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The Principal Who Stood Behind
Reading — Silent or Aloud

by Jim Trelease

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The Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Story

How one principal made a difference in reading

by Jim Trelease © 2013
(A condensed version of this can be found in The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 2013)

In thirty years of public lectures, there are people and incidents that make indelible impressions. This is one of those moments.

 

"T"HERE is an adage that describes the arching parameters of the ripples we make when tossing a pebble into a pond. We seldom know where the ripples will end. For me, the story of Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. is the perfect illustration of that adage.

"But do you think it would work in a place like Southie?"

It was 1982 and I was giving a late-afternoon lecture on SSR (sustained silent reading) for about 120 inner-city secondary teachers in Boston. Within a few minutes into the presentation I became aware of a male in the front row. If you're unfamiliar with secondary male teachers, you may not know that their favorite position in an auditorium is as far to the rear as possible. Best of all would be standing against the back wall. Their reasons for such positions is a whole other story for another day. But on the day in question, to find one in the very front row — that drew my immediate attention.

Through the 90-minute presentation, I watched his body language as it alternated between intensely interested (chin on fist, leaving forward) to detached and suspicious (arms crossed, leaning backward). As I spoke, his body language ebbed between the extremes; I couldn't tell if he was with me or against me.

When I was done and most of the audience rushed for their cars to gain even minute's edge on the rush-hour traffic, the front row male approached me and introduced himself. "Hi, my name is Tom O'Neill. I teach junior English as South Boston High [a tough urban setting for education, to be sure]. I've been teaching a dozen years and never heard of this SSR. How long has it been around?" he asked.

With a deadpan look I answered, "Well, Tom, reading for pleasure has been around a long time [I saw the smile break on his face] but it's a fairly new concept to schools."

At that point he felt confident enough about his new curriculum to smuggle an electrician-friend into the building.

Wider smile and then a wince. "But do you think it would work in a place like Southie?"

"I know it would," I confidently declared.

"I'm gonna try it," he said, edging toward the door with his notes. "I'm gonna try it."

The following year, 1983, I was back in urban Boston for another 3:30 afternoon workshop for teachers, this time on the benefits of reading aloud to secondary students. And who's in the same front row seat but Tom O'Neill Jr. — and I remembered him and his name. Don't ask me how or why I remembered because I don't know. I just knew it.

"Listen," he said before the session started, "I've got to tell you something. Last year you spoke about SSR. I'd never heard of it but I went back and tried it with my junior English class, a tough group of kids. In a dozen years of teaching I've never had a class that read as much as those kids."

Needless to say, I was pleased but also curious. "How often to do you do SSR and how do you work it through the school day schedule?"

He acknowledged that he couldn't do it every day, largely because of scheduling, but he got it most days. Sometimes they did it all-day Friday, much to the dismay of his fellow-teachers who thought he was taking Fridays off.

The moment finally arrived when he knew for certain he had struck gold—the day his students complained all the office-announcements via the intercom were" interfering with our reading." At that point he felt confident enough about his new curriculum to smuggle an electrician-friend into the building. The friend installed a toggle-switch on the classroom intercom speaker, allowing O'Neill to turn it off during SSR. (Needless to say, such procedures wouldn't fly today for building security reasons.)

After explaining his own SSR procedures to me, he asked, "So what about this reading aloud business? Do you think it would work with secondary?"

"I know it works," I declared.

"You know what? I'm gonna try it," he responded. Heading for the door, he shouted over his shoulder, "I'm gonna try it."

Time cover of Joe ClarkO'Neill proved that "fun" and "learning" aren't mutually exclusive.

Years go by and our paths don't cross again, although I hadn't forgotten him. I'd occasionally find myself wondering, 'What ever happened to that O'Neill guy in Boston? Did they kick him upstairs? Did they kick him out for fooling around with the building's electrical system?' And then it was February, 1988, and I was on a plane heading for San Francisco, reading a Time magazine the flight attendant had passed out (which shows you what a different world that was!)

The cover story was on Joe Clark, the bullhorn-baseball bat-toting principal from Paterson, New Jersey, who had bulled his way down school corridors and into the hearts of President Reagan and Education Secretary Bill Bennett. Then I was suddenly sitting bolt-upright in my seat—there was Tom O'Neill Jr., mentioned for turning around a Boston school without using bat or a bullhorn. I could hardly wait to make an appointment with Principal O'Neill at the Solomon Lewenberg Middle School in Boston's dangerous Matapan section.

The pride of Boston’s junior high schools during the 1950s and early 1960s, Lewenberg subsequently suffered the ravages of urban decay, and by 1984, with the lowest academic record and Boston teachers calling it the “loony bin” instead of the Lewenberg, the school was earmarked for closing. But first, Boston officials would give it one last chance.

The reins were handed to O’Neill (no relation to the former Speaker of the House), an upbeat, first-year principal and former high school English teacher whose experience there had taught him to “sell” the pleasures and importance of reading.

image of Tom O'Neill Jr.
O'Neill would put into practice what he had used
with his English classes at Southie.

The first thing he did was abolish the school’s intercom system (“As a teacher I’d always sworn someday I’d rip the thing off the wall. Now I could do it legally”) and then set about establishing structure, routine, and discipline. “That’s the easy part. What happens after is the important part—Reading. It’s the key element in curriculum. IBM can teach our graduates to work the machine, but we have to teach them to read the manual.”

In O’Neill’s first year, sustained silent reading was instituted for the nearly 400 pupils and faculty for the last ten minutes of the day—during which everyone in the school read for pleasure. Each teacher was assigned a room—much to the consternation of some who felt those last ten minutes could be better used to clean up the shop or gym. “Prove to me on paper,” O’Neill challenged them, “that you are busier than I am, and I’ll give you the ten minutes to clean.” He had no takers.

Within a year, critics became supporters and the school was relishing the quiet time that ended the day. The books that had been started during SSR were often still being read by students filing out to buses—in stark contrast to former dismissal scenes that bordered on chaos.

The next challenge was to insure that each sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade student not only saw an adult reading each day, but also heard one. Faculty members were assigned a classroom and the school day began with ten minutes of reading aloud—to complement the silent ending. Soon reading aloud began to inspire awareness, and new titles sprouted during SSR. In effect, the faculty was doing what the great art schools have always done: providing “life” models from which to draw.

Image of O'Neill reading to class
Tom O'Neill Jr., 1988

In the first year, Lewenberg’s scores were up; the second year, not only did the scores climb but so too did student enrollment in response to the school’s new reputation.

Three years later, in 1988, Lewenberg’s 570 students had the highest reading scores in the city of Boston, there was a fifteen-page waiting list of children who wanted to attend, and O’Neill was portrayed by Time as a viable alternative to Joe Clark's show of force.

Today, Tom O’Neill is retired, but the ripple effect of his work has reached shores that not even his great optimism would have anticipated. In the early 1990s, a junior high school civics teacher in Japan, Hiroshi Hayashi, read the Japanese edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook. Intrigued by the concept of SSR and Tom O’Neill’s example, he immediately decided to apply it in his own school. Contrary to what most Americans believe, not all Japanese public school students are single-minded overachievers, and many are rebellious or reluctant readers—if they are readers at all.

Although SSR was a foreign concept to Japanese secondary education, Hayashi saw quick results in his junior high school with just ten minutes at the start of the morning. Unwilling to keep his enthusiasm to himself, he spent the next two years sending forty thousand handwritten postcards to administrators in Japanese public schools, urging them to visit his school and adopt the concept. His personal crusade has won accolades from even the faculty skeptics: to date, more than thirty-five hundred Japanese schools use SSR to begin their school day, and their ranks are increasing each year.


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