Lynn Foy’s first grade students sit cross-legged on a rug in front of an oversized tablet. Foy writes out phonograms, such as “oo,” “uf” and “of,” and provides examples of words using them – through, rough and cough. She sounds them out. The children repeat the sounds. Foy repeats the sounds several times and they mimic her. Then she sounds out another and the lesson continues.
“Let’s move to the fourth one,” Foy says.
“The fifth one,” the students correct her in unison. They are so attuned to the lesson that they are quick to notice the miscount.
She provides more phonograms, more word examples and more chances for repetition. An hour goes by. The lesson breaks for lunch, but after lunch the children complete the written assignments that supplement the morning lesson. Before the day is over, the children have interacted with the sounds, letters and words in a variety of ways – they heard them, said them, wrote them and applied them.
This repetitive method is the Foy Way, the name Foy gives to the techniques she has developed in 14 years of teaching kids to read. It is the same method that recently won her recognition by the Milken Family Foundation, a $25,000 award and a trip to Los Angeles in April to interact with 70 other elementary school recipients.
Foy, a teacher at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School, was one of two teachers in Louisiana to win the award. Her nomination was supported by reams of paperwork filed by several school administrators after she was chosen as the school’s Teacher of the Year by her peers.
The Milken Family Foundation says that Foy’s teaching is “engaging“ and “innovative” and “uniquely her own.” As a consequence, the foundation says, 75 percent of her students last year approached, met or exceeded grade-level expectations on the DIBELS test, a state test given three times a year to gauge reading levels.
“It’s nothing new,” says Craig Principal Sean Goodwyn of Foy’s testing successes. “She takes the struggling child and does wonders.”
A native of the 7th Ward, Foy recalls a childhood poor in material goods but rich in community feeling. She grew up shopping at the iconic Circle Grocery on St. Bernard Avenue and watching her mother, a single parent, feed her family of six children and many of her neighbors on an income earned from altering clothing. With her mother’s support, Foy attended Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans, where she earned a master’s degree in education.
Even though Foy is passionate about teaching today, she didn’t start out to be a teacher. She found her calling by accident when she volunteered to be an aide to a second grade teacher. When she asked the teacher what to do, the teacher told her to “work with the dummies.”
After working with the designated “dummies” for a few days, she realized that the kids weren’t dumb; they just weren’t expected to perform, so they didn’t. “I went from saying I want to be a journalist to saying I want to be a teacher,” Foy says.
Remembering those “dummies,” Foy says she often tells her first grade students that they have “big heads,” a compliment that means they’re smart. “I still have a big head,” one former student told Foy after the girl’s high school graduation. “Right now she is at Spelman (College),” Foy says.
Foy taught at Lafayette Elementary School before Hurricane Katrina struck. After the state took over New Orleans’ “failing” schools and put them in the Recovery School District, her former principal hired her to teach at Craig. At that time textbooks were scarce, so she designed her own curriculum based on classroom experience and techniques she had learned during several years of reading classroom guides and studying reading programs.
Craig, an open-enrollment Recovery School District charter school, educates many at-risk students, some of whom are still recovering from traumas resulting from Hurricane Katrina. Originally located in Tremé, the school is now housed in a temporary facility in eastern New Orleans until renovations to its former building are complete.
Many of the school’s first graders are 6- and 7-year-olds who’ve never been to school. Some arrive weeks and months late, increasing the challenges of teaching them to read at grade level, Goodwyn says. Many are also raised in troubled family environments where fighting over minor affronts is the norm.
With these challenges in mind, Foy’s approach starts with teaching attitude. She believes in teaching the “whole child,” which includes learning character skills. During the first two weeks of school, Foy conducts Boot Camp, a drill program to teach rules of behavior. After two weeks, students repeat the rules daily and recite a character poem that emphasizes honesty and the Golden Rule.
“I’m on a mission,” Foy says. “The mission is to educate every child and make them reach their potential. Getting them to open a book and learn is the easy part.”
Foy dresses in the same khaki pants and red polo shirt that Craig students wear. One-on-one, she sometimes laughs in a way that borders on a giggle. When she’s teaching or monitoring cafeteria behavior however, she’s a marine sergeant wearing a Craig logo.
When students in her classroom lined up to go to lunch one day in May, for instance, one boy launched into hip-hop dance steps. That action caused a Foy stare-down that must have reminded him of his manners: He went to the door to hold it open for his classmates’ departure.
Foy says the Milken award was a complete surprise, and one that she thinks of as a random accident. She learned of the award at a school event held by the RSD and the Milken Family Foundation. Unaware she’d been nominated for an award she didn’t even know existed, she was shocked when her name was called. Wiping away tears, she told the audience, “This is not a job for me. It’s a passion.”
All she could think of at that startling moment was her carelessly pent-up hair. “I had a pen in my hair,” Foy says. “The photographer said, ‘Could you take the pen out of your hair so I can take the picture?’”