What is literacy really? For the sake of this discussion the working definition here is “the state of being educated so that one can read and comprehend what one is reading, as well as communicate with others through writing.”
You take the students where they are and support them as they move along a continuum of improved reading and writing. How you do this is the challenge facing teachers.
How do you provide a safe, solid mooring in the vast sea of illiteracy and indifference found in so many classrooms? You develop practical, highly individual strategies as you scan the students. You learn to zero in on a teachable moment.
You do it one step at a time, one child at a time. And you learn to appreciate the power of small gestures. What follows is a picture of what literacy looks like in one particular writing situation and how the teacher built on what the child already had.
A slice of life
Charles Harry Evans (all the names have been changed) was a small, slender African-American boy in an eighth grade English class in 1996-1997, and his teacher, Mrs. Anderson, has no idea what has become of him. She spent a great deal of time trying to help him, and his situation haunts her. For reasons which were never clear Charles would be absent two or three days one week, be gone for a full week, then be back for one or two days. He never did any homework.
The cycle repeated itself throughout the year. Mrs. Anderson had many conversations with his grandmother but the explanations for his continual absences were always vague: he had a cold, he had the flu, he wasn’t feeling well, something came up, or an “I-don’t-know” shrug.
Charles was not hostile nor angry like many low-skilled, low-achieving students. In fact, he was a pleasant, gentle child who worked on task when he was in class and appeared to genuinely enjoy being in class. Charles did not present a disciplinary problem, and the administration/district/school system seemed unwilling or unable to look into his plight.
Charles completed only one piece of writing that year. The assignment: “Write about an important African American person in your life. Describe that person and explain how he/she makes a difference in your life.”
Mrs. Anderson was correcting student writing on a Sunday morning when she came to Charles’ paper and was so touched that she immediately called his home to share the essay with his grandmother. (Mrs. Anderson had already had several conversations with the grandmother because of Charles’ absences.)
As Mrs. Anderson finished reading his essay the grandmother responded in amazement, “That’s true. I didn’t know he knew. I didn’t know he felt that way.” She was very happy the teacher had called her.
Charles had painfully cramped, irregular handwriting and the teacher realized that a hand-written revision was not likely to be successful. After making corrections and going over them with Charles, she asked a discrete peer tutor to help Charles input the essay on the computer and later printed it out. Below is a transcription of his original work, followed by the revision.
The original essay
Charles H.E. 8 English
period 1 11-27-96
In 1963 My grandmoth gave brith to Butifull young Baby wich, thay named pealine “Maxine” quay and wen She got old engthought to talk thay Staurt Calling her Maxine and as she got old this Boy came alone and his Name was Charles Hary Evans wich is My father and then thats Wen I came alone and Im was know as, Charles Hary Evans Juno and wen I tunnd 4 My littel Brother came and hes was know as Andrew Evans And wen I got nine My Dady lefet this erth and wen to hevan. And ever sensnse I Ben with My Mother, and By here taking care of us By herself she is Doing a dame good job.
The revised essay
English 8 Charles Harry Evans
Period 1 November 27, 1996
In 1963, my grandmother gave birth to beautiful young baby whom my Grandmother and Grandfather named Pauline “Louise” Brown. When she got old enough to talk they started calling her Louise and as she got older this boy came along and his name was Charles Evans which is my father.
And then that’s when I came along and I was known as Charles Harry Evans, Junior and when I turned four my little brother came and he was known as Andrew Evans.
When I was nine-years-old my daddy left this earth and went to heaven. Ever since I have been with my Mother and she is taking care of us by herself. She is doing a damn good job.
Charles was thrilled with the end result and agreed that the teacher read his essay to the class. It was a powerful little piece which clearly said (written communication!) exactly what Charles wanted to say. Charles took home a photocopy of his original work along with a copy of the revised essay. The original went into his school portfolio. It would be nice to say this was a turning point for Charles and he began to come to school regularly, but this is a case study, not a fairy tale.
The pattern of irregular attendance (while living in the same community throughout his elementary school years) was thoroughly entrenched, as well as documented in his cum folder. His grandmother told Mrs. Anderson she was his favorite teacher and English was his favorite class; however, Charles continued to attend school irregularly.
When a child is seriously behind, and there are few or no supports available, the teacher works with what is. In this case, Charles had written a short piece which had approximately 50 errors in it, all of which were largely cosmetic. By recognizing the strength of the content and affirming that aspect of his writing, the teacher was able to see Charles through a positive writing experience, possibly the first he has ever had.
Will this be enough of an anchor? What did he learn? Charles has a base from which to work, he has the ability to put his thoughts and feelings down on paper, he knows there are people who will help him, and he also knows that he has some serious work to do. Charles is the only one who can do it.
One more step
Mrs. Anderson made one final effort. She wrote the family a detailed letter of Charles’ needs and sent copies to responsible administrators and counselors. She created a simple academic self-improvement program for Charles which included a self-monitoring chart (a behavior modification tool), organizing charts for stories and assignments he could easily complete on his own. The rest was up to Charles.
(The story chart is self-explanatory and is one of the many simple paper tools found in Tally Sheets and Other Useful Forms, a curricular support piece offered by RES at this site. If you would like a free copy of the academic self-improvement chart and the story chart mentioned in the parent letter, send a legal-sized, self-addressed stamped envelope to J. D. Rusting, 4523 Elinora Ave., Oakland, CA 94619.)
To the Parents/Guardians of Charles H.E
1234 Main Street, Apt. 3
Oakland, CA 94619
Subject: Academic needs of Charles Harry Evans
Dear Parent/Guardian of Charles Harry Evans:
I have been thinking a great deal about Charles Harry Evans’ academic needs. He is such a nice youngster and I hate to see him fail my 8th grade English class. He is not doing homework and may earn a failing grade in my class. Although Charles does have low skills, I believe he could do most of the work I assign. I think he needs to have someone at home helping him to get focused and work with him. If that is not possible, he should be in one of the tutoring programs which I mentioned to his grandmother last fall. Our school has two tutoring programs, as well as an after school homework center. Also, your church community has a tutoring program.
In five short months Charles is supposed to be in high school and, unless he does something to improve his academic skills, I am afraid he will not do well. I like Charles and want to see him succeed. Your son really needs to improve his reading, writing and comprehension skills. Also, Charles definitely needs to work on his penmanship which is difficult to read. He needs to practice his handwriting using a pen.
The reading and penmanship program I am suggesting for Charles is a kind of prescription for his academic improvement. A person who has a health problem will get a prescription from the doctor and take it faithfully in order to get the desired results. Just as an athlete who needs to build up his skills will work out every day, so too does Charles need to work on his Language Arts skills every day.
Enclosed are copies of a personalized Academic Self-Improvement Chart for Charles. Please feel free to make copies of this weekly chart. It will help both you (or the tutor) and Charles keep track of his progress. Please be aware that Charles needs someone at home to monitor his work.
Here are four steps Charles needs to take:
1 Read 15 minutes daily-silent sustained reading.
(SSR-from a library book selected by Charles himself.)
This book may be a novel, biography or non-fiction book on any subject Charles likes. James Madison Branch Library has
a fine selection of young people’s books and with your help I am sure Charles can find a book (not magazines) on a subject which he finds interesting. He should chose his own reading level.
2 Practice penmanship ten minutes every day.
Charles copies a paragraph from the SSR book he has selected.
For this exercise he should use a pen. His writing is quite
cramped and hard to read. If Charles follows the enclosed
penmanship chart, his hand writing will improve.
3 Complete two organizing charts each week.
The organizing chart is a good way to help a student work with a book and it gives a parent, teacher, or tutor a good sense of how the youngster is progressing. We have used organizing charts in my English classes all this year. Charles knows how to do this work. Enclosed are 4 copies; please feel free to make additional copies.
4 Read out loud for 5 minutes four times a week.
Charles will make good progress if he has this on-going home study program in place. He needs this kind of attention now.