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Finding My Voice

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It's embarrassing to admit, but I didn't become a reader or writer until after I became an elementary school principal. This is a curious revelation coming from a man who devotes so much energy touting the glory of reading and writing to children.

Of course, I exaggerate a little. I formally learned to read and write in the 1st grade. Like other kids my age, I could translate those little black squiggles into meaningful letters, words, and sentences. But I hated it. This childhood loathing arose more from attitude than aptitude and was shaped by powerful forces in my environment.

Interestingly, my earliest memory of reading independently was a pleasurable one. I remember waking up early one Saturday morning, lying in bed, and reading my entire basal reader cover to cover. I recall my delight as I translated newly developed skills into a meaningful experience and reveled in the adventures of the characters and the world in which they lived.

But this early reading pleasure was not to be repeated. Unfortunately, the basal that had given me such joy on my own was used daily for months in school. My teacher dissected and trivialized it in her quest to help us develop proficient reading skills. As a result, I became increasingly skilled in the mechanics of reading, but I moved further and further from the true essence of reading. In fact, reading became a series of deadly boring exercises that involved filling in endless blanks in workbooks and on skill sheets. Formal reading instruction occupied many hours of my childhood; actual reading was only a minor byproduct of this instruction.

The same thing was true of writing. The excitement of capturing language on paper and using it to communicate ideas and feelings effectively was, once again, diminished through ritualized instruction. Teachers always selected the writing topics, which ranged from the mundane to the highly motivational (at least from their point of view). I never got the opportunity to shape words that recounted my own experiences or explored topics of importance to me.

What I painstakingly wrote often was mercilessly dissected by the teacher with her ubiquitous red pencil. The mechanics of my written words were scrutinized and rendered important; the meaning and thoughts expressed were not the focal point of the evaluative process. Writing was broken into grammatical rules, each with a multitude of corresponding work sheet exercises to complete. As a compliant student, I gave my teachers all the correct fill-ins and grammatically appropriate compositions. But the ink of my own creative voice went dry at a very early age.

This pattern continued from these earliest years throughout my formal schooling: Enormous time was given to reading and writing instruction with minimal time devoted to the authentic use of these skills in meaningful ways. I never learned to be a truly literate person--until I became a principal.

Over the past several years, I have immersed myself in the whole language philosophy. Whole language adherents believe that reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills should be taught within a meaningful framework that uses rich experiences with language and literature. The writings and voices of many leading educators helped shape and redefine my philosophy in this area.

Many teachers in my school were similarly inspired and have successfully introduced the philosophy into their classrooms. Gradually, they have replaced basals and workbooks with authentic literature, journal writing, and discussions of language, characterization, plot, setting, and style. Their role in the classroom has also shifted: from dispenser of knowledge to facilitator of learning.

The most evident change, however, has been in the attitude of our students. The groans that once greeted the onset of reading and writing periods are now heard at their conclusion. "Just a few minutes more,'' students beg. What's more, an increasing number of children read and write for their own pleasure, not because they are under a teacher's mandate. "Drop Everything And Read'' periods, authors' visits, reading and writing celebrations, and other buildingwide events all serve to enhance these attitudes.

But something else happened during this several-year transformation. I found my own attitudes toward reading and writing subtly changing. Becoming part of a literary process for children seemed to free a long-stilled voice within me. I began to write children's stories, partially as a result of reading scores of them at school. This has become a passion for me. I have shared my best efforts with our students, who are used to discussing stories and sharing their thoughts with one another. They have given me encouragement and many constructive suggestions; their pointers have helped me revise and rewrite stories into stronger and more powerful pieces. I've also begun to write various pieces of fiction and nonfiction in areas of personal interest. My pen is flowing with enthusiasm.

My reading habits have taken a similar turn. Reading for pleasure, as with my writing, began slowly. To my long-standing habit of reading newspapers, magazines, and educational journals, I added novels. The pleasure I derived from reading fiction grew stronger as this once happenstance event became a daily ritual. Gradually, I've become more adventurous. I began with bestselling "pop'' novels but am now reading for pleasure some of the classics I had previously read, under mandate, in high school and college, where the process was laborious and painful.

I have also become aware of the increasing connection between reading and my own writing. The more I read the more cognizant I am of the various styles of authors and how they draw me into their world.

Through all of this, I've moved to a higher level of literacy. I curse the wasted years when the books around me remained closed and my pen still. But I am pleased to have entered a process that is affording me such personal gratification, one that has become more powerful and refined with my ongoing involvement.

I truly envy children who are being given the tools and the opportunity to discover, explore, and enjoy the power of language at a young age. These youngsters will have a lifetime to nurture and develop their skills. They won't have to wait until their adult years to enjoy the voices of others and to find and express their own.

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