Alpine school teacher honored for innovative lessons
Last year, Kelley Welykholowa dyed her hair purple, wore blue leopard pajamas to school and cooked green eggs and ham for her students to reward them for reading 1,000 pages.
This year, her classroom is morphing into a rain forest, complete with foliage, animals and tents. What will this award-winning teacher dream up for next year’s students?
“New Zealand,” said Welley, who uses a shortened version of her Ukrainian surname. “Last summer, I went to Borneo and thought up the rain forest theme. Next year is New Zealand, and I’m already dreaming up ways to incorporate the theme into the classroom.”
Welley, who began her teaching career at the International School in Turin, Italy, is in her sixth year of teaching at Diamond Valley School in Woodfords. Although she was raised in the Bay Area, she said that she is “positively thriving” in the small school atmosphere.
“I have a fantastic (school) district that is open to new ideas, and here we are allowed individualized instruction,” said Welley. “I teach outside of the box and take my students beyond what they are supposed to know. I get encouragement every step of the way.”
In January, Welley received the Audrey Sanchez Teacher Enhancement Award, the California Kindergarten Association’s Award of Excellence. She shared the award with Linda Becker, who Welley considers an incredible art teacher and her mentor.
“When I was just a finalist with her was an honor,” said Welley. “To win the award with her was incredible.”
Alpine County School District Director of Curriculum Dan Makely nominated Welley for the honor.
“Mr. Makely was observing me all year, because of my unique reading program,” said Welley. “My mother teaches piano using the Suzuki method, where you play by ear before you read music. I apply the same principles to reading.”
Each letter has a physical movement to accompany the sound. Students quickly embrace the program, and Welley said that during the first year of using it, 10 out of 16 students were reading in kindergarten.
“I’ve had high percentages every year, and these students transition well into first grade,” said Welley.
The rain forest theme for this year’s classroom evolved out of Welley volunteering at the 2000 Eco-Challenge in Borneo. The event, billed as an expedition race, took participants through mysterious Borneo via ancient headhunter trails, remote rivers and surrounding tropical seas.
Eco-Challenge organizer Mark Burnett held the first Eco-Challenge in New England in 1995 and designed the grueling race to provide an avenue for life improvement training as well as raising environmental awareness. Teams of four men and women race 24 hours a day via canoes, kayaks, mountain bikes, white water rafts, horses, their feet and climbing ropes to cover a course in six to 10 days. They must also perform an environmental service project at each stage of the race.
This is the first year Welley volunteered at the event.
“Traveling is my life, and when I heard that they needed volunteers, I had to apply,” said Welley, a scholarship swimmer for the University of California at Los Angeles and a world-class kayaker. She is also fluent is several languages and was able to translate for several athletes at the event.
When she returned to the Diamond Valley School, she painted the walls rain forest green and developed a curriculum for her students. As students learn about the rain forest, Welley incorporates other learning experiences into the program. Paper sloths inch across a vine. Rain clouds hang from the ceiling, and ceramic king cobra snakes, made by the children, slither up the walls.
“Themes are so important. Children learn without realizing it, so they learn a lot more,” said Welley. “We’ll continue to build our rain forest until May.”
A full-sized tent in the forest holds a collection of reading books, as does every other nook and cranny in the room. Welley has 12 reading centers packed with materials.
“I open up a different reading area every day, and on Fridays all of them are open,” said Welley. “Parents want me to give the children homework, but I give the parents homework instead. Reading is so important that I tell them to read to their children every night.”
When not teaching, Welley takes classes in theater and the arts. She has written several children’s books, and says that her latest shows a lot of potential.
“I previewed it to my students, and they really seemed to enjoy it,” said Welley.
She also kayaks, although a nerve injury on a Grand Canyon expedition limited her activity for a period.
“I like the high volume water, but I also enjoy mornings on Lake Tahoe, watching the sun rise, a few ducks on the water and a hot air balloon in the air,” said Welley.
In addition to the New Zealand trip, Welley’s travel itinerary includes Costa Rica.
“I need more pictures for my rain forest,” said Welley as she pointed to walls covered with slick prints of rain forest features and animals.
“I need a picture of a sloth. I’ll just have to keep traveling until I get one.”