thereadingroom via cathy ruggiero
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was teaching me to read, opening my eyes to a whole world around me, a history of all that came before me, and gave me a lifetime of learning and enjoyment that has been absolutely priceless.
I became a teacher because I wanted to teach kids to read. When I started teaching in the Tulsa Public Schools in 1970, my first teaching position started in January – a thing that almost never happens. I couldn’t wait to embrace my sweet first-graders and give them all I had.
My eyes were opened to many realities that year. The world on the north side of Tulsa was very different from the world I had lived in. My students had no interest in learning to read, write, work with numbers, etc. They were too busy trying to survive. My cute little bulletin boards were pure fantasy to them. I learned so much more than they did that year. I learned to really listen to my students and find out where they were and what they needed from me. I threw out my stupid, starry-eyed ideas, rolled up my sleeves, and started learning to be a teacher.
I finally reached my kids on phonics by composing a really awful tune and singing it while playing my guitar. The kids really got into it, smiling, singing and dancing, learning the sounds of the letters as we all moved to the beat. It was fun. It was effective – and it got me into trouble. I was called to the principal’s office where I was told in no uncertain terms, “Ms. Lewis. This is NOT a music class.” I tried to tell him that it was the first time my kids saw a reason to learn phonics, and from that, to learn to read – but my words fell on deaf ears.
This was only the first of many times I got into trouble that first year –
- the superintendent of schools came into my room unannounced to find me standing on the waist-high heat register with a roll of Weekly Readers in my hand. As he watched, I swatted and killed the wasp, my kids cheered and sat in their seats again, and I told him, “This is the best use I’ve found for the Weekly Reader so far!”
- The principal found my class and me under the only tree in the playground at the end of the day on Friday. I was passing out paper certificate awards for the week for such things as ‘being able to stay in my seat for the whole reading lesson,’ ‘not getting into a fight all week,’ ‘eating my breakfast and my lunch today.’ We had no air conditioning in our part of the magnet school. Getting out into the fresh air at the end of the day on Friday and ending on a positive note with awards was my idea of a successful week. The principal suggested that I keep everyone in the room until the bell rang.
I did manage to get my kids excited about reading, even though my ‘outlandish’ ideas weren’t appreciated in the public schools. I continued to fight my battles, having 6 reading groups instead of the traditional 3; testing my kids at the beginning of the year to see what they needed, rather than merely starting on page 1 of the book, giving different assignments to different groups based on their learning styles or differing abilities, and then having each group share with the class.
After 8 years of being in trouble, I finally threw in the towel. I started my own reading clinic with a good friend who had done her practice teaching in my classroom. We had 3 glorious years of really being able to change lives. We showed young men that they weren’t stupid. We changed students’ minds, showing them they were definitely smart enough to go to college. We brought scores up as much as 3 years in 9 weeks of instruction. We had tearful adults saying we were miracle-workers. We did everything in the clinic except make a profit, and we were forced to close our doors.
I can’t think of anything that makes a larger difference in life than learning to read, and loving to read. It’s a gift that keeps on giving for a lifetime. It transports us, makes us better people, and allows us to share.
Thank you, Julia Donaldson, for capturing the love of reading in your words!