2nd Grade Language Arts, KIPP Central City Primary New Orleans, LA
Kathryn Hurley’s journey to the teaching profession began years ago—at summer camp. “I made lifelong friends that were like family,” she says. “It was like returning home every summer.”
Now, she wants her students to feel the same way about her classroom at KIPP Central City Primary in New Orleans. “It’s my job to create a place where my kids feel safe,” she says. “They need to be physically safe, but they also need to feel psychologically safe.”
That culture of trust allows Hurley to help students make the leap from the basic reading skills of early childhood to the deeper experience of immersing themselves in a story and its characters. “What I try to do is hook them into this idea that we’re going to make meaning,” she says. “We’re going to take what this author says to us and integrate that into our own lives.”
Day by day, she helps her class unpack stories—like Henry and Mudge and Owen and Mzee—with engaging activities that get these seven and eight-year-olds out of their seats and into the story, discussing books with their classmates while actively citing evidence from the text.
“When I was teaching kindergarten, I was often at the center of my students’ experience,” Hurley says. “Now that I’m teaching second grade, my students’ focus is turning toward each other. I try to find ways to convert that social energy into productive learning time.”
In addition to learning life lessons from stories, students are writing narratives inspired by what they read, applying sophisticated literary techniques like dialogue and point of view to their own work. Recently, these second graders applied their skills to opinion pieces, writing letters to the mayor of New Orleans to advocate for taking down the city’s Civil War monuments—citing evidence from what they’d recently learned about the conflict to justify their opinions.
In her five years at KIPP Central City, Hurley’s students have changed the narrative of what students in New Orleans can achieve. When she arrived in 2012, the school’s goal on the rigorous STEP evaluations was for 75 percent of kindergarten students to achieve STEP 3—meaning they have achieved grade-level understanding of challenging language arts material. Hurley’s class was the first to achieve this goal in the school’s history. Over the next two years, her students created a “new normal” with 100 percent of students achieving at grade level and 75 percent exceeding grade-level expectations, based on the KIPP network’s STEP student evaluations.
“Katie treats students as members of a family and constantly preaches to them that their interactions with each other will last a lifetime,” says Principal Korbin Johnson. “She follows through on that commitment by ensuring that she does everything that she can to get to know parents and families of all her students as well.”
One family whose oldest son had experienced Ms. Hurley’s classroom transferred their younger son to her school to make sure he could have the same experience. In a way, it was not unlike Kathryn’s experience of finding family at camp all those years ago.
“I want my students to have that same sense of confidence and independence,” she says. “We tell them they can do anything, but giving them a really challenging book is a great way to show them.”