Memories of my Journey as a Reader
By Grace Benson, Ed.S.
When I look back on my life as a child and regress to that age between infancy and childhood, that age where memories are not yet fluid but mere snapshots, I do remember one thing, more a feeling than a memory--and that is books. I remember the rhythmic sound of words which would magically become unforgettable images in my mind and how loved I felt, sitting between my parents, nestled in their warmth as they read to me. And so it is, like many things in life, how these memories, lazy snapshots in my mind, brought about my yearning for books.
We moved to the United States during the peak of the war in Nicaragua. I attended a small elementary school in Miami Beach, Florida. This is where my true love for books emerged. I was a child who did not speak English and like many children we teach each day, arrived in the United States with my family in search of a better life. My father always taught us that education was something no one could take away from you—it would fit in any suitcase, and you could take it with you wherever you went. So I took learning and this gift we all have in the United States, public education —very seriously.
Words had a special meaning to me as a child that was making sense of her new world. You see—to children and adults who are learning a new language, literacy and books are a lifeline. To deny any child the opportunity of literacy is devastating in so many ways, to deny literacy to a child that is learning English, it is basically like denying them a roadmap with helpful signs that facilitate understanding of their new life. It is many times through making affective connections with words, that what is alien and abstract becomes real. Words were also a way to connect to others, bridges that would help me understand the language of my new friends. Thus, through text, I searched desperately to find the familiar words I knew within my new language. I found this was easiest through my longtime friends, books.
My biggest ally in my quest to learn this new mysterious language—was my second grade teacher. I remember how she would read to us from The Island of the Blue Dolphins and make us close our eyes as she read so that we could travel to that faraway island. From then on, I began to make meaning and learn in my new language, first through mere words, then sentences, and finally paragraphs and pages in books. I met characters I would grow to love such as those in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and The Great Glass Elevator. Somewhere in my adolescent journey, as I progressed from child and not yet to a woman, Judy Blume and Norma Klein guided me through the most awkward years of my life.
In high school, I was blessed to have a brilliant teacher who demanded that we “devour books” with the fervor and genuine emotion one feels upon encountering something so very special that you never know existed—but yet love. Through her guidance and infinite wisdom, I learned to understand the messages for humanity hidden in books such as A Clockwork Orange, The Fountainhead, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
My college years were filled with academia. It was during these years that I found periodicals and journals. These were sources that presented empirical research and studies done in a vast array of topics. They fit the questioning woman that resides inside me which will always seek to understand the “why” when presented with new information. They continue to be some of my greatest sources of knowledge. Through those years, I also discovered Kafka. How I loved Kafka and his genuine, unpretentious prose! There are few who can depict human isolation and suffering with such little and yet haunting words. Finally at this time, I also met Hemmingway and his simple-yet powerful narrative style, Emily Dickenson’s proud independence, and my favorite poet of all, the grand Lady of prose—Maya Angelou. Phenomenal Woman and Life Doesn’t Frighten Me are still my favorite poems to this day.
As a teacher, books were a way to open a life of new possibilities for my students—some of my favorite authors—only because they were so loved by my students and hold many of my most special learning memories are Walter Dean Myers, Laurie Halse Anderson and S.E. Hinton. Educational researchers like Marzano, Forness and Kavale, taught me to think outside the box and helped me reach many students that faced incredible and challenging learning barriers in and outside of the classroom.
Later as a school principal, I would return to The Island of the Blue Dolphins but this time with my own students and their parents through a family literacy grant from a very caring City Council in Nebraska. The grant enabled me to give books to many children who were not fortunate to have books at home and allowed for family literacy activities with families to help foster a love for reading. Many of the children and families were new to our wonderful country as I was once as a child. During this time, my school would also be awarded a literacy grant from Target which allowed us to purchase many needed books for our classroom libraries.
As a district Title 1 Director and Special Education Director in South Dakota, I would receive one of my most favorite books, The Book Thief, from a very special group of teachers who understood my love for books. During this time, I would use books to help teachers refine their craft, reflect on their teaching, and as vehicles for important conversations about reflective practice, learning, and children. Some of my favorites—From Good to Great, Multipliers, Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap: Whatever it Takes, The Immortality of Influence, and Visible Learning. In my efforts to improve the literacy gains of students with disabilities, I would also be awarded a literacy grant from the state of South Dakota.
I have embarked on a new and very special journey in my life. Books once again, my trusted friends, help lead the way in my quest to improve learning outcomes of ELLs in Waco ISD, along with a powerful and passionate team of educators and content specialists. Some of the students are Newcomers just like I was once as a child. You will find familiar authors in my book shelf like Marzano and many research articles on Bilingual education and best practices for instructing students who are learning English as a second language by educational researchers like Maria Carlo (one of my old graduate school professors) and Margarita Calderon---who also share a similar quest and passion for ELLs. They say a person’s heart tells a story when what is inside is illustrated through words, I find that holds true about the books that we love. My books tell a biography of who I am and have helped to shape the narrative of my life.