Better reading through O-b-a-m-a

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January 18, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

Eugene Williams Sr., gray-haired and wide-eyed, scooted to the edge of his chair, leaning forward with childlike enthusiasm.

"I am really, really excited about this man," he was saying of President-elect Barack Obama. "I am motivated by this man."

Williams, an educator for 40 years, is so motivated by Obama that he has self-published a book that is, in a sense, about the new president. It's certainly inspired by him. It is a word-search guide that uses descriptions of the Obama family to help boost students' vocabulary and reading skills.

Williams was waxing on about Obama at the Beltsville office of International Graphics, a printing company, when his editor, Fahim Munshi, interrupted the riff to ask about the book, a 156-page paperback, Words, Cross & Across.

"How did it all start?" asked Munshi. "I was very curious all along: How did you get to this idea?"

It all started, Williams said, back in February during Black History Month. He was teaching English at Annapolis Road Academy, an alternative high school in Bladensburg that's part of the Prince George's County public system.

Williams had drawn up a lesson plan around Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and a chapter from Obama's autobiography, Audacity of Hope. His idea was to teach them side by side. It didn't go well, starting with the King speech.

"I was just astonished at the fact that so many of my students - 10th 11th- and 12th-grade students - couldn't pronounce the words," he told Munshi. "They didn't know the definition of the words, yet they had all recited it as kids. And that disturbed me."

"Students," Williams remembers telling the class, "we have a problem."

Heads nodded on that February day. One boy in the back agreed with his classmates and asked Williams if he had ever considered teaching them with word searches - grids of letters in which words are embedded vertically, horizontally and diagonally.

Word searches? Williams crinkled his nose at the memory. He told Munshi that he is a rather recent convert to these puzzles, which in truth rely on little more than patient scanning until a word emerges.

But anxious to engage his class, Williams offered a compromise. He would teach word searches, but only paired with charts that defined the words and used them in sentences.

"Once I got them to agree to that," he told Munshi, "we just had fun."

It could have ended there. Williams, 67, is in the waning years of a long teaching career. The product of segregated schooling in rural Virginia, he earned a doctorate in education. Over the years he has taught, worked as a vice principal and overseen test improvement in Washington. In the early 1980s, he was dean of Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore.

Williams has long looked for ways to reach children beyond the four walls of a classroom. That's why he founded Academic Resources Unlimited, a nonprofit group that produces instructional guides, and why he has published previous books.

He kept thinking about word searches on his morning commute from his home in Clinton. "One day I got to school," he told Munshi, "and I thought, 'This is what I'm going to do.' " He was going to produce what came to be, after many nights of reading and research, the Obama-themed book.

It contains more than two dozen word searches. It devotes separate puzzles to Obama's wife, Michelle, and their two children as well as the new president's late mother and grandparents. The rest focus on aspects of Obama's personality and character.

For each, the format is the same: puzzle on one page, word chart on another, solution at the back of the book. As an example, the puzzle he calls "Barack Obama: The Kind, Friendly Man" includes 15 adjectives that Williams ascribes to him. The words range from amicable to vivacious.

Williams has spent a "couple thousand" dollars to publish 1,300 copies. So far, he says he has sold about 300, mostly through the Web site of his nonprofit group (, which will receive any profits. It's also available in local bookstores in Prince George's County and at It lists for $12.95.

After Tuesday's inauguration he plans to step up marketing, though, to avoid any apparent conflict of interest, he has not used it in his classes.

His editor listened as Williams explained how, to him, the book echoes Obama's own call for families to learn together.

"I hear him saying often, 'Parents, you have a big responsibility. You need to work with your children. You need to turn your television off and sit and work with the kids.' This is just one piece of material that will help or support what he believes."

At the same time, Williams thinks Obama's popularity should be able to draw in kids who might be inclined to check out on school.

"There's not one child I've spoken to who does not like Barack Obama. Not one. I say to them, 'If you like him, why don't you emulate him? You run around speaking in monosyllables, nobody's understanding you. This man is eloquent, he's articulate. He's a good role model for you.' "

"It's a wonderful book, indeed," Munshi replied in a lilt that reflects his Indian roots.

"I like words, Fahim. Like you." But if his teachers had not seen potential in him at an early age, Williams went on, he would not be sitting there in Beltsville.

Munshi agreed. "It's like that saying: 'They say parents give roots to children, but teachers give them wings.' "

A grin spread across Williams' face. "I like that. Do that again!"

Munshi repeated the saying.

And then it was time for Williams to pull his Prius around to the loading dock. With a fresh load of books, he would continue sharing his enthusiasm for words, and for Obama.

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