Transformed: Ex-student steps into teacher’s shoes

Stephen Hanson once struggled with writing coherent sentences. He hesitated to take classes that required essays and long written responses on tests. He feared he would not be accepted by the colleges to which he applied. The Learning Strategies of the Strategic Instruction Model transformed his life. “Prior to Learning Strategies, I’d write these verbose, run-on sentences that were—a sentence was a page long!” Hanson says. “I didn’t have a clue what a comma was, let alone a semicolon.” His ideas were solid, but expressing them in writing was nearly impossible. He remembers wanting a communication tool that would allow him to put his ideas down on paper. “That’s what Learning Strategies give you,” he says. Hanson credits Sue Caplia, a teacher and certified SIM Professional Developer, with leading him to a “bank of skills to survive in life.”

Once he conquered simple sentences, mastery of the remaining sentence types came quickly. He began to perform well in the general education curriculum. Well enough, in fact, that Caplia encouraged him to take a history class known for its instructor’s high expectations, including multiple written assignments and essay tests. “I remember saying, ‘Stephen, if you can do this, you will always be able to write any essay for any college professor, because he is tougher than any college professor,” Caplia says. Hanson’s first paper for the class—his topic covered Rome from founding to present day—earned a “D.” He felt relief that he had survived the first trial of the course. His last paper, on Richard Nixon, established how far he had come with the help of Learning Strategies.

“I finally got an ‘A,’” he recalls. “It was the biggest deal to me. It was a huge success.”

Another breakthrough came in the form of an acceptance letter from Florida State University, his first choice for college. Now, Hanson teaches the same Learning Strategies classes he attended as a student. He finds himself not just inspired by Caplia, but actually taking her place in the classroom as a special education teacher at Polo Park Middle School in Palm Beach County, Fla. Hanson draws on his own experiences to help his students dream big, telling them that Learning Strategies are the keys to getting through high school and beyond. “You guys, I was in your seats 15, 20 years ago,” he tells them. “I know exactly what you’re going through. I know how you get it into your heads that you’re dumb. I tell you what, I don’t have a dumb student.”

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