Parents move heaven and earth to help kids learn


Quest: From a South Dakota Sioux reservation to an Essex high school, everyone values the magic of reading.

October 14, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

LEARNING TO READ is a rite of initiation to which schools pay more attention than any other accomplishment.

"The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books," wrote the reading historian Alberto Manguel, "and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a greater or lesser degree, in every reading."

This is why many people remember when and where they experienced the epiphany of reading. It's also why parents will move heaven and earth to help their children learn to read. The vast majority of people don't remember the moment they learned to add and subtract. Nor do parents whose kids are failing social studies move them from school to school, hire tutors or haul them for hours to and from school.

Reading also is a great equalizer. Parents of all races and economic classes want their children to read successfully. I recall a conversation with a teacher at one of Baltimore's inner-city public schools. "It's a myth that my parents don't care about the education of their children," she said. "They see [education] as the ticket out."

How passionate can people be about reading? They pray for it. Teresa L. Ankney found that out this summer under most unusual circumstances.

Ankney, a sociology professor at Hood College, was doing some volunteer mental health work among the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. Pine Ridge is in one of the nation's poorest counties, with an average family income of less than $4,000 and an unemployment rate of 80 percent.

Ankney said she was asked to attend a sweat lodge ceremony, the ancient Lakota ritual of healing and purification. "Until I got used to it, it was dark and hot and hard to breathe," recalled Ankney. But during the Lakota prayers at the end of the ceremony, Ankney heard the word "phonics."

"You can bet my ears perked up," said Ankney, an activist who lobbies across Maryland on behalf of children who have the reading disorder dyslexia. "When I went up to the man who had said the prayer after the ceremony, he told me that he was praying that his daughter would get the phonics she needed in school.

"I couldn't believe it. These people had no idea of my passion. Here I was surrounded by kind and loving people who are also among the most marginalized on earth, and they're praying that their children get phonics."

How passionate? Try enrolling your son at six schools before finding one where he learned to read.

Charles Stoecker is 19 now, the son of a farmer in White Hall. He grew up in a house with 10,000 books, said his mother, Weida, "including my Golden Books from the '50s. And he comes from a family of readers. But though we tried everything, he could never break the code."

Stoecker's route led through public and private schools in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Years of tutoring at home and elsewhere helped, but not enough. Charles passed the Maryland functional citizenship test on the first try, said his mother, "but he never did pass the functional reading test."

Finally, Charles landed at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex, where he found the individual attention he needed, the structured phonics and "a willingness to be flexible," said Weida Stoecker.

The story has a satisfactory ending: Charles Stoecker graduated from Mount Carmel this summer and is enrolled at Harford Community College. "He's doing real well," said his mother. "He's reading."

I met Charles the other night. He's a quiet kid who has embarked on a new and exciting phase of his life. Thanks to faithful parents, he and the daughter of a Lakota Sioux named Jason can take seriously the 144-year-old advice of French novelist Gustave Flaubert:

"Read in order to live."

Therapy dogs trained to listen while you read

The Wall Street Journal reports that at some public libraries across the fruited plain, they're reading to the dogs. In Salt Lake City, in Gresham, Ore., and elsewhere, children are invited to read to certified therapy dogs trained to act interested (or at least not run away).

Preliminary findings are that problem readers increase technical skill and personal confidence in reading aloud to nonjudgmental, unconditionally loving canines. And petting the dogs while reading provides a natural tranquilizer for high-strung children.

Some of the dogs close their eyes while being read to, but the youth librarian in Gresham assures the skeptical that they're actually "listening with their eyes closed."

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