Top of the Class

With only three days left of the school year, Kathryn Hurley stands before a class of second graders and conducts one last exercise. Her charges, dressed in the navy and khaki uniforms of KIPP Central City Primary charter school, look at the papers in front of them. One girl sucks her thumb.

Hurley urges them to “break the code” – to match a letter grid to words that spell out a question. They must answer it in three complete sentences. It’s half game, half academics. It’s all leading to third grade literacy.

Hurley, recently recognized as a finalist for the prestigious Fishman Prize for outstanding teaching, paces the semi-circle of tiny desks sporting a pair of black sunglasses atop twisted-up thick hair.

She’s all business.

“I’m missing a pair of eyes,” she says and ticks off a name. She points two fingers in the direction of a child and returns them to point at her own eyes.

The children start writing out their questions.  One asks: What would you like to tell your teacher? Asked to answer aloud, Chastity reveals a budding future in sales or diplomacy: “I would like to tell Ms. Hurley she’s cute.”

Another question asks: Name some of the things you learned this year. A girl named Paige writes: “I learned to find my matching evidence.”  

These second graders have spent three hours a day with Hurley for nine months honing their reading skills and learning the basics of essay writing. They go into the third grade knowing how to write a thesis, or point of view, and how to pick out textual evidence to support their claims. Paige even spelled the word “evidence” correctly on the second try.

A Tulane University graduate, by way of New Jersey, Hurley started out as a kindergarten teacher. Now in her seventh year of teaching, five at KIPP Central City, she has shifted to second grade.

“I’m obsessed with second grade,” she says.  “I’m still the coolest person in the room.”

She’s always obsessed with teaching literacy, a honed skill that led a colleague to nominate her for the Fishman Prize, a prestigious national award that recognizes teachers for “superlative classroom practice.”

 Of 800 applications, Hurley was one of 101 applicants asked to submit classroom videos and references, says TNTP, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to supporting quality teaching in public schools. Of those, Hurley was one of 21 semi-finalists selected for unannounced classroom visits. Only nine, including Hurley, were selected for interviews, TNTP says.

“Ms. Hurley definitely deserves the recognition,” says KIPP Central City Primary School Leader Korbin Johnson. “If I could get a Katie Hurley in every classroom, it would be great.”

In the classroom, Hurley focuses on relationship-building, the importance of friendship and empathy skills. She uses material that students can “integrate” into their own lives. Her TNTP bio says that she recently assigned students to write opinion pieces, including letters to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in favor of removing the city’s monuments of Civil War figures.

When she began teaching at KIPP Central City, the bio says, the school’s goal was that 75 percent of kindergarten students would reach grade-level in language arts. Hurley’s students were the first to reach that goal. The next two years, 100 percent of her students reached grade-level, TNTP says, and 75 percent exceeded KIPP’s national grade level standards.  

Hurley teaches language arts to classes of about 28. With the help of a teaching aide, she focuses on reading skills, phonetics, textual comprehension, and writing. She stresses content that develops the idea that “people matter,” she says.

In workshops, Hurley says students “talk about how books will change us, how people change us.” She chooses stories that focus on unlikely friendships such as Frog and Toad, a tale about the bond between a friendly frog and a serious toad. Another favorite text is Henry and Mudge, the story of a boy’s friendship with a burly street dog. She also focuses on family themes, such as the one found in Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.”

Students also learn about social activism. After reading about homeless people needing dry socks, her students raised $250 to buy pairs of socks. They stuffed the socks with travel-sized hygiene products such as toothpaste and toothbrushes to donate to a homeless shelter. In another project, her students made rag toys for shelter dogs, she says.  

As a KIPP curriculum developer, she shares

these classroom lessons with other second grade teachers in the organization’s national network of charter schools.

All these teaching skills won Hurley a place in the group of nine finalists for the Fishman Prize. Only four, however, were chosen for $25,000 awards and spots in TNTP’s summer residency program. She wasn’t chosen for the cash prize, but she says the six-month process enriched her teaching by pushing her to reflect on classroom methods.

“Sometimes you hit, not a rut, but a stride,” she says of classroom teachers.  “We ask kids to be lifelong learners, and sometimes we forget to be life-long learners.”

Even though she didn’t win $25,000, which she had hoped to use to buy a house, the experience was “incredible,” Hurley says. “It reaffirmed my belief that teaching is the best job in the world.”



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