Remembering Katherine Johnson


By Sia Magadan

“I remember being placed in an AP science class in high school and my first thought was, “someone clearly made a mistake’.  I prided myself on being an excellent reader and somewhat smart, but ‘science smart’ was a different level. I was always a bit envious of my friends who could not only get A’s in english but also in science.”

Teaching 3rd grade was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  Coming in, I knew the stakes were high in regard to preparing my students to be successful and getting them to read (at or near) grade level. But for me, it was more about building connections and learning their personalities.  Ironically, my classroom contained students with a range of reading levels from K-6.  As an avid reader, the highlight of my day was guided reading!  It was here that I could select stories that would pique my students’ interest and secretly help them build their literacy and comprehension skills.

Some of ‘my babies’ could not care less about reading stories centered on a girl and her love of dandelions. But on days where the focus was science-related; they lit up! Something about rockets, robots, and explosions caused otherwise bored students to give me their full attention. These were my budding scientists and readers who were about to move from good to great.  Science provided the key to unlocking my students’ potential. Sadly my Title 1 school could not afford a full-time science instructor, and the charge was left to all the teachers to add science lessons to their offerings at least two days a week.

For many of my colleagues, we used the momentum of science to build the skills of our students and help them achieve their reading goals. The ability to read is the bridge that connects various parts of education. Many of the skills that are critical for growing strong readers and writers are also core skills in the study of science and math; STEM and literacy go hand in hand.

Illustration of Katherine Johnson

“I like to learn, that’s an art and a science”

—  Katherine Johnson

My desire to use STEM-related material to build the love of learning in my students was sparked by their fascination with science and space.  In my mind, these were the scientists who would discover the cures to crippling diseases; charter new paths in space exploration or simply be able to solve equations. Like Katherine, my students were bright and only needed to be connected to the resources and supports to achieve their potential.

For my struggling teachers, parents, guardians and youth workers who have struggling readers- the sky’s the limit.  Exposing youth to science, technology, and math concepts via conversations, books, guided reading lessons, and movies has the potential to not only build their ability to read love learning; but also expose them to a whole other world ….literally.


Sia is the Oakland Literacy Coalition’s Development Manager.

A self-described closet nerd, Sia is a voracious reader who believes that all children should experience the joy of a transformative reading experience. Her favorite books growing up were Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

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