The best of the best. That’s how Washington-Parks Academy (WPA) Principal Devon Graham describes second grade teacher Frances Smith.  The Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE) resoundingly agreed, naming Smith as Michigan Elementary Teacher of the Year, in honor of her outstanding efforts in literacy education.  

During her 30-year career, Smith has worn many hats, including principal, assistant principal, academic dean, literacy coach, and classroom teacher. It has been during her past seven years at Cornerstone where she feels she’s made the greatest impact. Through bringing innovative ideas, a caring environment, and working to instill a love of reading among her second grade students, she is seeing them grow and learn to love reading for enjoyment.

Books Provide Adventures

In a world inundated with distractions like video games and smartphones, Smith has made it her mission to ensure that her students have access to a rich variety of reading materials to expand their minds and imaginations.

Smith’s belief in the transformative power of books is a driving motivator to getting a variety of books into students’ hands. “I am a huge advocate of students having access to materials they can read for fun,” she explained. “Reading for enjoyment allows students the freedom to imagine places, persons, and go on adventures outside of the confines of their homes.”

But she also recognizes that a home library is a luxury that many of her students go without.  This is where her resourcefulness goes to work.

Creating Home Libraries

Understanding the benefits of a home library and seeing the need, Smith mobilized her network of family and friends, raising $5,000 over the past five years for purchasing books for her students. At first, the monetary donations allowed her to give a single book per month to each of her students. But her astuteness for how to maximize her purchases – using discounts, points and other deals – allowed her to stretch that money and amass a surplus of books so that she is now able to give two or three books at a time.  

She is also working to spread love of reading to other classrooms. “I have a partnership with one of my fellow teachers,” she explained. “When I purchase Scholastic Books, extra funds or bonus points are often used to purchase class sets for his students. It turns out to be a win-win-win situation.”

Sharing Her Knowledge

Smith’s impact extends beyond her classroom walls. At the MCTE conference, where she was presented with her Teacher of the Year Award, she was also a featured presenter, sharing her strategies and ideas in a presentation appropriately entitled Bringing Books and Children Together: Creating a Lifelong Literary Bond.  During this presentation, Smith provided information to fellow teachers on how to create their own classroom reading areas, set up classroom libraries, and support for getting books into the hands of their students. 

“Mrs. Smith’s recognition as Michigan Elementary Teacher of the Year is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence in education,” said Graham.  “Our children deserve great, motivated, caring, quality educators and Mrs. Smith embodies all of those traits. She is simply the best of the best!”

Inspiration for a Lifetime

Smith knows her efforts are making an impact when she sees former students with a book in their hands, reading while eating lunch, during free time, or while waiting at dismissal. Some older students return to her classroom to inquire about new reading material at their age level that they might borrow to read. In true Teacher of the Year fashion, Smith will often use her own money to purchase books for those that don’t have the means.

Why go to these great lengths? She summed it up this way: “I strongly believe that if students do not develop a love of reading for enjoyment at an early age – and have adequate reading materials provided for them – we could potentially have an entire generation of non-readers.”

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