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Bringing Stories to Life: Jerry Stemach, Readtopia’s Chief Storyteller

Jerry Stemach smiles while looking off to the side in front of a bright blue sky.
In our Readtopia author series, we profile members of the Readtopia team and share how their unique experiences and skills shape Readtopia’s instructional resources for special education and autism classrooms.
When I first met Jerry Stemach, I instantly recognized that there’s something special and disarming about him. He carries an insatiable curiosity that is instantly apparent in conversation. Instead of delivering an endless stream of talking points, Jerry listens. And after listening, he asks the penetrating question capable of cutting through peripheries and revealing the core.
That ability to listen doesn’t come without effort, and patience. When asked, “what would you learn if you could learn to do anything?” Jerry replies, “Be a better listener. Everyone has a story, and those stories should be honored and archived.” True listening is an act of patience and listening—getting the “self” out of the way.
Good storytellers have that in common—a deep-rooted curiosity to first really understand how pieces connect and only then arrange those elements in a time-honored tradition of storytelling—a tradition shared by all cultures around the globe from the Shoshoni in North America to the Norse in Scandinavia to the San in Southern Africa.

That thing turns out to be the driving force behind Readtopia.

Bringing the curriculum together with stories from around the globe

Jerry pours storytelling into curriculum-tied thematic units that allow him to explore the globe and bring some of the most important ideas to life in thousands of special education and autism classrooms across the continent. Videos, pictures, and graphic novels fill interactive whiteboards and Chromebook Zoom screens from the Readtopia team’s global explorations. Engagement is the key here and is a necessary component of learning—especially when students’ curiosity and interest is sparked from content they may not have received before. Special educator, Patti Hummel experienced this firsthand in her classroom as a marked change from previous teaching resources—“Then I discovered Readtopia. It grabbed their attention from the start, and it exposed them, finally, to higher-level thinking and information that they [my students] actually enjoyed.”

Jerry Stemach pets a small llama outdoors with two children dressed in hiking gear.

These higher-level thinking skills gel in Readtopia classrooms. These classroom “pods” end up becoming something really special both for students and teachers. They are diving deeper into the curriculum than ever before through thematic units that connect a narrative (fiction or nonfiction) book with curriculum-based subject area content. For example, the Tuskegee Airmen narrative nonfiction book at seven levels is paired with subject-area instructional content about gravity, force, and motion. In this way, students connect with the likes of William Shakespeare while learning about the Middle Ages, and birds, mammals, and reptiles while reading Dr. Doolittle. It’s an instructional model that is long overdue for this population. This resonates with many special educators as they adopt Readtopia, including Erlind Lacy who shared, “Readtopia has given me the opportunity to touch on higher-level thinking. It’s given me some of the strategies and tools I need to do it right.”

Leveling text for the widest range of student needs

One of Jerry’s roles on the Readtopia team is leveling materials, and to do so, he draws on his 50 plus years of experience working directly with students who have language-based reading disorders. He, along with colleagues Dorothy Tyack and Gail Venable, developed grammar and syntax rules that guided the texts we wrote for older, struggling readers. These rules are the reason why Readtopia’s graphic novels and chapter books (for shared reading) are so readable—even for older students at the most emergent reading levels.

Six pages from Readtopia graphic novel about Africa.
Whereas many special education resources with leveled material offer a few levels, the Readtopia team felt strongly that more were necessary. A lot more. In fact, up to seven levels of text in each thematic unit are available, and this is proving to be invaluable in special education classrooms. Not only does this allow students across abilities to experience the same content at their current reading levels, it also allows students to improve and graduate to the next level—often over the course of a school year. This has a deep impact for students who have rarely, if ever, experienced moving up a reading level.

It’s working

Jerry shared a story about a 4th grade girl who transferred into a special education class in suburban Chicago. “Her teacher reported that the girl could identify her name and about a dozen sight words. At the end of the school year, she was independently reading books at a 2nd – 3rd grade reading level. Before going on summer break, she asked the teacher if she could take home a computer. The teacher thought it a noble idea and congratulated the girl on wanting to read even more books.
“Oh, it’s not for me,” said the girl. “It’s for my mom and dad. I want to teach them how to read.”
The mantra of the Readtopia Team is Believe in Better, and it’s clear from stories like these that better is possible.
That girl saw reading for what it truly is and wanted to share it. Not every student will attain a 2nd to 3rd grade reading level, but with Readtopia, we can set up the conditions to grow each student as a reader.
A teacher reads to a student sitting in a green chair in a classroom.
As Jerry reflects on his 50 years in education, it’s clear that he has reached a good place doing something that really matters. “I feel eternally grateful that I can channel my efforts into something that makes a real difference that I can see every day. When I look back over the course of my 50 years in education, I can see everything becoming manifest in this moment with what we’re doing in Readtopia.”

That’s a feeling we should all share.

"Believe in Better" written in dark blue.


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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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