“The best way to get kids reading more is to give them books that they’ll gobble up.”
The other night I was reflecting on my lifelong writing journey and a memory of an unpleasant moment I experienced in first grade surfaced. Unexpectedly, the memory turned into an “ah ha” moment, so it turned out to be a good thing.
In first and third grades, I had nuns for teachers. In second and fourth grades, I had lay teachers. Both lay teachers were kind, compassionate, loving, and excited about teaching. Not only did they believe in hugs and smiles, they went out of their way to ensure that every one of us felt confident and enthusiastic about what we were learning in the classroom. Conversely, the nuns were cranky and downright mean at times. Corporal punishment was still allowed and the nuns were quick to use their thick wooden pointer sticks on anyone who dared to cause a disruption.
In first grade, the nun had us take out a picture book about a bunny and we were to take turns reading aloud. I inadvertently groaned out loud because we had already read the bunny book several times and it’s large print and minimal story was pretty uninspiring. I was hoping that we’d get to read something new, or better yet, a chapter book! When I groaned, the nun stopped talking, grabbed her pointer stick and marched down the aisle to my desk with a terrifying glare on her face. In horror, I watched her approach. She snarled at me to put my hand out and she slapped the back of my hand very hard with the pointer stick—it hurt my hand and it hurt my feelings.
The nun asked me what my problem was and I very shyly responded that since we had already read the bunny book, could we please read something new. Already an avid reader, it’s only in hindsight that I realize not everyone in first grade was at my level of reading. All I wanted was a new story. It took me decades to figure out that by reading the same book out loud, over and over, all the kids were really doing was memorizing so that when it was their turn to read a page, they could simply recite the lines from memory, allowing the nun to pat herself on the back for having taught her class how to “read”. This nun was not teaching, she was crushing our spirits and our budding love of learning, in the first grade!
I cannot imagine what would have happened if my second grade teacher was another cranky nun. I feel incredibly lucky that my next year was spent in a classroom with a lay teacher who taught from the heart. I believe that this traumatic first grade experience was the catalyst that got me started reading outside the classroom—thank you dad for maintaining a huge in-home library!—and perhaps just as importantly, it shaped how I interact with children. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours in the classroom, both as a volunteer and as a teacher of horticulture and multicultural arts & crafts, to first through seventh graders. Modeling my behavior after the lay teachers I admired, I have dedicated my life to being a champion for kids, inspiring their love of learning and their curiosity, both in and out of the classroom.