At the age of 8, John King Jr. was challenged by a fourth-grade teacher in Brooklyn to learn as much as he could about the Soviet Union.
After some initial trepidation, King dived headfirst into the assignment, reading a newspaper daily and likely learning more about the Cold War giant than most other 8-year-olds.
"I remembered the dread," King, now New York State education commissioner, told a room full of educators in Uniondale Wednesday. "That I was going to have to summarize all of those articles, and yet the work ethic that I learned . . . helped me to become a good reader."
Classes started Tuesday in four Long Island school districts and three more are scheduled to open this week.
He oversees more than 7,000 public and independent elementary and secondary schools in New York.
Teaching nonfiction, including newspaper reading assignments, King told the group, is key to developing critical thinking in their students and preparing them for the rigors of higher education.
"It's not just about entering," King said. "But it's about entering with the skills that you need to succeed in pursuing your aspirations through college."
Richard Tauber, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Lawrence Road Middle School in Uniondale, said what King talked about is already taking place in the classrooms. What needs to be addressed is the high number of low-income students who struggle in school, Tauber said.
"How do we deal with poverty in school districts?" Tauber said. "[King] is so well-spoken that I am sure he has great thoughts about the issue."
King stayed focused on the importance of teaching students skills they can use to have a productive college experience and successful careers.
He cited himself as an example of how far students can go with the right teacher to guide them.
Much of his success can be credited to Alan Osterweil, the fourth-grade teacher who asked his students to read The New York Times daily. King said the teacher was there for him when he lost both parents by age 12.
"Mr. Osterweil is the reason I am standing here today," said King, who started his academic career at P.S. 276 in Canarsie and eventually earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Yale. "This year, we all have the opportunity, together, to be the . . . Mr. Osterweil for someone; to make that difference in someone's life."