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Learning with love

Puppets, puppies and karaoke. These are some of the nontraditional tools that Penny Esterley uses to teach at Community Literacy Lab.

As an online space for learning and teaching, it’s a place where students can get supplemental help with creative writing, academic tutoring and technology literacy, among other things.

Esterley and her husband, Randy, are both distinguished retirees from the U.S. Air Force and now teach at the Literacy Lab. Before they started the company in 2018, Esterley earned a bachelor’s in business management in 2013 and a master’s in library and information science in 2016 from the University of South Carolina.

Her MLIS was instrumental in launching her online tutoring service. “Clayton Copeland is still my mentor,” Esterley said of the School of Information Science faculty member. “The things that she taught me in class, I am constantly bringing back into focus with my students.”

The Literacy Lab offers group and individual sessions with teachers. It also offers interactive clubs and blogs for students — many of whom are home-schooled or have learning disabilities. Esterley knows that each student learns differently, so she uses a variety of techniques ranging from research-based approaches to singing songs.

One way Esterley helps students who don’t enjoy the traditional classroom is by encouraging them and their parents to play educational games or learn through music. “The kids don’t know they’re learning,” she said. “They just think they’re having a good time.”

Students learn computer literacy through online gaming clubs and educational puppet shows. Sometimes she brings in animals, and her international students practice English using word games. Esterley enjoys some classic styles of tutoring as well.

One first-grade student came to Esterley hardly able to sound out the alphabet. He is now in third grade reading Charlotte’s Web. She knew he had potential and just needed extra reading help. “It’s just so amazing to see how he has risen above everything and the dedication that he’s had,” she said.

Although her business was originally inspired by the need she saw in her community for affordable supplemental learning, she now teaches English as a second language to students around the world.

Her efforts have earned her praise from Literacy Lab students and parents.

“One of my children is dyslexic and has difficulty reading,” one reviewer said on the Literacy Lab website. “After taking classes with Miss Penny, his reading abilities improved tremendously. Thank you, Miss Penny. The Literacy Lab is such a blessing."

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.