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Laurie Gill: Days in the Life of a Teacher

Laurie Gill reads in the library with students Orazio Portante, Alyssa
Cook, and Evie Moose.

By Peter Morris

The High Country of Western North Carolina is blessed to have some of the nation’s greatest
teaching professionals, in no small part because it’s just a great place to live, work, and raise a
family, as most instructors will readily affirm. While local teaching positions are eagerly sought
after, it’s evident that many applicants are willing to move from far away locations to enjoy the
benefits of mountain living.

Laurie Gill is one of those individuals who’s made the transition. Tall and thin with free-flowing
hair, she sits at a desk with four young students learning “things of a reading nature.” She quietly
encourages the children, in kindergarten through 3rd grade, in the elementary use of words to
enhance their reading abilities. The scene is set for a small classroom experience.

Surrounding the table in her office, she’s watched over by a host of unique collectibles all, no
doubt, instilled to arouse curiosity among her students. On one wall, hanging beside a small
shark jaw filled with tiny teeth, is a dried Vesper Bat, a culinary delight in Indonesia. It’s one of
two, so to speak, which flit about her first floor office.

Then, there is the display box of giant Asian horned beetles, among numerous other insects large
and small. And a cast of a long and twisting horn of an Alpine Ibex. And a huge, chipped tooth
from a Megalodon shark from the Pleistocene Epoch. And…well, you get the idea.

Laurie Gill, the Literacy Intervention Specialist at Blowing Rock School, is unique as both an
individual and instructor. Packing her doctorate from the National College of Education in
Illinois, along with husband Tom Gill, who holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia, she
moved to Boone in 2009. Prior to her current position at Blowing Rock School, she worked at
both Green Valley School and Bethel School in Watauga County.

“I started my career as a reading specialist when I was 26; I’m now 66. Even after all these years,
I remain intrigued by how children learn to read, and specifically what teachers can do to create
the optimum circumstances for literacy growth.”

Laurie Gill
1st Grade student, Colton Hubner, building a “sight vocabulary,” dotting the
words he knows.

Both Laurie and Tom, now divorced, headed various reading programs within the county, with
Tom serving as reading professor at Appalachian State University prior to his retirement.
Laurie now lives near downtown Boone in a “salmon-colored-pink” house she shares with her
younger brother, a “good soul,” she says. The cottage, erected in 1924, was purchased when she
and Tom first moved to Boone.

“I’m starting my eighth year at Blowing Rock as its Literary Intervention Specialist,” explained
Gill. “It’s a great school situated in a village atmosphere that provides a lot of community
support. Each year, I work with up to 40 kindergartners through 3rd grade students who find
reading challenging. Most of my teaching is with small groups,” she added, “but I occasionally
work with students one-on-one.”

1st Grader, Briley Rattler, working with her “sight vocabulary.”

While Gill doesn’t have a traditional classroom full of students, she none-the-less works with her
dozens of young children in various areas including, as one might suppose, the Blowing Rock
School’s library, where books on all levels are perused by her classes to expand their personal
appreciation of reading.

“My favorite part of reading books is getting to pick one of my own to take home.”

Brooklyn Hubner, 3rd Grader

“A long-term project Mr. Sukow (Blowing Rock principal Pat-rick Sukow) has helped with is the
creation of our Teacher Shared Library, which includes library sets of the same titles for teachers
to use to differentiate reading instruction in their class-rooms,” Gill says. “Our library has grown
a lot over the years by our winning several grants from the Blowing Rock Community
Foundation, the Clabough Foundation, Dollar General, and Tanger Kids, to name just a few.”
“We purchase books on discount, and then a strong cadre of parent volunteers processes each
title to reinforce the bindings so the books will last as long as possible. Funding gaps have been filled by allocations from Mr. Sukow and our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) as well. I do
believe our Teacher Sharded Library is now state-of-the-art.”

Learning the joys of sitting immersed in a good book, either in first learning experiences in
children’s storybooks or a hoped-for love of great literature when older, reading is fundamental
to an enriched life; it’s what Gill’s work is all about.

Noting that she has found a home in her current position, Gill said that, “I love the leadership and
faculty at Blowing Rock. It’s kind of a sprawling labyrinthine campus, with the central building
dating back to 1901, and it has been added to over time,” she continued. “Despite the sprawl, the
faculty and staff are close. I believe the pandemic brought us closer. We have great family
support and a strong PTO.”

Laurie Gill works with a group of readers in the classroom.

According to Gill, “My seven years at Blowing Rock has felt like a long-running experiment in
some ways. I’ve been able to see the impact when there was money to purchase books specially
designed to help struggling readers. My training in phonics has led me to create materials not just
for my own teaching but also to scale-up and provide classroom teachers with more reading
materials as fast as I and my team of volunteers can produce them.”

Sight-Word books are sets of 25 little books which help children understand fifty of the most
frequently used words in print. Geared to students between four and six-years-old, they are eight-
to-ten page booklets which feature “popcorn words,” or those words which cannot always be
sounded out. The booklets, published by Scholastic Teaching Resources, build on each other
with such titles as I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words, See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog, and
Once Upon an Alphabet.

“I like to do words in my Sight-Word booklet. And when we play games, my favorite is when
Ms. Gill makes me laugh. She said I was going to be on her lap soon if I squished any closer.”

Edie Allison, 1ST Grader

The fact is that reading is an absolute basic of a good education, as more and more educational
institutions are rapidly understanding.

“Meeting this range of readers where they are is a huge task. That’s why it’s so important that
the Watauga County School system has at least one reading specialist at each of its schools,
something that’s not universal in our state,” elaborated Gill. “One way my work manifests itself
is in my Sight-Word instruction. Instead of flashing word cards I wish my students knew, I
present them with a graduated list of high frequency words and have them tell me which ones
they’re learning from reading-for-meaning. This puts them in the driver’s seat.”

A phonics “short vowel slider” tool that is used in the classroom.

“Students need to read on their assessed instructional reading level, not in material that’s over
their heads,” noted Gill. “There is and always will be a wide range of reading levels in any one
grade. In fact, this range widens as you go up the grades. A fifth grade teacher may have students
who read on a first grade level all the way up to eighth grade level.”

One interesting summation of the importance of school reading programs was forwarded in a
doctoral thesis by UNC Charlotte graduate Tara Watkins Galloway.

“Compelling findings indicate that students who fail to read early fall farther behind, creating a
literacy gap that widens as the students get older. Research suggests that students with poor early
reading skills are likely to have poor reading later. In a longtime study,” she continued, “it was
found an 88% probability that a child who is a poor reader in first grade will be a poor reader at
the end of fourth grade. Furthermore, when students fail to meet grade level expectations by third
grade, they are likely to continue struggling to catch up with the standards.”
Continued Gill, “Since about 1980, the consensus in the reading field has been early literacy
intervention. The evidence shows that the earlier we identify and instruct children who are
challenged to learn to read, the more likely we can catch them up,” she explained. “Given the
number of students who need extra reading help and the severity of some children’s reading
problems, it must be a team effort. Classroom teachers and I must work together.”

“She read for 75 minutes the other night; she especially likes to read out loud.”

Katy Stough on 2nd grade daughter Chloe Stough, who attends Blowing Rock School where her
mother is the guidance counselor

Assisting Gill in her reading programs at Blowing Rock School are Carrie Ingram, reading
teacher, and Amber Dollyhigh, speech teacher, among others.

“Just the other day, a 4th grade teacher reached out and asked me to help her inspire parents to
read out loud to their children at home, with a 5th grade teacher saying that her students were
‘wolfing down’ titles at their levels in her small group,” noted Gill. “In my 2nd grade class, three
children are, for some reason, routinely checking out 10-20 books for reading at home.”

Laurie Gill goes to the library with her 2nd Grade students Viviana Nelson, Evie
Moose, and Chloe Stough.

Gill is quick to point out that the parents of her students, the PTO, and even anonymous donors
make sure that Blowing Rock School’s shelves are lined with books and other literary devices.

Laurie Gill teaches reading students in the Blowing Rock Library.

“Speaking specifically to literacy learning, children need to learn by, as my husband used to say,
‘being on a bike where they reach the pedals.’ Children take more readily to print experience
success reading every day. Students need to read on their assessed ‘instructional reading level’,
not in material that’s over their heads. There is and always will be a wide range of reading levels
in any one grade. In fact, this range widens as you go up the grades.”

1st Grade student, Calla Whiteside, says hello to her teacher.

Summing up her work in overseeing reading instruction at Blowing Rock, Gill added, “The
evidence shows that the earlier we identify and instruct children who are challenged to learn to
read, the more likely we can catch them up. Given the number of students who need extra
reading help and the severity of some children’s reading problems, we educators have to work
together to meet their educational needs.”

“I love reading my Sight-Word book!”

Grayson Sharkey, 1ST Grader
This poster found in Blowing Rock School says it all!

Laurie Gill is one of Blowing Rock School’s dozens of quality educators and support staff who
not only appreciate their special place of employment and its village-like surroundings but also
have love and a deep affection for the young students in their care. The bottom line is that, unlike
more formal elementary centers of learning off the mountain, Blowing Rock School conveys a
“one large family atmosphere” where educators, students, their families, and the entire mountain
community work for the betterment of all.

Laurie Gill can often be found walking the halls with her students.