“She’s Got the Whole Child in Her Hands”

An award-winning Catholic-school teacher connects with children who struggle to read.

By Valerie Chernek

Faculty and students at Good Shepherd Catholic School in the Denver Archdiocese are singing the praises of Cathy O’Hollearn, a reading specialist just awarded Learning Ally’s 2018 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Teaching Award.

Mrs. O’Hollearn is one of six teachers to receive this prestigious award for her ability to connect with children who struggle to read.

“She’s got the whole child in her hands,” says the colleague who nominated her.

Students in her K-8 classes require a special kind of TLC, not only in academic support, but socially and emotionally too. These are children identified on the Dibels assessment as having gaps in their reading acquisition. Dibels stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.

These students are not likely to sit still in class or take notes. Some are hands-on learners. Some are oral learners. Most have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. You might say her students are “non-traditional” learners. Mrs. O’Hollearn calls them exceptional thinkers.

“My students process information differently,” she says. “Once you get their learning style, you meet them on their terms and give them resources and praise. They appreciate this. They begin to recognize they are special and that’s okay. I want them to be self-believers!”

“Mrs. O’Hollearn Gets Me!”

Teachers describe Mrs. O’Hollearn as having a unique way of getting to the heart of students’ reading challenges. “She is a Godsend,” said a parent. “She took my son from a fourth-grade reading level to a tenth-grade level when he was in sixth grade. “This is a game-changer!”

One youngster said, “Ms. Cathy is the best part of my day! Before her class, I hated to read; now I can’t stop reading!”

A Different Way to Process Information – Audiobooks

In addition to individualized and small group reading instruction, Mrs. O’Hollearn’s students receive access to human-read audiobooks to hear text read aloud, while following along with highlighted words on their iPad. The multisensory reading experience is a proven strategy to support students with dyslexia, who find it difficult to comprehend print.

Accessible ebooks enable more students to read the same information as their peers – just in a different medium. If they forget their textbook, they can access the digital library saving them and their teacher’s time. Mrs. O’Hollearn believes audiobooks have transformed more students to be independent learners – a skill that can be difficult if you struggle to read.

The Archdiocese Doctrine

Good Shepherd is a private, faith-based Catholic School in the heart of Denver, with a dedicated faculty, staff, and families who share core values.

The Archdiocese’s doctrine inspires academic excellence, while building a compassionate, inclusive and supportive learning environment through a school-to-home connection. “We never turn away a child who is a non-traditional learner,” adds Mrs. O’Hollearn.

The Denver Archdiocese is able to have schoolwide access to Learning Ally’s reading accommodation thanks to funding by the Zarlengo Foundation and other generous donors.

Mrs. O’Hollearn can download a book for a student who may not have Internet access at home making it easier for them to complete reading assignments.  The educational digital library provides access to over 80,000 human-read audiobooks including K-12 textbooks, literature and popular reading, plus a suite of data-driven tools for student progress monitoring.

Learning Ally is a nonprofit organization offering yearlong reading engagement competitions to keep students motivated to read and to build upon their comprehension, vocabulary, critical thinking and fluency skills.

Many of Mrs. O’Hollearn’s students now attend honors and mainstream classes. She takes great pride in watching students that she taught in kindergarten now thriving in eighth grade and preparing to go to high school. This rockstar teacher is confident that her students’ transition will be a smooth one to high school, college and career-related fields. “They are equipped with the strategies and resources that level the learning field. They also have faith in themselves as learners and the belief that whatever they set out to do, they can do it!”

Valerie Chernek is an advocate for teachers and writes about educational best practices using technology to support children with learning disabilities and special needs.