Temperance-Kutner Elementary School teacher Donna Pappas will never tell a student he or she is smart.
“If you tell a student they’re smart, they won’t take risks because they don’t want to risk not looking smart,” she explained. “If you tell them, ‘Hey, you really like a challenge,’ that makes them want to challenge themselves more.”
Pappas’ reading intervention students thrive on challenge.
In fact, two of them recently won 180 Student Awards, an honor bestowed upon just 15 students from across the country for turning their academic careers around through reading and math intervention programs.
Kalia Lee, a fifth-grader, and Kaylynn Jones, a sixth-grader, were once far below their grade levels in reading. Kalia, whose first language is Hmong, said she didn’t like reading.
“I would just look through the pictures,” she said.
“So would I,” admitted Kaylynn.
That changed once they entered Pappas’ four-day-a-week System 44 and Read 180 classes. System 44 teaches phonics and Read 180 teaches reading comprehension. Both use a combination of one-on-one sessions with the teacher, a group discussion, reading from a library of level-specific books and a computer program.
“It is software that is constantly calibrating and recalibrating what that student knows or doesn’t know so that it knows what to do with them,” Pappas explained. “So every child gets a more tailored experience according to where their deficits are and where their strengths are.”
Along with these English skills, Pappas teaches the concept of the growth mindset.
The idea is based on research by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor who studied what makes successful people successful.
“She found that it is the way they approached the world and thought about things,” Pappas said.
People with a fixed mindset think that some people are just destined to be good at math, while others aren’t, or that an introverted person will always be introverted — that’s just the way they are, Pappas explained.
“Growth minded people say you can shift who you are with focus, perseverance and hard work,” she said.
And what Pappas is teaching seems to be working.
Kalia, 11, is the oldest of six children in her family. She often takes care of her younger siblings, but said she struggles to find peace and quiet to complete her homework assignments.
“They get out of control a lot,” she said, explaining that she retreats to a bedroom to read. “Sometimes they’ll start banging on the door to get me to open it.”
Last year, Kalia plodded through System 44 and only getting part way through the program, Pappas said.
“System 44 is for kids who can’t access the words on the page because they haven’t locked the phonics in place yet,” she said. “By the time they get from the beginning of the sentence to the end of the sentence, they’ve forgotten what the sentence is about because it took them that long to get through each word.”
Kalia returned to the class this year and excelled.
“This year she came in and it was all clicking,” Pappas said, snapping her fingers. “She began to move through the software even faster. It’s adaptive, so it said, ‘Oh, you already know this? Fine, we’ll move on to the next lesson.’”
Kalia will soon move on to the Read 180 program. She enjoys reading non-fiction, including history and science.
“My favorite part about this class is that I get to read a lot of interesting books in Ms. Pappas’ library,” Kalia said.
Kaylynn,11, faces a different obstacle. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 6 and uses an insulin pump. Her best friend, Jocelyn Felix, is her designated “safety buddy” who accompanies her throughout the school day in case of diabetes complications, Kaylynn said.
The friends are both in the Read 180 program.
“Jocelyn has been her biggest encourager,” Pappas said, noting that the two tackle tough books together. “They’ve really grown that way. Jocelyn last week hit proficient for her grade level.”
Kaylynn aspires to be a veterinarian one day. She also wants to help children with diabetes.
“I want them to understand it as good as I do,” she said.
Kalia and Kaylynn were both surprised when they found out they had won the Read 180 Award. They were greeted with balloons that said 180 and 44.
“My classmates thought I was going to turn 44 years old, which was super funny,” Kalia said, laughing.
The girls will each receive a $1,000 prize to be used toward their education, while Clovis Unified School District will receive $2,000 worth of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt educational materials for use in classrooms.
Both girls said they felt proud of themselves.
As they should be.
“They have both made amazing progress. It’s really impressive,” Pappas said.
This isn’t the first time her students have received the national 180 Student Awards recognition.
“We had our first winner back in 2007, one winner in 2014, one in 2015 and two this year,” she said. “When you consider in previous years there were only 12 across the country, and this year there were 15 across the country ... it’s pretty phenomenal.”