A lit class a kid could love
Susan Notes: "You pour language in the ear and you build the language muscle of the mind."
Lea Comment: It's nice to know that classes like this exist and that they are wildly popular. Maybe we should get a politician or two to take the class!
By Eric Stern
Willie MacGurkle, his nose painted purple, walked into the classroom. One eye was orange, the other was green. He was the funniest teacher his students had seen. Yellow hair hung down like straw on his head. He was dressed in brown with patches of red.
So began a typical class, not for kindergartners, but for students at California State University, Sacramento. Willie MacGurkle, the alter ego of professor Maurice Poe, was dressed in a hobo costume, chanting a rhyme.
This is Literature for Children, a course for childhood development majors and education graduate students, including many elementary school teachers working on master's degrees. The class is part slapstick, part singalong, with a good dose of Shel Silverstein.
"It has an appeal because we can all relive our childhood, in part, through ... literature," said Poe, who has been on the CSUS faculty since 1969 and wrote "Willie MacGurkle" as part of a widely used teaching manual.
CSUS has offered the course for about 50 years. It's remained a student favorite. And in recent years, Willie MacGurkle has even gained a following outside the classroom.
The Monday night class is broadcast live on public-access cable stations, and viewers flipping channels have stumbled upon it and written e-mails to Poe telling him they watch the class with their children.
"It's got a lot of good information not just for teachers but for parents and grandparents," said Lynn Reiersen of Sacramento, who watches the Literature for Children class with her 19-year-old daughter, Kimberly, who has Down syndrome.
Reiersen said her daughter reminds her every Monday night to watch the class, especially the first 10 minutes that are devoted to page-turning performances by Francie Dillon, a Sacramento-area storyteller who is popular at bookstores, libraries and Fairytale Town.
"(Dillon's) enthusiastic about it and because of that, she draws the kids into it," Reiersen said of the cable-access show.
During a recent class, Dillon sat on a stool in front of TV cameras to read Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches," adding in all the appropriate snorts and screeches. Her voice rose and fell, sped up and slowed down. She did opera and Southern drawl, to the delight of the tittering adults in the class.
"It's the only class that I've had like that. It makes it a lot of fun," said Shirlayne Pierce, who is working on a undergraduate degree in early childhood development and plans to teach elementary school.
Graduate student Felipe Ferraz, who is finishing his master's thesis, said he already has enough course credits for his degree but enjoys coming to the Literature for Children class anyway.
"I realized I don't even need that class," said Ferraz, a guitar-playing kindergarten teacher at Jefferson Elementary School. He said the class reminds him of the different ways to get kids involved and motivated about language. He also likes that TV-viewing parents can be inspired to entertain kids simply by reading to them.
Poe is the former dean of the CSUS College of Education. He returned to teaching the children's literature course a few years ago, as he nears retirement next year.
His class offers students plenty of serious scholarship as well, about bridging oral language with literature. But Poe doesn't like to spend all class time "regurgitating" the work of "talking heads." Textbooks on the desks are more along the lines of "Jumanji" than an anthology of education theory.
"You pour language in the ear and you build the language muscle of the mind," he told his class, quoting an academic type before leading students through a few rounds of the jump-rope classic, "Cinderella, dressed in a yella."
"My approach is you don't read about children's literature," he said. "You read children's literature."
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