By Valerie Chernek, Education Writer for Learning Ally
Faculty and students at Good Shepherd Catholic School in the Denver Archdiocese are singing the praises of Cathy O’Hollearn, a reading specialist just awarded Learning Ally’s 2018 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Teaching Award. She is among six teachers in the U.S. to receive this prestigious award for her work with students with learning disabilities.
To her students and colleagues, Cathy is a “rockstar” teacher who strives to support children on their learning terms – academically, emotionally and socially. “Mrs. O’Hollearn get’s me,” is what her elementary and middle school students say. “She believes in me!” And that’s what we really love about Cathy O’Hollearn.
Special Reading Program for Special Learners
Cathy works with children in K-8 identified on the Dibels assessment as having “gaps” in their reading acquisition. These students require a special kind of TLC or “tender-loving care”. Students study reading and writing skills like phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension, but also decoding skills. “This is where Learning Ally’s human-narrated audiobooks are beneficial,” she says. Learning isn’t easy, especially for non-traditional learners. My students do not sit still in class or write things down. Their brains process information differently. They are hands-on learners. Many are exceptional thinkers. Once you “get their learning style,” you meet them on their terms. They appreciate this and are eager to prove themselves. They begin to recognize they are special and that’s okay. We want to become self-believers!”
Educating the Whole Child – A National Role Model
When our award committee reviewed Cathy’s nomination, we heard from teachers and students and parents who described this educator to have a deep passion for “connecting and caring for the whole child.”
Many parents say she is a “Godsend,” for their child. “She took my son from a 4th grade reading level to a 10th grade level when he was in 6th grade. “This is a game-changer!”
“Cathy’s has a unique way of getting to the heart of struggling readers,” said a teacher. “Her insight, teaching style and encouragement, has opened a path for lots of struggling readers to become confident learners.”
A student wrote, “Ms. Cathy is the best part of my day! Before her class, I hated to read; now I can’t stop reading!” Last year, a student who was dyslexic gave a presentation to her 5th-grade class about her struggle to read. This had an amazing trickle-down effect on students and teachers to better understand and accept learning differences.
Humbly, Cathy turns this appreciation back to her colleagues, administrators, students and parents. “They are the true winners,” she says. “I use effective reading strategies and resources, like Learning Ally, to validate my students to believe in themselves and to push their boundaries to be exemplary learners. This can happen with the right tools and motivation.”
Audiobook “Ear” Reading -- A Different Way to Process Information
Students in Cathy’s classes receive individualized instruction, small group instruction, and access to digital accessible books to hear text read aloud, while following highlighted words on their iPad or digital device. Human-narrated audiobooks bring the story or textbook to life to deepen students’ contextual understanding of information.
Cathy says, “The educational library is a tool for students who need access to curriculum -- textbooks and popular reading -- in accessible format to comprehend what they read. This access enables them to read the same information as their peers – just in a different medium.”
She notes Learning Ally is easy to set up and manage. “Just create a bookshelf and load students up with books. If they forget their textbook, they can access it immediately - a timesaver for everyone. Audiobooks have helped more students become independent learners – a skill their teachers and parents are extremely grateful for.”
School-to-Home Connection – The Archdiocese Doctrine
Good Shepherd is a private, faith-based Catholic School Archdiocese in the heart of Denver, with a dedicated faculty, staff, and families who share core values similar to Learning Ally.
The Archdiocese’s doctrine inspires academic excellence, while building a compassionate, inclusive and supportive learning environment through a school-to-home learning connection. “We never turn away a child who is a non-traditional learner,” says Cathy.
Thanks to funding by the Zarlengo Foundation, the Archdiocese has schoolwide access to Learning Ally’s reading accommodation and suite of data-driven teacher-supported tools and ready-to-use reading engagement programs. Cathy enjoys tapping into these resources to liven her class reading goals.
“I take great pride watching students that I taught in kindergarten now thrive in eighth grade and are prepared to move on to high school. Many attend honors and mainstream classes and I am confident that their transition will be smooth. They are accomplished non-traditional learners who believe they can succeed and they will!”