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A Born Teacher, Building Better Readers
Sarah Valente has always wanted to be a teacher. In fifth grade, she watched her mother go through teaching school; she remembers coveting one of her mom’s textbooks above all others: a thick red tome titled The Skillful Teacher. She toted the heavy book to school one day, and she held it up in class and announced, “I want to be a teacher.”
“Teachers are born, not made,” said Suzanne Rene, instructor of education at the College of Our Lady of the Elms, “and Sarah really was born to be a teacher. It’s an instinctive thing with some people.”
Valente, a native of Wells, Maine, got her B.S. in liberal studies from Bay Path University in 2012. She took a year off -- if you can call accepting a teaching job at Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow, Mass., taking time off -- and then entered the master’s program in teaching at Elms College. She currently is licensed in Massachusetts to teach grades 1-6; when she completes her M.A.T. degree this summer, she will have earned a specialist license in reading education.
She is completing the Elms program in two years, while continuing to work at Yeshiva. This is somewhat unusual, according to Rene. “That’s a large load,” Rene said, “because the graduate courses in education require so much work. So to graduate in two years and work at a school too -- that’s really 24/7.”
But that’s how Valente rolls. “She’s dedicated and hardworking,” Rene noted. “If we asked the grad students to do two pages, she would do four. Everything she did was above and beyond."
'It's not just hypothetical'
Working while in graduate school may be a balancing act, but Valente wouldn’t have it any other way. “Because I’m teaching while in the classes, I can apply what I’m learning, which you can’t really do in your undergrad,” she said.
“The clinical aspect of the M.A.T. is so valuable: that you can take something you learn today in class and try it out tomorrow with real kids,” Rene added. “It’s not just hypothetical.”
Valente worked hard during her classes to fit what she was learning into her day job. “I was sitting in class writing notes, wondering, ‘How can I fit this in tomorrow? Even though I’ve already written my lesson plans, how can I fit this in?’ Because it often made sense with what I was already doing, or it was the next step,” she said, lighting up at the remembered excitement.
“I’ve played around with stuff: When we wrote lesson plans for a class at Elms, I always chose a grade that I taught, or something that I could somehow weave into my classes,” she said. “Over the summer here at Elms, we have to do a binder with lesson plans -- DESE (the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) says we have to put together a portfolio. And I keep mine on my shelf in the classroom, so I can pull stuff to apply in different ways with my students.”
Upon graduation, she will continue to teach kindergarten and second grade at Yeshiva. She hopes to move into a reading specialist position someday. She chose Elms’ master of arts in teaching program because she knew it would help her advance along that path.
Valuable field experience
The Summer Reading Program itself was a big draw. Since 1989, the Elms program has helped area children with reading difficulties get the tools and confidence they need to become good readers. Experienced teachers finishing reading-specialist licensure requirements within the M.A.T. program provide high-quality, individualized reading assessments and approaches in preparation for MCAS testing. The goal is to help students entering third grade and above in the fall to improve silent reading comprehension and expository writing skills.
It also gives Elms graduate students aiming to become licensed reading specialists some much-needed field experience. For Valente, it’s been invaluable -- and for her employers, too. She went above and beyond again by taking what she learned at Elms, especially in the Summer Reading Program, and using it to transform the way reading is taught at Yeshiva.
“What a gift for those kids that Sarah works with, for her to have all that expertise and knowledge, and be willing to do all that extra work to change things,” Rene said.
Yeshiva’s reading program used to be quite different: There wasn’t really much structure at all. Last year, as summer approached, Valente started making suggestions based on what she was learning at Elms. “I wanted to bring guided reading into the classroom,” she said. “With guided reading, you’re reading books at the students’ levels and helping them work on comprehension strategy or word strategies, something to help them excel into the next level.
“We use an assessment system beforehand to find each student’s level. We have boxes of ‘leveled’ books, so if I know my student’s a level J, I can find a book that’s a J, and we’ll read it together, usually in groups. If it’s a small class, the groups might be one or two students.”
She worked with Yeshiva directors to implement an assessment system from Fountas & Pinnell, and they started building a good leveled library with books that would work best for the school and its students. “We found one through Scholastic, and now we have expanded from kindergarten through fourth grade,” Valente said. “We also did a training on how to use the assessment system, because a lot of teachers weren’t familiar with it.”
'It helps them love to read'
But the biggest benefit is for the students themselves: “It helps them to love to read, because I can pick stuff that’s both at their level and their interest level,” Valente explained. “Then we do some discussion, or work on a skill -- for example, comparing and contrasting using characters in the book. They’ll do some reading together and some reading independently. It depends on what the kids really need to work on, but we can pick something that is targeted to them.”
Because the classes can be tailored to what the students need and what generates the best response, they tend to get better reading results. And Valente can’t wait to take it further. “It’s continually evolving, and we’re going to continually work on strengthening it,” she said. “It would be lovely to have it go even more in-depth.”
To get there, she and her fellow educators are building the supplies they need. That means accumulating leveled libraries of books, and it also means developing teaching resources to go with them. “We have a flash drive now with all the supplies that I made for each book, so if they want to use one, they can find them there,” Valente said. “Another book that we may not have used already? We can teach that too -- we just have to make the supplies for it and put them on the flash drive, and then they’re available to everyone. It takes time to build it up, but that’s our goal right now.”
The importance of reading skills, which affect so many other areas of scholastic success, isn’t lost on Valente. “In my first year of teaching, I quickly learned that I wanted to teach little kids, and that I wanted to be able to teach everything, every subject,” she said. “Now I really want to teach reading. I like teaching reading across all grade levels.”
“Teaching reading really is teaching everything, though. Because kids can’t do anything else if they don’t have a solid reading base,” Rene said.