The Unlimited World of Readers

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By Lark P. Palma, PhD, Head of School

From the Autumn 2010 Caller

When I hear teachers talk about the breakthroughs—the aha! moments—when a child makes the leap to linking the sound and letter of a word to its meaning, I am a bit envious. When I worked as a middle and upper school teacher, my job was to solidify and enhance what my students had learned, helping them become more sophisticated readers. What I learned about secondary reading is sound advice: spend almost as much time preparing the student for reading as for the reading itself. My work seeking the hooks on which to hang the reading, finding the deeper meanings and leading my students to discover those meanings for themselves, helped them become analytical readers who came to comprehend texts with depth and insight.
 
However great that was, I never had the opportunity to teach a young child to read. Despite all the methods, the science, and the research, the moment when a child recognizes a word and its meaning still seems magical to me. Recently I discovered a picture of my 5-year-old self in footie pajamas reading the comics. It brought back memories of figuring out from the illustrations what Brenda Starr or Prince Valiant was saying. Eventually, I could pair the repeated words with what I thought was going on. But although I don’t remember much about the moment I learned to read, I was fortunate that someone took an interest in me as a young reader and put wonderful books in my hands.
 
Dick and Jane, Tag, and Through the Garden Gate—the books we were all supposed to read—bored me beyond words. We lived on a tiny coastal island, and the library was the size of a small living room. But the unforgettable Miss Chastain was there, and she kept handing me books to read that she knew would spark my interest: The Five Little Peppers, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Secret Garden, Misty of Chincoteague, The Arabian Nights, Treasure Island, and many others. Her gesture implied “You will love this.” When no one else was there (which was often), she would let me read adult fiction. I gulped down great historical novels by Anya Seton and others, with their thrilling battles and momentous events. I felt like I was right there in the throes of the Puritan Revolution, the Great Plague, the building of cathedrals, and the Viking invasion of Britain. (The truly transformative books came later: the existentialists, Richard Brautigan, John Barth, Walker Percy, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf.)
 
Just as I had passed my books on to my brothers, so did I dole out the special books to my cousins and friends. The tradition continues today through two more generations. If you have someone in your life who sets the table and joyously offers you a smorgasbord of books, you will partake with gusto and pleasure.
 
I am so proud to be part of a school whose teachers make the world of reading come alive for their students. They place the right books in their hands, just as Miss Chastain did for me. Our teachers understand how to reach readers of all types of learning styles, so that they too can take part in absorbing and thrilling experiences with just the turns of a few pages. This issue of the Caller is full of stories of the transformative acts of both reading and writing, another area that we teach extraordinarily well. Please enjoy these stories, and don’t hesitate to share a much-loved book with me.