The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How I Became a Teacher of Reading

on June 5, 2018

In the year 2000 after retiring from being a school teacher and a principal, I worked part time for a few years as a supervisor of student teachers for Portland State University and also spent much of my own time visiting classrooms in several schools. Unfortunately, most of the teachers I watched were using commercial materials that emphasized the technical components of reading, such as phonics, speed (fluency) and vocabulary. Largely, getting meaning or pleasure from reading was not emphasized in the classrooms  I visited.

I especially remember observing in a classroom while a 1st grade reading group went through a story titled “Eve Sees an Eagle” without showing any personal response to the story.  Actually, that was no surprise because the story had no charm or interesting information. It was filled with words in which the long “E” sound was conveyed by different letter combinations. As I watched the children read through the story I could see that they found no pleasure in what was essentially a phonics lesson.

I had begun my own teaching career in a third grade classroom in a rural school where several students were not yet reading competently. Although the only preparation I had for teaching reading was a one-summer university course, I knew what good stories or poems could do for readers. My own experience with reading had begun when I was about three years old and my mother read poetry and fairy tales to me every afternoon before I took a nap. Reading captured me then and has never let me go.

In the short time I had before my first teaching job began, I searched my classroom, the school library, and my home for books that I thought students would understand  and like if I read them aloud. I started my classes every day by reading aloud for 5 to 10 minutes, and then stopped at a place where I was sure my students wanted to hear more. I told them I would continue the following day, and then put my book down. Most of the time some kids would go to the book afterward to look at its pictures and try to figure out what would happen next.

Later that year I was able to buy some used books and I begged other teachers for books they no longer used.  After my students had read a section of a book, I would ask  a few of  them to act out what they remembered, using a set of puppets I had bought. They loved doing that.  If we had been reading a poem instead of a story, we recited it again afterward.

I stayed at that school for only a year because my husband got a new job elsewhere.. Over the years we moved several times for different jobs, and I taught different grades, most of them with more and better books than my first class had.

Much later, as the Chair of a high school English department, my team and I turned down the opportunity to buy new English textbooks and chose to buy copies of high quality fiction and nonfiction instead.  A few years later I went on to a job as an elementary school principal, and encouraged my teachers to teach reading as I had done. We used no textbooks or workbooks, just paperbacks that were appealing and well written.

By the time I had been principal of that school for several years, we had accumulated enough books to fill a storage room. That allowed teachers to choose the ones they thought best fitted their students at the time. Teachers of higher grade classes often  chose to use books about American history or life in a foreign country in order to relate student reading to other things being taught in a classrooms.

Over time, I served as the principal of two very different schools where student test scores were high every year. That was not unusual for the first school which was in an upper middle class community, but very unusual for the second school which was in a rural area with lots of poverty and very few parents who were college educated. I attributed our success not only to our teaching practices, but also to the extra efforts of my teachers, who reached out for self-improvement continually. They were always ready to read interesting books to their classes that they had found in a library or purchased with their own money.

Throughout my long experience as a teacher and a principal I worked against one-size fits-all commercial programs and reading work books. I much preferred to persuade children to become life-long readers by surrounding them with pieces of reading that were interesting, imaginative and satisfying.  Over time I had grown  accustomed to seeing kids wrapped up in stories that amused or amazed them; ones they re-read because they enjoyed them or wanted to use them as the basis of their own writing.  After reading “Hansel and Gretel” my youngest son, who was only in first grade at the time, wrote a book that he named “The Witch Who Eats Children.” I still have that book in my home and close to my heart.





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