Innovator Honored: Festa takes unique approach to literacy

The deluge of electronics in today’s world can certainly consume a person’s daily life — and that can be dangerous for children, especially when this technological smorgasbord cuts into learning.
Kristen Festa knows all too well how the allure of Minecraft, Instagram and Fortnite can easily replace the love of a good book, which is why Sunnyside School’s reading leader keeps her lessons fresh and innovative. And the results are higher literacy test scores and engaged readers.
“In world of growing technology, even though we’ve seen positive things with technology, what I do find … it is a challenge for us to inspire children to enjoy reading as well,” said Festa, who was honored as the school district’s Innovator of the Month and made a presentation in March about her work. “Through innovative ways, I have tried to come up with things to inspire students.”
Festa said one focus has been “reinventing” Sunnyside School’s Academic Support Center, where students now have the benefit of flexible seating. Children get to sit on bouncy balls, which allows for varying movement, and rocking chairs when reading. Younger students also have various options for developing literacy skills, such as using rice to form letters.
“I went out and purchased many types of flexible seating options for our students who attend Academic Support Center to give an appropriate learning environment that gets them excited to come in,” said Festa. “These are just different innovative ways to reach all students. We’re trying to touch every different learning style out there.”
Festa listed other options available for developing reading skills, including a pen pal project connecting Sunnyside School students with Shelton High School students. This year, Festa said, the students are reading Stuart Little, and each week the students read a specific chapter, then respond to questions.
“If we get one student to pick up a book, this is a success,” said Festa, adding that, at end of the school year, the Sunnyside School students participating as pen pals will visit the high school and meet the high schooler to who they have been communicating. “This is another innovative way to spark that interest.”
Other successes, Festa said, were the school’s Vocabulary Fashion Show, during which students receive a word and have to dress up as that word; the Vocabulary Parade; and Scribble Day, which integrates social emotional learning with literacy. In the book, I’m Not Just A Scribble, students read about the character, Scribble, who being made fun of because he is different. Festa said teachers and students read the book together, and she watched as children enjoyed the reading while learning to be empathetic to others, and then students of all ages got to draw some scribbles.
The results can be seen with another success — Sunnyside School third graders were recognized nationally with a top score in the WordMasters Challenge, garnering 197 points, 18 more than the next closest school in the competition.
Festa said she also works to bring parents together with children in the classroom setting to encourage reading, and allow her students a chance to show off their literacy skills. For the past two years, she has held parent-child literacy workshops, which has children sitting with their parents and have them work together.
“It is wonderful to see what the kids know, and the kids get to show off to parents what they already know. It has been very successful,” added Festa.
Festa thanked school Principal Amy Yost, saying that without her support, dedication and encouragement on daily basis none of her work would have been possible.
Yost said Festa has created a welcome environment, “transforming her room and thinking outside the box” in getting students to enjoy coming into her room and developing a love for reading in a world that has so many ways for children to become distracted during the learning process.
“She is continually digging for fun ideas, like Scribble Day, and finding new ways to encourage kids to read and have fun reading,” said Yost, adding that Festa really encourages a lifelong love of reading.
“(Kristen) is sparking interest in reading through innovation,” said school Superintendent Dr. Chris Clouet. “She is one of those that energizes lots of people.”