As the K-3 Reading Specialist for the last 35 years, it has been my passion to make learning fun for my students. Since I first began teaching at WCGS in 1988, I have prioritized a reading theme for the year to ensure learning is fun and engaging for my students. This isn’t something I made up. It was teachers like Lois Landrum who inspired me. Some themes include Apples (my first year), The All-American Reading Room, The Reading Café, The Reading Spot, and Horses.
I was at a rodeo in Colorado when God talked to me about making “horses” my theme. This was before we owned them, so I didn’t know very much about them. Sally Strzalka, the WCGS nurse at the time, had horses and was kind to me. he invited me over to her house and taught me how to brush them. I also learned you need a tack room. The rest is history. I sometimes let the students that year gallop to and from class. I trained them to obey the commands “giddyup” and “whoa”. God also provided two Spring Rockin’ Horses to have in my classroom for students to sit on while they read. I had passed a house by our church several times and saw them in someone’s backyard. Nobody ever seemed to be using them, so one day I knocked on their door and asked if I could buy them. When I told the lady what I intended to use them for she gave them to me for free! This was not by chance! God knew I’d need something like this to keep my third grade boys excited about reading.
I pray about choosing my themes each year and God always provides. When I had my Reading Lab theme back in the 1990s, my first graders were the black labs, my second graders were my were my chocolate labs, and my third graders were the yellow labs. Everything was color coordinated. My mom made me a jumper with labs on it. I still wear it to this day and students always make comments about it. Six years ago I did a Bird theme. I invested in some bird feeders to put right outside my classroom windows so the students and I could see God’s creation up close. I told them that outside that window was the best bulletin board since it was God’s. The feeders remain and continue to provide pleasure. One of my favorite themes was two years ago when it was Reading Adds Up! Someone blessed me with small plastic piggy banks so each of my students had one. That’s when I began giving pennies as rewards. Students earned pennies for volunteering to read, decoding a word, encouraging another classmate, etc. It worked out so well that the following year I wanted to continue rewarding students with pennies, so I chose a camping theme. I remembered going to a camp called WORD OF LIFE in upstate New York. This is where I became a Christian when I was 8 ½. I remembered having money at camp, so I decided to get coin purses for the students to keep their pennies in.
Soon after, God gave me this year’s Traveling theme. I was in Staples and found these super cute little plastic boxes with lids on clearance, so I bought them and this year we call them our “travel trunks.” It’s important for me to change my themes every year because students may have me for reading three years in a row and I want every year to be new and exciting. I’m convinced God gives me my themes. The year I had a Reading is Golden theme, one of my students’ favorite colors was gold. When I started the penny reward system for Reading Adds Up!, I had a student who came in new that year and her dogs’ names were Abraham and Lincoln. This year for my Traveling theme I have students named Georgia, Sicily Florence, and Vienna. One of my 3rd graders just moved here from Canada. His mom gave me Canadian coins so I could give them to my second graders as souvenirs when we traveled there. I also found out this year that my former foster daughter changed her name to Journee! I don’t believe these things just happened. I want to give credit to Whom credit is due.
My Traveling theme came to me last summer while I was at a garage sale. There was a vintage suitcase there for $20 that was brown and had names of places on one of the sides in bright colors. I was instantly attracted to it, but didn’t really need it. I left without it. That’s when God nudged me to go back and buy it, and that was the beginning of this year’s theme! Once God gives me my theme, I have the ball and I run with it. I immediately start brainstorming ideas and dreaming about setting up my classroom. I decided I wanted to “take” my students places vicariously using passports, so I ordered some from Oriental Trading Co. and began collecting atlases, travel books, maps, and suitcases from retail shops. I went online looking for bulletin board ideas and that’s where I found phrases like “Adventure Awaits!” and “Reading Takes You Places Without Leaving Home”.
My husband has helped me with trips this year. He’ll be retiring from American Airlines at the end of the month. When I was taking my 2nd graders to Seoul, South Korea, Phil told me how long the flight would be and the proper route to take. I was then able to show my students on the maps and globes where we were going. Speaking of Seoul, I was listening to the radio the morning we were supposed to “fly” to Seoul and for real, the airport there was closed due to the weather. This is when I decided I would also cancel our flight so the students could experience the reality of plans changing that are out of our control. Plans were quickly made so we could fly there the following day. Ann and Shannon, the front office secretaries, have been gracious in “checking in” the students for their flights. Students show them their passport with their picture before coming into the hall where our latest trips have become more sophisticated, complete with a first-class chair and footrest. Students pay to sit in that seat! I want my students to get an idea of what flying is really like.
The locations and the number of trips I take my students on depends on the stories we read in our textbooks. When I took my 2nd graders to Seoul it was because our story that week was about a boy who was writing letters to his grandma who lived there. When my 1st graders went to India it was because we read an article about a mangrove forest. Another exciting trip was to Antarctica with my 3rd graders. In the process we learned so much about the continent that we normally wouldn’t have if we just read the story. After every trip, students write down several sentences about the story or place in their passports. They’ll get to keep these at the end of the year.
God hasn’t given me my theme for next year yet, but He’s always on time and never late!
By: Joanne King, Reading Specialist
Learn about Wheaton Christian Grammar School’s academics,
admissions process, and tuition assistance program.