Maria Walther: Reading—Experience It!

Maria Walther is a National Board Certified educator and currently teaches in Aurora, Illinois. Walther was honored as Illinois Reading Educator of the Year and earned the ICARE for Reading Award for fostering the love of reading in children. She has co-authored many books about reading instruction, and her latest is Transforming Literacy Teaching in the Era of Higher Standards. Maria recently wrote an essay for our Open a World of Possible initiative, which we've repurposed here.The full version is also available in our Open a World of Possible book, which you can download for free hereLearn more about her books at mariawalther.com and follow her on Twitter @mariapwalther.

Raised by a mother who believed in the power of real-life experiences, we regularly hopped on the subway to travel to downtown Chicago so that my sister and I could peer into the miniature Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute. My parents, sister, and I participated in an exchange program where we lived with a farm family in Iowa to gain a firsthand look at life on a farm. In our basement, we performed plays, hatched chicks, painted rocks, made sand candles, and much, much more. You might ask, “What does all of that have to do with reading?” I would say, “Everything!” My mom gave me the greatest gift—a wealth of background knowledge on which to build.

As I “read” the illustrations in The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, I could understand the house’s sadness as she was moved to the city. Why? I had seen the open countryside from the back of our station wagon and walked through the cramped city streets. Later, when I read Charlotte’s Web, I could empathize with Fern because I had held a baby pig in my own arms. I could picture the Clock family fromThe Borrowers living in the Thorne Rooms at the museum. With the help of my mom’s constant quest for unique experiences, the books I read came alive.

Fortunately for me, my early school experiences continued to nurture my love of the written word and from the time I was a first-grade student, I set my sights on being a first-grade teacher. In 1986, fresh out of college, I found myself in my own first-grade classroom surrounded by 24 enthusiastic learners. I wanted to recreate for them the magic that I experienced when I read a book. And while I knew I couldn’t take all of my students to live on a farm, I could tell them stories from my own childhood as I read them Charlotte’s Web.

I started on that first day of teaching sharing my passion for books and the joyful bond that is formed during read-aloud experiences, and I haven’t stopped since. Nowadays, my students and I read aloud about 800 books a year! I carve out time each day to read at least four books, balancing fiction and nonfiction, that build my students’ background knowledge about topics of interest, various genres, favorite authors, and their world.

The experiences I shared with my family shaped who I am as a reader and as an educator. I encourage the parents of my first graders to do the same for their children. They know that each Monday, my students and I will sit in a circle and have “weekend share,” a time for the first graders to show their friends the cool rock they found at the park or the map they brought home from the zoo. It is my hope that the read-aloud experiences I share with my first graders will help shape the kind of people they will become. After nearly three decades of gathering first graders around me to read a story, I believe that a wealth of experiences plus a love of reading are the keys to a happy life.