Highland Park’s Ann McKeever Stautz knew she was onto something on the first day of the 2016-17 school year, as she taught her kindergarten students their morning classroom routine.
Once they came to the letter “Z” while reciting the alphabet, the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School students began to protest.
“They couldn’t see the picture of the zebra because my desk was blocking it,” Stautz said. “For fun, I told them the zebra was shy and hides behind my desk and that he was my special helper. I never have to worry about what goes on behind my back, because the zebra watches and leaves notes on my desk at night about what he saw during the day. They loved it.”
“Most days, my daughter’s zebra, Rosy, is just a fun companion. However, Rosy springs into action when I need her help.” -Ann McKeever Stautz
Thus began the idea for her children’s book, Off the Chart! The Amazing Story of the Alphabet Zebra. This book and learning tool (packaged with the child’s very own stuffed zebra) was designed to spark a child’s imagination and also encourage reading.
Many studies indicate that when a child reads to a stuffed animal, it improves standardized reading test scores and encourages reading, Stautz said.
The program also has yielded incredible results in her own home, she said.
“The zebra can even help with anxieties and breaking bad habits,” Stautz said. “Most days, my daughter’s zebra, Rosy, is just a fun companion. However, Rosy springs into action when I need her help.
“My daughter experienced seizures for the first time and was diagnosed with epilepsy,” she said. “When we came home from the hospital, she was scared to go to bed at night alone, so I would lie down with her until she fell asleep. After weeks of this, I realized it wasn’t healthy. I tried to tell her that I couldn’t lie down with her every night, which only caused arguments. Rosy left a note with an incentive chart encouraging my daughter to sleep by herself for 10 nights. If my daughter met the challenge, her reward would be going with me to get a prize at Target. Rosy acted as a loving third-party judge, and the zebra’s support and incentive helped her to get over her fear.”
Stautz said it took a little over a year to execute, research, build a website, work out distribution, and most importantly, test Off the Chart! Now that it is complete, Stautz hopes it can serve as a teaching tool for teachers and parents.
“It changes the environment, turning the mundane into the extraordinary,” Stautz said. “Many kindergarten students experience separation anxiety, and the high academic and behavior expectations of a school can feel very intimidating and cold. The zebra brings joy, warmth, and support, and the best part of all is that the zebra is always watching and potentially rewarding personal best effort and kindness.”