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Going by the book

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Judy Cummings champions reading as the key to student success

The yellow cloud-shaped poster on the wall in Judy Cummings' second-grade classroom at Coles Ferry Elementary reads: This is a back-to-basics classroom -- real books and paper & pencil.

Real books. Yep. To the tune of thousands. Books of all sizes, shapes and colors overflow in this fabulous cradle of learning. The entire room serves as a giant book nook as designed by Cummings, now midway through her 49th year of teaching.

Her 19 students and everybody else at Coles Ferry call her "Miss Judy," but "Book Lady" might be a more apt nickname. I mean, she has over 10,000 in her possession, most of them in the classroom. She's also known as one who can teach a rock to read.

Cummings goes gaga over books and mainly tries to push them into the hands of youngster so that they not only begin to gain knowledge but to help them aspire to dream big. She's even made a disciple out of country music star Garth Brooks and turned him on to her vision. (More on Garth and the Book Lady below.)

Eager to be teacher

"I knew in the sixth grade that I wanted to be a first-grade teacher, because I got to go down and help the first-graders as a sixth-grader, and I never ever lost sight of that goal," said the Nashville native, who attended Dan Mills Elementary School and Maplewood High before getting an education degree in 3½ years at Middle Tennessee State University.

"For the first 25 years, I taught first grade. When I got that teaching job it was in January, and those kids could read, and I didn't know how they learned to read. At that time you got your teaching degree, and you didn't really specialize in reading, so I went back to college to MTSU, and I got a master's degree in curriculum and instruction -- not reading, like I should have.

"And I still didn't know how they learned to read, and the next year that I had to teach reading, I still was kind of frustrated, so then I wised up and got my masters in reading. And then I realized I needed kindergarten. So I got kindergarten certification so that would help me with those kids that still didn't learn how to read."

Asked why she was so passionate about getting children to open a book and keep turning the pages, she said, "Because books can take you where you may never get to go. You may never get to get out of the projects, but with books and your head you can go to any continent, any nation, see anything, do anything. I thoroughly believe that. If you don't have books in your life, you're not going to be a well-rounded person."

Taught in 10 schools

Across 25 years, Cummings taught first-graders at eight Metro schools. Her second or third year in, she asked to be transferred to an all-black school just as Nashville schools were integrating.

"I will never forget that because that's where I learned that kids are all the same, no matter where they are," said the mother of a daughter, who is a Metro Nashville teacher, and a son, who is a musician, and who has three grandsons, ages 9, 8 and 6, who attend Metro Schools.

Cummings remembers the first book she read in the first grade, "Tom and Betty," as well as how she was taught to read.

"She [the teacher] had a big book, and we were in a circle, and she would take this yardstick and slap the word and say, 'Say Tom,!' and we'd say, 'Tom!' It was what we called the old look-say method, and I learned to read because I was scared."

Cummings' methods are anything but frightening and a lot more about the joy of reading.

Now into her 24th year with Lebanon City Schools, she taught from 1994 to 2000 at Sam Houston Elementary, and has been at Coles Ferry Elementary since 2000. She taught first-graders the first two years before switching to second grade.

Boosting love of books

As for her methods of guiding children to dig into books for a lifetime, she said, "First of all, you have to get them excited and do a lot of shared reading of a lot of good books, a lot of poetry. That gets them turned on since they can't read or struggle in reading. It's because they haven't been exposed to the printed word enough. It takes something like several million words that a child has to hear to process before they'll read.

"I know that kids who have not been read to and have not heard the printed word spoken, they struggle with books, kids who don't have books in their home," said Cummings.

"That's why that Dolly Parton initiative, Books From Birth, is so important, and kids are a lot further along now I feel because of that initiative in all the Tennessee counties.

"I also think that kids need to read real books, not books called basal readers. Yes, they do read basal readers in school, but you also have to integrate real books so they can hear stories that have not been edited. Because basal readers a lot of times take stories and dumb them down and just use controlled vocabulary. Kids can learn big words. They love big words.

"And I also think children need phonics, but they don't need to have that as the be-all, end-all because if that happens they're gonna be so busy [making sounds], but they don't comprehend anything. You have to have a balance in order to read with books and phonics ... and you have to teach them reading strategies that they can use.

"And you've got to have books. You see, I've got over 10,000 books. If they're not in this classroom, they're at home and on my garage shelves."

Integrating books into curriculum

Cummings believes that you can you can teach every subject with books.

She starts her students off with math first, but says, "Then the rest of the day for me it's reading. It's reading through language arts, it's reading though social studies, it's reading through science. I have to make it integrated.

"I'm still reading at least five books a day to the kids in my class, and there are some classes where they are reading no books at all because of the demands of the curriculum, but you can teach through books."

She noted that her highest compliments come from other teachers at her school, and said, "I know it's because I read real books. It's the power of real books, real literature. You can teach them anything, and here's the deal. To me, school is not this foreign thing you come in this building and do and then you go home, and it has nothing to do with your life. You have to bring life into the classroom."

She also helps Coles Ferry youngsters get up on the stage and pour their hearts out in song via four musicals she has penned over the years. The productions are titled "Timeless Television Tunes," "The American Story," "Rock on!" and "Gone Country!"

Just yesterday, nearly 60 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders performed "Gone Country" for their parents and classmates as they sang country classic and did line dancing.

Partnering with Garth Brooks

Speaking of country, for years Cummings hornswoggled Garth Brooks in reading to her students. He came to her Metro classroom on Read Me Day for about 10 years and showed up at Sam Houston Elementary thrice and at visited Coles Ferry twice.

The two crossed paths in 1990 while she was moonlighting by selling clothes at a country-western apparel store behind the Nashville Palace near the Opryland Hotel. They hit it off after she sold him a pair of jeans.

"Nobody knew who he was. He had out one song, 'Much Too Young,' and that was the first year that Metro started what was called Read Me Day back then. I asked him to read for my class, and he jumped on it. He came and read," recalled Cummings.

"The second time, I sent him the book, 'Love You Forever.' It's such a tearjerker. And told him, 'You better read it first.' And he didn't read it first."

She sat at Brooks' feet videotaping the reading but had the foresight to bring tissue.

"Sure enough," she recollected, "as he was reading the book, tears."

In 2001, the National Education Association asked Brooks to be the honorary chairman for Read Across America.

Cummings recalled, "He said yes, but he called me and said, 'I'm not gonna do it unless you do it with me.' That meant going to New York to appear before all the education editors in the U.S."

The two Nashvillians arrived in the Big Apple on the night before 9/11.

"It was a nightmare, really frightening," said the teacher, who only made it to a breakfast photo-shoot event. "It was apparent that something was wrong. Everybody's cell phones were ringing. Garth had the driver waiting, and he pulled the plug. It was his decision. We never made it to the luncheon [with the education editors], which was canceled but the food was donated to charities. It took us three days to get home. For a year I had a really hard time with it, but after a year I wrote an editorial looking back on it."

Reading across the U.S.A.

A second opportunity to partner with Brooks six months later turned out to be a gloriously long day that she would never forget. On Doctor Seuss Day, March 2, 2002, Cummings and Brooks flew to California so they could "Read Across America."

In a 24-hour span they visited and read to elementary school students in Los Angeles, Calif.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Sumner, Miss.

Cummings plan to teach 50th year beginning next fall at Coles Ferry but is not sure that will be her final year. Whenever she decides to call it a day, Brooks has promised he will show up for a final reading to her kiddos.

So what comes next for the Book Lady?

She says, "I really am interested in charter schools, and I also like being a literacy coach, helping teachers. I don't know what I'm gonna do. Because just being home for a week, I mean I don't like cleaning my house, I don't like cleaning dishes. I like books and kids, and I'm a golfer and even that gets boring. So I can't tell you. The fire's still in me."

She confessed she doesn't know how she will handle it when she walks away from teaching.

"It will be hard when school first starts. And I don't know what I'm gonna do with the books. That's the big thing. What am I gonna do with 10,000 books? It's a real challenge. I think about it a lot and have a really good friend, Julie Whitefield, that I've had since I came up here that told me if anything happens to me, she will take that burden off of my daughter, and she will distribute my books."

Cummings shared that she is a Tennessee Titans fan and has PSL seats and takes her grandsons to the game as well as go to all their sporting events. She also said that she has "been playing golf since she I was 6. I will never be a professional golfer, but I will never ever leave the game."

Aiming to be an author

Perhaps she will write a book?

"Not a children's book. I am writing a book about teaching. I make notes all the time of things I want to be in my book," she said of her project, tentatively titled "This Is What I Know for Sure." It's things that I have done over and over, and things that I do that are so successful. I want to pass it on."

But for now the energized Book Lady keeps on teaching.

"It's because I still continue to learn and grow and am never being satisfied with who I am as a teacher. It's who I am. I don't know what drives me, but it's still there."

Lastly, she adds, "Education changes, but I don't think books ever change. I think books are the key to everything."

While her Coles Ferry Elementary School second-grade students sit on a map carpet of the world, Judy Cummings reads the book, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat,” aloud to the class. The educator, who emphasizes reading as the key to success and a well-rounded life, has taught for 49 years. Her peers say that she can teach a rock to read. Photos by Ken Beck
Over nearly half-century of teaching, Judy Cummings has amassed a collection of about 10,000 books. Most of them are in her classroom. Her favorite book for youngsters is “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” which teaches the alphabet in a most delightful way. On a typical day she reads at least five books to her students.
In early March 2002, Judy Cummings and country music pal Garth Brooks celebrated Read Across America Day by visiting elementary schools in California, Arizona, Oklahoma and Mississippi. They were promoting reading in New York City on the morning of 9/11, 2001. Photo submitted
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Coles Ferry Elementary School, education, Garth Brooks, Judy Cummings, reading
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