Sitting with Maureen Stolte as she describes a day in her classroom is like being in the audience of an orchestra conductor masterfully maneuvering though a prized sonata.
Stolte gets up from her desk chair and heads straight to the mp3 player sitting on the table across from her.
With a click of a button, steel drums beat through the speakers.
After the students are inside and settled, we might play a round of warm up games, she says. Music in the major mode improves mood and increases productivity, she explains, so the steel drums thump throughout the warm ups.
Stolte walks – in time – behind a row of chairs, where her students would ordinarily sit, and she rhythmically shows off some of the activity sheets, then zestfully sashays back.
Without missing a beat, she transitions to another piece of music and another task.
Now it’s an instrumental piece from Chopin, the same music that plays when it’s time for students to start their individual exercises. It both calms the energy, but stimulates the mind, she explains, which does not distract the students in the classroom, but enhances their learning time. She sways gently back in her seat and listens to the delicate notes playing for just a minute.
If you didn’t know better, you would assume Stolte teaches orchestra or band or maybe even chorus. But she does none of those: She is a reading specialist and special education literacy teacher at Brandon Middle School.
It’s a tough gig; she will be the first to tell you. She routinely sees middle school students who are reading at just the kindergarten or first grade level.
It’s her job to catch them up.
“My students come to me and they have faced years of adversity when it comes to reading,” Stolte said. “They have shut down. They last thing they want to do is read.”
So, she makes it her mission not just to get students to read, but to get them to want to read.
Often, music helps hit the right chord with her students.
“It creates a happy mood,” she said. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re going to want to do more. The things we do with joy, we will always remember.”
Whether it’s Caribbean music during vocabulary bingo, Vivaldi playing throughout reading assessments, the Cha-Cha Slide with ABCs on the floor or reading comprehension exercises with song lyrics, Stolte stealthily builds her students’ literacy through the love of music.
It pays off.
In reading terms, students are measured by their Lexile growth from year to year. On average, a middle school student improves by 70-100 Lexile a year.
Stolte’s students increase by an average of 250 Lexile.
“I stand behind the kids as they’re testing and their scores come up, and I’m just welling up,” Stolte said.
Her tactics have proven so successful she was featured in Dr. Rich Allen and W.W. Wood’s book The Rock ‘n’ Roll Classroom: Using Music to Manage Mood, Energy, and Learning, a book dedicated to the practical skill of using music effectively as well as the research regarding the power of music.
But it’s not just the improved scores or accolades that have mattered to Brandon’s staff; it’s the revitalization of students.
“Her students have shown great improvements in their reading abilities,” said Christy McQueeney, principal of Brandon Middle. “Their scores have increased significantly and they are using the skills taught in her class in all of their other classes. (Her students) now volunteer to read out loud in their core classes and feel happy in her room. ”
And that, Stolte said, is the best part of her job.
“(The students) come out with such a positive attitude,” she said. “All of the sudden, when someone calls on them to read, they don’t have to feel sick anymore… the kids begin to love reading too. I have the most awesome job in the whole wide world.”
What are your favorite books? The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and Izzy’s Fire by Nancy Wright Beasley
Where is your dream vacation spot? Norway
Who was your favorite teacher and why? My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Garcia, was my favorite teacher because he taught “outside the box” and believed in learning through experience.
What is the last movie you watched? Mr. Holland’s Opus