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Hillsborough teacher gets young minds thinking about learning styles

Courtney Burkett’s self-published children’s book is based on students she has taught.
Teacher Courtney Burkett reads her book, "An A My Way," to second grade students at Brooker Elementary School on Oct. 1, 2019. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff]
Published Oct. 9

BRANDON — Teacher Courtney Burkett used to look for books that would reassure her students that everybody learns differently.

She found plenty about confidence, about trying hard. But she couldn’t find a children’s book about the way some students read by stringing letters together while others rely on words they know by sight, or how some children count on their fingers while others add tiles on the ceiling.

So she wrote one herself.

“Kids feel uncomfortable about using what they already have,” she said after sharing her message to two second grade classes at Brooker Elementary School. “And the truth is, kids don’t know that adults are like that. We all have our own way of doing things. We just don’t tell anybody.”

An A My Way, which Burkett self-published through Xlibris, explores differentiated learning in 24 pages of rhymes and illustrations that are based on students the 38-year-old military spouse has taught in Virginia, Georgia, and now Florida.

The last sentence of the page is always a celebration: “They all wrote a sentence and each sentence was complete.” The students — David, Zaza, Ethan, Isaac and the others — all are real children she has taught, she said. She illustrated the book entirely with monsters, “because I wanted all children to be able to relate to the story and not worry about if a character in the book didn’t represent them."

A self-described “career switcher” who started out in marketing, Burkett said she always had a creative side.

But she was so tentative about the book that she wrote it on her phone, and sat on the material for about a year before she went searching for a publisher.

The book is now available on websites including Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites for $21.99. Burkett said she will know in late November if it has sold enough to earn a profit.

"I know my parents bought one," she said.

Differentiated learning is an issue that has long vexed teachers and parents, especially when it comes to the roughly 15 percent of students in exceptional student education, or ESE.

Of 384 instructional vacancies that were advertised in Hillsborough County last week, close to a third were in special education jobs including 70 for teachers of “varying exceptionalities,” which is is Burkett’s job title.

But the book’s theme applies to all students and parents she said.

Burkett’s audience at Brooker included students with disabilities, students with no diagnosed disabilities, and students who were new to the English language.

When asked to discuss the book, they came pretty close to articulating Burkett's message.

"I think it's about just doing something that you need to figure out in your own way," Faith Barile said.

Mason Schelmety took another stab: “Don’t copy anyone,” he said. “Just do it your way and it’s okay if you don’t do it right. You have a lot of chances.”

They thanked Burkett and told her she should write another book, which she already is. Like the first one, it’s in her phone. It’s about school behavior.

Working title: Dude, That’s Not Cool.

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