Feeling Once Again The Power Of Reading

Education: Literacy drive events spark an education writer's memories of teaching a bilingual class in Northern California

As I stepped into the second-grade classroom at Ventura’s Juanamaria School with a picture book in hand, a feeling of nostalgia gripped me.

I was back where I started.

Before I became an education reporter, I spent two years as a third-grade teacher. It was a bilingual class and the children were from low-income families in East Oakland. Like many teachers, I adopted the students as my own. I called them “my kids.” And I bragged about them daily.

Every day I went home with news about their accomplishments. Oscar read a chapter book. Yvette wrote a poem. Mario learned his times tables.

On Thursday, I joined dozens of community members to participate in “Read Across America,” a nationwide literacy campaign to get kids excited about reading. Along with local politicians, police officers and parents, I was invited to visit a Ventura County school and read a book.

The story I chose was Toni Morrison’s “The Big Box,” about three children whose independence and imagination is too much for their parents to handle.

The second-graders crowded onto a rug, squirming to get the best spot to see the pictures. While I read, a few kids fidgeted. A couple of them raised their hands to share stories about themselves.

As I turned the pages and asked the students to read along, I remembered the everyday challenges–and everyday rewards–of teaching. There was the day Luis learned the days of the week. And another, when Vanessa told me what time it was. And there was that moment when Mariano read his first book in English.

And I remembered Alicia. When Alicia came into my classroom, she could barely write her name. She recognized a few of the letters, but couldn’t sing the alphabet song.

So after school each day, she and I worked on consonants and vowels, sight words and phonics. With time, she began to sound out some words and recognize others. She wrote sentences and learned the meaning of words. Excitement about reading soon replaced fear.

There were setbacks and frustrations, like the two days she spent crying and vowing to quit.

But she didn’t quit. And toward the end of the school year, Alicia suddenly found she could read. She wasn’t at grade level, and she still scored far below her peers on standardized tests. But she could pick up a book, open the pages, and read it aloud.

And she was excited. And proud.

To celebrate, she read her favorite book to the class, which helped her with a few difficult words and clapped when she finished.

Those who bemoan the epidemic of illiteracy and demand higher classroom standards might consider spending some time in the classroom. They should watch the children struggle to read. And they can see how good teachers willing to make the extra effort can make all the difference in the world, and convince children that reading is fun. And that it matters. That through reading a child can go on to do anything.

As I stood in front of the classroom I realized how much I missed teaching. Not the nightly grading of papers, or the calls to parents to say that Octavia didn’t turn in her homework or that Kenny pushed a classmate.

What I missed was reading aloud every morning. Perusing their creative stories and journal entries. And staying after school with them.

Those who write for a living understand the power of words to change lives. But it is never as evident as when you stand in front of a classroom and see the light go on in the eyes of a child who suddenly understands–a child who learns to read.

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