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The ABC’s of Working together

Yesterday, the director of the local college asked me if I would talk to volunteers and head a training session for new literacy tutors this summer.
My first reaction was, “Why me? I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m winging it.”
However, she and others working with the literacy commission are impressed with Kathy’s success story, and I guess, they are assigning me some degree of credit.
Honestly, I believe it is more a result of lucking out and being paired with an earnest student. I know I’ve been a good influence, but without a well-intentioned, eager person at the other end, I couldn’t have made much of a difference. As a dance school director, my motto was always “There are no bad students, only bad teachers,” which I reinforced every time I could with staff. I wanted teaches to take responsibility for their student’s progress, reminding them that if the child was not engaged, that signified that the teacher was not engaging. Nevertheless, that doesn’t account for the fact that within any given class (all subject to the same teaching) some students excelled and others were a trial. Therefore, it is fair to say that the base personality of the student does make a difference.   


The director pointed out that Kathy wasn’t much different from others in the beginning. She reminded me that Kathy landed in jail after our first four months, but I stuck by her, never giving up or judging, encouraging her in positive ways. That set a tone to our relationship, which gave Kathy the impression that this reading ordeal was really important.
I pointed put that the judge demands all people in drug court go to school to get their GED, so Kathy continued her reading lessons to meet this requirement. Nevertheless, at the same time, I never had to coax Kathy to lessons. She’s always come with a great attitude and a deep sense of gratitude, which makes it a pleasure for us to meet, talk and learn. Her attitude was (and is) key to her own success.


Looking back on it now, I believe the drug ordeal made teaching Kathy to read a different kind of challenge for me– one that intrigued me on a new level. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about helping a woman write her name on an application anymore or teaching her to read a newspaper. It became a quest to help a woman change everything about her life. I associated learning to read with her becoming a valuable member of society. I’m convinced literacy goes hand in hand with social enlightenment and I wanted proof. I wanted to see what kind of impact the act of reading could have on an individual’s life and those they encounter.  There was more at stake than introducing someone new to books now.  This one small act might have a chain reaction of positive changes for many people.


Donna said that the difference between my instruction and other peoples’ was the creative element. I do things beyond the traditional sitting down to study spelling or reading. Like the day I brought in cooking ingredients with a cooking magazine and assigned homework of following a recipe. This taught Kathy not only about reading, but practical application (and how to measure ingredients). That was a huge success.
I bought her an address book and gave her homework to collect friends and relatives addresses and numbers. Later, I brought in Christmas cards and she had to address them all. Good writing practice. We sent a card to the judge and her probation officer (Ha, can’t hurt to remind them she is hard at work to improve her situation.) That was a big hit.
I made her buy a monthly planner and we put all our lessons and her other appointments in it. Heck, she is more organized than I now.
For her birthday this week, I bought her a gift certificate to a woman’s clothing store. It is the kind that works like a credit card. I know Kathy does not have a bank account, and certainly, she has never had a credit card. As I guessed, she was delighted, but she didn’t know how to use it. So I explained how a gift card worked and sent her off after the lesson to shop. This was a birthday gift, but at the same time, a great learning opportunity. (One mistake however, I bought a birthday card and was careful to print a message inside for her to read, but I didn’t notice that the card’s message was in cursive. We haven’t tackled cursive yet, so she couldn’t read it very well. Dang.)
Kathy finds learning fascinating and she is forever marveling at the novelty of the world – things you and I take for granted are new discoveries to her. This allows me to see the world through fresh eyes and makes me appreciate everyday conveniences. That makes this project of teaching someone to read as good for me as for the student.
 
Unfortunately, I am one person, and the problem of illiteracy in this area is huge. More people need to be involved to make a dent in the vast need. Therefore, I agreed to do the training. In fact, I’m really looking forward to it and I’ll put in the time and research to do the job well.   
There is no doubt that I am very effective as a teacher’s teacher, for I’ve developed teacher training programs for years (in dance and the arts). I am told I’m inspirational and creative, two good traits when you are guiding others in how to share knowledge in a way that will stick. However, I don’t feel academically qualified in the way a trained teacher would be to talk about systems or how to structure a progressive reading syllabus. I thought it only fair to point that out.


Donna (the director) said the problem with reading tutors is that they volunteer with this misconception that the student will be reading Moby Dick in a few months. They give up when they discover the reality is a long, hard road where basic literacy is the most you can hope for.
Sheepishly, I told her I suffered the same delusions when I started, so I understand how people come into the program with misconceptions. Only in my case, I don’t quit anything I start, so I adjusted my expectations as I went the moment I discovered I was delusional in regards to the end goal. I simply set new goals. I also developed an appreciation for basic literacy that made the idea of reading Moby Dick seem pretty unimportant. Living well relies on so much more than being able to follow words tucked inside the pages of books.


Anyway, it looks like I have to start paying attention to my lessons now so I can figure out what I’m doing right (and wrong). I have to make notes – give thought to how to pass on what I’ve learned. Eesh, so much for relaxing and winging it.


Kathy has been asked to speak to high school children in remedial classes twice now. They relate to her message when she discusses how she began using drugs, how difficult it was to break free, and how she struggles with literacy today after attending school for nine years (and not learning even the alphabet).  She is the voice of experience and hope, as she strives to save them from learning ugly life lessons the hard way. She was also asked to speak at a place called the Ester House, which is a halfway house for girls who get pregnant in their teens. Most do not have their GED and many have had problems with drugs. Kathy is someone they can ask questions of, and she is a very positive and encouraging speaker as she empathizes and supports young people, reminding them that they still have choices – now is the time to do what it takes to provide a better future for themselves (and their babies).


Last week, Donna asked Kathy if she would speak to the rotary club. Kathy said sure, but when Donna left, she turned to me and whispered. “Why the heck does she want me to talk to the rotary club? I’m sure all them can read already.”


I explained that her success wasn’t inspirational only to those who can’t read. She is a model of what everyone wishes their volunteering would do, someone who might encourage more people to choose to be tutors. It is very important that people see and hear firsthand how a life can change when someone steps forward to help. Kathy nodded and said, “I never considered that. But I’m only good because I have such a good teacher.”
She gives me credit too, and I am humbled by it. Again, I iterate, it was much more her doing than mine.


Still, I think it is fair to say we are a good team and heaven thrust us together for a greater purpose than just teaching Kathy to read a stop sign. Maybe together, we are two parts of the literacy puzzle that fit in such a way it inspires others to join in to make the big picture come together. I once wrote an article for a dance periodical (first I ever published) called “The student/teacher collaboration”. I’ve always instinctly believed that good chemistry is required between the student and the teacher for the educational experience to be truly wonderful. It has to be more than a routine task. 


I plan to write an article about Kathy for the local paper soon. I’m waiting for her to reach a slightly higher grade equivalency so the story has more impact (or those who don’t understand how big her reaching even a 2.5 grade level is).  I hope to make Kathy the poster child for literacy success. I know I can write a story in a way that will delight her, offering strong acknowledgment for her hard work, but it will also set the seed of an idea in the minds of people who read the article. Might even bring new tutors to the table. It is also a good exercise for me. I am a writer now. Might as well put the skill to good use.


I think the hardest part of leaving dance, was leaving the young people we truly influenced. Many students were at FLEX for recreational purposes, but others came from disadvantaged or dysfunctional families, many needing the discipline and/or the caring we displayed day in and day out through the artistic medium. Some students needed the scholarships. Many, many needed an adult who stood still for a moment to watch and listen to them with 110% percent of their attention, which is something we did everyday. I dreadfully miss being important to someone’s life. I think working with Kathy fulfills this horrible loss. She is only one person, and I know I should do more (I think about just what I should do, and how to go about doing it, all the time) but at least I am doing  something. We all have needs, which make our purpose on this planet make sense. For me, obviously, mentoring is important.


Anyway, Kathy gave me a gift at our last lesson, and I really want to share it. It is my first (and no doubt best) graduation gift, one I will cherish forever. This has a place of honor in my study now. Here it is – don’t snicker or I’ll pop ya.


She makes these sorts of knick knacks by walking the woods to find driftwood pieces. Then she glues flowers and little animals and such from the dollar store, moss and other finds, to the base to make a display. She said she had to look a long time to find something to represent a writer, and she was delighted when she found the bear. The bear is me, you see, scribbling away with a pad and pen, books all about. I’m sure many of my previous students would agree a bear describes me well.   Well, I’m all growl and no bite, friends. Believe it.


Kathy feels good because she has given me a gift. She has no idea how many gifts she has already bestowed.   



 

About Ginny East Shaddock

Director of Heartwood Retreat Center, Ginny is also a writer. This is her personal blog with essay form writing about life and reflection. My entries are often lengthy and random, because I'm not here to promote or sell anything. I'm not expecting followers - just find this format a good place to think with the pen.

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