By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate Editor
ONEIDA — The love of reading brings with it a lifetime of adventure and inspiration.
Louise Schrenkel’s specialty is setting children on the path to becoming voracious readers. She has taught first grade at St. Patrick’s School in Oneida for the past 25 years.
“I really just enjoy being with children and teaching reading,” Schrenkel said. “I like to see when they finally get it, when it finally clicks for them. Once that lightbulb goes off, you see them wanting to sit with books and you’ll get parents coming up and telling you their child won’t go to sleep because they’re under the sheets with a flashlight and a book.”
Phyllis Harris, the school’s secretary, has seen first-hand the love of reading that Schrenkel can inspire.
“Both of my children had Ms. Schrenkel for first grade and they are both avid readers,” she said.
But in the 34 years that Schrenkel has been encouraging new readers, the tools for teaching these skills have changed. Whereas once letters were learned with pencils, paper and chalkboards, now they are taught using smartboards, computers and laptops.
Schrenkel takes her students to the computer lab three times a week to work on computer and keyboarding skills. She said she’s amazed at how quickly the students can learn and become accustomed to technology.
While it’s important to strengthen these skills in order to prepare students for life in the 21st century, it’s apparent from Schrenkel’s classroom that she still places great importance on simpler, more hands-on approaches to learning. Books, artwork and decoration fill her classroom. And she’s not afraid to get down on the floor with the children circled around her to talk about colors and numbers.
This, she said, is key to really connecting with the students. “Get down on their level,” she said.
She said it’s also important to be fair and consistent — and to consistently maintain high expectations.
That’s something Principal Peg Brown said makes for better learning.
“Her classroom is very structured and the kids know what to expect. It’s fun but it’s also one of the most productive years,” she said. This can be tricky with children in first grade. “With first grade, they’re not big kids yet but they’re no longer babies,“ Brown said.
Harris said Schrenkel’s consistency and patience with the students gets results.
“We have high expectations of our students and Miss Schrenkel helps them live up to those expectations.”
Along with working hard at learning and smartening up their manners (a special school-wide goal for the year), the students also have a strong foundation of faith.
“Prayer is an important part of the day,” Harris said. This is especially the case in Schrenkel’s classroom, where students say grace before and after lunch, say the Guardian Angel prayer and end the day with the Act of Contrition.
In elementary school, prayers for special intentions are also a very important part of the day.
“We do the prayers over the P.A. and we’ll pray for grandparents or for parents or family members who are sick or who have had accidents. But the kids’ll come in with prayers for everything. We’ve prayed for dead rats, lost hamsters, dogs,” Harris said, laughing. “The important thing is that they’re learning to turn to God.”
Schrenkel plans all of the school’s special liturgies, making sure to include even the littlest students as readers, song leaders or gift bearers.
Even over the summer break, Schrenkel can’t wait to get back into the classroom. Brown said she’s usually the first teacher back to decorate her room before the start of the school year.
“I love it,” Schrenkel said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders. “I love that feeling at the start of a new year. It’s very exciting getting ready for the new class and getting your room ready.”
But she has to admit she still gets first-day jitters.
“Just a little nervous,” she said, “getting up in front of the parents and not knowing what you’re getting yourself into for the year.”
Schrenkel has taught at Catholic schools throughout her career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Marywood College and a master’s degree in reading and elementary education from SUNY Cortland. From 1976-78 she taught at St. Raymond’s School in East Rockway, N.Y., from 1978-81 she taught at St. Patrick’s School in Oneida and from 1981-85 she taught at St. Francis de Sales School in Utica. She returned to St. Patrick’s in 1985 and has stayed ever since.
“Miss Schrenkel exemplifies everything a dedicated Catholic teacher and disciple of Christ should be. She is a tremendous role model for our students as well as our staff,” Brown said.
For her part, Schrenkel said she couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else.
“We have an amazing faith community,” she said. “You can’t expect to go anywhere else and find what we have right here with the parents, the kids and the faculty.”