Instilling a love of reading New WMC graduate dean won't close book on old role


WESTMINSTER -- Joan Develin Coley would do anything to encourage children to read. Dress up like a clown and stand on her head (a feat she hasn't resorted to yet). Make cookies. Bring in pets. Bring in a magician. Be silly.

"You have to make reading exciting and important for kids," said Coley, sitting in her book-filled office at Western Maryland College. "You can't guarantee everyone will do well, but you make it more likely."

As director of WMC's graduate reading program, Coley makes it her job to get others enthusiastic about reading. It's a role she doesn't intend to give up, even though she has been named dean of graduate affairs for WMC.

"I hope to continue that," she said of her role as a reading mentor. "You have to be excited about what you do. I look upon this as my job."

In her new position, Coley, now chairman of the English department, will oversee all aspects of the college's graduate programs, which enroll about 1,000 students each semester. She will assume that position June 1, succeeding Helen B. Wolfe, who plans to return to her former job as an associate professor of education.

One of Coley's goals is to review the graduate program to see if there "are other degrees Western Maryland should be offering." She also wants to review existing graduate programs to "see how we can do better."

Coley is excited about her new position and expects to do some traveling in line with it, but she will be cutting back the itinerary she has followed in recent years.

She has visited schools in Japan, South America, the Caribbean, Germany and in cities across the United States, providing teachers with valuable insights into the development of reading comprehension skills in children.

Coley, 47, an avid reader who began her career as an educator in Prince George's County, has gained national and international recognition for her pioneering research into and commentary on the nation's reading programs. She has had various articles published in newspapers and books.

"She doesn't just enjoy a reputation in the county," said Carroll schools Superintendent R. Edward Shilling. "She has an international reputation in her field. She's just a terrific educator."

Shilling should know. Coley has been active with Carroll schools for years, running reading workshops and clinics, serving on screening committees and maintaining contact with teachers, many of them her former students.

Coley's students, he said, have played key roles in helping Carroll develop and build its integrated language arts program.

"She's continued to be supportive," said Joanne Strohmer, Carroll's supervisor of reading/language arts. "She's a good person to talk through ideas with. She has a great one-on-one relationship with teachers because they respect and trust her.

"I think she walks on water," Strohmer added. "She is extremely knowledgeable -- one of the most knowledgeable people in the field I know. She has the personality to get the message across."

Last year, Coley left the hill to work in the first-grade classroom of a former student, Sharon Craig, who teaches at William Winchester Elementary.

"I wanted to make sure what I was doing still worked with kids," Coley said. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't too far removed from reality."

Added Craig, "She's so child-oriented. She's always asking herself how will it affect the child. Having her expertise in the classroom was a lot of fun. The kids missed her when she left."

The message from Coley is that reading is important.

"Children have to understand that reading has a lot to do with their future success," she said. "You've got to get them motivated."

In reaching children, Coley said, you have to capture their imagination and make reading meaningful to them. Many stories are exciting to children. If they're not, either the lesson or the teacher needs to be exciting, she said.

Reaching the teachers, she said, is equally important.

"If you make a difference with teachers, you'll make a difference with students," Coley said.

When Coley isn't teaching reading, she is often reading fiction, non-fiction or professional books. She particularly likes books by women.

"People think I'm crazy, but I always have three books I'm reading at any one time," she said. "I listen to books on tape, too. I tend to listen to books that I wouldn't usually read."

Her other favorite activities include the theater, a nice dinner with friends or traveling. She also spends time with her 16-year-old son, David, who has frequently been her traveling companion.

"I'm sure I'll never lose that desire to travel," she said.

Or to read.

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