Barbara Wilmarth’s signature sign-off on all her email correspondence includes this famous quote from Einstein: “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.”
Wilmarth, a 33-year veteran in the public school system of Pinellas County, Florida, came across this quote after taking a Lindamood-Bell workshop on teaching comprehension: the Visualizing and Verbalizing program. The program develops mental imagery as a foundation for language comprehension. This approach to teaching reading changed her professional career. Today, she spreads the imagery mantra to her colleagues in the district’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) division, which services students with reading/language disabilities and IEPs.
Wilmarth started in the program as an ESE coordinator. In her role as an instructional leader, she supports ESE teachers throughout the district.
“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to travel from school to school across Pinellas County and work side by side with teachers to help their students become better readers. Generally a month or more will go by between my visits. While I wish I could see them every week, I am always impressed by the progress they have made. I have seen students make multiple years’ gain in a single semester of school.”
Wilmarth has helped oversee the implementation of both the Visualizing and Verbalizing and Seeing Stars programs at 31 sites in the district. Seeing Stars develops symbol imagery as a basis for orthographic awareness and word reading skills. With the inherent challenges of providing the necessary support and professional development her colleagues need on a limited budget, she has had to get creative in supporting around 60 ESE staff spread throughout the district. Each month, she gathers with the entire group at a central location to discuss best practices, problem-solve, monitor program fidelity, and offer guidance based on her experience in using the programs over the last six years. As an instructional leader, she takes her role very seriously. She knows the neediest students depend on her.
She recalls a student named Eric, a few years back. “As a 6th grader, Eric really wasn’t reading at all. He had some very basic word attack skills, at only a one syllable level.” Eric received small-group, targeted intervention in the Seeing Stars program. With Barbara’s oversight, the work of his teachers, and a new way to teach reading, his life was changed. “He went from not reading, to now as a high school student, his passion is writing,” she says proudly.
And there are many, many more students, who have inspired Wilmarth’s professional transformation. You can hear her excitement about the profession she loves and the work she does.
“Earlier this week someone said to me, ‘Barbara when you said after 27 years of teaching students in exceptional education classes you finally found something that has changed your life, you had my attention.’ Six years later I am still amazed by the growth I see in students using Seeing Stars or Visualizing and Verbalizing every day. I am committed to continuing the use of the instructional strategies in these amazing programs with our students. I only wish I could bring every teacher on board with me.”
As she continues to bring as many teachers as possible with her, she knows she’ll be able to impact that many more students in need. Which is a big deal in Pinellas County. The district has nearly 104,000 students and is the 26th largest in the country. Sixty-three of the over 140 campuses are Title 1, with more than 40% of the students at each of these schools in poverty. There are over 13,600 students with disabilities, most of them related to reading difficulties.
Marquise is one of these students. As a 9th grader, he could barely sound out words like “meat” or “trap.” Because Wilmarth and her team knew how to diagnose the underlying issue preventing him from learning to read, they could intervene and provide exactly what he needed to be successful. “Marquise was on his way to being another statistic,” says Wilmarth. “Instead, he has earned his way to attend college!”
Barbara Wilmarth is just one example of the thousands of passionate educators out there who are driven by their desire to see children learn to their potential. The world is a better place because of them. We are lucky to have leaders and superheroes that change lives each and every day.