Literacy Now

Latest Posts
ILA Next
How to Raise and Teach Anti-Racist Kids
ILA Next
How to Raise and Teach Anti-Racist Kids
  • Blog Posts
  • Teaching Tips

May Member of the Month: Kathleen Operhall

 | May 01, 2013

kathy operhallHow many IRA members do you know who have won a Grammy? Kathleen Operhall, May's Member of the Month, is a woman of many talents. As a University of Michigan University Musical Society Choral Union member, Kathy won a Grammy Award for Best Choral Group (Songs of Innocence and Experience recording with Leonard Slatkin) in 2006 and will perform at Carnegie Hall this month. As well as serving in several leadership positions in Michigan councils, she has won awards for literacy education (Michigan Reading Association Elementary Educator Award, Wayne County Reading Council Elementary Educator Award, Wayne County Excellence in Education Award awarded by Ford Motor Company, and George Washington Carver Outstanding Educator Award). She retired in June 2011 after working as an educational consultant for Houghton Harcourt Publishing Company, a state facilitator for the Michigan Department of Education (under the Reading First Grant), and an elementary teacher and reading specialist for Detroit Public Schools. But she is still active with IRA at the national, state, and local levels. This veteran teacher and arts-lover shares her story with Reading Today Online.

When did you first know you wanted to be a teacher?

My desire to become a member of the chalk and eraser brigade began in the third grade when I was encouraged to create classroom bulletin boards and tutor classmates. I loved having the opportunity to be creative and help others. I liked writing on the chalkboard, too – I think that is what sold me on the profession! I was (and still am) a book-a-holic. I loved to read, and I was one of those youngsters who figured out how to finish a chapter under the covers with a flashlight after “lights out” on a school night and not get caught. My early classroom hideaway was a converted attic bedroom that I shared with my younger sister; my Dad built a huge bookcase that was continually crammed with new chapter books that I had begged Santa for at Christmas. I read those tomes over and over again, amazed at how many new details surfaced during the rereads. I loved learning, and I wanted to be a part of the profession that made all other professions possible! I longed to share my love of reading and learning with others! So, I graduated from my attic classroom to the world of elementary education in Detroit Public Schools, where I spent 33.5 years teaching pretty amazing students!

You also sing, and you're performing at Carnegie Hall later this month! What's the story behind that part of your life?

kathy operhallMusic was an integral part of my life growing up. My parents were strong believers in the power of music. I took instrumental music lessons until I started college. Throughout high school, I was enveloped by the power and melodies of music. I sang in the school choirs and took music theory as a senior. I had an exceptional  vocal music teacher who encouraged me to develop musically – from singing in small Madrigal groups and performing as a soloist to composing. When I graduated from high school, I joined local community choruses that sang the classics of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, and other well known composers. I was part of the Robert Page Summer Festival Chorus and the Archdiocesan Chorus of Detroit choir tours. In the course of 10 years, I was privileged to sing in European venues in Russia, Estonia, Finland, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Singing under the direction of many accomplished conductors helped hone my vocal skills, and I was encouraged to try out for auditioned groups in the area. This led me to the Grammy award winning University Musical Society Choral Union, part of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The UMS Choral Union developed a strong working relationship with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and whenever the orchestra required a large chorus to sing a masterwork, the Choral Union became part of that musical endeavor.

In 2012, the DSO was invited to return to Carnegie Hall for the first time in 17 years, as the first orchestra ever to perform two programs in the groundbreaking Spring for Music Festival. Performing the four symphonies of Charles Ives, the DSO requested a 32 voice choir from the ranks of the Choral Union to accompany them and perform in the 4th symphony. Auditions were held last fall, and I was fortunate enough to become part of the group that will perform on the Carnegie stage on May 10, 2013. Our group is so excited to be a part of this musical experience; we are all on a Carnegie high!

Do you see a connection between music and the arts and reading and writing?

There is a definite connection between literacy and the arts. Language is music. It has a definite beat and it pulses with pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech. Writing is an offspring of oral language; what you feel and express by word of mouth, you can convey symbolically. Studies have shown that music and the arts connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain, helping them to work together to create fluent readers and creative writers.

Nursery rhymes, the poetry of Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou are pulsed with the beat of alliteration and onomatopes. Ironically, so are the lyrics to songs and raps popular with young people. They help students learn the conventions of English, relating to the sounds they hear everyday on their mp3 players and iPods. What a connection to the word around them! Conversely, there is alliteration in the repetition of notes in a musical composition and onomatopoeia in the clash of cymbals, the blast of the trumpet  and the plucking of strings on a violin or bass. Composers have used the text of poets in their musical compositions. Ralph Vaughan Williams used the poetry of Walt Whitman as the libretto to his Sea Symphony, a powerful worklaced with melodies of sailors and the waters that controlled them. Handel usedscripture passages to convey the message of salvation in his composing of Messiah. Merging two disciplines becomes a powerful tool in helping us remember text through musical line.

Music permeates our life whether we realize it or not. Radios and CDs blare, and cars thump to the beat of the bass at stop lights. Mothers sing to their infants, calming and pacifying them. TV theme songs lure captive audiences to the screen. Emotions surface during movies with melodies that cause us to cringe in fear, weep with sadness, or laugh hysterically. Even 4th of July firework displays are correlated with musical themes from the Broadway stage, the classics, and pop rock.

Sometimes melodious and harmonic, sometimes a clashing cacophony of noise, there is a beat and rhythm to the world around us. From the language we hear and use, to the beat and pulse of everyday life, music and the arts are instrumental in developing strong reading and writing skills. 

What can literacy educators do to motivate kids to want to read?

To motivate children to read, you have to demonstrate your own passion and love for reading. Invite students into the world of literacy.

  • Serve as a model for reading. Carry the current book you are involved with into your classroom and make sure your students see that you are an active reader. I would always lay my book on my desk and students never failed to ask me what the book was about. I always took the time to talk about it. They also saw me reading and reacting to text (facial expression, laughter, sometimes tears) at  lunch time.
  • Read aloud to your students every single day – no matter how young or old they are. Well read stories and chapter books can stimulates their imaginations and emotions, and transport them into worlds they could never imagine visiting or being a part of.  For challenged readers, you serve as a model for good reading and help overcome the barrier to reading text that might be too difficult for them. Read alouds also help develop good aural skills.
  • Find out what your students are interested in. Stock your classroom libraries with books and magazines that reflect these interests.
  • Form book study groups. Even young children, with guidance, can form book study groups on the chapter books they are reading in class.
  • Offer students choice in their reading material. If students don’t see value in what they are reading, they will be turned off.
  • Arouse curiosity in a book by previewing stories with students, activating their prior knowledge, connecting the book to their world and experiences and predicting outcomes.
  • Encourage the use of Kindles and Nooks if students have them. We want students to read – to expand their horizons; use technology to encourage this! This is the 21st century and a love of literature is not limited to hard covered novels and story books.

You've been involved in several International Reading Association (IRA) councils and committees. What has IRA membership and involvement brought to your career?

Membership in IRA was extremely valuable to me as an educator. From top-notch, high quality professional development to research and publications that kept me informed and on top of my game as a teacher, IRA never disappointed me! When I was elected IRA State coordinator for Michigan, I had the opportunity to work closely with IRA leadership development associates and board members who were knowledgeable, supportive and filled with passion for literacy. Leadership trainings, sponsored by IRA for state officers, were of the highest caliber. Well planned, chocked full of information, from legislative updates to support for local and state councils, the International Reading Association empowered it members to be a strong voice for literacy! As a retiree, I still maintain my membership in IRA, the Michigan Reading Association and my local council – the Wayne County Reading Council. You may retire from a job, but you never retire from literacy!

What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?

I had to really think this one over carefully, as there are so many special moments that touched my heart and soul throughout my over 40 years in education. I could list elections to state office, serving on IRA committees, receiving the Elementary Educator of the Year award from the Michigan Reading Association and the Wayne County Reading Association, winning a Grammy award for best performance as a chorus – yes, these honors are proud moments in my life. But, I did not become a teacher to win awards or to be singled out. These were just a by-product of doing what I loved to do best. The proudest moments attributed to a career that I truly loved were the many emails, facebook contacts, letters received and personal contacts with former students who are now adults and parents, who thanked me for caring,  listening to, and loving them. They thanked me for making school a happy place where they are allowed to explore, search and be challenged. Knowing that you have touched and influenced so many lives in a positive way has to the best feeling in the world! These moments are my proudest! No award in the word can compete with the love and appreciation shown by  former students.

What’s the most valuable advice you can give to someone entering the education field?

Teaching is all about “heart.” It’s not easy being an educator today, and your heart takes a beating every day. But teachers are given special gifts of the heart to help mend the bruises inflicted upon it those who truly do not understand what it means to be an educator in the 21st century. You have been given a heart of humility; keep it focused on your students. You have been given a heart filled with generosity; it gives more than the job pays. You have been given a heart filled with joy that makes learning fun and finds delight in teaching, creating and capturing teachable moments. You have been given a heart overflowing with passion that inspires greatness by lighting a fire within, empowering a child to go further than he can ever imagine. You have been given a patient heart that never gives up – always searching for better practices and solutions to help a child learn and grow. You have the HEART to make a difference! I wish you HEART.



Leave a comment

Back to Top


Recent Posts