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This North Park Teacher Has Given Her Students 10,000 Free Books. Now, She’s Won $5,000 To Help Kids Learn English

"Hopefully that is going to instill a love for reading in them for the rest of their lives," Virginia Valdez said.

Virginia Valdez (left) and some of the books she's given to her students.
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NORTH PARK — Every week for 12 years, Virginia Valdez has given her kindergarten students at Jamieson Elementary a book to take home. 

Her goal is to help students, many of whom are non-native English speakers, develop a lifelong love of reading by sending them home with free books to start building their home libraries. In more than a decade, she’s given out more 10,000 books she’s bought with her own money or via grants. 

“When I was a kid, I had very limited access to books. And the children I serve come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” Valdez said. “But I want to make sure that all my students and their families have access to books.”

Now, Valdez has received another boost to support her students.

Early last month, Valdez was named one of two runners-up in the Rosetta Stone Emergent Bilingual Educators of the Year Award program. As runner-up in the contest, launched this year, Valdez received a $5,000 grant and her school a semester subscription to software to learn English.

The timing of the software access works out perfectly as it will enable Valdez’s students to continue practicing English while they’re learning from home during the pandemic. 

“With this money we’re going to buy much-needed curricular materials for our students,” Valdez said.

The contest invited K-12 bilingual teachers to submit essays about their approaches to educating their students.

For Valdez, it starts with her own experiences as a bilingual learner, including one painful instance when a first-grade teacher tried to kick her out of the classroom because she did not speak English as her first language.

The experience made Valdez feel ashamed of being Mexican American and of speaking Spanish, she said.

“It took me years to change my feelings toward school and my self-identity. Thus, from firsthand experience, I know what it means to be an emergent bilingual student, and I know the power that teachers have in the lives of emergent bilingual students,” Valdez wrote in her essay.

Jamieson, at 5650 N. Mozart St., serves 861 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The majority of the school’s students are Hispanic and come from low-income families. Additionally, 32.5 percent of students speak limited English, according to CPS data.

About 25 percent of Valdez’s students have native languages other than English, she said.

Jamieson has its own library run by a staff volunteer, and the Budlong Woods Branch of the Chicago Public Library is nearby. But Valdez noticed for her kindergarten students, who are just beginning to learn to read, the number of books available at those libraries can be overwhelming. 

“And even before the pandemic, only a small percentage of parents took advantage of these resources even though they are available,” Valdez said. “Sometimes it’s because parents are working long hours or have other responsibilities and don’t have an opportunity to go to the library to help their children check out books.”

That helped spark the idea for Valdez’s year-round Books to Keep program, she said. Because of the diversity of her students, Valdez also looks for books representative of the school’s community. 

One week she gave away copies of “The Rough-Face Girl” by Rafe Martin. This story is an Algonquin version of the Cinderella story that happens on the shores of Lake Ontario. 

Another week she gave her students copies of “Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas” by Natasha Yim and Grace Zong. The retelling of the Goldilocks and three bears fable is set in Chinatown during the Chinese New Year. 

“I try to put a mixture of books that they can read along with books that are meant for their parents to read to them out loud,” Valdez said. “I do believe in multicultural education, and I try to really highlight my students’ cultures inside the classroom. It’s important for them to know that I value their cultures. I value their identity.”

Because the books are gifts from their teacher, students are also more likely to want to spend time reading them or asking a parent to read it to them, she said. 

“I see them get really excited that they received a gift from their teacher,” Valdez said. “It’s something really valuable to them because they know I gave it to them from my heart. Hopefully that is going to instill a love for reading in them for the rest of their lives.”

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