Only 9% of students at Waianae High School can demonstrate competency in English Language Arts.
It’s an alarming statistic.
But for Shay Kaleo’oluho’iloliokawaipahe Zykova, MEd ’20, it’s also a motivator.
The ninth-grade English teacher says she’s on a mission to not only bolster her students’ reading comprehension and literacy skills, but help them develop a passion for words. That’s why she joined forces with her colleagues in 2020 to form a literacy team at her school with the intention of reshaping the Language Arts curriculum at Waianae High. She hopes to eventually take the model statewide.
“There’s a big need for literacy intervention and development,” said Zykova, who has designed her curriculum to put students at the center of their learning. They get to choose—as a class—what novels and other texts they want to read and what topics they want to write about. And along the way, they get intensive literacy instruction aimed at dramatically improving their reading and writing skills.
“We couldn’t stick with the status quo,” she said. “How can we read Shakespeare if I’ve got kids struggling to read words like ‘cat’? I want to give my students complete control over the novels they’re reading in class. It’s really exciting, a little bit stressful and 100% student-directed.”
Zykova’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
The National Council of Teachers of English recently named her a recipient of its 2021 Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award. The recognition includes mentorship support, career development opportunities and an invitation to attend and present at upcoming NCTE conferences.
Zykova is delighted at the chance to build her skills—and build out her program.
“The real goal is to reframe what literacy is. I want my students to read things for fun,” she said.
Zykova started teaching in Hawaii in 2018, after a stint as an ESL instructor in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Her husband is Russian.) “It really was the starting point for everything,” Zykova said, of teaching English overseas. “I got that job and realized, ‘I don’t really know English as well as I thought I did.’
“That was my introduction to teaching.”
At the same time, Zykova was in contact with friends back in Hawaii who were teaching in public and charter schools. She said she realized that she needed to return to the islands—and pursue a degree in teaching. During her first year in Hawaii schools, she served as a long-term substitute at Kuuelawela Elementary in Kalihi. The following year, she was selected for the Teach for America (TFA) program and assigned to Waianae High. At the same time, as part of a partnership with TFA, she enrolled in Chaminade’s Master of Education in Instructional Leadership cohort program.
She said that first year of teaching was anything but easy. “I had high school students reading at the kindergarten and preschool level. I thought, ‘What is going?’ I was completely lost,” she said. But she got through it, thanks to the relationships she was building at her school and at Chaminade.
She quickly realized that the “prescribed curriculum” would need some tweaking.
And she started to look for ways to make reading and writing relevant to students. For her students’ argumentative essays, for example, she encouraged them to choose topics that were of consequence to them. Some considered the debate over the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea. Others wrote about being multi-ethnic in Hawaii. One student wrote about the benefits of slippers over shoes.
As Zykova continuously tweaked the trajectory of her class, she says she was thankful to have Chaminade peers and mentors who could offer additional insight and guidance. She said Chaminade instructor Ralph Keahi Renaud inspired her to reflect on her Native Hawaiian identity and how it informs her teaching. After his course, she enrolled in Hawaiian language classes (and is still taking them).
Zykova also found mentors in Chaminade instructor Jessica Martinez, who taught language development, and Associate Professor and Director of Teacher Preparation Programs Katrina Roseler, who oversaw her capstone experience.
The preparation helped Zykova through 2020, a tough year for everyone—especially students and teachers. She said remote learning allowed her to throw her old plan out the window entirely and try a new direction aimed at getting students engaged (and keeping them engaged).
“My attendance was 85 to 95%. The majority of students were in class every single day,” she said, adding one of her many future goals is to help her students not only expand what they’re reading but start telling their own stories. “I’m hoping my students will publish,” Zykova said.