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Winter 2011

A to B: How Brooke McCaffrey Read Her Way to Education

A to B illustrationillustration by istockphoto.com

I grew up immersed in a world of words, with parents who relished reading and padded my bright blue bedroom with books. I would spend Saturday afternoons staring at long words, guessing at their meanings while racking my four-year-old brain in an attempt to unlock this code of letters.

Reading came naturally to me, and it wasn’t long before I made the jump during my kindergarten year from singing the ABCs to reading Charlotte’s Web under the covers with a flashlight. I found myself fixating upon certain words, rolling them around on my tongue, ripping their sounds apart and examining their smallest bits, and then reconstructing them into solid pieces of my daily vocabulary. This relationship with words continued throughout middle school and high school, and it was through my own command of words that I navigated the rocky terrain of my teenage years by scrawling angst-ridden poetry in journals made of handmade paper.

During my sophomore year of college I began mentoring a third-grade student in a Harlem, N.Y., school. This little girl had a bright personality and a quiet creativity about her; however, at the age of nine she was reading far below grade level. She would jolt her way through sentences that I had breezed through in kindergarten, deriving no joy or excitement from the pages in front of her. At that time I was well aware of the fact that the world is riddled with injustice and that I was truly fortunate to have had the advantages that I did in my formative years. However, no amount of reading and consciousness-raising done within the brick walls of my liberal arts college could have prepared me for that moment when “unfairness” and “injustice” were plopped in front of me in a (hopelessly adorable) flesh-and-blood package.

I was bewildered by my mentee’s limited ability to navigate and comprehend the world of print — a world that had helped to carve the perimeter of my personality and talents. I remember wondering how this had happened. When I spoke with her teacher, she informed me that she was frantically trying to bridge the gap between where my mentee was and where she should have been. This teacher was dedicated to her student’s success, but there was a lot to be done in a limited amount of time.

One day, after a halted and exhausting reading of a Dr. Seuss book, my new friend smiled at me sheepishly. “I’m not so good at reading,” she said. That was the tipping point for me. I knew then that I would be trading my dream of becoming a writer with the dream of becoming a teacher.

I put my hand on my friend’s shoulder. “You can do this,” I said. “Reading takes a lot of practice and hard work, and that’s how you are going to get good at it.”

I had witnessed the many complicated aspects of teaching while volunteering in Harlem. However, I still envisioned that, for me, teaching would be a sparkling scene of students with noses in their books while the staccato beats of their pencils provided the soundtrack of our learning. In my mind, their love of reading would grow each day like a resplendent garden, with me at the forefront smiling and holding my figurative watering can of knowledge.

As it turns out, unsurprisingly, the reality was nothing like my fantasy. The first few months of teaching battered me. My students’ needs were great, and the available resources were few. One student made his feelings about reading clear by throwing books across the room. However, after I swept up the pieces of my shattered visions, I did what I do best: I read. I got to work figuring out the science of reading, and stockpiling my toolbox with strategies and research. I became versed in the vocabulary of reading instruction. I began to see teaching reading as a systematic, intellectually stimulating pursuit, rather than a simply idealistic one.

As I have moved forward in my career, I have come to see the book corner — the cozy, pillow-and-book-filled nook in my classroom — and the guided reading table as transformative spaces. They are the sites of small victories and constant growth. As we bustle about in our busy day-to-day routines, I feel that what we do as teachers goes beyond simple altruism or an ethic of care; what we do is revolutionary. It is in the complex act of learning to read that students are laying down the groundwork for long-term change. Young readers are empowered. They will be the change agents.
After seven years in the classroom I still find myself as enraptured by the act of awakening young readers to the world of words as I am by the words themselves. I do, however, also find myself continuing to write in journals made of handmade paper, and reading way past my bedtime.

— Brooke McCaffrey, Ed.M.’07, teaches kindergarten at Prospect Hill Academy Charter School in Somerville, Mass., and spends a lot of time in the book corner reading with her students. She is featured in this issue’s cover story on how to read.