With Dianne Loyet
Why I Teach
Ray finds seaweed. He rides away.
These words may not sound remarkable to you, but they are probably the most thrilling story I have ever read.
If you attended or taught in a parochial school in the 1970s, you may recognize the words from the Open Court reading curriculum. These six words form the very first story in the very first book of the series, which we called “the blue book”. My first-grade classmates and I had been building up to reading for weeks, and at last we were ready. “Ray finds seaweed,” we proudly read aloud from the book. “He rides away.” We knew we had done something monumental, and we kept chanting the words of the story to each other for days. Yesterday we did not know how to read; today we had done it. We had accomplished the Most Important Thing in First Grade, and it was only September.
Not long afterward we had another awakening. We can write books, too?! One girl in our class, Jen, brought in a book she had written. I cannot remember the title or the details of the plot, but it was about an adorable orange marmalade kitten who got tangled up in a ball of pink yarn. (Jen was not only precocious at reading and writing; her pictures were so good that even now, over forty years later, I can still see them in my mind’s eye). The story was written on white college-ruled loose-leaf paper and held together by pink yarn poked through the holes. By the next day, the rest of us had written books and brought them in to share. Sister was kept busy reading our books aloud for quite some time! I myself wrote three books about my family–one about my sister, another about my three brothers, and the last about my parents. A misspelling in the book about my sister (“My sister wooshes my hair”) was a family joke for years.
Ray and his seaweed, Jen and her kitten–they were catalysts for the development of my inner life. Reading about Ray prepared me to take the next step, and the next, until I could read Please, sir, may I have a bit of earth? and Reader, I married him. Following Jen’s lead, I have always written. Letters, postcards, emails, poems when the spirit moves me, columns or stories when I feel more ambitious, academic papers when I have the opportunity.
Because reading and writing have been transformative for me, I teach reading and writing to adult English Language Learners. By and large, they do not share my perspective on literacy. For them, reading (and especially writing) appears to be a barrier, not a portal. I sympathize with how they feel and have no illusions that I’m going to completely change their minds in sixteen weeks. At the start of every semester, when I tell them about myself, I always end by saying, “Above all, I love reading and writing, and I hope that by the end of the semester, you will like it more than you do now.” Mostly, I feel that I succeed. I provide students with the tools and strategies that they need to improve their reading and writing proficiency and manage their writing assignments. They may never read, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? or Four score and seven years ago, but they can read their textbooks. They can write their essays. They become literate enough to achieve their academic and professional goals.
That’s a great accomplishment for them, and an unending source of joy for me.