What was supposed to be "read and relax time" for first-graders at Naperville's Naper Elementary School erupted Thursday into cheers, spontaneous singing and plenty of jumping.
Dozens of people crammed into Pamela Kelly's classroom for a surprise visit to announce she had won a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching. Kelly was the second teacher from Naperville Unit District 203 to receive the award this week. The Golden Apple Foundation also honored Kathy Burns, a second-grade teacher at Highlands Elementary School, during a surprise visit Wednesday.
Only 10 prekindergarten through third-grade teachers in the Chicago area were chosen from almost 600 nominees.
"I think I feel a group hug coming on," Kelly, 52, told her students, inviting them into the celebration.
After wiping away tears, she asked her students if they were feeling "slightly famous" in front of all the cameras.
"Is everyone feeling a little bit wobbly right now?" Kelly asked the first-graders after she joined them in jumping up and down between desks.
That contagious enthusiasm is the usual environment in Kelly's classroom, co-workers and students say.
At an all-school assembly following the visit, Jane Fawell, a special education assistant who worked with Kelly, praised her "booming laughter," drama and spontaneity.
When Kelly first introduced subtraction to her students, she threw open the classroom's window and told them, "We're not scared," Fawell remembered.
No matter how intimidating or complicated a math problem might look, Kelly encourages her students with her "bring it on" motto, Fawell said.
"Nobody was scared to try in Mrs. Kelly's classroom," Fawell said.
Kelly established the Make a Difference (MAD) Club at Naper this school year -- a team of 35 fourth- and fifth-grade students who organized a food drive for the troops -- Earth Week events and a "crazy hair day."
Students in MAD club also designed a booklet filled with their illustrations and suggestions for service that they mailed to Naper families a week before Christmas. One page featured a quilt that can be delivered to homeless shelters.
"Kids this age can be taught how much power they have," Kelly said.
Kelly has been teaching for six years at Naper and 27 years in total. She said she strives to let her students have a choice in their learning. During Wednesday's read and relax time, they selected their own books to sift through.
"They know they have a voice and they count," Kelly said.
Principal Julie Beehler said Kelly captivates students with humor in the classroom and designs specific activities in MAD club -- like sprucing up the landscaping around the school -- where they can see the effect of their efforts.
"Kids know that learning is an exciting, passionate adventure," Beehler said.
The Golden Apple Foundation is a Chicago-based nonprofit group that evaluates Golden Apple nominees in areas of professionalism, instruction and their contribution to the school community through research-based standards.
David Renz, a member of the Golden Apple selection committee who interviewed students, parents, administrators and Kelly's co-workers during a site visit, noted Kelly's teaching style, seamlessly transitioning from subject to subject.
"It was full of variety," Renz said. "It was exciting, engaging. All of those things represent her ability and work ethic."
Kelly will receive a $3,000 cash award and a tuition-free, six-month sabbatical to study at Northwestern University.
She's planning to study literacy and enroll in library science classes. She'll also join the Golden Apple Academy of Educators, a group of award recipients that offers mentoring.