COOKing with Class…

Darlene Cook, 2008 Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year

Darlene Cook hasn’t been told precisely who nominated her for Wal-Mart’s Teacher of the Year program. She has been told that a nominator referred to constant activity in her kindergarten classroom and noted that every day “seems like a fun learning day.”

Perhaps it was Cook’s Word Wall Cheers used for spelling—such as the Mexican hat dance, where students alternate feet and clap while saying each letter in a word—that enticed the nominator to mention activity and fun. Or perhaps it was cooking in the classroom, where students make things such as ladybug snacks with vanilla wafers, red icing, and brown M&Ms. Whatever the nominator’s impetus, one need only visit Cook’s Lone Oak Elementary classroom to see that activity, fun, and learning are inseparably meshed there.

A kindergarten teacher at Lone Oak for the past twelve years,  Cook had no idea she had been selected as a 2008 Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year when, in early September, Wal-Mart representatives and Principal Dan Pope walked into her classroom with a cake, flowers, a plaque, and a giant check for $1,000 in tow. Cook says she is “very honored” to receive the award, but she insists that much of the credit goes to those around her.

“The award wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the collaboration of all six kindergarten teachers here,” she says. “We share ideas and activities; the award should really be for all six.” She also praises Joan Oster, the instructional assistant in her classroom for the past five years. As for Oster, she says adamantly, “Mrs. Cook is an excellent teacher.”

Principal Pope agrees. “Mrs. Cook is a fabulous kindergarten teacher,” he says. “She is always thinking about what is best for Lone Oak Elementary. She thinks beyond the walls of her classroom.”

Cook, who is a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Childhood Education, specifies Learning Center time as a favorite part of her day. “During our Learning Center time, the children work cooperatively in groups of four or five in multi-leveled activities. They begin in Listening Center, Math Center, Art Center, Writing Center, or ABC Center,” explains Cook. “After doing their ‘assigned jobs,’ they have choices of other centers to explore, like the Overhead Projector Center, Felt Board Center, Lego Table Center, or Home Center.

“Learning Center is my favorite time because it gives me a chance to work with five children for 30 minutes and really listen to what they have to say about school and assess what they know. The other groups are getting that same undivided attention with Mrs. Joan or volunteers as they review or enrich an area of the curriculum.”

An eager parent volunteer with her own now-grown children before becoming a teacher at Lone Oak, Cook values the importance of the “home/school connection.” She and husband Dr. Ken Cook, whom she calls “very supportive,” are the parents of Kara, a pharmaceutical representative in Louisville; Heather, an upper primary teacher in Oldham County; and Ross, a first year student at the University of Kentucky’s Dental School in Lexington.

Cook offers many opportunities for classroom involvement from parents and grandparents. “Each month, I send home a Family Fun Homework project for the whole family to do together and return to school. When the finished project arrives back to school, it is hung on our special Family Fun bulletin board or in the hall outside our door. In September, families made a Reading Treasure Box to store all the phonics readers and class-made books that the children will bring home during the year. Pictures of these boxes were posted on the classroom webpage. If a parent can’t come into the classroom, they can create materials for the class at home.”

Scientist of the Week, which encourages parents to work on a science investigation with their child at home and then present it to the class, and Celebrity Readers—parents, relatives, and friends who come in and read to the class—also encourage a home/school connection.

Although she taught 4th and 5th grades in the past in Illinois, Cook says she loves the hands-on element of kindergarten. “I liked teaching the older kids,” she says, “but I love kindergarten. The kindergartners are so eager to learn and their minds are like sponges. They have a natural curiosity and enthusiasm about the world around them.”

The one thousand dollar award which accompanies the Teacher of the Year designation will be used for technological teaching tools. “The focus will be on the kindergarten teachers,” explains Cook, “but we’ll include others where possible.”

According to Wal-Mart’s website, the Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year program has recognized nearly 11,000 teachers nationwide and contributed more than $6.6 million in educational grants to schools in communities where stores are located since its inception in 1996. One of the best aspects of the award, according to Mrs. Cook, is that it brings attention to education and the profession of teaching.

“I really commend Wal-Mart for focusing on the teachers. And I’m glad the award spotlights Lone Oak Elementary because we’re an excellent school. “Working with the teachers and Mr. Pope at Lone Oak Elementary,” says Cook, “challenges me to be the best teacher I can be.” She looks around her colorful, busy kindergarten classroom and says with a smile, “This is my dream job.”

Congratulations, Mrs. Cook. Dream on.