Interview with Kayleen Reusser: on reading, libraries and writing

Kayleen Reusser wears a stack of “literacy” hats: middle school librarian, published writer (eight children’s books and two cook books), writer of articles and blogs for multiple publications including a weekly newspaper column, and co-director of a writing group. We sat down on a cold winter day recently to talk about reading, libraries, and writing … 

What are some of your early memories about reading as a child?  I grew up on a farm in rural Indiana, so we did not necessarily have access to a lot of books back then. I look back on that and am not sure I missed them though because my mother was a teacher (second and third grades) and she would bring home her knowledge as a teacher – and books as well. Every Saturday she went to get her hair done at a salon in town− the library was a couple of houses away. So I would go to the library − walking into the library was like heaven to me. And every week I’d pick out five books from the library to bring home − picture books when I was young and chapter books as I got older. I don’t think I actually owned a book until fourth grade! The first book I remember owning was given to me at Christmas by my fourth grade teacher. That was so special − I had never gotten a present from a teacher before.  She gave every student in the class a book. She gave me Strawberry Girl, a Newberry award winner. I didn’t really love the book at the time (I was more into adventure stories) but that was such an important thing, that she had given me my own book.

What kind of books did you like to read?  Well, I liked adventure stories and my favorite person to read about was Tarzan. I liked to climb trees around our house and liked to think about living in a tree too. I even had a special tree just to read in− it was one of my favorite spots.

Did you watch television when you were little?  We didn’t do TV a lot. Living on a farm I was very active outside. That world was license to make up so many stories −using the things I could − like climbing on farm machinery and coming up with names of animals.

How did you go from this type of life to writer and school librarian?  I always wanted to be an author – at 13 years old I remember thinking, how hard can it be? When I went to college there were no majors leading to being a writer except being an English teacher − and I didn’t want to do that. So I was a psychology major because I wanted to know why people did certain things – that’s what really interested me. Then I got married, had three kids, and began a writing career focusing on writing for adults. I had been writing for adults for about 20 years when I took a class on writing children’s books and the professor encouraged me to try writing for kids. So that’s how I started to write children’s books. My first publisher was Mitchell Lane. At the time, our local school had an opening for a children’s librarian. Although I didn’t have a degree in being a librarian, I was hired because I had written a children’s book. It’s been a real education working in a school library now for five years – I have learned so much more about children’s books.

What does a librarian do in a middle school? There’s one elementary school, one middle school and one high school in our small school district in rural Indiana. We have grades 5-8 at the middle school. There’s a huge difference in reading levels among these particular grades – that’s the biggest challenge. Just because a child is in the fifth grade, for example, does not mean the child is at the grade five reading level. An important part of my job is checking out books to the kids. One day a week each grade comes in to check out books during home room. So I get books appropriate for their age level interests and reading levels ready for them. I also repair books, order books for the library, help find books that kids are looking for, and try to teach kids some library skills. What’s most important at these ages in my view is to encourage kids to enjoy books –to talk to them about the books they like. Sometimes to encourage their interest in reading, I’ll let them know they are the very first one to read a particular book and I’ll ask them to read it and tell me if they like it. The librarian can really play an important role in talking with children about reading.

What does a librarian think about when you’re ordering books and other reading materials for the kids in your school?  I think about the diversity of readers we have. I look for books that will especially pertain to weaker readers – and try to find books that will interest both boys and girls and have the appropriate reading levels to accommodate their different reading challenges. Some publishers like Orca Books (a Canadian publisher) are known for serving well the high interest, low reading level reader. These books tend to be smaller, not intimidating in vocabulary−with great cover art. These books tend to focus on current situations which help kids−even weaker readers−to relate.

You clearly have many opportunities to interact with children around reading as both an author and school librarian. What advice do you give kids about reading?  As a librarian, I talk with kids about the importance of reading. When I visit schools as an author, I especially like to advise kids to find a place that’s their own for reading, like in a special corner in a room. This is especially important for children who may not be allowed to take books home from school – to find a comfortable, special place for their reading time. I remember my special tree when I was growing up, where I so liked to read –and I hope they will find a special place as well. I also let them know how much publishers try to think of them – that they spend a lot of time and money working on things like the cover so that kids will pick this book up because they are that important to them. Kids are interested to hear that the publishers are truly interested in getting their attention.

Do you have a sense that kids are doing more of their own writing?  When I do school visits as an author, I’m very excited that many times the teacher has already helped the kids put books together themselves (e.g., they have created a shared journal or a community cook book). I’m seeing more of this now than ten years ago –this is so much more possible with computer tools.

To what extent are computers and other technology part of the school library? Are you seeing technology impacting kids’ reading?  We do have a separate computer lab at our school but there are 30 computers in our library as well. So when kids are doing state-level testing (e.g., reading tests),  the library has to be closed while the kids are using the computers to ensure that the testing environment is quiet. This then throws off some of our regular reading activities. Also, last year every child in grades 1-12 was issued an iPad in our school district. One of the early impacts was a huge decrease in check-outs of library books at our school last year. This year we’re seeing an increase in book check-outs again, so things are beginning to settle out some.

How do you keep kids interested in reading in middle school? It’s more of a challenge since we’re competing with kids’ interest in e-devices (games). Most kids would rather play a game than read a book. So we try to attract their interest through displays in the library and around the school. For example,  I recently made poster-size book covers, laminated them and put them around the school.  I also created a book trailer on my iPad which kids can see during pass periods, have bookmark contests that have themes based on being in the library, and reward the top 10 reading kids (checking out books). We also have a book sale every December − collect donated books from teachers and others, and then sell the books to our kids cheaply (e.g., for 25 cents). All the money raised goes to Riley Hospital for Children, a cause our kids can really rally around. A lot of our kids may not have books at home but by our selling them for 25 cents or giving them away they have an opportunity to bring books home.

Do you think the kids at your school are less interested in reading than kids might have been several years ago? I think kids are as interested in reading as they mostly always were. There are actually some real pulls for them to read more. A very high percentage, for example, have read the Hunger Games trilogy and Harry Potter books. There is also a push now from teachers through the K-12 “Common Core”  to increase kids’ reading in non-fiction. And we are seeing a lot more non-fiction books being checked out of our library related to classroom assignments. We’re spending more in purchasing more non-fiction books as well. I’m not sure which subjects I should be buying for –so far I’ve been keeping the collection up to date and targeting areas like science, biographical books, and books focused on other nations (perspectives outside the U.S.). Teachers are assigning research projects and requiring kids to find a book on their topic – not just going to Wikipedia for information − so this is impacting kids’ library search skills and reading as well.

Do the librarians in your school district meet to talk about ways to support reading throughout the grade levels in the schools?  We have an elementary and middle school library aide (which is my position at the middle school), and a fulltime high school librarian. We meet together regularly and the high school librarian gives us lots of ideas about ways to support reading.  I’m in my fifth year at the middle school and feel pretty seasoned for what I do – though there’s always a need to be on the cutting edge.

Let’s talk a bit about your work as an author. You’ve written books on characters from Greek mythology, books about young celebrities like Taylor Swift, and cookbooks from Indonesia and Cuba. How do you come up with such diverse topics? Each of the types of books has had a different path. The Greek mythology books were essentially commissioned through the same publisher, Mitchell Lane. I was asked to take on those writing projects and found them very interesting – I didn’t know that much about Greek mythology before I started to do the research. Through Mitchell Lane I’ve also been commissioned to take on writing projects focused on young celebrities like Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Leona Lewis (British pop star). It’s important to me as both an author and mother that I not write about something I would not want my own kids to read about. The celebrities I write about are all good role models, I think. There’s a fourth book in this vein. In Celebrities Giving Back I wrote about people who give back, such as Tony Hawk (the skateboarder) who established skateboard parks around the U.S. through his foundation to get kids off the street. The Recipe and Craft Guide to Indonesia (cookbook) came through a third path. Mitchell Lane was looking for cookbooks from different countries and I offered to write a book on recipes from Indonesia because my daughter was working as a teacher in Indonesia and had been talking with me about different recipes she was trying while she lived there. So, we actually wrote this cook book together. I have a new publisher I’m working with now (Purple Toad) on two books: Now You’re Cooking: Healthy Recipes from Latin America — Cuba, and Big Time Rush.

How long does it take you to write a book from the time you begin the research?  It took me about three months to write the Taylor Swift book. I start on a new book as soon as I have the assignment. Basically, I don’t want to ever miss a deadline. Actually, if I have a month to get a chapter done, I try to get it done sooner to allow me extra time.

What questions do kids ask you as an author?  When I talk with kids wearing my author hat, they tend to have common questions: How long does it take to write a book? Did you get to meet Taylor Swift? Where did I get the pictures of Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez? What am I working on next? I use some of these questions to explain more about writing. For example, when they ask if I have met the celebrities I write about, I explain that Taylor Swift and most other young celebrities are pretty well protected which means not everyone can come up and talk to them. I tell them I’m glad for that for them, that they are young and have people to watch out for them. I explain how I gather information for the books by doing research, looking at blogs and other writing these celebrities put out there in their own words. I also explain that the editors who work with the book publishers get the pictures for the books and send them to me as the author – this gives me ideas for the book and I come up with captions to go with the pictures. When kids who are interested in writing careers for themselves ask me for advice, I know they are not always going to like the advice. But my best advice is to tell them to read ─ if you read, you are going to develop so many good habits. Know the grammar, internalize what makes a good beginning of a story, what makes a beginning and end. And then write yourself. Keep a journal. Though I never kept a journal because I was afraid someone would find it, I do write things down and find it so helpful later on to go back to pull ideas out for various writing projects.

What type of writing projects do you have coming up? Do you think about leaving the school librarian job and writing fulltime?  I wish I had more time to write and get information out about reading through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, my website), and visits to schools, libraries and civic groups. In addition to the books I write, I also write for 5-6 publications including a weekly newspaper column. I’m interviewing nurses now, doing feature profiles for newspapers, and interviewing folks in the military – to collect their stories. As important as this is, I would not leave my library position. There’s so much gratification from talking with kids about reading and writing. This is often the high point of my day ─talking to kids, seeing them get excited about books, and listening to them tell me what they like about a book.

Your final thoughts about reading and writing? I really enjoy trying to help kids read and write. If I wasn’t working in a school, I would not be able to talk with kids daily. I get to touch 400 lives every year−to have kids start dreaming. How wonderful is this! In the end, my goal is to get out there to acquaint kids with books and authors.

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Sarah ─ avid reader at 96

I recently interviewed Sarah. She has three children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She’s always enjoyed reading and writing stories and has been part of a writer’s group at her local senior center. She participates in the public library “home book” program where the library mails her a bag of books (mostly novels) every two weeks.   

Do you remember when you were first able to read on your own?  I don’t recall being aware that I was learning to read but was very aware at some point that I could read. Reading opened up a whole world for me. We took a daily newspaper and in those days the comic section on Sunday came in black and white ─ but when you blotted water on it, it became color. I was fascinated with that and especially remember reading the comic strip blurbs on my own from an early age, especially The Katzenjammer Kids.[1]

Did anyone read to you as a child?  I don’t remember anyone reading to me.

Did you have many books and other reading materials in your house growing up? My father had quite a few books but mostly in German. He subscribed to National Geographic magazine beginning around 1916 or 1917.[2] There were maps in it and all kinds of stories with pictures. He kept all the magazines neatly stacked in a bookshelf. I remember going through those from a pretty early age. We also went to the library to read and check out books. It was right around the corner from the elementary school. When I was around 7 or 8 years old, my younger brother tore some pages out of a library book at home. I cried because I couldn’t take it back to the library torn. My mother blamed me, not him, because it was me who brought the books into the house.

What was reading instruction like at school? I went to elementary school, junior high school, then high school ─ don’t remember a specific class in reading. We covered various topics in school and were assigned a certain number of pages to cover ─ had to read some parts of those assignments, of course. If I found the topic interesting, I would keep reading—more than I needed to. I also read a lot of my older sister’s books ─ whatever she was reading for school assignments, like the classics. This was how I first read the classics. But without any guidance about reading, I just read for the story line.  I still do that today ─ read for the enjoyment of the story.

Do you think you were a good reader then? I must have been. I recall taking a national test in high school and after graduation receiving a phone call from the school principal’s office. The principal told me I scored high enough on the test that he thought I should plan to go to college. But he noted from my academic record that I had deficiencies in English grammar and he thought I should take a grammar class over again ─ that it would help me in college. But I didn’t do that ─I wasn’t interested in being a scholar. My older sister was sure she should be a scholar ─ and went on to be a teacher. I didn’t really receive any counseling or guidance about what to do after high school─ wish I had.

What did you do after high school? After some time of sitting at home, I realized I couldn’t sit there and do nothing. The impetus might have come from my mother to come up with a next step. My father decided he would pay for me to go to a secretarial, vocational-type school for three months to learn to be a secretary. So I went. I learned how to type, take shorthand, and learned a number of practical skills. I actually learned to write shorthand but couldn’t read it back because my handwriting wasn’t very good. After the program, I went to an agency where they sent me to temporary jobs. This was the tail-end of the depression, so a lot of companies were not doing that well. In-between jobs, I sat around the house and read books. Ever since I was in junior high school, I had wanted to go to art school. When I first started working in these temporary jobs, I went to the local Art Institute and signed myself up, and went to the first couple of classes. My father found out where I was and he told me that “being an artist was immoral” and I was not allowed to go to school there. So I had to leave. Finally I got a more permanent secretarial job at a factory that made uniforms where I worked directly for the owner. This was a job I really enjoyed. My sister also suggested I take classes at the local college in the evenings after work. So I did. I didn’t take classes geared toward a degree of any kind ─ just took classes I was interested in.

When you were married and had children, how did you approach reading to your children?  I was adamant about reading to our three children. I especially would make up stories and draw pictures with the stories and my children really liked this. We also enjoyed poetry reading and especially limericks. Limericks rhyme and they have rhythm. My children especially enjoyed the “music” in words. My husband loved to read to the kids too. He would read adventure books like Zane Grey, animal books like Black Beauty. The words were beyond the kids but the thought was not beyond them. The kids would sit on the floor and he would be very dramatic in his reading. We also went to the library a lot as a family. And when my husband was away at night for work, I would wait up for him after the kids went to sleep ─ usually I was reading. I have always found that where the stories were, the ideas were.

Has your reading been affected as your eyes have gone through changes with aging? Over the years, I just got glasses so have never really had much of a problem reading. And when I had cataract surgery, my eye-sight ended up better than it had been for years. So reading over the years and now is not a problem. I only found out recently about the big-print books you can get at the library. These are really helpful for folks.

What do you think about audio books having someone read stories to you?  My daughter had a gadget that inserted a tape and it reads books to you. I did that for a while. But I didn’t like it as much as when I read by myself.

What kind of books do you like most to read now? I enjoy mostly novels and reading about science. When I was young I read all those National Geographic magazines and have come to really enjoy reading about discoveries in science.

Do you like science fiction or science?  It doesn’t matter if it is science fiction or realistic science – I find the realistic things interesting and like good stories too.

Do you know people who are playing a major role in raising their grandchildren – who are also trying to help them become good readers? Yes, there are several people at the Senior Center who are helping their grandchildren with their homework and helping them learn to read. They say, ‘I don’t remember doing this in school but here I am learning it now.’ We all laugh about it. But in many ways it is not the same as it was when we were young.  Sometimes the interpretations we had from our generation don’t apply to following generations. For example, my father tried to teach me how to do algebra when I was in high school. But his method was not the method my teacher wanted me to use, so the teacher marked me down for doing “old fashioned math.”  So I had to learn the newer method.

Do you have final thoughts on reading, on literacy? Reading is not only about the story although that is what I enjoy so much. You can read a book and learn a lot. When you can read you’re never alone. When you can read you can always step into another world. It takes you out of a very mundane way of living and opens a whole new world. I don’t usually like to tell people my age but the lady from the public library who oversees the books-through-the-mail program recently called me and I told her my age.  I told her that the books she was sending me have opened up a whole new world, opened new doors ─and made such a difference in my life. Through these books I can read what goes on in other parts of the world, read what happens to other people. I like to think about the word, “literal” in the word, “literacy.”  It is for real. When you read something and it is well written, then it becomes real. Whether it is science fiction or realistic science writing, for a short time you are in another world, you are in someone else’s life. That’s what literacy can do ─ make thing real for a time.

This concluded my interview with Sarah. I was struck by her recognition that though storytelling has long been a key motivation for reading, she’s long turned to reading too to open new doors to learning. Had she not shared her age, I would never have guessed 96.  I’m thinking that her nine decades as an avid reader have helped keep her mind agile and spirit young.

[1] The Katzenjammer Kids is an American comic strip created by the German immigrant Rudolph Dirks and drawn by Harold Knerr for 37 years, from 1912 to 1949. It debuted in 1897 in the Sunday supplement of the New York Journal. Dirks was the first cartoonist to express dialogue in comic characters through the use of “thought balloons.” After a series of legal battles between 1912-1914, Dirks left the New York Journal and began a new comic strip, first titled Hans und Fritz and then The Captain and the Kids. It featured the same characters in The Katzenjammer Kids, which was continued by Knerr. The two separate versions of the strip competed with each other until 1979, when The Captain and the Kids ended its six-decade run. The Katzenjammer Kids is still distributed, making it the oldest comic strip still in syndication and the longest-running ever.

[2] The National Geographic Society was founded in January 1888, and the National Geographic Magazine first published nine months after the Society was founded as the Society’s official journal.

Thoughts on reading ─ music & words

I returned to studying music 6 years ago, after decades of not. To be more accurate, I took up the study of classical guitar 6 years ago. Piano lessons between the ages of 5 and 16 and flute between 8 and 14 afforded wonderful opportunities to play in school orchestras and bands, and accompany friends in high school skits. At some point, it became obvious that I was not going to be a musician, a real musician.

This will not surprise Chris, my guitar teacher. Classical guitar is turning out to be way more difficult than I had imagined. But reading music after decades of not has come back quickly. This has me thinking about reading music and reading words. These skills have to be closely related. Music is a language.

There are interesting conversations posted on the Internet from students struggling to learn to read music. They trade advice like: ‘you can do it ─ don’t give up,’ ‘keep practicing,’ and ‘study with a teacher ─ it will be easier than doing it on your own.’

This advice reminds me so much of what we all have to do when we’re learning something challenging, especially a language. It’s clear that in both types of reading (words and music) the reader has to know how to decode and apply in a performance (whether playing the instrument or comprehending the message from words).

With this thinking in mind, it seemed like a logical next step to talk with Chris after my guitar lesson this week to check out his views on reading music and reading words. Chris holds a master’s degree in guitar; his specialty is classical but he plays all styles. He’s been teaching guitar for 19 years ─ to students ages 7 to late 60s. He and his wife are raising three children – a new baby and an 8 and 10 year old.

Let’s start by talking about reading words when did you first realize you were reading words?  Around kindergarten.

Did your parents read to you when you were little?  Yes, a lot. I especially remember my father reading me a book called Mr. Paint Pig, and a bunch of the Golden Books (e.g., Flintstones, Mickey Mouse). We also read books on famous movies like Star Wars and Popeye.

When did you start music lessons?  Viola was my first instrument. Guitar came later ─ when I was 14.

How long have you played guitar?  25 years.

Did you take lessons or teach yourself?  I tried to learn on my own for about three months. But I realized I needed a teacher. So my family signed me up for lessons at a nearby music shop.

When did you learn to read music? I learned sheet music (note-reading) in guitar within the first year of lessons.

What’s the earliest age you have seen children read music? About 6 years old. You need to be at least at the first or second grade reading level before you start reading notation. A child is going to do better at reading music if they can read some text, because music books typically have text explaining what is going on in the exercises. The child should be able to read that text so needs native language reading skills before reading musical notation. 

If a child needs to be a reader of words before they learn to read music notation then the idea I have that reading music would help a student to learn to read words better may not be right.  Well, I do think there is a best sequence ─ where the child is at least an early reader of words before reading musical notation.

Do you see a close relationship between reading words and reading music? Somewhat. They’re both languages and they both require discipline to get good at them. I think that learning the discipline of music can only help you. When kids are first learning to read words, some pick it up fast and others struggle. But does that mean for the ones who struggle that they give up on their fight for literacy? It’s the same in the musical realm. How many great musical geniuses would have been even better had they known how to read sheet music? Some of the greatest jazz musicians were musically illiterate ─ they were amazing guitar players but they could not read or write music. People use that as an argument not to read music. My argument is, how much better would they have been had they been able to read music? Not many people think this way … they’re too busy admiring the ability the musician already has. Knowing how to read music only helps them in music. I think that is how it is in languages too – better mastery can only help.

Do you think kids can become better readers of words if they study music? Maybe ─ I don’t know if there’s a direct connection between the two. But I do think that studying musical notation will help their overall academics. For example, when you look at a piece of music, you’re detecting the patterns in the notes, among other types of decoding such as timing. These complexities are generalizable to other areas of study, like language.

When do you think it’s best to begin music studies for children?  I think kids would benefit from having more intensive music studies in the early grades because that’s when so many of the great classical guitarists started. Think about the musical geniuses that might come out of that ─ if children started to learn music at an early age. Why not implement music education when kids are younger, when it might contribute more to their overall development?

What about your own children ─will you have them learn to read music? Yes, when/if they desire to learn music. I try not to shove it on them but I want them to have musical background in something. My oldest child has been studying the recorder in school and the kids have to learn to read music to play the instrument (folk songs). He’s been enjoying this. I think it would be easy to build on that if he wants to play another instrument next.

As my conversation with Chris concluded, I shared some recent research reported in the medical findings section of The Wall Street Journal (Ann Lukits, 2/18/2013):  “Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders such as dyslexia” (original study is reported in the journal Neuropsychologia). “Musicians generally outperform nonmusicians on cognitive tests, but little is known about the effects of reading musical notes on the brain’s circuitry as it relates to reading.”  The article concludes that more research is needed but “musical training may be quite helpful for children struggling to read.”  Chris was not surprised by this research. 

My  final thoughts: while we’re waiting for more definitive research on the effects on brain circuitry from reading both music and words, I hope we’ll all encourage children to play a musical instrument and read music. It seems like it can only enrich lives and help kids become better readers. 

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.


“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” ─ texts & tweets?

I was sitting recently at a health clinic waiting for a lecture to begin on the importance of health and exercise. A lady arrived last (and late) and sat down next to me. She was carrying a large blue and black book bag which she plunked on the floor in between our chairs. The inscription on the bag was “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”

I was wondering if this quotation was a marketing brand of the bookstore named on the other side of her book bag. But I vaguely remembered that this quotation came from an earlier source.

When I returned home, I tracked down the history of this quotation through a Google search. The quotation is attributed to Joseph Addison who lived from 1672 -1719. Addison was a very influential “media” fellow in his time. He wrote for a daily paper called The Spectator. In History Magazine, Jamie Pratt ( explains that even though the Spectator was only published for about two years (1711-1713), “it had quite an effect on English society and literature.” Each issue contained a long essay consisting of a ‘sheet-ful of thoughts by a character named Mr. Spectator around a single theme or subject for the benefit of his contemporaries.’ The essays were printed on large (13 by 16 inch) paper. “This turned out to be the right format to appeal to the taste of a relatively new affluent class with an appetite for literature, but without the inclination to read lengthy books on the subjects treated in The Spectator.”

How visionary that 300 years ago ─ when many people were not reading, or were not reading much substantial content ─ that Addison recognized the importance of reading. If Addison were with us today, reading texts on his iPhone and tweets from his friends, I wonder if he would conclude that this reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Food for thought. Now pass the cookies …. er, the ‘tweets and texts.’