Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Best Please Read.

Did you know that there are people who cannot read? Sure, we’ve all heard of illiteracy, but we’ve also all heard of leprechauns. Do you realize that there are actual real grown up people who do not know how to read? Did you know that there are actual mature living human beings that do not even know the alphabet? I’m not kidding! I’ve met these people because last night I substitute taught an Adult Literacy class at Collin’s school and now I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, there are people (at least six of them, mostly from West Africa, but some from the Dominican Republic or Honduras) who don’t know how to read—some of them have lived in our country for six months, some for sixteen years*! And none of them can really read…really!

Some people who don’t know how to read also don’t know how to make letters, and some of these people really seem to know how to make their letters and at first I thought they had written sentences of their own creation but actually they had copied those sentences from another paper I hadn’t seen yet. In our class last night we were supposed to go over a few pages from this workbook where they had been learning about the letters V, Qu, and T**. But halfway through that exercise one student, a student who was brand new and had just started that very day, asked if we could just do the alphabet. So we did the alphabet! I wrote it in Capitals and lower case on the board and had each person recite the whole thing after we had gone over it a few times as a class, thinking up words that started with each letter. And while we were engaged in this exercise, while I was writing out the letters and pointing to them one at a time as each student took his or her turn I was just thinking, in an unending loop, “This is so crazy. These people cannot read. They do not know the alphabet. They are grown ups and they don’t know how to read. This is so crazy.” I flashbacked to sitting beside my Great-grandma Condie’s bed with my first readers from school, so excited and pleased to be getting down to business, I flashbacked to reading David and the Phoenix in my bunkbed and Robin Hood in my closet. My students hadn’t read those books! They couldn’t read any of those books! I flashbacked to just that afternoon when I was relishing Dubliners in the Rose Reading Room of the grand New York Public Library—my students couldn’t read that book either!

Half my class was enthusiastic and really with me, the other half very quiet and nonresponsive, but each recited the alphabet at least once. The new student who asked to do the alphabet in the first place had a real fire under her and did it 3 times until she had it down. I taught her the alphabet! Do you know how powerful that made me feel? Can you comprehend the prideful glow that filled me from the imparting of this vital knowledge? We returned to the workbook for the last 45 minutes of class and I was about to send them home when the new student insisted we do the alphabet one more time. This time, after the recitation, I went around the room and with each student I pointed to a letter and had them tell me a word that started with that letter. I arrived at the fifth student who had been very quiet for the whole class and pointed to the letter “P.”

“What’s a word that starts with a P?” I asked her.

She squirmed and smiled, resisted, then finally answered, “Father?”

“No, not father.” But really I was impressed because maybe she had the “F” sound confused with the “Ph” sound?

For her second word she suggested “Apple”, which definitely doesn’t start with a “P” and made me realize that she probably hadn’t thought “Father” was spelled with a “Ph” afterall…I helped her out and suggested that “Pen” started with a “P” and she found that agreeable.

My class was so happy when they went home and so insistent that I be there “tomorrow” to teach them more…right now as I write this it’s tomorrow and someone else has been teaching them the difference between a rope and a rake and what a tack is and what the sound of a long O is. A little bit I hate that person and the knowledge they’re imparting to my students of an evening, a little bit I’m glad that I’m not facing six sets of blank stares when I ask them to find and circle the word on their page that I’ve just written on the board (the word is “fox”) but mostly I’m disgusted that I haven’t done anything to fight illiteracy today.

Well, I guess this post fights illiteracy a little, if you read it.

*And I don’t mean to imply that America is the only country with reading but to battle those who may say, “Yeah, Brigham, but what if some of your students just escaped to our country from places where they don’t have books?”
**And while these students can’t really read their letters, they definitely know their numbers and can tell very quickly when you’ve decided to skip ahead in the workbook because you don’t think you can teach them how to do what’s on page 88.


Mom said...

Maybe your student was thinking "Papa" or "Padre" when she said "Father" started with the sound of the letter P.

We learn a lot from teaching.

Kristen said...

Brig, this is my favorite post yet. I rally hope you can go volunteer again and write about it again.

Bek said...

brig, perhaps maybe you have found your calling in life.

Side of Jeffrey said...

Whoa. Mom may be up to something with that father thing.

sarah said...

I think one of the reasons why I was hooked on teaching in college was helping my students learn how to read. And now I am watching my own kids step through the literacy process. Its pretty exciting. I hope you get to go back!

Cindy said...

Ironically, there were a lot of words in this post about illiteracy. Are you going to go volunteer again?

Brig said...

I didn't volunteer, I got paid. I suppose you could say I volunteered to be the substitute, like, I'm the guy that raised his hand to take the job. It wasn't pure altruism.

Although the paperwork to get paid for this job is so complicated that maybe I'll change my mind and call it genuine volunteer work.

Collin Mapp said...

I'm just glad we can call each other co-workers.