A few months back, long after her retirement, Rochelle Lee received a letter from a student she had taught many years ago. He had been a problem child who had pulled himself together and now lived a productive life working with children. “He wanted me to send him a picture of myself,” says Lee. “I called him up and asked why. He said, ‘Mrs. Lee, it was in your library that I read a book about Martin Luther King Jr. And my black students don’t believe that I learned about Dr. King from a white woman. So I want to show them your picture.'”

There are two lessons Lee draws from this story. “The first is that teachers have a greater influence on children we teach than we ever realize,” she says. “The second is that there are few things that stay with us longer than what we learn from reading.”

These are lessons she applies to the operation of her not-for-profit foundation, the Rochelle Lee Fund to Make Reading a Part of Children’s Lives. The fund was started in 1988 by other teachers and parents of some of the students she’d had in her 21 years as a teacher and librarian in the Chicago public schools. Using connections she made in and out of the public school system, Lee has turned her foundation into a $150,000-a-year enterprise that operates mostly on private contributions and works annually with about 200 teachers from more than 100 schools.

Her purpose is simple: to promote a love of reading by working with grade-school teachers. Teachers who sign up for Lee’s yearlong program receive $500 to build their own classroom paperback library. In return they agree to spend at least 40 minutes a day reading aloud to their students or letting students read to themselves.

“Reading is the key–it’s the gateway kids have to pass through for success in school,” says Lee. “But too often they think of reading as a chore, an endless drill. They don’t see that it’s enjoyable. They don’t realize there are tremendous joys and satisfactions they can get from it.”

Compared to the way the Chicago public schools used to teach reading, Lee’s approach is almost revolutionary. In the early 80s a curriculum called Mastery Learning was introduced, a mind-dulling, regimented approach in which students had to master one reading skill before they were allowed to proceed to another. The system actively discouraged spontaneous reading. The goal was not so much to encourage kids to read–or enhance their enjoyment of reading–as to improve their performance on achievement tests.

Mastery Learning was quickly abandoned, but standardized curriculum–if this was Monday, students had to be on page 33–continued to be favored until the school reform movement of the late 80s. These days educators pay allegiance to “whole reading,” which is jargon for what good teachers have been doing for years–stocking classrooms with books and encouraging students to read them.

“There’s nothing fancy about our approach,” says Tiana Benway, executive director of the Lee Fund. “It’s simply a matter of getting kids to read, read, read.” The approach apparently stems from Lee’s experience with her students. “I had this one kid–John Parker, I can still remember his name–who was an assiduous reader: he was always coming to the library, he was always reading,” says Lee. “One day as he was leaving the library, he mentioned that he was going to reading class and that he hated reading. I said, ‘John, come back here. You’re in this library every day. You’re walking out of here right now with three books. And you tell me you hate reading?’ He said, ‘Mrs. Lee, I don’t mean this kind of reading. I mean I hate real reading.’ We had conditioned him to think of reading as some dreadful task involving boring textbooks and work sheets.”

To be accepted into Lee’s program, teachers submit an application that’s reviewed by an evaluation board made up of education professors. Once accepted, they listen to a series of lectures by educators, poets, and others on how to make reading more enjoyable and accessible to kids. They also spend hours perusing Lee’s library of 3,000 paperback books, in the fund’s office at 5153 N. Clark.

“The teachers come here, they read the books, and we talk about them,” says Lee. “We try to figure out what it is that their students would want to read, what would unlock their imaginations. There are so many ways in which reading can help us understand things. There are books for kids of all ages on all sorts of subjects: divorce problems, child abuse, relations with grandparents, not to mention the more conventional topics such as science, math, and history. Teachers are empowered to order the books they think their students would like. The teachers know what’s appropriate for their students. We feel the way to get to the kids is through the teachers.”

Teachers who work with Lee are encouraged to develop their own reading programs. For instance, Lara Perry, a third-grade teacher at the Oscar Mayer elementary school, holds a “paired reading” period in which students take turns reading aloud to each other.

Nancy Laho, a teacher at Burley elementary school, encourages parents to participate in reading workshops. Other teachers broaden their programs to encourage kids to write their own books. “Reading is like anything else–you only get better at it the more you do it,” says Lee. “And the more you do it, the more you enjoy it.”

On June 6, Lee held her sixth annual diploma presentation, which is sort of a cross between a testimonial to Lee and a motivational meeting. About 300 teachers attended the ceremonies at Loyola University. Opening remarks were made by James Maloney, one of the Chicago public school system’s ten district superintendents; the featured speaker was Studs Terkel.

“All of this began when Rochelle was just a quiet little librarian sitting in her library,” said Maloney. “And if you believe Rochelle was ever a quiet little librarian I’ll tell you another one.”

Lee followed with a story about her college graduation, which occurred the day after D-Day. “I cannot forget the message given to me on June 7, the day I received my bachelor’s degree,” she began. “As teachers we think we are burdened by so many problems. And to a degree we are. But I came from that generation whose childhood was defined by the greatest depression in history. And our young adulthood was defined by the greatest war that covered the globe. Each of us had brothers, friends, cousins in the service.

“This should have been the happiest day of my life. And yet it was filled with worry. Our commencement speaker told us we were part of a very noble profession. He said the future generations are in your hands. I was wide-eyed and young and believed everything he said. I’m no longer wide-eyed or young, but I still believe everything he said.”

Then Terkel offered a few words about his own experiences during World War II. “There were fellows there 18 years old and they couldn’t read. When the letters would come from home, they came to me quietly and ashamed and asked me to read them. It was a horrible thing–being 18 years old and not knowing how to read.”

He reminisced about his own love of reading, a love fostered by teachers he had at several Chicago public schools. “You’re part of a continuation,” he told the audience. “You give us a blessed gift: you teach children how to read.”

As a child, Terkel said, he imagined himself to be Jim Hawking, the daring young stowaway in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And he quoted from memory a stanza from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water everywhere / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

When he first read these words, said Terkel, they created images so powerful and profound they kept him awake. “I know there are marvelous visual aides in schools today, but that’s nothing like learning something through reading,” he concluded. “No matter how good Sesame Street is, it doesn’t match reading.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.