Washougal principal’s love of reading pays off

‘Teacher’s Choice’ program helps MacLachlan score 1,200 books for schools

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Columbia River Gorge Elementary School principal Tracey MacLachlan (left) reads a book with third-grader Mckinlee Love on Feb. 6.

Columbia River Gorge Elementary School Principal Tracey MacLachlan has cultivated her passion for children’s literacy in many ways during her decades-long career in academia.

When she started out as a teacher in California, she served as a reading recovery specialist. Later, she became an adult literacy professor at City University. And, in her current role as principal at the Washougal elementary school, she created an annual, all-school book-reading event.

“I’d always been a lover of books, but I really have always been a lover of children’s books,” MacLachlan said. “I would go to Barnes and Noble every month or two and sit in the children’s book section and read (new releases) because I saw what (reading) did for my students. I think the best thing about being a teacher is sharing that passion with kids. I love to see adult readers share my passion of books and literacy for kids, so I’ve done it in a lot of different ways.”

That’s why she’s excited to serve as a regional field leader for the International Literacy Association’s Teacher’s Choice program, an annual project that began in 1989. Each year, teachers, librarians and reading-literacy specialists from different regions of the United States read hundreds of new titles donated by North American publishers and choose 30 of their favorites for readers ages 5 to 14.

Educators who participate in the program can choose to keep the books for their school as long as they read and review them.

“So you say that (certain books) are going to be the award winners, and that’s great,” MacLachlan said. “But all these others that we got are good, too. I mean, there’s value to them. So maybe they’re not going to be the Teacher’s Choice award winner, but we’re getting them in the hands of kids by having them in our library, and we would not have had the other opportunity (to do so otherwise). Not many things in education are free, and we get to put thousands of dollars worth of books on our library shelves and in our classrooms, and there’s not a price attached to it.”

The program has generated more than 1,200 books for Washougal schools, according to MacLachlan, with more to come.

“Tracey is a lover of libraries, and (has) a clear vision of what she wants to see — a book that appeals to every student in her school available for checkout in the library,” said Hillary Marshall, Washougal High School’s librarian. “With building budgets tightened, Tracey took on the leadership necessary to bring materials to our district. She truly has helped strengthen the collections in all our Washougal School District libraries with free, current publications in both fiction and non-fiction.”

MacLachlan committed to a three-year term as a field leader for the Pacific Northwest region at the start of the 2018-19 school year. Leaders recruit “team members” — mainly fellow teachers or educators — who read and review books that the leaders receive. The leaders also have the option of reading and reviewing the books themselves.

MacLachlan said she received a shipment of 680 books at the start of the school year.

“I kind of dole them out,” she said. “I try to read as many as I can myself. I definitely pick out all my favorite authors. I pick out special series that are interesting to me, and (subjects) that I feel like we don’t have good representation of in our library. I encourage all levels of my staff — people in the kitchen, my secretaries, the paraprofessionals in the special education room — to get involved.”

After at least six educators in each area read each book, the best-reviewed books are placed on the literacy association’s annual “Teacher’s Choice” reading lists.

MacLachlan said the program helps publishers understand what people want to read and added that teachers can write a synopsis of the book and let publishers know how they might utilize them.

“It shows publishers and authors where academia feels like it can (use) those books,” MacLachlan said. “I think that that’s probably the part that means a lot to them when they get those results.”

According to the literacy association’s website, the program endeavors to develop annotated reading lists of high-quality new books for young people; help educators find books that enrich their curriculums; guide young people to books that they might not discover or appreciate without the help of a teacher, librarian, parent or other adult; and showcase a diversity of cultures, races, gender identities and abilities.

“It’s been a fabulous experience for me,” MacLachlan said. “As I’m ending my career in the next (decade), it’s an opportunity for me to stay current, which is not always the easiest thing to do in an administrative role. I get to talk to teachers about how to use books and what’s great about them and what’s interesting about them and what we like about them and how kids can benefit from them. I think the program tells us to be more discerning of what kids read and why we want to encourage them to read.”

MacLachlan, who served as the principal at Union Ridge Elementary School in Ridgefield and taught in the Camas School District for 12 years before coming to the Washougal district, has connected educators throughout Clark County with the book-reading program and said she collaborates closely with Nichole Sturges, a librarian at Woodburn Elementary School in Camas.

“Being involved in the Teacher’s Choice program allows Tracey to stay current on new literature, authors and trends in children’s literature,” Sturges said. “It also provides free books to local library collections and classroom libraries. Kids and teachers are able to check out and read these books. As an elementary librarian myself, helping her read and review the books has been invaluable to me in becoming familiar with my library collection, and providing our students, families and communities access to quality literature.”

MacLachlan “has always been someone who has passion for literacy in general and children’s books in particular,” Sturges added.

“I remember years ago having students in my second-grade class that were in her first-grade class the year before. Those students were familiar with and excited about new and popular authors, and had been exposed to many of the new books I wanted to read because, ‘Ms. MacLachlan loves those books,'” Sturges said.

“I also knew, in having conversations with Tracey, that she was constantly purchasing books for her classroom and her students. Her classroom always contained many shelves full of books. And books came alive in her classroom — they were the foundation of so much joy and learning. She insisted that students take a book home every night to read with their family. When my own daughter was young, Tracey gifted books to her, and was always eager to talk with her about what she was reading.”

When MacLachlan took over as principal at Columbia River Gorge Elementary, she prioritized developing a strong school library.

“I just wanted to make sure that we were going to build a collection of books that kids were going to read,” she said. “We have to put books in the hands of kids in order to encourage them. If kids read more, they’re better readers. They have better vocabulary. They’re more likely to be out of prison. They’re more likely not to be homeless. I mean, the trickle-down effect is big. The more opportunities and titles that we have, the more value the kids are going to find in the library to find something that they’re interested in.”

MacLachlan, who has been a member of the literacy association for many years, will finish her three-year commitment to the program in 2021, and then either apply for another term or perhaps turn the position over to Sturges.

No matter what she does in the future, she’s firm in her resolve to stay connected to her passion; she said that she’s considering applying for a position on the ILA’s board of directors to create a “link to stay current in literacy.”

Marshall said she believes MacLachlan would thrive in a board position with the international association — or in any role that involves books and reading.

“I love how she promotes reading through example, starting with a school-wide read, where all her staff and students read the same book, talk about and do activities around it,” Marshall said. “I think building an early love of literacy through example and cultivating a community of readers is essential in our elementary schools, and Tracey is a master at it.”