Mutual Admiration

By Rita Buettner  |  Cover photo by Purple Sherbert Photography/Flickr Creative Commons

When we invited alumni to share stories of professors who had made a difference in their lives, we enjoyed helping people who hadn’t seen or spoken in years connect with one another.

Equally delightful was the response from professors when we shared the stories with them—such as the one from Robert Pond, Ph.D., associate dean for the natural sciences, whose former student, Stacey Watts Ambuehl, ’05, praised him for his mentoring.

“That’s awfully flattering,” Pond wrote in an email reply. “Stacey probably doesn’t realize that she is one of the best research students that I ever encountered—as efficient, independent, and thorough as one could wish. Her keenness toward the topic and her energy made my role rather easy.”

The responses from the surprised and flattered faculty members made me think that we should take the time to interview both a professor and graduate to see what they would say about each other. So I reached out to Kelly Lynn Freitag Casagrande, M.Ed.,’09, this year’s Literacy Leader Award winner. Casagrande was nominated by her former professor, Wendy M. Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of education. Surely they’d have something insightful to say about each other. And they did.

Casagrande talked about how her early days as a teacher led her to the reading specialist program at Loyola, where her love for literacy deepened. “I was a struggling reader and just found my niche within this program, finding this love for teaching reading and working for kids,” Casagrande said.

It was during the summer of her second year at Loyola that Casagrande met Smith. “Wendy was just wonderful, really engaging, extremely supportive. She was actually the one I worked on my thesis with. I had this crazy, lofty idea of what I wanted to do and didn’t know how to equate it to reading and the actual practice we were doing in the classroom. She helped me figure out how to narrow it down and focus it,” Casagrande said.

Together, they refined Casagrande’s thesis to focus on the reading behaviors of children who have Asperger’s and look at how to increase their literacy and comprehension.

“She took a lot of personal time to sit with me and work with me and perfect it. A lot of professors wouldn’t do the same. She really invested that time, which was special,” said Casagrande.

When Smith was invited to nominate a graduate for the Literacy Leader Award, she thought of Casagrande—and remembered their work together on that project.

“Kelly had a number of boys with very low social skills, and it was affecting their academic abilities. She wanted to research activities she could do with them to improve their social skills,” Smith said. “She did it during their lunchtime, and it really did make a difference for those kids. The parents even saw a difference in their children’s behavior and their attitude toward school.”

Casagrande is now a reading specialist at Graceland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore City and enrolled in a doctorate of school administration at Johns Hopkins University, though she is planning to transfer to UMBC’s doctorate program in language literacy and culture.

“What impressed me about Kelly so much is that working with middle school boys is just tough,” Smith said. “She absolutely loves that group, and I think that makes such a difference. I could tell that she had a real love for that age group.”

Before nominating her, Smith contacted Casagrande’s current principal and heard that the Loyola graduate continues to excel in her work. “The Literacy Leader is not just an excellent teacher, which is pretty amazing in itself, but somebody who is really a leader in the field,” Smith said. “Her new principal also confirmed for me that Kelly is a leader in her school.”

For her part, Casagrande still pulls out binders to refresh her memory of what Smith discussed in class, especially when she is working with a student who has Asperger’s. “There are multiple times I think about her,” said Casagrande of her former teacher. “She made me feel more confident about myself.”

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