Prairie Profiles: From pulpits to pupils

Published 9:03 pm Monday, November 19, 2018

Pastor on leave transitions into reading tutor at NRHEG


NEW RICHLAND — A pastor is starting a new chapter as a reading tutor at NRHEG Elementary School.

Steven Woyen stepped into his role with Minnesota Reading Corps at the elementary school in October and began tutoring students last week. He tutors 16 students a day, all in kindergarten through third grade.

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Reading Corps is a branch of Americorps that asks adults to work as tutors for students who, as Woyen says, exist “on the bubble” of necessary literacy skills for their age. Members assess student progress and utilize strategies in an effort to close the achievement gap.

Woyen is on leave from call as an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor. He began looking for something different after the congregation he served no longer had the funds to employ a pastor.

“It was an opportunity for me, in some ways,” Woyen said. “… I’m looking at this time of ‘on leave from call’ as almost a sabbatical, and doing something different in the community has been a good opportunity.”

There was one big reason he picked Reading Corps as his next step.

“I’m a book nerd,” he said.

Woyen said he always felt he had a strength in reading, and though he didn’t enjoy it much as a child, he grew into enjoying it.

“I want to get kids excited to read and to learn and to grow, and that’s something I’ve kind of always had,” he said.

Steven Woyen is a pastor on leave from call and now works as a tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps. – Sarah Kocher/Albert Lea Tribune

Woyen works with each student for 20 minutes a day. They’ll read short stories with different techniques. With kindergarteners, he could be using letter cards the student uses to describe the sound letters make. For an older child, Woyen may do duet reading, where the pair alternate who reads each word. With third-graders now, the pair works on reading in chunks. Once a week, students are assessed and, when they reach their target goal, they exit the program. These students are already receiving regular reading instruction; the Reading Corps time is bonus.

“What we provide is an additional help for those (students),” Woyen said.

His favorite part of his job is working with the students — especially kindergarteners.

“Reading and letters is still such a new thing for them, and as they’re starting to figure out their letter sounds and kind of putting things together, and I even kind of have seen it here even today, you see kind of the kids, kind of a lightbulb goes off and they’re realizing that and they’re feeling good about themselves as they’re learning and getting to become better readers, so that’s been the best part, most definitely,” he said.

Though it can be challenging to find the right time to pull students out of their traditional scheduling, Woyen said the administration and the teachers seem to be invested in making Reading Corps a success at NRHEG.

For now, his goal is to get to know the school’s students better and to help them grow.

For how long, he’s not sure yet.

“I think initially I came in thinking of it as a way to pass the time, bide my time … but the more I’ve become integrated with the school system here and with the students, I don’t see it as that anymore,” he said. “(It’s) more of a — I don’t want to use the word ‘calling,’ but maybe something that’s leading me in this direction.”

Tutors can work for Minnesota Reading Corps for up to four years, one year at a time. NRHEG Elementary School’s previous Reading Corps tutor was Susan Nelson, who now works at the school in the media center. She said for the short time she has seen him on the job, Woyen seems to be doing well.

“He’s caught on really fast and everybody likes him,” she said.

Woyen likes to read multiple books at a time. Though he frequently leans toward history, politics and biographies, his current guilty pleasure reading is Nordic noir.


Steven Woyen

Age: 44

Address: Albert Lea

Occupation: reading tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps

Family: wife, Eileen Woyen; sons Jake and Martin Woyen; cat, Doug; dog, Odie

Interesting fact: “I’m an avid movie nerd — pretty much all kinds.”

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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