Enter Whispering Woods and you’ll find everything to please nature lovers: from moose, rabbits and squirrels to foxes, boats and bears. Take a step closer inside. You’ll discover huskies, racoons and wolves hiding between its trees – all 25 of them. That’s just for starters; other inhabitants include skiing moose, birds that sing their authentic Audobon Society songs and friendly snowmen. And that doesn’t even include the books.
Welcome to the tranquil world Linda O’Connor has created for each Lake Tapps Elementary student in the school’s library, where large windows and high wooden beams give an appearance of a library amidst mountain tops.
“It’s really beautiful here when it snows,” O’Connor said.
In her 25th year of working for the Dieringer School District and her ninth as the Lake Tapps Elementary librarian, O’Connor has transformed the school’s library into a setting that spurs children to use their imaginations through the world of reading.
“If you look around, you’ll see that everything here is winter-themed,” Principal Connie GeRoy said of the trees. Most are lined with layers of drifty-white batting amongst their branches; some will be accented with twinkling white lights until the new year.
The transformation of Whispering Woods takes craftsmanship. O’Connor starts decorating with a winter theme after classes are dismissed on Thanksgiving Eve. But she’s not alone in her efforts.
“My husband (Mike) and I come in each year and decorate the library,” she said. “We start at 1 p.m. and finish at 1 a.m. It takes us a good 12 hours.”
Like a scene out of the movie “Elf,” the library is magically transformed overnight with each tree carrying a forest theme.
“It’s kind of a tradition,” she said. “Mike makes sure no cords are exposed, per the code for the fire department.”
Their efforts pay off when students discover that Whispering Woods is a trip worth making rather than a forced time of silent reading. On a recent visit, Kelly Milliren’s second-grade students sat enthralled while O’Connor read them a story.
The children listened attentively to her smooth voice until she turned the last page.
“Girls and boys, you definitely did a great job of listening,” she praised. “We’re up to six stars.”
The students wiggled with excitement.
“What happens when we get to seven stars?”
“Lights out,” their voices replied.
“That’s right,” O’Connor said. She added a seventh star to positively reinforce the students’ behavior. But the rewards didn’t stop there, even as each child chose a favorite book to check out. Her encouragement continued.
“Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “You are up to nine stars. You’re doing super fabulous today.”
The students smiled and two girls gasped with excitement.
O’Connor explained the lights-out incentive.
“It’s a tough month – we’re excited,” she said.
Each student found a book to read and sat silently at nearby library tables, amongst the lit trees and many animals. Soon, they’d earned an unprecedented 10 stars.
“Oh my,” O’Connor said. “Just to think you’re respectful, quiet, calm and wonderful inside – doesn’t that make you feel good?”
With the rhythmic affirmations and respect reminiscent of the late Fred Rogers, O’Connor rewarded the children with a countdown to zero. Then, lights out. Two dozen trees twinkled with white lights. Soft music played in the background. Then, the ultimate reward – the chance to listen to a battery-operated goat yodel and sing.
“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo…” The students giggled to the song from “The Sound of Music.”
At its conclusion, students hesitantly closed their books and lined up to return to Milliren’s class.
O’Connor tries to incorporate reading into each student’s life.
“It’s most rewarding when graduates come back and say, ‘Mrs. O’Connor, do you remember when you read…’” she said. “That’s my entire goal – to create a love of reading.”
As the mother of two grown sons and grandmother of eight, she remembers discovering that love of reading when her father, a World War II veteran, shared personal stories of the Swiss Alps. That led to the adventures of “Heidi,” her childhood favorite to this day.
She offered appreciation for parents who read with their children.
“To spend 10 minutes a day reading to your child is the most valuable and best use of your time,” she said. “They’ll develop a love of reading.”
The students who discover that love of reading at Whispering Woods won’t find the magic disappearing once winter ends.
“The tulips and daffodils start sprouting and the birds appear,” O’Connor said of the tree’s transformations. “By then, we’re ready for the snow to go away.”
Snow, yes. Reading, never – not if Linda O’Connor gets her way in Whispering Woods.
Reach Judy Halone at 360-802-8210 or firstname.lastname@example.org.