By Mindy Ayala-Diaz

There's a lot of ways to help school-age kids learn.

ODU alumna Courtney Burkett thought so, too - which led to her self-publishing her first book, "An 'A' My Way," in 2019. This book helps elementary-aged children understand that everyone learns differently - and that's OK.

Burkett attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her bachelor's degree in marketing. During summers, she worked at a camp that served children with special education needs.

This ignited a passion for teaching. Soon after graduation, Burkett found a job as a paraprofessional and then as a teacher in a special education classroom. Soon after, she continued her education at Old Dominion University's Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, where she pursued an MSeD in elementary special education. She graduated in 2012.

Burkett has been teaching special education for 12 years in Virginia, Georgia and Florida. One thing she found in common in all these places - despite differences in student backgrounds, teaching styles and curriculum - was that her students struggled with their learning differences and compared how they learned to other students.

The kids were "feeling like they were failures for learning in different ways than other kids," Burkett said. "I wanted to start a conversation with them to help them understand that everyone learns new things differently. There are so many books helping kids understand difficult concepts like emotions, divorce and so on, so I thought this would be a good place to start."

"An 'A' My Way" relates the story of a silly monster telling an inquisitive little girl about how his friends were successful in school - and how each of them used "their own best way" to get to the right answer. Burkett told the story through cute monsters rather than humans to be even more inclusive of a wide population of children.

"I'm so glad I did this, because I definitely felt like kids needed to have that conversation with their parents or teachers about their learning styles and building confidence in the way they learn," Burkett said.

The book came out shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, which forced many children to learn from home. She felt that it started a meaningful conversation with parents and teachers to understand better how each student learns. When the students returned to the classroom, many felt they were better prepared to understand learning style differences.

"It's human nature to compare ourselves to others," Burkett said. "We do it all the time, and things like social media don't help. But helping these kids realize that the ways they learn are just as unique as the other parts of themselves was really rewarding."

Burkett's next book, "Cretaceous Elementary," is set to release in November. Its theme is the importance of behaving in school and how making good choices can help other children learn and succeed as well. "Kids have this power to become role models, even at such a young age," she said.

Her message to students of all ages?

"Be patient. Success doesn't come the moment you finish your degree. Success comes from hard work, pursuing your dreams and your passions."

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