Juices literally flew through the air into outstretched hands as Elizabeth Kelly tried to get her group rehydrated before they caught the bus home.
Dress rehearsal to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” had gone well. Everyone had been rewarded with time on the basketball court. Now, buses were waiting and sweaty heads were snatching up their things getting ready to go home.
Drama is what Kelly is all about. A third-grade teacher at Lone Star Elementary School, using drama goes well beyond helping children put on an annual theatrical performance. Instead, it is what she uses to engage children at every level of their learning. Trying to convey her own love of reading and language she brings in a dramatic flair that demands attention.
“If children aren’t paying attention,” Kelly said. “They’re lost.”
And while many teachers are good storytellers or use a charismatic approach to learning, Kelly takes it so much farther, illustrating each teaching point with flamboyant costumes and characters that keep students on their toes and aching for more.
“She’s always full of surprises,” said 9-year-old Alicia Ibit. “She twists it up.”
Kelly is well-known for her dramatic approach to engaging children and has captured media attention in the past for doing so. Whether it’s bringing them to a School Board meeting on keeping the school library open or dressing up as a lasso-ing rodeo queen trying to round up punctuation, she is always looking to punch up students’ engagement and understanding.
The list of characters that wander into the Hogwarts-themed classroom range from Iggy the Inference Investigator to the fortune telling Paula Predictor — each one serving up a heavy dose of learning mixed with a little enchantment.
But in the midst of the theatrics is a serious commitment to presenting material in a way that makes children enjoy learning and have a sense of belonging to their school and community.
“Just the way she is, she gets them excited,” said parent Kim Gocela, whose daughter Isabel attended Kelly’s class. “My daughter wants to stay at school.”
Her techniques initially grew out of the work of Lori Oczkus, a nationally recognized literacy and reading comprehension coach, but have gone much farther than the original base of characters and methods Oczkus put together. That often means taking students beyond what’s in a standard textbook. Kelly spends hours researching topics and methods that other teachers use and pulls on a strong knowledge of current young adult literature to help reign students in.
“I find a good book that exemplifies what I’m trying to teach and use it to model and hook them,” Kelly said.
“I always look at what’s available. I connect it in a silly way to an exaggerated character … and use costumes, accents and fun to get the students involved,” she said. “I love bad jokes, so I usually think of some sort of pun that can go with their name, and there almost always needs to be some alliteration.”
The most frustrating part of her day is not being able to reach a child.
“She’s able to reach students who don’t normally like school,” said principal Amy Lingren. “Every child should have a teacher like Kelly at least one time in their school career.”
Lingren said that Kelly’s puts a tremendous amount of energy into her teaching, which is also visible in her participation in the school community, being the first to volunteer when help is needed. That energy helps her find different methods and modalities or styles to help her reach every child.
“It’s easier when it’s fun,” said 10-year-old Ethan Hundley.