SOUTHINGTON — Room 234 in Southington High School is lined with bookshelves filled with dozens of books. On top of the file cabinets in the office are plastic baskets filled with even more books for students to choose from.
On Wednesday afternoon Corey Johnson, a junior at the high school, was poking through some of the books packed in the tiny room.
“You would like that book,” Jennifer Paul said to Johnson as he sifted through a bin.
Paul has been a literacy specialist at the high school for the past four years. When students are interested in a certain book that the school doesn’t already have, Paul purchases it with her money. Through the years, she’s developed a collection in her office that she shares with Stacey Simpson, another literacy specialist. Students can borrow books from the tiny library to read at their leisure.
“It’s like a clown car in here between periods,” Paul said laughing. “They’re becoming readers and that can change everything for the better. When they come and ask for books it’s just so amazing.”
Because of her dedication to students, enthusiasm for teaching, and passion for helping students read, Paul was honored as the 2014-15 Teacher of the Year by the school district. She was also a semi-finalist for the state.
“It’s really cool,” Johnson said. “I think she deserves it.”
Before she became the literacy specialist at the high school four years ago, Paul worked at Kennedy Middle School for seven years and taught sixth grade. She also taught first grade at Strong School for a year and in the Bethany Public Schools for three years.
Paul recently received her sixth-year degree from Southern Connecticut State University in reading. She has her master’s in elementary education from the University of New Haven.
As the literacy specialist, Paul goes into social studies classrooms and assists the students and teachers with writing exercises. She also helps the teacher to incorporate literacy strategies. Students learn argumentative writing, informational writing, expository writing, and they learn to close read. Simpson, the other literacy specialist, focuses on the science classes.
“With the Common Core standards it incorporated literacy instruction in all content areas,” Paul said.
Simpson and Paul share an office together and work closely.
“This office is always packed because (students) want to see her,” Simpson said. “She has a gift with them. She’s a role model. She finds the best books and she finds books that teenagers want to read.”
Throughout the week, Paul often works alongside Candace Patten, a social studies teacher at the high school.
“She’s amazing. She’s infectious. She makes the kids want to do more,” Patten said. “The kids get motivated just by her walking in the room.”
Paul also helps facilitate book clubs, which she started doing last year. There are about 10 different clubs and 70 students involved. They meet once a month.
Within each club Paul establishes a student-leader to be in charge and in contact with the other students. Johnson leads one of the clubs.
“I thought they could benefit from these experiences,” Paul said.
While walking through the high school Wednesday afternoon after the end-of-the-day bell sounded, Paul bumped into one of her students, senior Ashley Christensen. Christensen is also part of the book club where they are reading “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.
“Hi Mrs. Paul,” Christensen said as she walked among dozens of students in the hallway. “I tried to read more last night but I fell asleep.”
Paul laughed and replied, “once you get into it, you will love it.”
Many call Paul humble, because even as she was awarded the Teacher of the Year, she felt she didn’t deserve it.
“It felt awkward because any teacher will tell you we don’t do this job alone. I kept saying, ‘Are you sure? Shouldn’t it be someone else?’” Paul said laughing.
But it’s not the award that drives Paul to go above and beyond, it’s the children.
“You can change their lives with the things you do,” Paul said. “You forget what power you have as a teacher to make their day. It’s easy to forget these things but it’s important to keep smiling and have a positive attitude because sometimes you are their rock. I love the kids.”