This week I was a few chapters into the wonderful book Reading Champs, by Rita Wirtz, reading about dipthongs and consonant blends, when the memories came flooding back; not too clearly, mind you, because I’ll be 7 in June. But clear enough. Reading Rita’s book took me back to an elementary classroom with wooden floors and a closet that ran the full length of one wall (with hooks for our yellow raincoats and room for our galoshes). There were windows on the facing wall, and blackboards covering the other two. This was Mrs. Douville’s fifth grade classroom at Heard Memorial, a school three short blocks from my grandparents’ home, where I lived at the time.
Wirtz (2014) reminds us that kids learn to talk first, then read, then write. My grandmother read to me every night before I went to bed when I was too young to read myself, and in so doing she opened the doors to imagination with great stories I enjoyed hearing over and over again. Because of her, I have no doubt, I learned to love to read. I hit the love-to write stage with Mrs. Douville in the fifth grade. Some few of you may remember small, brown, lined tablets like those on which we completed our homework assignments. We used nothing but number 2 pencils back then, which made erasing the inevitable mistakes easier. Frequently, as I recall, we spent the last few minutes of the day getting the motor running on homework assignments of one kind or another, and Mrs. Douville kept an eagle eye on her eaglets as we kept our noses to the proverbial grindstone.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, I and the other “walkers” were dismissed, and I invariably headed to our town library. Moving quickly up one flight of steps brought me in short order to stacks loaded with mystery stories sporting heroes like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I imagined myself as Frank and/or Joe Hardy, solving cases with their friends and getting into trouble (with this I could identify), then out of it in the last chapter. Having mastered talking (and thus bringing the long arm of the law, or at least Mrs. Douville, down on me at times) and reading, I subsequently discovered I enjoyed writing.
One of my classmates and I decided we could, if we put our minds and our number 2 pencils to it, write mystery stories. We came up with a cast of characters and our first title, The Underground Cave (The reader may well wonder where else caves might be, but irony was a stranger then.), and began writing on one of those lined tablets Mrs. Douville favored. Gary would write a few paragraphs and some dialogue, and I would take it from there; unfortunately for me, I was taking it from there in Mrs. Douville’s classroom. Rather than beginning my homework, I was working on the manuscript of what we knew would be a bestseller.
Mrs. Douville, this not being her first rodeo, uncovered my misdeeds and took my tablet up to her desk, one of those black behemoths that could have landed aircraft with runway to spare. She called me up front and told me I needed a comma here and a set of quote marks there. She could have called my grandmother or at least scolded me, but she didn’t do either. Mrs. Douville saw something in me. She saw someone who talked a lot, read everything in sight—and loved to write. She suggested we type up the manuscript, mimeograph it (I know, only a handful of you know what that was.), and staple it before selling them at the Corner Store (which was actually on the corner of Main and Lake St.).
They all sold. I think my grandmother bought half of them. I still have one of those tablets, along with a copy of the typed, mimeographed, and stapled books. Thinking back over a good many rest stops on life’s highway, what was important is that a teacher saw in us two kids who could write—and who needed to be encouraged. It was PBL before PBL. Our project was a labor of love, and the lesson for teachers today is that every one of your students is good at something. Each of them has a passion, and each of us owes it to them to harness the power that comes from that kind of desire.
Kids talk first, then read, then write; all those things are important to employers today. All those things are important for citizens in a vibrant democracy. We must help iGen’ers become confident speakers, listeners, readers, and writers. Mrs. Douville was my champion. Who was your champion? And whose champion will you be?
Wirtz, Rita. (2014). Reading Champs: Teaching Reading Made Easy.
Bloomington, IN: LifeRich.