This I Believe

Deborah - Pittsford, New York
Entered on February 16, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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Literacy and Justice for All

One evening after dinner I asked my then first-grade son what he had learned at school that day. He quickly stood up and began to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which he said he had learned “by heart”. Placing his hand over his heart, he proclaimed in his six-year old sing-song voice the familiar pledge which is a beacon of our country’s heritage. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God with “litercy” and justice for all.” In his unassuming, simple manner, my son’s recitation of words he had learned in school encapsulated what is important to me in education and why I became a reading teacher. Fifteen years later, his words have continued to be a beacon that has helped guide my decisions in my work with students and teachers. It has inspired my work with children as I teach them to read, my work with teachers as I support them to become quality teachers of literacy, and my work with schools as I help develop systems that assure quality literacy instruction for all students.

I believe that to attain literacy is to gain liberty. This pledge that we declare everyday in our schools says that we live in a country which offers liberty and justice for all people. The beacon of hope that has greeted “the tired and poor” from many cultures to our community has been the promise of liberty for all. Yet in my 20+ years as an educator, I have seen that opportunities for all, because of a lack of literacy, are not the same.

I think about Lizzy and Tyler, fifth grade readers I taught in my early years as a teacher who had not become fluent—slowly plodding through the text, often stuck on a word—resorting only to sounding out the word, phoneme by phoneme, in an attempt to identify the word. As they were working through their text, their friends were fluidly reading much more complicated text, having their world expand with ideas and experiences which were unattainable through the written word to these slow and unsystematic readers. Their liberty was curtailed by their lack of literacy.

I think about Damon, an eighth-grader in my English class in an urban school district. He was poor and illiterate, reading and writing as an advanced emergent student at fourteen years of age. I was teaching 100 students a day and was responsible for his literacy education, but at the time did not have the adequate knowledge or the means to instruct him at a level where he could grow in literacy. He had no other opportunities throughout his school day to read books and have lessons at his instructional level. As he was exposed to more and more difficult text, not only did he slow down in literacy acquisition, his skills regressed and his self-esteem plummeted. What opportunities did he have, as a young man, who in a number of years should be able to take his place in the adult community? How would he fill out applications and read simple instructions, much less expand his horizons to attain his dreams. His liberty was curtailed by his lack of literacy.

I think of Daniella and Rashaun, tenth graders I have observed in a social studies class who were asked to read a text that was much more complex than they could actually read. The ideas that they needed to understand the social studies principles being presented were within that text, but these students didn’t have access to these ideas because they couldn’t read the words. While students within their class were gaining knowledge about our world’s history through reading, Daniella and Rashaun and other students like them were depending on the conversation during class to gain the necessary information. During that conversation, those who read the text with understanding were deepening their understanding while the Daniellas and Rashauns of the class were getting the information for the first time. Their liberty was curtailed by their lack of literacy.

I believe that to attain literacy is to gain liberty. In my own evolution as an educator, I have wanted justice for all children through the opportunity that literacy can offer. I became a reading teacher in response to the struggle I witnessed of some older at-risk readers and saw the lack of self-esteem and motivation that comes with deficient literacy learning for these older children. I have been a “first” reading teacher, providing to young students opportunities to read and expand their literacy base at an early age so that they become established readers before adolescence. I have worked with middle and high school readers, giving them strategies to overcome their literacy deficits so that they can use reading and writing to advance their goals and dreams as they enter into adulthood. I have worked with teachers, coaching them to understand the reading process and develop tools to provide strong literacy instruction to all students. I have worked with administrators and educational institutions to develop systems that recognize and meet the specific instructional needs of students at risk. These systems put into place measures ensuring all students receive strong instruction and makes certain the students at risk do not fall through the cracks.

As an educator and as an educational leader, my mission is to work for justice for all as I work to provide literacy for all. Whether I am working with one child at a time, groups of students, a group of teachers, or a school system, I strive to provide opportunities for the Damons, Tylers, Lizzys, Daniellas and Rashauns of our schools to become independent readers and writers. The beacon of hope for today’s students lies in their capability to be independent thinkers and learners which is at the very heart of why literacy is so important. The development of literacy opens opportunities. The development of a strong literacy foundation will allow our students to be more productive, and fulfilled citizens of the world. As an educator, it is my challenge to work for literacy for all. In my pursuit of literacy for all, I work for a world that advances “liberty and justice for all.”