Niagara Gazette

September 27, 2013

In Falls, children's author Alexis O'Neill urges teachers to read in class

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Teachers fail when they don't read to their class.

It's a problem that apparently prevails these days due to time constraints, according to Alexis O'Neill, an award-winning author of children's books, convinced that such an exercise should be  part of every elementary school curriculum.

O'Neill, who has designed quality school visit programs, gets upset whenever she discovers that in-class reading has no place in the daily schedule. "I visit a lot of schools. And teachers would tell me their principal or reading specialist told them, 'You don't have time to read to them. You have to prepare them for the test.' When I heard that, I wanted to go down the throats of those people!"

She recalled attending a faculty meeting where a first grade teacher conceded that she simply didn't have the time. "I was so mad when I heard that," O'Neil said, asking herself, "Where are they going to get the language?" When she was teaching in Oneida County — after earning her education degree at Syracuse University— she made a point of reading every single day to her class.

If teachers are failing to motivate the children, the problem may also be compounded on the home front, especially when the  parents show no interest either in encouraging the right habit. Too often an adult will just shake a finger at the youngster with the stern reminder, "Your teacher wants you to read!"  If that adult doesn't want to read, why then would the kids want to?" O'Neill says.

O'Neill, who lives in Simi Valley, Calif., was visiting the Niagara area this past week as part of a tour to promote her new book, "The Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Suspension Bridge (Calkins Creek publishers, 40 pages, hardcover, $16.95). She also held a book signing  at Oakwood Cemetery, off Portage Road, where Walsh is buried. O'Neill said she spent almost four years researching, writing and revising the story about the 16-year-old boy whose winning entry in a kite-flying contest showed the way for engineers to lay the route of the first suspension bridge across the Niagara Gorge, linking the U.S. and Canada.

Her initial task was to decide whether the book would be fiction or historical fiction. She thought his story would appeal more as historical fiction because, for the most part, it would reflect the real world. "And kids can relate to that," she added.

Regardless what the children prefer, however, the parents' role in encouraging them to read is critical, she said. "Even if it's for 10 minutes a day. With that, the kids begin to get a feeling for different uses of language. You can read a novel to a first grader. Don't worry, they'll get what the story is. They couldn't read it independently but they can listen to it and that's where we pick up the rhythm of language — from hearing it. The way we speak is so truncated, we don't get the beauty of the language."