Second-graders in Cindy Prentler’s class at East Kelloggsville Elementary settled on the floor last week to hear their teacher read out loud from the “book-a-day” selection. But before she began, they were on their feet again.
“It’s a new book! Do you want to come up and smell it?” asked Prentler. “You should always smell a new book.”
And one by one, they sniffed before settling back down to listen to “When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree.”
Prentler’s classroom is a wonderland of books. While the pristine and organized space has some posters and artwork, much of its colorful decor comes from the jackets of the picture books displayed throughout the room.
A Book for Every Occasion
One thing to know about Mrs. Prentler: whatever sparks a child’s interest, whatever issue — big or small — that child is facing, she’s got a book for that.
Each day, Prentler reads a book out loud to her class. She photographs the books and hangs each photo in one of 180 rectangular spaces blocked out on the classroom wall, making a stunning collage and reminding students of every book they’ve read together.
She got the idea for the “book-a-day” read-aloud from educator Jillian Heise, who she encountered through her involvement in The Nerdy Book Club, where Prentler gets ideas for books to share with her students.
On the first day of school, she read “All Are Welcome” by Alexandra Penfold, which shows families of different sizes and colors and made in all different ways.
“I try really hard to pick books that show lots of different cultures,” said Prentler, adding that her two daughters, a high school senior and a college sophomore, were adopted from China. She wants children to understand that families are made in different ways.
Earlier this month, Prentler and her students faced one of the most difficult things a classroom can face, when a girl in her class died in an automobile accident. To work through the grief, Prentler reached out to Heise for recommendations – ‘What’s the best book for that?’ An overnight shipment of “The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld and “Ida, Always” by Caron Levis were some of the books that helped Prentler and her students talk about their grief.
While her classroom has shelves of traditional leveled readers, it’s her picture book collection that really gets Prentler and her students excited about reading.
“I’m finding I have a love for picture books, because the messages are so big. And they’ve been great for teaching reading because if they are read right, kids love them and then they want to be able to read them too, and they want to imitate those voices,” she said.
The books are both challenging and captivating.
“The language in this kind of book is much higher,” she said, than in a leveled reader.
One piece in her collection that requires a strong delivery is “The Book With No Pictures”, by B.J. Novak. Josh Tindall, a student in Prentler’s class, says that book is his favorite. And as teachers go, Mrs. Prentler is a favorite, too.
“She is a nice teacher and she loves me,” said Josh.
Veteran Teacher, Second-grade Newbie
To look at the room and the volume of books, you might think Prentler has been in the space for a long time.
“This is my first year with second grade. In a few more years I’ll have a really good collection,” she said.
A teacher since 1982, and a proud Spartan who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University, Prentler came to Kelloggsville in the late 1980s. She spent one year teaching second grade before heading to the middle school, where she spent the next three decades. Incidentally, her current classroom is the same room she taught in her first year. Just last year, she heard about an opening and took the opportunity to head back to second grade.
“It was so spur of the moment,” she said. “I don’t know why I did it. It’s been a big challenge and it’s been good for me.”
Karen Rawdon, a language arts teacher at Kelloggsville Middle School, worked closely with Prentler for almost 30 years. The two would often open up their adjoining wall to co-teach, so she saw firsthand the impact Prentler made on students throughout the years.
“Cindy had a great rapport with middle school kids. She has a great sense of humor that middle school kids appreciated,” said Rawdon. “Cindy always pushed kids to do their best work and held them accountable for their behavior as well. Students could see that she cared and wanted the best for them.”
While she loved teaching at the middle school, she appreciates the opportunity elementary education affords her to have the same group of students all day. She spends a lot of time getting to know her students and their families.
“I think the most important thing, before you start teaching a whole lot, is you have to have some relationships with the kids, because they’ll learn more,” she said. “If they know you care about their learning and you have those strong relationships, they’ll do better. If they don’t think you care, I don’t think they’re going to work very hard.”
Like her classmate Josh, second-grader Kayla Ensing has picked up on Prentler’s love for her students and for books, describing her teacher as “loving.”
“I like everything she reads us,” said Kayla. “She’s very nice.”
Prentler has always been an avid reader, but there’s one book that impacted her childhood most: “Anne of Green Gables.”
“It’s really the only book I remember from my childhood,” she said, referencing the main character’s tendency to refer to her best friend as a “kindred spirit.”
East Kelloggsville Elementary Principal Beth Travis said Prentler has been a wonderful addition to the building this year.
“Cindy’s classroom is well-organized, rich in literature and she has a strong connection with her students,” she said.
Rawdon echoed those sentiments: “She has a passion for reading and did an awesome job with getting the right book into the right kid’s hands,” said Rawdon, adding that middle school students who had her as a teacher describe her as “funny” and “kind.”
While Prentler loves books and has a particular fondness for teaching reading and math, she said she has yet to find a subject that she doesn’t enjoy teaching.
“It was the right job for me. Always has been. Even in the tougher years — and there were tough years — it was still the right job.”