Sarasota educator is reading teacher of the year

Sandy Waite shares a story with her 4th grade students at Southside Elementary School on Friday. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner

SARASOTA - Games. Playing. Fun. These are not the sort of words you expect to hear during a reading lesson. But this is how it works in Sandy Waite's fourth-grade classroom at Southside Elementary School.

Waite was honored as the Florida Elementary School Literacy Teacher of the Year in November. The award, given each year by the Florida Reading Association, celebrates a teacher who applies innovative methods to teach young children literacy skills.

In Waite's class, children master reading using music, art and lots of movement. In college, she briefly considered majoring in music therapy. She ended up in education, but the focus on the arts stuck. Since becoming a teacher in 1996 she said she's had some detractors. But experience is on her side.

From 2009-2011 she worked as an intensive reading teacher at Gocio Elementary. Each year she taught students targeted to get a failing score on the end-of-year standardized tests, then called the FCAT. Instead of solely drilling them with reading lessons, Waite injected fun into her classroom.

More than 70 percent of all those students went on to pass the exam.

"That's when I thought: 'This matters,'" Waite said. "These kids make such gains by using alternative means."

Science, too, is on Waite's side. Study after study has concluded that kids learn best when they're active. The benefits of movement and play extend to other subjects such as math. Researchers at Arizona State University found that children who acted out word problems were more likely to get the numbers right.

Students engage in "belly writing" in Sandy Waite's class at Southside Elementary School on Friday. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner 

Students engage in "belly writing" in Sandy Waite's class at Southside Elementary School on Friday. Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner 

Closing the gap

Waite has long partnered with Youth Experiencing Art. The Sarasota-based YEA program enables teachers and artists to work together in the classroom.

She also gives conferences on teaching methods throughout Florida. One technique she's known for - and a favorite with her students - is "belly writing." During some reading and writing lessons, the children are free to lounge on the floor with their notebooks.

"It helps you stretch and relax while you're learning," says Jesse, 10, a transplant from South Africa.

"In South Africa we never got to do anything fun like this. We just sat at our desks."

Jesse's really into reptiles - practically an expert, he says casually - so he really appreciates Waite's emphasis on reading for pleasure.

This worked with her struggling readers, too, Waite said.

"The students often arrived in my resource room with the feeling that they hated reading and were terrible at it," Waite said. "I had to change their attitudes and try to develop a real love of reading."

While getting back on track is a challenge for struggling readers, "if they see themselves as readers and writers, we can help close this gap," Waite said.

From theater to song, the goal is to improve kids' reading comprehension and fluency while not sacrificing the joy of reading. It helps when learning feels like play. Sometimes, the children catch on. Like one time, when the class was doing karaoke and a child shot up in the air, gasping: "Ms. Waite, when we're looking at the lyrics we're READING!"