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Pay It Back

By Pamela J. Farris
 | Jun 18, 2019
LT366_reflections_ldReading and writing are critical, and making opportunities for children to read and write has been a calling throughout my life. I came from an impoverished community. Through reading and writing, I was able to gain scholarships and loans to attend college. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to pay it back. From donating to the Little Free Library at Lot 12 of a trailer park in rural Illinois to working with inner-city students on writing skills, I’ve seen the advances children make once provided opportunities to engage in literacy. Along the way, I’ve seen various methods of making literacy happen for students.

“Pay it forward” is a popular slogan. I believe providing opportunities for our future leaders is also critical. After retiring from Northern Illinois University as a distinguished teaching professor of literacy education, a fund was set up in my honor that provides $500 scholarships to student teachers to purchase children’s literature to build a teaching library for instructional purposes.

“Pay it back so kids can move forward” is my personal motto. Each year, I donate a $500 Pamela J. Farris Rural Classroom Library to a teacher who is a member of the Illinois Reading Council and who teaches in a community of 8,000 or fewer. Some years, I’ve donated five such libraries as the need is great. Often there are no public libraries in the community. Funding for rural schools is minimal as there is little or no industry and often high levels of poverty.

This summer, my husband, Richard Fluck, a retired school superintendent, and I decided it was time to take it further. We donated $15,000 worth of new books, featuring noted authors and illustrators across a variety of genres, to Central and Fillmore elementary schools in Indiana, which is where I began my teaching career. The books are in bins that move each quarter from classroom to classroom to enhance each teacher’s personal library. Research demonstrates that students read more when they have ready access to books

The kids and their teachers were excited when, on a hot August day, I drove up in a pickup truck filled with new children’s and young adult books. The students beamed as they carried books into their school. They chattered about the authors they already knew and titles they selected to read. That made it all worthwhile.

These are difficult times for schools. I believe we have an obligation as teachers to “pay it back so kids can move forward.” Whether it is sponsoring a child to get a new book each month, donating for preservice education scholarships, helping the schools we’ve taught in develop classroom libraries, volunteering in a school library that just lost its librarian because of budget cuts, or helping with other literacy projects, our donations make an important difference in the lives of teachers and students.

Pamela J. Farris, an ILA member since 1975, is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus with the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education at Northern Illinois University. She is a former team leader for the ILA Teachers’ Choices and Children’s Choices reading list projects.

This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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