Expect a Surprise | Dr. Karen Dennis

Karen Dennis says she vividly remembers the day when she realized all the things she had been trained to do weren’t enough.

Her nephew was struggling to read, and it seemed no one could help him. Dennis, a young teacherat the time, decided to give it a shot — and she couldn’t help him either.

“He has dyslexia,” she said. “I had everything that I learned in school, and I thought I was a great teacher, but I could not teach my baby nephew the things he needed to know. It wasn’t working.”

That agonizing moment changed her and set her on a path — she wanted to learn all she could so that she could help everyone read, regardless of his or her struggle.

“It started my passion,” Dennis said.

She earned her master’s with an emphasis in reading at Harding University. While she was there, her nephew, who was going into the third grade by then, went to a summer camp that she and her classmates held — and he learned to read.

“He was the success story of the camp,” Dennis said. “I was so proud of my classmates and knowing that we could make a difference.”

And ever since then, she’s followed her passion for helping people read and enlisted others to share in it with her. That’s a lot of what Dennis does in her role as assistant professor of education at the University of Mobile — she engages people and then encourages them to engage others.

“I’m not afraid to ask anyone to be involved,” Dennis said. “It’s kind of the joke around here that I’ll ask anybody — and if I haven’t yet, I probably will.” That goes for the book talks that she and her students do in the local schools — they go in dressed up like book characters, then read to the children. In years past, Dennis has persuaded other faculty and staff, including the president, to participate, too.

Dennis herself has been Raggedy Ann, the Grouchy Ladybug, Ramona Quimby, Pippi Longstocking and, her personal favorite, the mouse from “If You Give a Mouse a Brownie.”

That one really surprised the children, she said— they’d heard the cookie version, but not the brownie one.

She likes to be a surprise. In her own classes at UM, her students never know what to expect.

“In my class, I’m constantly modeling what I’d want them to do in their own classes,” Dennis said. “It’s different every time they come in. Some days it’s yoga, or we take a song and rewrite it to make it a teaching tool. I don’t just lecture — I want them to internalize it and give it back to me.”

She wants them to get all the tools they need — but get them through experience. She herself loves learning that way. When she’s not teaching, she’s painting murals at local schools and has even started trying her hand at some renovation and design projects in her spare time. She pulls that zest back into her classes — and it shows, her students say.

LaDanika York, a UM senior, said Dennis’ classes “go by so fast.”

“She’s teaching all the standards we need to know, but she makes it fun through the experiences we have,” York said. “Every semester I’ve had things I’ve taken back to the classroom where I teach pre-K.”

Dennis said she loves hearing that. That’s why she went back to get her Ph.D. in cognition and instruction — so she could be a teacher of teachers and connect the art with the science of teaching reading. She wanted to be part of the solution and teach that to others.

“It’s not just teaching them stuff; it’s about life, about helping them live life. My mom always told me to be the change — and that’s what I hope to do,” Dennis said. “That’s what brought me to the University of Mobile. Here I can teach what I love, and I get to do it from a Christian perspective. It’s a dream job.”

About the Author

Grace Thornton