Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Kathy Ryan reads to fascinated first graders at Cathedral School.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois

Kathy Ryan reads to fascinated first graders at Cathedral School.
A marathon runner as well as a veteran teacher, Kathy Ryan knows children learn a little at a time — mile by mile.

Ryan, retired after 45 years, is back in the classroom at Cathedral School in Northwest Portland. A longtime literacy coach, she volunteers to help children read and write not only solidly, but with a little panache.

In a few hours per week, she is helping first grade readers try inference. She has third graders write small books on something that matters to them — basketball, family, a trip, the dog — then sits down to edit and guide the youngsters through re-writing, a vital step most kids skip. In fifth grade, she is working on visualization — having students conjure images of what they are reading.

“I love it when kids can hear another voice,” says Ryan, a 72-year-old member of St. Patrick Parish in Portland. “I am there to validate what teachers are saying.” She gets lists of goals from instructors so she can push the same concepts.

Here’s an example of a lesson Ryan devised for third graders: She read Robert McCloskey’s classic story about Homer Price, the small-town boy whose uncle has a doughnut machine that will not quit. She then drove to bakeries all over Portland to find plain cake doughnuts that fit the description from the book.

Using the experience in their very mouths, students were to write about the doughnut, first cataloguing all the descriptive words they could that might fit the sweet, crispy-soft situation. The young writers were to call on their senses and imagine eating the doughnuts with someone. The stories went through drafts. For the final copy, Ryan brought a stack of homemade notebooks in the shape of a doughnut. Students copied their essays into the books, writing in a circle. There was a buzz of fun in the air.

After graduating from the University of Oregon, Ryan taught for 45 years, most in the David Douglas district, where she spent her last 14 years as a literacy coach for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She helped teachers develop strategies in reading and literature.  

“I loved every single day,” she says.  

A long time track coach, Ryan is a serious runner who has finished 77 marathons in 46 states. As a teacher, she would run in the morning, lead lessons, run again in the afternoon and then edit essays in the evening while riding a stationary bicycle. She finished a marathon a month, qualifying for the most prestigious, including Boston’s.

During the 2007 Hood to Coast Relay, a team run from the Cascades to the Pacific, Ryan’s heart stopped. After bystanders got it going again, it was not long before Ryan vowed she would continue running. She has, completing several marathons and every Hood to Coast Relay since, albeit more slowly than before. She still intends to run marathons in North Dakota, Connecticut, Maine and North Carolina for a 50-state sweep.

Ryan’s grandchildren attend Cathedral School. When Amy Biggs, the principal, discovered a retired literacy coach among the grandparents, she issued a call and Ryan assented.    

She tends to volunteer on Monday mornings. She recalls that as a time when teachers need extra minutes to plan out the day. Of course, some instructors just sit back to watch the master in action.

“She really grabs the attention of the kids,” says Sarah Drew, first grade teacher. “And she just smoothly integrates lessons into the story time as she goes. That comes from years of experience.”

Ryan urges kids to write constantly in journals and logs and then goes over the writing one-on-one. She knows how time-consuming, but valuable, that is.   

“Kathy is a teacher of all teachers,” says Holy Names Sister Mary Ryan, a longtime teacher, principal and development director and Ryan’s sister-in-law. The two meet regularly to talk education.

“She comes with a smile, an enthusiasm for books, and to hear from each and every child,” Sister Mary says. “Children can sense that she is there for them.”