Eighth-Grade Spark Fuels Lasting Academic Success

As an eighth-grader at Lake Braddock Middle School in Burke, Va., Jay* had a reputation. His grades were mediocre. His motivation to achieve was low. His level of hyperactivity was high.

Jay, who was diagnosed with a learning disability that affected his written expression, presented some daunting challenges to special education teacher and SIM Professional Developer Mindy Panzer. In what she terms a miracle, though, Panzer also participated that year in an initiative to bring the Learning Strategies Curriculum to the school’s basic skills classes.

Panzer taught Jay Proficiency in the Sentence Writing Strategy and devoted a considerable amount of time to helping him accept responsibility for his actions. He made immense progress.

The short-term benefits were gratifying, but the long-term scope of the miracle became clear four years later, when Jay returned to the middle school to visit Panzer. As a senior in high school, he was earning a 3.5+ grade-point average and taking three Advanced Placement classes, one of which was English.

“I realize that he had had many learning experiences along the way,” Panzer says, “but I would like to think I ignited the spark way back in eighth grade and the strategies gave him the initial fuel.”

Jay’s success—today, he is a senior at a prestigious university—is not the only miracle Panzer has seen over the years.

“Before I taught strategies, only 54 percent of my basic skills students passed the writing SOL [standards of learning tests, part of the Virginia State Assessment Program], and I consider myself a pretty good teacher,” she says. “The year that I had Jay, which was my first year of teaching these strategies, 75 percent of my basic skills students passed the writing SOL.”

Panzer thinks that year—as impressive as it was—represented her learning curve. In the following years, 90 to 100 percent of her students with learning disabilities at Lake Braddock Middle School passed the writing assessment.

“I always gave 150 percent to my classes and students, but until SIM, the return was not long-term skills,” says Panzer, who now teaches at South County Secondary School. “I felt I patched them up with bandages and sent them out for the day.”

With SIM, she feels empowered, more confident, and more accomplished as a teacher.

“Like the generalization step teaches students to adapt the strategies to new situations, I have adapted my whole teaching style to be more strategic,” she says. “My colleagues view me as a teacher’s teacher.”

—First published in 30 x 30: Thirty Stories of Success, Hope, and Innovation, © 2008, University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning.

* Not his real name.