97-year-old retired teacher helps Milton students to read

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
— She may be 97 years old, but Janesville resident Eleanor Vien is still teaching students to read and write. In fact, she never really stopped.

Though she retired from teaching in the early 1970s, once every week for the past 12 years, Vien has volunteered with second- and third-graders at Milton West Elementary School. She helps them with reading and writing.

Students read to her. She reads to them. They write. She critiques.

The students, about 20 of them this year, know her as “Aunt Eleanor.” Yet teachers at Milton West know Vien as a woman with a gift: a touch with students that goes far beyond grammar and reading comprehension.

Vien connects with students one-on-one in a way that only someone who’s taught in a country schoolhouse can.

Much has changed since 1936, when Vien was the new teacher at the one-room Merrifield School in rural Edgerton. Back then, Vien had just seven students, and she traveled to the Edgerton Library monthly to get boxes of books so that they’d have something to read.

Today, schools have their own libraries with hundreds of books. Still, that doesn’t make reading any easier.

Milton West reading teacher Brigid Terry said that’s where Vien comes in.

When students work with Vien, Terry said, they know they’re not being graded or judged. It’s just Aunt Eleanor.

“It’s truly a one-on-one with her. The kids take risks because they’re comfortable. She’s a safe haven. Eleanor just sits down as naturally as you would brush your teeth, and she just talks to them,” Terry said.

A mob of excited reading students gathered around Vien at a special end-of-the-year classroom party last week at Milton West. Though it was unlike her normal one-on-one work with students, Vien took the gathering in stride: the cake, the yelling, dozens of frantic stories and all of the kid hugs.

“Some of them sure do talk,” she said.

Third-grader Jorden Ludeking McLean sat down to read with Vien, flipping open a chapter book that was only vaguely about President Abraham Lincoln. When Jorden got to the word “weird,” Vien halted him. She wanted a definition.

Jorden smiled; it’s a road he and Aunt Eleanor have been down before.

“She always makes us check for understanding,” he said.

Then he conjured the weirdest definition he could think of.

“It’s like slimy, slickery snakes,” he said.

Vien patted him.

“That’s good. Snakes really are weird,” she said.

Jorden said reading to Vien is a weekly treat, but he likes her storytelling even more. He said she always has a tale about her childhood or about teaching in a country school.

“She taught me the word ‘paleontologist,’” said Keiana Sterwald, a pugnacious 8-year-old.

Keiana said most kids get nervous when they see a word like “paleontologist,” but not her. At least, not when she’s reading with Eleanor.

Andrew Hoard, 8, reads to Vien every week. He boasted that he even knows Vien’s favorite poem, although he couldn’t remember its name.

“It was a very long poem. I could ask her,” he said.

Andrew went to check on the poem, but he got swallowed by a crowd of his classmates who were blanketing Vien.

Each had written Vien a thank you note for her help this year. Of course, Vien made them all read their notes aloud.

Her response to each student: “Please promise me that you’ll go to the library this summer. Please promise me that you’ll read.”

Vien isn’t sure how long she’ll continue cruising her blue Cadillac to Milton to help the students learn. Maybe forever.

“I’d do this every day of the week if I thought I could stand it,” Vien said. “My day here is the best day of each week. It’s the day that I look forward to more than anything in the world.”

Last updated: 5:05 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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