Goodling Institute and WNBA Star Helen Darling: A Winning Partnership to Promote Children’s Literacy
by Joe Savrock (December 2007)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Scoring a triple-double is a noteworthy feat for any pro basketball player. For Helen Darling ’00, the accomplishment extends far beyond the double-digit tally of points, rebounds, and assists.
Helen, the starting point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars of the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association), has defined a new kind of triple-double—or call it a triplet-double. She’s the mother of five-year-old triplets, and she successfully doubles her basketball career by writing educational children’s books.
Helen is a strong advocate for family literacy. She has written a series of seven children’s books, each book based on a day of the week. The books feature an educational component that include resources for parents and teachers to encourage children to read. The first book in the series, Hide-N-Seek Monday, was published in August.
Her shining WNBA career and untiring work ethic combine to make her an ideal role model and a tremendous asset for improving family literacy. She is partnering with the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy, headquartered in Penn State’s College of Education, in a unique relationship that is helping develop young children’s early language and literacy. The new relationship encourages parents to read with their young children and to extend the reading experience with fun yet educational activities at home.
The Goodling/Darling Partnership: The Benefits are Reciprocal
Goodling Institute has three goals—research, professional development, and advocacy. Co-director Barbara Van Horn is delighted that Helen contacted her with her interest in supporting literacy. “We are looking forward to developing our relationship with Helen in terms of how we can help each other reach our goals,” Van Horn stated. “We can apply the research on early language and literacy and on parent engagement to the activities included in Helen’s books. And she can help us promote family literacy through her charming children’s books as she presents at conferences and workshops for parents and for educators.”
Dean David H. Monk noted that, “Helen is quite a Penn State legend. I don’t see a down side to this partnership. She adds a certain zest to the endeavor.”
Initially, the Goodling Institute is applying research in adult literacy and in early language and literacy development to Helen’s book series. The Institute is conducting readability tests on the instructions for the existing parent activities and will make recommendations to rewrite some activities and include others to maximize the books’ learning aspects. Once completed, these changes would benefit not only the children, but those parents who might have limited reading skills.
“We’re taking Helen’s creative genius and putting a Goodling spin on it,” said Drucie Weirauch, research support associate with the Goodling Institute. Weirauch noted that Helen’s work offers a jumpstart for children not only in reading but in other educational disciplines as well. “Her books extend to other basic skills, including math. Some books deal with counting, fractions, adding, and subtracting.”
“I’ve always been interested in literacy,” said Helen. “I recognize the importance of giving back to the schools, and my association with the Goodling Institute is a perfect way for me to give back. This is an awesome partnership.”
Helen added that, “The Goodling Institute helps give credibility to my work. I relish the credibility that Goodling offers. Here, they put the research base behind it.”
Recent Visits to Pennsylvania Yield a Positive Impact
The Goodling Institute recognizes Helen as a terrific resource to promote its mission. As an initial activity, the Institute underwrote Helen’s recent visit to Pennsylvania in early November. In cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Bureau of Adult Basic and Literacy Education, Goodling Institute staff, Institute Advisory Board Chair Bill Goodling, and Helen visited the School District of York’s Even Start Family Literacy Program to celebrate National Family Literacy Day. Goodling, former U.S. Congressman from York County—and known as the “father of Even Start”—opened the event. Helen read her book to the families enrolled in the program, talked to parents about their role as their children’s first and most important teacher, and signed copies of her book.
Parents and teachers alike delighted in and learned from the experience. “Helen Darling showed us a fun way to teach with rhyming words,” said one GED mother. “The book was based on her experience as a mother with triplets. It relates well to my daughter. The materials were very helpful.”
“Helen Darling is an intelligent sports woman and she is very concerned about the education of children,” added an English Language learner mother. “She is my example of a woman. I will follow her advice for my children and the improvement of my family. The book is important because I have the responsibility to want my children to learn.”
One adult instructor noted that, “I am impressed by Helen Darling’s creativity in designing her book and follow-up activities. I am happy to see that she is so dedicated to her children’s education, and that she realizes the crucial role that she plays as their first and most important teacher.”
During another recent visit to University Park, Helen helped the Goodling Institute conduct workshops for Penn State students who are enrolled in the College’s Language and Literacy program and visited several elementary schools throughout the region.
Basketball and Literacy Make for a Busy Calendar
Outside her association with Goodling, Helen keeps quite busy. January 2008 is booked with various workshops and book signings. Last month, she spoke at the Annual Conference of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, held in Nashville, Tenn. “I got over 100 business cards from people interested in my work,” she said.
She has also received inquiries from Africa, Canada, and elsewhere. “I’d like to continue to travel in support of literacy,” she said. “I’d love to go international.”
Helen exhibits great work ethic and athleticism, qualities that have led to a successful basketball career. A decade ago, she was a high-scoring point guard for the Penn State Lady Lions. After an outstanding senior year, she was the first Penn State basketball player to be named Big Ten Player of the Year. She graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a teaching certificate from the College of Education.
She was then drafted into the WNBA, and after six seasons she is considered one of the top defensive players in the league. The Silver Stars are coming off a successful 2007 season in which they made it to the Western Conference finals before falling to the Phoenix Mercury.
This past season, she held book signings after several of the Silver Stars’ home games. “I’m looking forward to next season,” she said. “I hope to do a book signing after games in every WNBA city that our team visits.”
Helen’s triplets—sons JaJuan and Jalen, and daughter Nevaeh—are in kindergarten this year. “I try to read a book to them every night, sometimes two books,” says Helen. “They look forward to the reading time. They’re able to read certain words and often figure out unfamiliar words with the help of illustrations.
“My children are all progressing at their own reading pace,” continued Helen. This individuality is central to the theme of her Web site, titled Uniquely Made.
While her triplets reinforce her interest in literacy, Helen says her mother has been quite influential in the theme of her writing. “My mother was a huge inspiration as I grew up,” said Helen. “She promoted togetherness by making family projects out of ordinary situations. Instead of ordering out for pizza, we made our own pizza. And we always made our own ice cream. We even made our own glue out of water and flour—but you had to use the glue right away because it dried very quickly!”
Those precious childhood experiences carry over into Helen’s books. “I target family in my writing,” she said. “My books engage families in activities that bring them closer together. Family bonding is so important.”
Helen reveals that her great knack for literacy did not come naturally. Her intense dedication to self-improvement allowed her to rise to her current level. “Growing up, I was terrible at reading and spelling. My grammar was awful,” she said. “But these weaknesses didn’t stop me. I took the time to read as much as possible so I could improve my skills. Sure enough, I got much better at it.”
During her workshops, Helen meets parents who struggle with literacy, much the same as Helen once did. She offers wholehearted advice to them: “Don’t stop trying to improve. So often, people become discouraged by their weaknesses and give up. You might make mistakes along the way, but you’ll learn from them. It’s okay to make mistakes.”
Helen’s aspirations as an author are higher than an arching 30-foot set shot. She plans to do plenty more writing in the years to come, particularly once her WNBA career comes to an end. She has a long list of ideas for future books.
“I’ve found my true passion,” she said. “I’m not going to stop with the seven-day book series.”