Students who have lost the desire to learn are a challenge for all teachers, but teaching students who are on the verge of dropping out of school or already in juvenile trouble can be an arduous task. It’s a challenge that Deborah Hanson, relishes and does impeccably well as an English Language Arts & Reading teacher for the Austin ISD’s Alternative Satellite Campus at Travis County Day School in Texas.
In her teaching approach for adjudicated youth, Mrs. Hanson focuses on student-centered learning, characterized as “whole child literacy,” a helpful framework, and one of the main reasons why she was chosen as a 2022 recipient of Learning Ally’s Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award; an award that recognizes exemplary educators.
For over 30 years, she has touched the lives of hundreds of at-risk students, including those in foster care, high school dropouts, incarcerated juveniles, ex-offenders, and displaced workers.
“Adjudicated youth are not representative of the general student population,” says Mrs. Hanson. She believes every student is a learner, but her students do not believe that. They are in restricted environments. They lack self-esteem. They are typically poor readers and writers. “They have been failed by our education system, and they have failed themselves,” she says. “In fact, they have learned failure. It is not easy to break through the failed experiences, trauma, and turmoil that most of them have endured.”
In Texas's Region 13 reading specialist program, Mrs. Hanson teaches disengaged youth to work independently on their reading skills. She assesses each student individually. Then she provides targeted interventions with fidelity, along with encouragement, understanding and emotional care.
Mrs. Hanson recalls her own childhood. There were no books in her house. Her parents did not read to her, and English was not the primary language spoken at home. Her early memories were fraught with failure in and out of school. Fortunately, she was brought up in the era of the Head Start program – a much needed program in today’s education system.
To break through her students’ reading barriers, Mrs. Hanson uses Learning Ally’s extensive library of human-read audiobooks. “I want my students to be active readers. I want them to enjoy a pastime of reading that every child and adult deserves. If I can get them to read just one book to escape their feelings of doubt and failure, I can open their world. I’ve seen the results.”
In every class, students receive 45 minutes of dedicated reading time while listening to audiobooks of rich literature and culturally relevant stories that have familiar protagonists. Mrs. Hanson wants them to read books that reflect their own experiences, mistakes, and misfortunes. She encourages students to get comfortable with a book, discuss ideas, and share viewpoints.
“The first time I heard a student say, “I just read an entire book,” it was exhilarating! Giving students books where they can do character analysis can potentially change their view on how society sees them. Audiobooks give them opportunities to be “out in the free” world through stories.” The term “out in the free” is a description that incarcerated youth are all too familiar with.
Through active listening of human-read audiobooks, Mrs. Hanson’s students improve fundamental skills in vocabulary and comprehension. They think critically. They read other content like music lyrics and movie subtitles. They read to understand, be informed, and entertained.
Teachers are a “Sea of Heroes”
Mrs. Hanson knows that evidence-based reading instruction based on the science of reading, combined with providing instruction with social and emotional learning methodologies, motivates students at-risk to read with engagement and proficiency.
Throughout her teaching career, language development has stood out as the biggest challenge, specifically reading and writing proficiency. “It has become my focus and passion to provide my students with access to tailored reading and writing instruction, positive reinforcement, and sufficient support so that they can see results. This approach enables more students to see their future differently. They are inclined to invest in their learning process, just as I have invested in their education and success.”
Many teachers are feeling unsupported due to unprecedented demands, the pandemic, and discrimination. Mrs. Hanson says, “I want to encourage all educators to stay focused on the student. We are a “sea of heroes,” indispensable and capable of changing the world.”
On behalf of the Learning Ally organization, we congratulate Deborah Hanson and all 2022 winners for their exemplary service to improve literacy for all learners.