Encouragement is key to reading

The Education Beat

Learning: Camay Calloway Murphy, the city school board's newest member, believes an accepting atmosphere is needed with children.

April 25, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

HERE ARE A COUPLE of ways Camay Calloway Murphy fosters reading: At a family gathering at Easter, she festooned each of the children's holiday baskets with the first name of the recipient. Murphy's 3-year-old grandson, Cochise, recognized his basket right off.

"Looks like you can read, Cochise," Grandmother said approvingly, and she and other adults kept up the encouragement.

"To learn to read," she says, "you need an accepting, encouraging atmosphere."

When Cochise was very young, Murphy would read to him from a children's book titled "Baby Bop." Cochise loved the book, so Murphy purchased 20 copies (at 39 cents each) and scattered them about the house. Everywhere Cochise turned, there was Baby Bop.

"He recognized Baby Bop even as he was learning to speak," says Murphy. "Whenever there are signs of interest, you have to do everything you can to continue the interest."

Murphy, 72, is the newest member of the city school board.

She's a lot of other things as well: "cultural development consultant" at Coppin State College, chairman of the Eubie Blake Center, 30-year former kindergarten teacher and principal in Nigeria and Arlington, Va., and author (with artist Tom Miller) of "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" a children's book about an African-American artist's coming of age in Baltimore.

In speaking of reading, Murphy doesn't espouse academic theories about "phonemic awareness" and "research-based" techniques. She might be the first right-brained school commissioner of the modern era, putting artistic ability and emotional response over logical calculation and language skills.

What else to expect from the daughter of the great jazz musician Cab Calloway?

Murphy, a lifelong proponent of the arts, might provide sustenance in a school system artistically starved for decades. The arts aren't separate from reading and math, she says; they're an integral part and "need to be woven in at every turn."

Says Murphy: "You don't hold a child back for a reading lesson when the rest of the class is going to the library or an art or music class. Sometimes we have tunnel vision on reading. There's a certain kind of patterning that goes with the decoding of words. There's a visual aspect to unlocking words that we often overlook."

Thus, Murphy believes Cochise learned his name because he'd learned to recognize the shape of its letters. Thus, Cochise's grandmother, at one of her first public board meetings Tuesday, was fascinated by geometric patterns and color in math books under consideration for schools.

Murphy's collaboration with the internationally known artist Miller carries out her philosophy. "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" was published by the Maryland Historical Society, which is trying with some success to shed a stodgy image. Written at about third-grade level, the story tells of Miller's self-discovery as an artist. Its 16 colorful self-portraits are accompanied by Murphy's prose.

Baltimoreans will find much to recognize: the "Clean Block" tire urn on the sidewalk outside Miller's house, the Washington Monument, Lafayette Market, the Orioles, a family crab feast, Maryland Institute, College of Art (where Miller eventually enrolls).

At the institute, Murphy writes in Miller's voice, "The other students painted with pale soft colors, like their faces. I painted with bold bright colors -- red, blue, black, like my neighborhood."

Miller finds a bent coal scuttle and starts to paint it. "As I was painting I thought to myself, `This scuttle looks like a bird.' I started humming `Bye-Bye, Blackbird' [a Cab Calloway signature number] and, before I knew what was happening, I painted eyes and claws and feathers and turned that coal scuttle into a beautiful funny bird."

The bird flies off, symbolizing Miller's ascent as an artist.

"The point of it is that Tom was nurtured as an artist not only by his family but by creative people in Baltimore who are definitely out there but not evident on the surface," says Murphy.

Children need to be educated the same way, Murphy believes. The younger we start, the better, she says. "Those early ages are the ages of absorbent minds." In the end -- as she writes in "Can a Coal Scuttle Fly?" -- "Hope, love, hard work and color made even a poor, sad coal scuttle fly."

Teen group collects 500 books for Chase Elementary School

More than 500 books were added to the shelves of Chase Elementary School in eastern Baltimore County in a drive that ended with a performance Monday evening.

Maryland Sings, a teen group that has toured Europe, collected the books and sang at the school, combining with the pupil "show choir" for a rousing final number.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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