Helping Them Soar

BURLESON, TX — In this city of character, Molly C. Denson operates in full-spectrum generosity. Teaching her students at Kerr Middle School with respect so they will learn to respect, she tells them over and over again, “You’re not a failure.” And as every good employer will do, Miss D. works with each student according to where they are in their development. Miss D. will retire after 39 years of service at the end of this school year.

For the last 10 years, she has taught in Burleson Independent School District. She’ll direct her helpfulness to veterans in need of companionship. But for now, she pours forth her energies for the sake of her students’ wholeness. Miss D. serves in three roles: chairman of the special education department, language arts teacher and manager of the learning lab. She teaches language arts two days a week and math during special education classes two days per week. Juggling carefully to prevent becoming stale in any one, she teaches writing all along — even in math, where she might have her students write a paragraph using first person to describe the problem set before them.

215bur-wIn reading, she might have three students focused on genre, one on plot development and four on voice. Energetically moving from student to student, helping them achieve objectives set by Texas State Education Agency, she mines her memory for attention-getting expressions for the lesson at hand. Along with her hardworking team of teachers, Miss D. uses tricks of the trade to transform students. She leads 11 certified special education teachers and 13 instructional paraprofessionals like Becky Layne, who manages the learning lab for students needing special accommodations when Miss D. is teaching in another classroom. “

We walk in every day and know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it,” Miss D. said. The teachers’ task is to review the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) objectives — which are measured by the STARR test and necessary to move on to the next class — while moving forward throughout the year in only 60 minutes each day. “It’s a challenge, sometimes, to see how many different things you can come up with so kids won’t be bored,” Miss D. said. If she notices their attention wavering, she changes her approach to make sure there’s a buy-in. Her favorite technique is to show them how they are going to use the concept she’s teaching in the real world. In math, her students take fractions and put them into a recipe. When she asks them to quadruple the recipe, they see math’s relevance to real life. In the process, Miss D. moves in and out of the desks, checking their work right then and there, correcting them and moving them to the right understanding immediately.

Not satisfi ed with giving F’s on their papers, she adjusts her presentation so each student masters the concept. All year long, for instance, language arts students learn every conceivable trait of human nature in order to analyze reading assignments and write essays. Even the wall of the language lab Miss D. manages boasts The Expository Pillar, teaching the fi ve-paragraph pattern for writing effective short stories. Miss D.’s enthusiastic operating philosophy instills the confi dence in her students that everyone can learn something new each day. She applies the same theory to herself. This year, in order to help her reading class learn about character traits in a manner refreshing to her, she is using The Me Bag. Full of collected stuff — one man’s trash and another man’s treasure —The Me Bag rests atop Miss D.’s desk.

She pulls one item at a time from the bag. Holding it under a special camera mounted above her desk, she projects the image of the object on a big screen. “Then I ask my students to describe what characteristics they fi nd in me from that object,” she said. They have a cheat sheet in hand, listing almost 160 character traits from A to Z, some positive and some negative. Concepts, such as The Me Bag, often come from brainstorming sessions with Kerr’s four other language arts teachers, who share ideas that did or did not work for their students.

Each teacher may customize ideas for their own students, according to their TEA pacing guides. “Planning together makes it fresh,” Miss D. said. Every core subject teacher takes students to a computer lab once per week. Miss D.’s classes use Study Island, a math and reading language station. Another lab works them through reading toward the sixth-grade TEKS using diagnostic tests to pinpoint those areas that would earn them a disability label. “So, we teach them a way to get around their disability,” Miss D. explained. “Or we reteach the concept in a different manner or teach it again, straightforwardly, at their new level of maturity.” Having taught special education for almost three decades, Miss D. believes everyone has special needs. “All people have an area of weakness. That area of weakness is where you’ll fi nd their disability

If you can have a teacher help you fi gure out how to compensate for that, then you’ll soar like everybody else,” Molly Denson appreciates Becky Layne, who runs the learning lab.

Miss D. remarked. “A lot of times, even gifted and talented children have behavior issues. That’s weakness. We just don’t label it Special Ed.” Math has always been Miss D.’s strongpoint, even as a child. “Numbers were solid. No matter whether it was an angry fi ve or a happy birthday fi ve, it was a fi ve,” Miss D. explained. Her weakness was reading. Labeled retarded by teachers at her private school, her inner life consisted of thinking about how to survive the daily abuse she endured at home. She was very intelligent, fi guring out how to compensate and make A’s and B’s. In third grade, she decided to become a teacher so she could help other kids like herself. When she moved out of her childhood home to attend college, she learned to read.

She studied hard and achieved every degree necessary to teach home economics, fi rst, and later special education. She brought her dream to fruition. At Kerr, students in all of her classes are taught tools they can use to compensate for their weakness until those tools are removed. For example, many of Miss D.’s sixth-graders have to use a multiplication chart. Knowing some cannot add and subtract in their minds, she teaches them basic calculator functions. “It’s perfectly acceptable in the real world to pull out my phone and use its calculator,” Miss D. said. Giving children and adults new perspectives, Miss D.’s determination enables generations to thrive in the real world.

Written by Melissa Rawlins.