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Perspective | First-year K-3 teachers gain literacy supports through classroom grants

Rebecca Boyles likes to say she was born to be a teacher because her birthday typically falls on the first day of school.

“I became a teacher because I believe that every child deserves an adult that will never give up on them and understands the power of connection between a teacher and student. I knew that I could be the caring adult that never gave up on students in my classroom, while also teaching them to have a lifelong love of learning,” she said.

Kelly Mathewson has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember.

“I remember teaching my stuffed animals on my bed, doing worksheets and math problems, and making my big sister sit down to learn math and literacy. There have been a lot of teachers in my life that made a great impact on me, that I still keep in touch with to this day; and I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” she said.

Kelly Mathewson reads with her student, Jazlynn Griffin. Courtesy of the Mebane Foundation

Supporting young teachers

To support passionate young teachers like these, the Mebane Foundation offered $50,000 in classroom grants for the 2020-21 school year to first-year teachers in North Carolina teaching kindergarten through third grade. Boyles, Mathewson, and 22 other teachers received a one-time grant of up to $1,500 to furnish their classrooms with reading/literacy support materials or to receive literacy-related professional development.

“Setting up a classroom is expensive, and young teachers straight out of college entering their first classroom have to purchase their own supplies, everything from books to learning stations to visual aids for the walls — before receiving their first paycheck,” said Foundation President Larry Colbourne. “We hope that these $1,500 grants will give enthusiastic young educators the opportunity to practice innovative approaches to literacy they may have learned in school or to explore their own ideas without struggling to pay for the supplies. It was inspiring to read their thoughts and ideas in their applications. Who knows what exciting new techniques may be born!”

Building a classroom library

Rebecca Boyles with some of the 300 new books she was able to purchase with her Mebane Foundation first-year teacher grant. Courtesy of the Mebane Foundation

“When I applied for the grant, I made a long list of items that I thought would be nice to purchase for my classroom, and ultimately decided that I would use the grant to expand my classroom library,” said Boyles, who teaches second grade at Park View Elementary School in Mooresville where she did her student teaching and worked at the literacy camp for three summers.

“Now more than ever, kids need a real book in their hands. They need the chance to look at the pictures in front of them and turn the pages on their own, rather than having a computer do it for them. My students have been attending school in a virtual format since March 2020. I knew that having more books in my classroom library would be beneficial to my students this year, and my students in years to come,” said Boyles. She went on to say:

“I decided to purchase book packs from Scholastic so I could have a variety of books in my library. My college reading courses at Appalachian taught me that students need to have books that they can see themselves represented in.”

“Books act as mirrors, showing the child a character that they can relate to in a book, and books act as doors that allow children to see others that are not like them. Of the 10 book packs that I purchased, the diversity book pack helps meet my goal of making sure that all students can see themselves represented in my classroom library.”

“I would not have been able to purchase these items on my own. I knew that a large classroom library was out of reach on a first-year teacher budget while I was still paying off my college student loans.”

“Before receiving the grant, I had a small classroom library started. Throughout college, I constantly went to book sales and collected old books from family members, friends, and neighbors. When holidays and special occasions came around, I asked family members to purchase books for my classroom library.”

“My first few days of teaching have been exhausting but very rewarding. If you would have told me that I would start my teaching career as a virtual teacher, I would have called you crazy. But, it is a great learning experience.”

“I believe that before any learning can happen, a relationship must be established. I will always remember my favorite teachers throughout my K-12 schooling who never gave up on me and understood the power of connection. It has been difficult building relationships with my students virtually because we are not having the in-person, hands-on experiences that we would typically have the first week of school, however, my district has an amazing technology department that provides each student with a device to use for virtual learning. I have tried to build relationships the ‘old school’ way by sending my students postcards and birthday cards in the mail to let them know that I am still thinking of them.”

“My favorite part of my first week has been taking my students on a tour of their classroom and showing them their classroom library. I love watching their eyes light up and their smiles get bigger as they see all of the books that they have to look forward to when we return to school. We have started reading a few of the books in the library, but, I don’t want to ruin the surprises that await my students in our classroom library.”

Creating a welcoming environment

Mathewson, who teaches first grade at Fred L. Wilson Elementary in Kannapolis, where she also did her student teaching, learned about the grant through an email from her advisor at UNC-Charlotte and thought, why not? 

“When I found out I had been selected I was really, really excited. I didn’t realize just how much it would cost to set up my classroom until I started purchasing the items I needed with the money I received. I could not have done it by myself and I am so thankful for the Mebane Foundation grant.”

Although the school provided math manipulatives and things needed for basic literacy like anchor chart paper and writing paper, and a few books for her classroom library, there were still many things she needed to make her classroom a warm and welcoming environment for her students. But the most important thing on her list — books. 

In her application, Mathewson wrote, “The students in my future classroom would benefit from a vast amount of books that are fit for their individual reading level as well as a whole group reading time. I would love to purchase books for all parts of the day to get my students excited about being a reader including books for shared reading, guided reading, and read-aloud. . . With this grant, I would be able to expand the classroom library which allows my students to have a great choice into what books they are reading and what interests them. In turn, this would lead to better engagement and success in literacy amongst my first graders. As research shows, the amount of time students spend reading a book that interests them greatly improves their overall knowledge and academic skills.”

“I would also love to purchase books for myself to read and learn from as a literacy teacher to expand my knowledge of literacy techniques to also help with my students’ academic growth. I would be able to share this knowledge with my grade level team as well as the instructional coach and teachers in other grades, impacting the whole schools’ improvement with literacy teaching.”

She started at Goodwill and thrift stores to make the most of her money. In addition to books, Mathewson purchased lap desks and floor cushions for flexible seating, fidget bands for chairs, and classroom supplies and decorations.

“I also purchased Velcroed ‘sit spots’ that you stick to the carpet so that students know where they sit, which has ended up being especially useful this year because I have been able to put them six feet apart.”

Mathewson has two cohorts of students for at least the first nine weeks of school; nine students that she has in class on Mondays and Tuesdays and teaches virtually on Wednesdays through Fridays, and six students who receive virtual instruction all five days.

Although the coronavirus has made the start of the school year challenging, Mathewson said the first couple of days in class went smoothly. “They are adjusting to mask-wearing and staying far apart but it is going to take a lot of practice particularly since they are only in the classroom two days a week.”

“I could not have done this year without this scholarship. My principal actually let me come into the building all summer to prepare my classroom. Being in the classroom and thinking of the things I needed and knowing that I had the money to buy them was crazy helpful and I am so grateful for that opportunity.”

Jeanna White
Jeanna White is a writer for the Mebane Charitable Foundation in Mocksville. Ten years as a substitute teacher for students from preschool through high school has given her a unique perspective and passion for education. White graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.