February 13th, 2015
In the midst of a cold, snowy spell in New England, word spread last week that beloved author, teacher, and colleague Bernice (Bee) Cullinan had died on February 5. Saddened by this news, I was catapulted back to 1992 – 1994 when we served together on the Standards Project for English Language Arts (SPELA), a joint venture between the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) to write standards for K-12 students in partnership with the Center for the Teaching of Reading at the University of Illinois. I was a middle school teacher at the time, well acquainted with Bee’s books, especially Literature and the Child, co-edited with Lee Galda and Laurence Sipe, and Weaving Charlotte’s Web, coedited with Janet Hickman, so I was honored to encounter her at our week-long meetings in Chicago, Utah, and Washington, D.C. These sessions were long, fascinating, and often difficult, but it was the time after hours that made us friends. In restaurants and pubs, in museums, and on meandering walks, it became evident that we shared a love of teaching and a passion for poetry. Before long, we were sending each other newly discovered poems via email between meetings.
Bee grew up in Ohio and taught primary students there for fifteen years. She earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at The Ohio State University before moving to NYU, where she taught reading and children’s literature for three decades, influencing countless students at the Steinhardt School for Culture, Education, and Human Development. Working there for several years myself, I loved running into her on campus, at poetry readings, or on the streets of the city. She always had a smile on her face, a story ready to share, and a new project in the works.
Professor Gordon Pradl remembers Bee with affection: “She was a gracious lady of the old school. . . with a dogged advocacy and support of people in the field. One could not wish for a warmer or more generous colleague than Bee.”
Bee believed that reading should be, more than anything else, a joyful experience. All 40 of her books promote love of reading and support both parents and teachers in the quest to help all children embrace words, poems, and stories. She was a past president of IRA and won NCTE’s 2003 Outstanding Educator Award, and her influence on literacy education was boundless.
Her comprehensive study, “Independent Reading and School Achievement,” funded by the United States Department of Education (1998-2000) offers compelling evidence that students who select their own books show remarkable growth as readers. “Bee was the one who compiled all that research, and I was grateful to her,” says Nancie Atwell, whose students have been selecting their own books to read more than 30 years. “Choice is the wellspring of literacy and literacy appreciation,” she writes.
Shelley Harwayne remembers Bee’s kindness when Manhattan New School opened in 1994. “We went out to her house on Long Island,” says Shelley, “And Bee put box after box of children’s books into the car. Those books became the heart of our new school.”
Professor Emeritus Bee Cullinan, writer, scholar, and lover of poems, shared her passion with everyone she met. She helped children find surprise, solace, and joy in reading. She loved a good meal and a good poem. I am going to miss her.
Atwell, Nancie 2014 In the Middle, Third Edition: A Lifetime of Learning about Writing, Reading, and Adolescents Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
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