The One Who Made a Difference

Teacher Awardee Susan Courtney on how to encourage young readers

Susan Courtney's passion for reading began at age 4 when her mother took her on a bus to their local library in Albany, New York – and they became lost in books together.

"Then, Miss Diane of 'Romper Room' was a great influence," recalled Courtney, who was born in Albany and now lives in Torrance.

As a child, Courtney didn't realize she was a struggling reader until she attended first grade, and was placed in a B reading class.

"Up until that time I thought I was a great reader," Courtney said. "My mom and I had enjoyed reading many books together and I guess what she was doing was letting me approximate reading while building up my self-esteem as a reader."

Due to her placement in first grade, "I didn't start reading until the third grade by today's standards, at high risk of failure," she said.

She remembers the first chapter book she actually read, "My Life With a Dog," and getting into trouble for reading during class.

"Because of my personal experiences I never want children to feel the way I did and get down on themselves for the types of readers they are – everyone is a reader and should be celebrated for the different ways they open and dive into their books," Courtney said. "It's not just about the words, it's the beautiful illustrations, the feel of the book in your hands turning the pages with excitement and feeling a bit sad when it comes to an end. That's what I want for all children."

Today, as a first-grade teacher at Norwood Street Elementary, Courtney has come a long way since her placement in a B reading class as a child.

On April 9, she was among five educators honored during the 2016 "Read On" Teacher Salute Award ceremony at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. In addition to the awards ceremony, the event showcased numerous authors, including writers of books that Courtney read as a child – and books that she now shares with her students.

"Literacy and books have always been a high priority of mine throughout my years in education and being honored at the Festival of Books is such a thrill," Courtney said. "Meeting all the authors of the fabulous books I read and read to my students, as well as the other teacher awardees and discussing what they are doing to move literacy forward, was a wonderful way to spend my Saturday morning."

Over the years as an educator, she said one of her greatest challenges was "finding creative ways to keep literacy alive and exciting in years of scripted programs, and convincing others that inner city students are just as capable of learning in nontraditional ways as other students in more affluent areas."

She gains great satisfaction from seeing young faces light up every time she brings a new book out – and offers children their own new books to take home.

"I believe every student is capable of reaching their goals and dreams in life no matter what their background and challenges are, and to see them do this, come back and talk about it with me, still gives me the chills," Courtney said.

Her ultimate goal as a teacher is for public education to be the stellar example for all education in our country. 

"I believe in public education and we need to do all we can to back it both financially and with top-notch professionals who will lead our students to be the leaders of country and world."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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