, that’s going to affect a lot of things in your life. When a job or a relationship is too hard, you’re going to walk away,” she said. “That whole idea of being able to overcome and face challenges, it’s like a lifesaver.”
‘I will be fearless’
Kaylynn pulls up her shirt and reveals a purple insulin pump stuck to her waistband, cords spilling at her side.
“I don’t tell everybody. I just tell a couple of my friends,” she said. “They go, ‘What is that?’ and I just say, ‘It’s nothin’.’ ”
Kaylynn, a sixth-grader, has juvenile diabetes and has to give herself a shot in the stomach in the school nurse’s office before each meal. Her classmate Jocelyn Felix is her designated “safety buddy” who accompanies her throughout the day in case her blood sugar hits life-threatening levels.
Jocelyn has helped her in other ways, too. Even though she reads at higher levels, she and Kaylynn started reading the same books together. “If I need help or she needs help, we try to sound out the word together. I didn’t really like reading because it was harder for me. I didn’t like reading in front of the class, either, but now I don’t care,” Kaylynn said. “She’s not just my buddy; she’s my best friend.”
Reading has not been a fun thing for most of these kids. What we try to do in here is to make it fun.
Temperance-Kutner teacher Donna Pappas
Kalia, a fifth-grader, is the oldest of six children and tries to help out as much as she can at home. Her younger siblings range from infancy to third grade. “I don’t change diapers anymore,” she said. “But it is stressful. They’re always running around screaming, and they don’t always listen to me.”
Kalia, an English learner whose first language is Hmong, had anxiety about reading, and it hurt her self-esteem when she couldn’t keep up in class or mispronounced a word when called on to read aloud. But with Pappas’ help, she had a breakthrough. She started reading books about things she was interested in: animals, science and “real-life things.”
“Yeah, Harry Potter, I don’t know about that guy,” she said.
She humbly boasts about her accomplishments now: Not only did she win $1,000, but together, she and Kaylynn won $2,000 in educational materials for Clovis Unified through the 180 Student Awards.
“Growth mindset means you can’t be so negative,” Kalia said. “And I want to be a role model for my siblings.”
Kaylynn is feeling pretty confident now, too. “My family is proud of me. It’s all over Facebook,” she said.
Both girls recited the same speech they do every day in Pappas’ class on Thursday. “I will be fearless in tackling my challenges, and I will push through any obstacles in my way,” the class motto reads. “I can learn. I will learn. I must learn.”