It was the day in December that Crystal Browning, his first-grade teacher at Sedge Garden Elementary School (SGES), sent home several short picture books that she had made just for Kayden. Browning chose the stories so that they were at Kayden’s reading level, and, before printing them out, she edited the stories so that one of the characters in each story was named after him. In one story, Kayden rode a dinosaur. She then turned the printed stories into little books.
At home that night, Chisolm said, Kayden – much to her surprise – devoured those books. When Browning sent home several more custom-made books the next day, he devoured those, too.
“He hasn’t stopped reading,” Chisolm said. “He read for an entire weekend.”
Kayden loves math. But learning to read has been a struggle, Chisolm said, and Kayden has not always behaved as well in school as he should have. The people at SGES have all worked hard to support him, she said, including Don Wyatt, the school’s assistant principal, and Bryant McCorkle, the school’s home/school coordinator. Mrs. Browning has worked especially hard. “Her patience has got to be beyond human.”
Chisolm was so excited by Kayden’s transformation from struggling reader to enthusiastic reader that she sent an email to Superintendent Beverly Emory’s office praising Browning and the others at SGES and asking that every member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education be told about what the people at SGES had done for Kayden.
It began this way: “I am emailing you this morning as the HAPPIEST mother in all of Winston Salem and Forsyth County Schools.”
She went on to write about what happened when she handed Kayden the first book that Browning had made: “Once he saw it was a story about himself, he was eager to see what he did in the story. He read the book start to finish with no assistance. He asked to read another, which was a small miracle. He read another and again asked to read more. He kept pointing to the pictures saying ‘Look mom, I am riding a dinosaur!’
“Once we got to the fourth book, he noticed his best buddy was in it. He could not stop laughing in excitement because he and his buddy were in a book together. After four of the books she made for him, I told him we could stop for the night. He begged to keep reading! I thought only a miracle would make my head-strong little boy want to read! And a miracle Mrs. Browning was for us!! The time, effort and detail she took putting into those books left me in awe. She is already a very organized and hard-working teacher but to see this level of dedication to a failing student brings me to tears.”
In person, Browning was quick to spread around credit for the success of Kayden and other students at SGES.
“I am just one piece of the puzzle,” Browning said. “My colleagues do these same things.”
People, such as Alicia Flynt, the school’s primary reading teacher, also work to help Kayden and other students, she said.
“Every child gets reading on their grade level at this school,” she added.
And having parents, such as Kayden’s mother, who work with their children at home and who communicate with the people at the school, makes all the difference, said Browning and SGES Principal Ramona Warren.
“It is so important for the parent to have the child practice at home,” Warren said.
And Kayden’s and other students’ willingness to work hard is crucial, Browning said.
The books that Browning sent home with Kayden were part of a series created by a company called Pioneer Valley Books. Each story in the series targets a particular reading level and is designed so that the child’s name can be inserted into the story before it is printed out.
“I didn’t create the books,” she said. “I just personalized them.”
Browning makes the books for many of the 21 students in her class. Handing a child a book in which he or she is a main character can be quite powerful, she said.
“I wish you could see when the kids get their very first book and they notice their name – that is priceless,” she remarked.
At this point in the first grade, there can be quite a range of reading levels, Warren said.
“She has children in here who are starting to read chapter books and some who still need phonics,” she explained.
Browning has been a teacher for about 20 years. She is in her seventh year at SGES, the school she attended when she was in kindergarten. She met her husband Andy Browning, when they were both third-graders at Cash Elementary.
Both grew up to become teachers.
“It’s a family affair,” Browning said.
Andy is the band director at South Davidson middle and high schools. They live with their son Daniel, a ninth-grader at South Davidson, and son Joseph, a fifth-grader at SGES.
“He goes one direction and I go another,” she said.
Browning has known she wanted to be a teacher since she was in first grade.
“I played school all the time,” she recalled.
For her classroom, she set up a chalkboard and bulletin board in the basement. Early on, she drafted her younger sister, Amy, as her student. When her sister wasn’t as cooperative as Browning would have liked, she moved on to teaching imaginary students.
She graduated from East Forsyth High School in 1989 and went on to High Point University, where she majored in elementary education. After teaching third and fourth grades, she ended up teaching in kindergarten, where she discovered that she finds helping beginning readers particularly rewarding.
“You can see the joy she takes for that child and his or her progression,” Warren said.
“It is my passion,” Browning remarked.
Others at SGES are the same way, Warren said. People at the school work as a team to help each other find ways to help students, Browning said.
As an example, she pulled out some illustrated math cards she uses. They were created by kindergarten teacher Kristine Brixius, who has made a series of materials that are available online on a teacher-to-teacher website called TeachersPayTeachers.com.
Learning to read can be hard, Browning said, and, in the beginning, many children think they don’t like reading because they don’t know how. She likes being present when they start to make connections and discover that they do, indeed, enjoy reading and may even start sneaking a read when they are supposed to be doing something else.
Browning doesn’t stop working to help children when the school day ends. Browning’s “school brain,” as she calls it, seldom shuts down, and, while she is driving home or fixing supper or watching a baseball game, she will find herself thinking about the best ways to help a particular student learn.
“It’s my life,” she said. “It’s what I love to do.”