The World of Teachers

A Tribute: J. K. Rowling, Meet Educator Irma Conwell
Irma Conwell was at the same time a widowed mother
raising three daughters on her own, and an unorthodox
educational leader. A graduate of Columbia University
Teachers’ College in the early 1940s, she was a woman
of vision, principle, dignity and charm. As the Director
of Elementary Education in the rapidly growing suburban
Connecticut school district where I took my first
teaching assignment, she had turned the school district
upside down in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a time
of severe teacher shortage and she recruited young-spirited idealistic teachers who were drawn to her quiet dynamism, to her passionate commitment to individualization of instruction and to her unwavering determination to encourage the love of reading in children.

When I arrived on the scene in 1965, the core materials
of the school district’s reading program were the quality
children’s literature in the school library. Dick and Jane
were long gone—“RUN, DICK, RUN.”

Those boring, banal basal readers were replaced for
beginning readers by the likes of Amelia Bedelia, Clifford the Red Dog, Curious George and books of Dr. Seuss. As they progressed, the children encountered the works of a host of talented authors including E. B. White (Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web), Beverly Cleary (the Ramona and Henry Huggins books), Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague being one of her many popular horse stories) and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books which were adored and devoured by countless readers many years before the now classic 1970s TV series. My 5th and 6th graders delighted in such challenging Newbery Award Winning books as A Wrinkle in Time, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Call It Courage, Johnny Tremain, and Amos Fortune, Free Man.

Each child’s interests guided his selection from the
hundreds of titles available on our weekly class visit to
the school library. Hundreds of books sat patiently on the
library shelves, ready to entice the next child walking by to be taken to the library carpet to preview its jacket and to leaf through its pages. Certain titles and authors became so popular that, at times, friends would dispute over who would be the first to take out the one in demand. Thus, the beginnings of a love affair between children and their books.

Once back in the classroom, the children would settle
comfortably into their chairs and relate to their chosen
ones with great interest and intensity. The written words
wondrously flowed, it seemed, into their imaginations
and minds.

A weekly individual reading conference was set by the
teacher to discuss the books, to have a heart-to-heart
about important details and developments in each child’s personal book. In addition, teachers provided lessons in phonics and specific skills of reading comprehension, using a variety of teacher-made and purchased materials to strengthen the developing reading skills of the individual child and to support the readers’ exploration of the people, the ideas, the cultures and the world of fantasy within their books.

One needn’t have administered any standardized tests
to observe the children’s affection for reading and books. Listening to children read at weekly conferences confirmed face to face the child’s growing mastery of vocabulary and appreciation of plot, character, mood and style. Furthermore, the children eagerly looked forward to that special time of day when the teacher read aloud to the entire class a book of the teacher’s own choosing to be mulled over and relished.

Irma Conwell left our town in the late 1960s. Moving
to Honolulu where she taught at the Kamehamaha
School, she returned to her love of teaching youngsters
and language arts. She hadn’t been adequately appreciated in her Connecticut town, to say the least, as her child centered reforms stirred up too many waves and were ahead of the times. However, her passion for individualization and for fostering the love of reading took root.

During my15 years as principal I saw modifications
in the reading program, yet the love of reading literature
(“real books”) remained at the core. Small group literary
circles were added to the system of individual reading
conferences while more sophisticated supplementary
materials were provided to teachers to refine the reading
program. Nevertheless, when I visited my former school
twenty years later in 2004, I saw different children and
different teachers but still abundant evidence of the love
of reading.

J.K. Rowling, you arrived too late in the picture—40
years too late—to have bolstered Irma Conwell’s concerted and courageous efforts in the 1950s to incorporate children’s literature into the center of a school district’s reading program where Dick and Jane still reigned supreme.

She had clearly understood and articulated the POWER
of placing the right book in the hands of every child.
Her championing the RIGHT of all children to become
immersed in books and to acquire a “love of reading” at
an early age would finally be unequivocally validated by
the millions of young readers held spellbound by your
Harry Potter books. Thank you J.K. Rowling! And thank
you Irma!

Irma Meyer Conwell passed away peacefully on
April 28, 2001, at the Arcadia Retirement Residence in

Excerpted from:
Teaching as an Act of Love: Thoughts and Recollections
of a Former Teacher, Principal and Kid © 2007 Richard Lakin