“I love teaching children when they first start to read.”
– Sister Edna Ann
In a 58-year career as a teacher, no subject has been closer to Sister Edna Ann’s heart than teaching a child to read. She often recalled struggling to decipher the mysteries of text as child, and wanted to help other children overcome that hurdle. For this reason, among many others, the Montessori approach to teaching children, of seeing potential just waiting to be unlocked, resonated deeply.
"There is no real reason why every child should not be educated in the way which would bring out the child's greatest individual powers...Every child is a born explorer. From the moment he opens his eyes, they are wide with wonder." So begins Sr. Edna's introduction to her innovative and groundbreaking "Learning Kits." Informed by her Montessori approach and honed in the classroom, Sr. Edna's creative solutions to decode the mysteries of text lead to a pioneering method of instruction. “She developed a whole reading program that she then marketed to other Montessori teachers to use in their schools, the Sr. Edna Ann reading program,” said St. Catherine’s Head of School, Susan Tracy.
One of the materials created by Sr. Edna Ann, “Individualized Language Kit” consisted of 17 sequential activities and an Educator’s Manual. Activities were grouped by phonetics, phonograms, and sentence construction. Each grouping had its own boxes, cards, work pages and booklets, all designed to help a child touch, hear, and see. Phonetics, for example, included consonant and phonetic “picture boxes” containing cards with letters/words and cards with pictures corresponding to those letters/words so children could match text to image. Eventually the child would work up to the “phonetic command cards” – reading the full phonetic command (“run and stop,” “jump and hop”) the child would carry out the action.
What fun for a child to move while learning, to build from pictures to text until text is decoded to become words that have meaning! Literacy Specialist Jessica Croyle describes it as a moving away from, “a prescriptive way of teaching reading to a sequential way of teaching reading and writing.”
Even people without a background in educational pedagogy and the phonetics of reading instruction can’t help but be charmed by Sr. Edna’s Object Boxes. The boxes are startling in simplicity: Each elliptical green box represents 3 letters of the alphabet. In the box are appealing little objects that begin with those letters. For example, the box for the letters “B,” “R,” and “T” contain brushes and birds, rats and roosters, telephones and turtles.
Children could hold each tiny object – feel the rat’s fur, touch the toast popping out of the toaster. They could group the objects by the first consonant sound; they could play with these enticing little things and see how each matched the letters on the outside of the box. When asked, Sr. Edna Ann said she would collect items for the Object Boxes as she saw them, but a specific store in downtown Houston was a favorite haunt. She decorated each box with perfectly proportioned, gilt butterfly sticker outside – it’s that extra touch, the little bit that comes from love, that makes these beautiful, inviting boxes so irresistible.
“She never, ever gave up on a child, no matter how difficult it was. She would stay after school, and even after she retired, she would come every morning to help the teachers with children who had difficulty, said Lower Elementary guide Jacinta Edussuriya who worked with Sr. Edna from 1996 until the latter’s retirement in 2011.
Sister Edna’s success in teaching children to read was widely recognized in the educational community. In 1997, Sr. Edna was honored with the Martin de Porres Award for Outstanding Educator after a lifetime spent helping children discover the wonder of the written word. She conducted workshops for teachers across the U.S., Canada and Europe, and developed teaching programs for both private and public school systems, including the Houston Independent School District.
In 2000, Sr. Edna Ann became the director of the St. Catherine's Montessori Reading Center. It was established, according to the Dominican Sisters of Houston website, “for the sole purpose of giving Sister Edna Ann a place to do what she loved.”
Here Sr. Edna Ann taught children from HISD, St. Mark's Episcopal, St. Vincent de Paul to name just a few, in addition to St. Catherine’s. “10 years ago my daughter Sophie was taught by Sr. Edna Ann at the Reading Center,” said parent Miriam Maus. “A few years later my son Erik started. My children are trilingual (English, Spanish, and German), so for reading in English, they were a little bit behind. Sr. Edna was wonderful! Helped them so much.”
In the words of Kathleen Foster, the Executive Director of Casa de Esperanza de los Niños, Sr. Edna Ann "Opened a whole world of experience in reading for children.”