Time of wonder

August 19,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

My classes started this week. This is the part of going back I truly love--once the meetings and workshops are over and done with it's so rewarding to step into the classroom and see the new faces waiting. Back when I first started teaching, some fourteen years ago, I'd feel a bundle of nerves on the first day. I still remember my first day ever of teaching--my hands shook as I walked into the classroom and I'm sure the whole room could tell I was a nervous wreck, and fighting for composure. I still feel a flutter of nerves right before class time, but my hands don't shake anymore. Instead I have learned to quickly gauge the class, to read the energy. Is it low? Too high? Just right? Who are the students who sit in the front (always a sign of the eager learner) and who sits in the back? Who is likely to doze off, and who will I need to work harder to engage? I always say that teaching is more about being sensitive and responsive to the students in the room than it is about training. Of course you need both, but all the training in the world won't do you any good if you don't know how to respond effectively to your students.

This semester I teach two classes for developmental writers. I will spend a good two weeks helping them feel comfortable in the college classroom. Some of them have learning disabilities, some of them have poor self-esteem, many of them haven't been given the chance to feel good about themselves in any classroom. I find these students the most challenging to teach, but the most rewarding, too. I see their histories in front of me, because I have also seen how quickly a child can backslide, into that trap of feeling inferior, and inadequate in the classroom. I see how quickly they can learn to hate school, and hate themselves, too.

I polled my 8:00 am students, as I always do, about their relationship with reading. Did they read? Were they read to as children? Do they connect reading with good things: escapism, relaxation, wonder and enjoyment? The answer to all of these is usually no, and this always explains to me why they struggle with writing and language. It's not too late to learn to enjoy reading, I told them yesterday.

"Oh it's too late," a young man in the back said. "WAY too late." His classmates laughed in agreement.

But it's not too late. It never is. I hope I can prove it to all of them.

And parents and caregivers out there--read to your children. Every day, all day, if you can. Take them into your laps, so they connect words with snuggles and comfort. Don't be afraid to try on different voices with them, or make the animal sounds in a book. Read something funny to them, and laugh along. Read them something meant for an older child, and let the big words fill your child's ears. Don't let reading become homework, or only something that is done in school, in a circle around a teacher. Reading should become a lifelong pleasure, a special world for your child, a place of wonder and escape.