The Journal News: Sister’s passion in literacy | lohud.com

The Journal News featured Sister St. John Delany and the Center for Literacy Enrichment at Pace in a 2-page profile with photos in print and online.

The Journal News featured Sister St. John Delany and the Center for Literacy Enrichment at Pace in a 2-page profile with photos in print and online.

From The Journal News:

Sister Mary St. John Delany’s life — all 88 years of it — has been an homage to the written word.

Between teaching literacy and children’s literature at Pace University and running reading workshops, she is conducting research on brain chemistry and learning. But most important to Delany is the literacy center she built, helping children overcome reading difficulties, improve their writing and discover a passion for books.

“Literacy has been my whole life,” said Delany, who began her teaching career during World War II. “My legacy, I hope, is a book in every child’s hand.”

At a dinner next week, Pace University will recognize Delany and its Center for Literacy Enrichment, which she founded 40 years ago. Delany is still director of the center, which provides reading and writing assistance to school-age children.

The awards ceremony at the Woman’s Club of White Plains will toast the work of Delany and other honorees, but Delany said the honor has been hers. Indeed, she couldn’t imagine a life other than the one she lived, devoted to literacy and learning.

Delany, a member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Divine Compassion order, began her career in White Plains in 1944, teaching first grade at St. Bernard’s. The profession was preordained, Delany said, recalling childhood memories of teaching lessons to her younger sister, using a dining room wall as a chalkboard.

Delany worked as a teacher and principal for three decades before joining the faculty at the College of White Plains. The college president asked her to create a program for children who have trouble reading. The center opened its doors in 1972, and the college merged with Pace in 1975.

“The move toward teaching literacy has been a passion of hers for as long as I’ve known her,” said Sandra Flank, professor emeritus at Pace’s school of education.

Flank, a retired math, science and technology professor, first met Delany nearly 40 years ago during the college merger.

“She’s always felt students being able to read comfortably made a huge difference in their lives,” said Flank, 76. “She’s devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to see that happens.”

Patrick Enright, 45, of Harrison enrolled his daughter, Lauren, in the literacy center less than a year ago. Delany’s reputation lured him in, hoping she could help Lauren, 7, overcome some reading difficulties.

Lauren’s lessons have included dissecting larger words into smaller ones and learning to keep her place when reading. Her progress has been slow and steady, but she now reads on grade level, Enright said.

“She learns differently. That’s what we’re adapting to,” he said. “If you can build up (children’s) self-esteem, their sense of self-worth, sense of pride, they want to engage you in reading. They don’t become overwhelmed or give up on it.”

Education has changed since the ’70s, Delany said, pointing to an unhealthy emphasis on standardized testing. That type of rigid, formatted learning doesn’t promote joyful reading and stifles imagination, said Delany, who earned a doctorate from Fordham University.

Ironically, Delany said, those are the keys to combating illiteracy. At the center, which charges $45 an hour and serves about 85 children a week, Delany and her staff of eight tutors teach the basics of memory, reading comprehension and vocabulary during daily sessions and special summer or after-school programs.

But what cements learning are the things thought to be unrelated to reading: building self-esteem, confidence and open-ended imagining.

The lessons focus as much on writing as they do reading, Delany said. Children are encouraged to rewrite the endings of stories and craft essays on specific characters and situations.

The center uses computers, iPads and other forms of technology to teach, but one of Delany’s goals is to block out distractions such as video games, iPhones and other gadgets. For many children, Delany said, she is reintroducing them to books. “We work very hard to get children to perform to their optimal level, and we try to make them feel as confident as we can,” she said.

Ellie Spangler of White Plains said her 8-year-old son, Andrew, has become a much more confident writer in the two months he has studied at the center. Typical one-sentence answers are turning into paragraphs, she said, and his vocabulary is improving.

“He’s putting more effort into his work, he’s beginning to elaborate more,” said Spangler, a stay-at-home mother of three. Writing “is a valuable skill to know and to learn young.”

In addition to teaching, Delany is working with one of her undergraduate students, researching ways to “reorganize” the brain to improve reading.

The research adds to what already are very long workdays. But Delany said she isn’t planning to slow down. That doesn’t surprise those who know her best.

“As she’s said, if she retires, what is she going to do?” Flank said with a chuckle. “You do what matters in this life — and this matters.”

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