When Theodor Geisel wrote The Cat in the Hat in 1954, he created Dr. Seuss as his pen name. The idea for the book came from of a May 1954 Life magazine article that suggested children were having trouble reading because their books were boring. When he wrote The Cat in the Hat Geisel used 220 words that were important for children to learn in writing. The book was an instant success in part because it didn't talk down to the readers but was aimed at their level. Dr. Seuss and all of his books for children that followed over the years have become beloved children's classics.
Annually on Theodor Geisel's March 2nd birthday schools from coast to coast don their red and white striped stovepipe of the Cat in the Hat to promote reading across America. It is important to get kids excited about reading, and also to encourage more adults to spend time reading with their children. The National Education Association (NEA) began the Read Across America day in 1998 as a reading motivation and awareness program to bring "a nation of readers together under one hat" and encourage teachers, authors, community members and parents to volunteer their time to read and share their life experiences with children to help make reading a high priority in their lives. Studies have shown that children who are motivated and spend more time reading do better in school, and the annual Read Across America program hopes to help make this happen.
I received an e-mail from Keith Larson, Librarian at the Sebago Elementary School, with a request. Larson said "On March 2nd we will be celebrating Read Across America Day (Dr. Seuss's Birthday). We are looking for guest readers to share a story and their love of reading with the students. Would you be willing to come down to the school on Wednesday, March 2nd to read with a class?"
Larson then went on to ask, "You are the first person I have contacted. Can you suggest any other community members that might be willing to come and read?"
When I called Larson back I told him that I would be happy to read for him and suggested some topics. He felt that these would be most suitable for the sixth grade class and let me know the time I should be at the school. He then explained that he was looking for readers for the other classes as well, and I suggested some people he could call.
Larson assembled a crew of readers for each of the classes, including Eileen Russo and Sue Newton from the Sebago Library, Ann Burns from the Sebago Historical Society, Principal Kathleen Beecher, Title I Reading Specialist Kim Cowperthwaite, Literary Specialist Paula Eppich, Hiram author Peter Huchthausen, and myself.
Larson was hard to miss when I arrived for my reading appointment. He had donned a tall red-and-white striped Cat in the Hat hat in honor of the occasion, and welcomed me to the school. After I'd signed the visitor register and said Hello to Principal Beecher, I followed Keith back to the library where he loaned me my own Cat in the Hat hat to wear. I knew many of the students from my previous visits to the school with Sebago firefighters to talk about fire prevention every October, and several students greeted me by name as I walked to the sixth grade classroom in the new modular unit. The sixth grade class was still at recess when I got to the classroom, so there was time to set up my LCD projector and laptop with illustrations from my reading before they arrived.
I told them the story about my grandmother, Laurine Petersen, and her 1883 trip from Denmark to their new home in Canada when she was just a little girl. (The story is posted on my web page at http://crabcoll.com/journal/lena.html.) These were typical sixth graders and full of questions and comments. I peppered them with questions right back, so we had a good exchange. Some of the students helped read excerpts that I flashed on the screen from the emigration pamphlets and the brochures praising the features of the steamships for emigrants that I had found in doing my research for the article.
To put things into today's terms we talked about the cost of a quart of milk (8 cents) and wages of $1 a day in 1883. They weren't real sure about the geography of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick so we talked about the route that the immigrants took to get to their new home.
We closed out the hour by talking about their own family history. I left a copy of my article with their teacher and encouraged each of them to learn about their family history. I had a good time and hope that the sixth graders did as well.
Author Peter Huchthausen was just starting his session reading to the combined fifth and sixth grade class in an adjourning classroom, so after finishing with my class I slipped in to the back of the room to listen to his. Huchthausen was reading from his "Echoes of the Mekong", a book coauthored with Nguyen Thi Lung. When Huchthausen was serving with the U.S. Navy on the Mekong River during the Vietnam War, he and his crew rescued Lung and ultimately he sponsored her to come to the States. His book tells their story, and the students were fascinated as he read to them from it. He also brought a scrapbook of photos from Vietnam that he shared with the students.
The other readers had similar positive experiences with their classes. Principal Beecher also said that at one point in the day most of the classes read in the hall together for "Seuss Says Read" time. It was a good experience for all, and one that will be repeated next year.
Larson sent me a note a few days later, thanking me for volunteering to read and helping to "make Read Across America day a positive celebration of Reading for the students at Sebago." I, in turn, was pleased that he had asked me, even though I didn't get to keep that neat hat. The reading is only a small investment of time but, together with other volunteers, programs like this can make a difference in the education of our children.
Last updated May 16, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on April 14, 2005 under the title "Reading opens new worlds for kids".