Nora Flynn, outside at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, recently won the 2022 Barack Obama Library Award. | Alex Rogals

Nora Flynn is a literacy specialist at Percy Julian Middle School. And she says it is not a secret in Oak Park’s District 97 public schools that Black and Brown students are overrepresented in “striving readers” groups.

But there is progress being made and having their teacher receive the 2022 Barack Obama Library Award from the Illinois Reading Council is, she says, affirmation both for herself and her students.

That, she says, is why she nominated herself for the award.

Flynn said teachers tend to say, “they do it for the kids” and wish to keep the progress of students quiet because it’s not always something students want public. She said while that’s important, it’s also important to acknowledge your work as their teacher and the work of the students.

“I think it’s really important that we do start talking about that and say, ‘I can get this award,’” Flynn said who is a member of the Illinois Reading Council. 

Nora Flynn stands for a photo outside of the school on Sept. 19, 2022, at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The prize for winning the honor is a $1,000 collection of books that represent Black and Brown characters and cultures. The collection has allowed her “striving readers” to make deeper connections and find content that’s reflective of themselves, Flynn said.

The award was created by Barack Obama in 2006 when he was a senator from Illinois as a gift to the IRC to award a teacher they deem deserving.

Flynn, who has been at Percy Julian, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., for four years, said, “It’s just really nice to have a moment where someone’s saying good job. But even more important was the fact that we could recognize the hard work my kids were doing.

“I just felt so grateful that someone besides me, and besides their families, and all the people in the school, could say to my readers – we see your hard work, and we want to recognize that,” Flynn said.

Flynn’s classroom of striving readers are students who are working towards reading at their grade level. Their placement into the class is determined by state test scores, and also by listening to them read, Flynn said, and talking to parents and teachers about whether the student appears to be struggling.

A lot of what Flynn assists her striving readers with are technical skills such as decoding, phonics, grammar and writing, as well as foundational work like making reading “social” again at the middle school level, she said.

Flynn said in middle school, reading time becomes independent and it can be an adjustment after reading aloud and discussing books as a class in elementary school. In Flynn’s classroom, reading time is like a “book club,” she said.

“We’re able to have this social time where we’re able to discuss as we’re reading, not after reading, and it also just has allowed so much more choice,” Flynn said.

Having important discussions about topics relevant to her students’ lives has made comprehension rise, and this new collection of culturally relevant books has furthered  that, Flynn said.

“The books in particular allow us to just level up quite a bit to have that joy of reading again,” she said. She keeps in mind that not every kid working on reading is a “reluctant reader.”

“Some kids who are working on reading really love reading, and they just need more resources that appeal to them,” she said.

Jeremy Christian, Julian’s principal, said looking at data points, students who were not at their grade level in reading came into Flynn’s class and now leave reading at their grade level, and sometimes, reaching above the level.

“You can see them making those gains,” Christian said.

Flynn said that while adults need to work on the structural issues leading to students of color being overrepresented in her classes in the meantime, “kids get to be kids; they get to be readers.”

Flynn said one of her goals is to make sure that her students feel those structural issues are not their burden to bear. Having books that are reflective of her students experience, but also of interest helps them be themselves as readers, developing and growing.

“[The collection] opens up more experiences, especially to the diversity aspects,” Christian said. “It helps them read things that they may not have known about before.”

Christian said growing up as an African American student, he read books about people who didn’t look like him, and he sees the new collection available to his students creating an impact.

“When the students actually have a book, and they can look at the cover of a person that looks like them, or a story that aligns more closely to them and their experiences, it’s wildly impactful,” Christian said.

Flynn said winning this award is not only a renewal of what her job is, but it’s a representation of one of the mottos at the core of her class: Take heart, go farther.

When people think of a striving reader, the reward for getting better is that is gets harder, Flynn said, so this award helped her class “take heart” – making her and her students feel like they’re being noticed for their hard work. With this heart, though, it will be their responsibility to go farther, she said.

“As a teacher, it’s my job to keep propelling these kids so they can access these books,” Flynn said. “And they’re going to do that hard work along the way, so the reward is to take a bigger, stronger, more complex book off the shelf.”

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