By Celine Klosterman
Mother Teresa once called herself a pencil in God’s hand.
LaDonna Wicklund said she tries to be as much in her work through I CAN READ, Inc., a non-profit she founded to help children learn to read and write. For about four years, the member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City has tried to follow the Lord’s direction as she creates and distributes materials that teach words through music.
She felt called to do so during her 40 years as a literacy educator in Iowa City schools, including a few years at Regina Catholic Education Center. “I was always interested in finding ways to help children who were having difficulty being successful in reading and feeingl good about themselves.” About 10 years ago, she found one such method after seeing a struggling student learn the word “Halloween” from a song in music class. “I thought, oh my, I need to harness the power of music.”
A few years later, as a reading specialist, she worked with several Iowa City kindergarten teachers to teach beginning sight words through songs. “The students gained a ‘can do’ attitude. And their reading and writing improved,” Wicklund said.
So after retiring in 2007, she started creating resources that early-childhood educators could use to blend music and reading. “It seemed the Lord opened doors for me to do this.”
First, she wrote lyrics and simple melodies for 13 beginning sight words — such as “we,” “go,” “see” and “like.” Then, she said, God led her to a musician to expand on the melodies; University of Iowa opera students to sing the songs; child dance students to star in music videos of the songs; and local videographer Ben Hill to film them.
Wicklund also has created books for students, a CD of “simple, joyous and effective songs,” a DVD, and a new activity book for teachers and parents that she hopes will find a home in public libraries. The resources have been used for children as young as toddlers to struggling first-graders nationwide and in mission schools in foreign countries, she said.
Her “wonderfully supportive” husband, Gary, takes her throughout the United States to conferences where she promotes her materials. After a conference last month for the federal Head Start Program, a participant thanked her with the words, “God bless you and your reading ministry.”
“I was surprised because I had not realized that I have a reading ministry,” Wicklund said. “I knew that God drives all that I do, but I had not looked at the big picture and recognized that all the little, mundane activities — such as applying for presentations and writing grant requests — were a ministry.”
Her new perspective makes setbacks less painful, she said. “You have to turn your life over to the Lord and trust where he takes you.”
From at least two educators’ perspectives, Wicklund’s journey has resulted in improved student literacy. Ann Bell, a reading recovery/Title I teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, has used “I Can Read Songs” materials in her kindergarten and first-grade literacy support groups for about four years. Kindergarten teachers use the resources in class, too, she said.
“Since using LaDonna’s fun songs, the kids have come to first grade knowing more letters, having more words they can read and write, and showing a ‘can do’ attitude! They love the songs and learn literacy skills naturally,” Bell said.
For Christine Newell, a kindergarten teacher at Grant Wood Elementary in Iowa City, the materials are “a wonderful resource.” She noted they teach common words in “multi-sensory” ways — through music, movement and writing — which helps different types of learners. The resources “give students another way to remember how to use a word.”
Rotary Clubs give “I Can Read Songs” CDs to Grant Wood families each spring at kindergarten roundup. “So when students come to kindergarten and I put the tape in, half of the kids are already familiar with the songs. They’re such catchy tunes, and the kids really enjoy them.”
“You can almost feel the Lord’s hand helping children learn to read and write,” Wicklund said. “This has been a very exciting yet humbling experience for me.”
Free resources available