By Jim Fickess GSN Contributor
Instruction strategies born in an East Valley classroom take a big step onto the global stage in July during the International Literacy Association Conference in Austin, Texas.
The idea for the program, Astute Hoot: Tools for the Wise Teacher, started in 2010 when Jennifer Zoglman, a special-education teacher, and Jessica Murphy, a second-grade teacher, began co-teaching a reading-intervention block at Weinberg Elementary, a Chandler Unified district school in Gilbert.
They soon became inspired to form Astute Hoot, which provides reading and mathematics intervention tools and services.
“We were exasperated by extreme budget cuts, which had left out students with limited resources and services to meet their needs,” said Zoglman, who now teaches special ed at Mesquite Elementary in Gilbert. “We were frustrated to see a system failing students as the cuts were leading to one-size-fits-all education. We knew we had to change the status quo because our students deserved better.”
Zoglman and Murphy teamed with graphic designer Tina Rataj-Berard, who is Zoglman’s sister, to create a cast of animal characters that teach critical K-3 literacy and math strategies. These characters, along with accompanying books, hands-on tools, lessons and graphic organizers, supplement and enhance district-prescribed curricula.
An example of the 10 strategy animals is Peter, the Predicting Possum. He is in Astute Hoot materials to help students use picture and word clues to predict what will happen next in a story.
“As our engaging animals help bring the strategies to life, our most reluctant students blossom into motivated, enthusiastic learners,” said Murphy, who will move to a kindergarten classroom at Weinberg in the coming school year. “Students make an immediate connection to our animals. They beg to meet new animals and ask for extra resources for home. Our students consistently make tremendous gains in both their academics and confidence.”
Once they experienced success in the classroom, the Astute Hoot trio wanted to share their resources and teaching tools with more students. The program’s hands-on tools were licensed by a major education publisher and their digital products are sold on teacherspayteachers.com and astutehoot.com. The small business has grown its sales domestically and internationally. Its program now is used to teach English as a second language in Russia, Fiji and West Africa, among other places.
Astutehoot.com offers teacher-support information, including a weekly blog that addresses timely issues, such as how to prepare for Meet the Teacher Night and the first day of school.
The decision to exhibit at the International Literacy Association Conference, with vendors that include the giant education publishing houses and thousands of visitors, was a logical next step in Astute Hoot’s business evolution. But the prestige of the ILA comes with a big price tag. The conference, which runs July 20-23 in Austin, will cost Astute Hoot thousands of dollars to cover its exhibitor fees and product shipping.
They’re doing it on the cheap. Austin is Rataj-Berard’s hometown, so her house will become Astute Hoot’s headquarters and hotel.
“We have a business, so we, of course, want our investment to pay off,” Murphy said. “But we are educators first. Helping other teachers and students is our passion. We can’t wait to meet hundreds of educators at ILA and share our resources with them.”