Education alumna Kendra Vaughn’s creative teaching gets kids reading

Kendra Vaughn

Reading Specialist Kendra Vaughn has helped numerous students in the Hazelwood School District learn to love reading after graduating from UMSL with an MEd in 2005. Her 17-year career and teaching style has earned her an Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award and landed her on NCI’s 30 Leaders in their Thirties list, among other honors. (Photo by Marisol Ramirez)

As a child, Kendra Vaughn used to teach to her stuffed animals neatly lined up in her room.

“I would write out worksheets and put it in front of the teddy bears and the dolls. I would teach them for two hours until it was dinner time,” said Vaughn, who went on to earn her teacher certification and MEd from the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 2005.

Now a reading specialist at Brown Elementary School in the Hazelwood School District, Vaughn’s students have changed since those childhood play days. Where teddy bears once sat, now sit elementary students with bright eyes and youthful possibility.

What hasn’t changed is her enthusiasm for teaching, especially for teaching literacy. She currently services 34 students in grades K-5. After 17 years in the profession – all within the Hazelwood School District – she continues to test out new tactics that get kids reading.

“I’m always trying to reflect. Teachers have to reflect,” she said. “I ask, ‘What can I do to improve myself?’ And bring that knowledge back to share with my kids or include in my instruction.”

That constant aim toward improvement has resulted in some creative educational activities.

Vaughn hosted the PAWS for Reading program at her school, a local project that encourages reading confidence and skill by having children read to trained pet-therapy dogs.

“The students absolutely loved it,” Vaughn said. “The dogs don’t judge their reading, allowing students the opportunity to make errors and try again with less pressure. “

Vaughn also incorporated a local coupon reading incentive program into her class, working with store managers to offer exclusive deals to students who complete reading initiatives. For example, if a student reads 10 books, he or she can qualify for a free or discounted meal or item. She’s arranged numerous such deals with the local Culver’s, Cold Stone Creamery, Dairy Queen, Burger King, Incredible Pizza, Pasta House, Raging Rivers and even Six Flags.

“You have to reach out to the community and engage them in improving literacy,” said Vaughn, who believes reading is the foundation for so many other social interactions, professions and academic subjects.

Within the classroom, she has her students keep personal journals and reflect on what they’ve read. She encourages interaction with the text and strongly believes in reading, reacting and making things relative.

Vaughn’s lessons dig deeper than the basic comprehension questions. She wants to hear how students might have questioned the article or book, how they relate to a character or decision and how they might have written the story instead.

“I feel it gives them a voice,” she said. “When you give them a voice, they become more invested and develop a relationship with reading and writing.”

Vaughn partially credits her imaginative teaching to her UMSL College of Education days in former faculty member Allison Hoewisch’s literacy courses. Hoewisch had teacher candidates take the words off the page or cut the pictures out and hang them around the room and asked them to rethink stories and reading activities.

“There were just so many ideas she created that made me say, ‘Wow. I never thought of that,’” Vaughn said. “I came from traditional schooling, in rows and – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but you could tell Hoewisch was leaning toward the future of a more cooperative, active classroom.”

That’s a lesson and dynamic that’s stuck with Vaughn and also earned her some recognition.

She’s the recipient of an Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award and has been the Hazelwood School District Teacher of the Year for her building. She was also named to North County Inc.’s 2016 list of 30 Leaders in their Thirties and received an Unsung Heroine Award from the Top Ladies of Distinction.

But Vaughn says that she’s not in it for the awards. Her focus has always been and remains to be on helping her students unleash their reading talents and truly learn – not just about an academic subject but also about the influence of literacy in their lives.

“I strongly believe teaching is a gift you’re born with,” said Vaughn, thinking back to her early days, “and I was destined to teach.”


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