Talking about reading with a former college education dean

I interviewed Meredith recently about reading. Meredith is a former dean of one of the largest university Colleges of Education in her state. Since retirement, she has volunteered with a local reading program, which she coordinated for a year. She currently volunteers at a school for deaf children going back to her roots as a special education teacher. 

What are your memories about reading as a child?  I grew up in a military family. When I was four and learning to read, we lived in France. We were the only Americans living in a French village. I don’t really remember anyone reading to me but recall teaching myself to read after learning the alphabet. I went to the French village school and read in both English and French.

How proficient were you in French?  Very proficient ─ none of the instruction in our school was in English and my only friends were French.

What kind of books did you have in your house when you were little and what kind of books did you especiallyl like to read?  We had lots of Little Golden Books in our house ─ in both English and French. All my schoolbooks were in French. I loved to read and used libraries all the time. I remember liking the Little Golden Books. As I got older I liked biographies and novels.

Did you have TV when you were little?  There was no TV in our house in France. We didn’t have a TV until I was in high school.

Where did you go after France? We were in New York for four years, then moved to Germany when I was in junior high school. I went to the American school in Germany.

Did you learn German then?  Yes, I learned German in junior high and high school. I had a lot of German friends who were learning English so we taught each other through social activities.

What language did you mostly read in?  Though I read some German, I chose to read for pleasure in English. 

Were your parents big readers?  Yes, both were big readers throughout their lives.

With such a diverse background, what did you pursue in college and what were you thinking about in terms of career directions? I was pretty strong in English and writing and wanted at that time to be an interpreter at the United Nations. So I took a lot of French and German courses in college. I also took psychology courses and liked them so much that I changed my major to psychology. When I completed my degree, it was hard to get a job with a major in psychology. So I thought about graduate school ─ but it was hard to get into graduate school in psychology as a woman. In those years, they just said ‘no’ to you straight out. My junior year of college I had an internship at the John Tracy Clinic in California for very young deaf children. I liked that type of teaching. It wasn’t like teaching a class of 20 or 30 children ─ we worked with small groups of 5-6 children and with their parents. In the early 1960s, a Rubella (measles) epidemic resulted in an increased number of deaf and deaf-blind babies. After college I accepted a full scholarship to a deaf education graduate program. After I completed my degree, I started my career at a State School for the Deaf.

What do the categories of deaf and deaf/blind mean?  Educationally it means the hearing and/or vision impairment is significant enough to need special education.

What about learning sign language? The school I was working in did not believe in teaching sign language, but the children in my class had such trouble learning through just residual hearing and lip reading that I used sign language with them.

Was teaching reading to your children difficult?  Yes, teaching reading to young children with multiple disabilities was very challenging. They all had some vision, but not much hearing so I tried to match sign language to objects and actions, then to pictures and finally to printed words. My teaching was mainly focused on language and communication.

How important is the visual dimension ─ the artwork─ in teaching with this group of children? Really important. They need a lot of visual cues. They need the life experiences that translate what they are seeing in real life with what they are seeing in books. Some of that is the same as working with children who are really poor, and come from deprived environments. For example, some children will see a giraffe in a book, but probably have no idea that the giraffe is a really tall animal. The parents who take their children to a zoo so they will see how big they are and how they move will help their children with those useful connections between life experience and what they are seeing in books.

What was your reading approach for your own daughter like when she was little?  I started reading to her very early. I taught her to read and we read a lot. I remember being surprised at the level of books she seemed to like (The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland) and the vocabulary she seemed to comprehend. As she got older I was hoping she would like books I liked (Little Women, Gone With the Wind) but she was pretty bored by those.

What books or topics did she like best?  She got into the Babysitter Club series that her friends were reading. She especially liked stories that related to kids her age. In her elementary school, they wrote and read every day so it became second nature. I think this was a big help in developing strong language skills. And she had very good English teachers in high school.

In your professional life, how did you make the transition from teaching deaf-blind children to teacher education?  When I began teaching, the public access law for special education had not been passed by Congress (PL 94-142). Before that law was passed, I started to train other teachers to work with deaf-blind children and did that for several years. Then I took a position with the State and had responsibility for education of all children of severe disabilities (e.g., Down syndrome, cerebral palsy). By that time, children who had not previously had access to public school had legal access and we were moving children from volunteer organizations in church basements into the public schools. It was an exciting time. Not all the public schools were that welcoming but we were getting children into their local schools. My role then was still mostly working in special education. I was asked to teach at two universities in our state, to help prepare teachers to work with more diverse populations of children. The kids were not mainstreamed then ─ they were in self-contained classes. I began to realize that to really have an impact for children in special education I had to have a deeper understanding of and role in regular education services.

At some point you were asked to take on the role of dean of a large College of Education at your university. Was that unusual, coming out of special education? It was unusual but around that time a lot of us who had been in special education became deans. We were really good at analyzing how kids learn, using data to make decisions and focusing on individual students.

Your College of Education – and so many then – began to focus more attention on the teaching of reading. How did you prepare for this growing attention to reading?  I took courses at a nearby university with a leading education researcher who focused on the importance of direct instruction to teach reading to children who were struggling. Some educators were recognizing that really helping kids who did not know sounds and how to blend them was key to helping them become better readers. We also recognized the importance of good children’s books to inspire a love of reading along with the technical aspects of having a good vocabulary, being able to anticipate what comes next in a story, and writing as building blocks to becoming a good reader.

What do you think about technology and reading? Do you use e-readers in your home?  I have a Kindle and like it. It’s great for traveling. But I continue to read hard cover books too. I tutor a child who has some language delays and he loves to have me read children’s stories on my Kindle. I think that technology tools can be a great help for children. If a child is not able to read by the second or third grade, teachers and parents need to intervene in a heavy way. For kids struggling with reading, good programmed instruction or lots of individual practice on skills can impact kids relatively quickly.

How does programmed instruction impact reading development?  These are programs (e.g., book or workbook series, flashcards, computer or video programs) that show a child various letters in the alphabet so they learn to recognize each letter and the sound associated with the letter. Then the child learns to blend the sounds those letters make and word recognition. With programmed instruction you can give kids lots of opportunity to learn ─ with immediate feedback. In many of our school classrooms of 30 to 40 kids, teachers just don’t get enough time to work individually with every child. In the early grades, there are going to be a wide range of reading experience and reading abilities among the 30+ children in a classroom. Programmed instruction can be an equalizer, helping kids get caught up. But it needs to be paired with a love of reading children’s books.

Are computers in the school and home increasingly going to help develop better readers among all our children?  They have great educational potential. But I don’t think that children should sit in front of computers or be on the cell phone all day. Too many kids have too much technology ─ but I think it’s here to stay.

Now that you’re a retired educator, is reading still important to you?  I have a lot more time to read now and that’s nice. And I have time to read in a broader realm. When I was working really hard I liked “escape” reading. Now I read more non-fiction. I read more variety and with more patience.

Final thoughts about reading?  People are texting and using social media. I wonder what this generation’s reading and writing skills are going to be like. Are they getting enough of that type of education in school ─ like grammar, spelling and understanding complex text?

This concluded my interview with Meredith. I’m struck by the huge impact she has no doubt had on so many children, teachers, and school administrators over many years ─ first as a special education teacher and later as an educator of teachers. In my view, she’s still teaching in this interview: there’s so much we can all do to help ourselves even when faced with major challenges – the challenges of learning multiple languages, hearing and eyesight impairments, and closed doors in the pursuit of furthering education and/career paths. I was surprised that we ended our conversation with a description of the dragon boat racing club Meredith participates in vs. the book club I might have expected her to participate in. My take-away: whatever transports you to new vistas ─be they great stories in books or adventures in dragon boats ─hop aboard and keep reading and rowing.