literacy is power

7 September 2009

I teach creative writing courses in a continuing education department of a college. Most would consider these to be “special interest” courses, which people take for enjoyment. And that’s great – one of the reasons I teach these courses is because I enjoy it.

But there is another really big reason I do it. It’s because I believe that lifelong learning is a fundamental right of every human being, and that lifelong learning makes better citizens, communities and countries. I teach courses because I want to help people achieve that feeling of satisfaction and power I get when I expand my own knowledge. When a learner says to me “I’ve changed because of this course” the sense of gratification I feel in having engendered, just a little, someone’s personal growth and the power they feel at having told a story is enormous.

Literacy DayBut adult learning is so much more than that which I promote in my own little world. According to UNESCO, one in five adults is not literate. Two-thirds of those adults are women. 75 million children on this planet are not in school.

You want to talk about how literacy is about personal empowerment and human development? Then think about what it means that that 776 million adults lack minimum literacy. It means that 776 million people lack the skills necessary to overcome poverty. 776 million people lack access to information about how to take care of themselves and their children, about how to find help and support, how to achieve gender equality and how to carry out sustainable development so they can support themselves and their communities.

Literate parents raise literate children. People who are literate participate more in their communities and they make their voices heard through actions – like voting. And just as literacy is a tool of personal empowerment and human development – illiteracy is a tool of oppression and domination. We all know the Taliban work hard to oppress and dominate by withholding education. It’s not a new idea – it’s been going on for centuries, and continues around the globe.

Tomorrow is International Literacy Day. Stop for a few minutes and think about what literacy means in your world. What your access to education and information affords you and those around you. Think about what it means as you sit at that computer, accessing and contributing to the world of ideas and information on the World Wide Web.

Think about the sheer courage that girl in Afghanistan must drum up just to go to school in the morning because she probably heard stories about angry dudes throwing acid the faces of girls who go to school. Think about your laid-off neighbour who is suddenly faced with navigating the “information society” for a job his high school education didn’t equip him for all those decades ago. Think about your new neighbour who has escaped an oppressive regime but lacks the language skills to read a simple street sign, a carton of milk, a prescription bottle or the newspaper.

And maybe instead of buying coffee at Starbucks this week, give that ten bucks to an organization like this one or this one or this one or this one or one in your community, and imagine the possibilities for a world in which 776 million people don’t lack basic literacy skills and have a chance to rise above poverty and oppression. Literacy is power. Share the power.


One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog).  We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon.  Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in.  The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few.  But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.

Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline.  She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class.  But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it.  To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh. 

Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through strict daily attention to current events and history.  Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died.  I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “float” we made to parade around the school on Chinese New Year.

Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning.  Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face.  Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper.  Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals. 

Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was fast turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses.  She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day.  With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her African American skin.  My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other.  My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher.  Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that.  She died only a few years after that.  My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on. 

Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively.  30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy.  She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events.  She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us. 

And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Jeremiah was a Bullfrog with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

This morning on the bus I’m reading one of the several books on personal writing and memoir I’m carrying around for inspiration in planning lessons for my class.  A kid in his late teens sits next to me – he’s not unlike one you typically see on that bus route bordering Scarborough, dressed in a bright red basketball shirt, matching his hat and expensive looking runners, and an i-pod in the pocket of his baggy jeans which is likely filled with hip hop and rap music. 

I can tell he’s reading the pages of my book, and eventually he asks me in a soft spoken voice what kind of “exercises” the book is referring to.  I tell him it’s a book about creative writing, and then I tell him about this particular kind of writing.  And then I tell him about my class, and the kinds of things we do in it and why.  He likes the idea that doing creative play and exercises can help one to get the story down onto the page, and he’s impressed that one of my students this semester is 92 years old and taking classes.

After a short while he gets up to leave and says it was nice talking to me.  I return with same, and watch him walk down the street, appreciating his curious and open mind.  I wonder if he’s had the slightest inspiration to tell a story.  I hope so.  That would be really cool.

who gets the knowledge?

25 February 2009

This week I read an article about a professor who has recently retired from Columbia University, which sits in the middle of Harlem.  This particular professor approached teaching from the perspective of Plato’s “street philosophy” (as he calls it) and the more modern term, “community of learning.”  He felt that any educational institution should be an interactive part of the community, and as such, he welcomed the neighbourhood residents into his classroom anytime they wanted.  Without registration or fees, and much to the chagrin of the university administration.  He involved these folks in the class discussions, and he started a community forum in which they were able to further their exchange of ideas.

I’m greatly inspired by this educator and those like him, because the biggest thing I took away from my own experiences as an adult learner was that my take on things matters.  My window on the world is valid, and unless my ideas and interpretations get “out there” they won’t become a part of the community/world dialogue.

The story reminded me of a lady that used to ride her bike around Windsor around the time I was attending the University of Windsor which, similarly, resides in one of the city’s “have not” neighbourhoods – the notorious “west end.”   I’m not sure what her particular ‘situation’ was – she didn’t really appear destitute, but she was always riding on that bike with its large front basket, like those designed for newspaper carriers.  And she was always looking for all she was worth like she had somewhere to be, toting around numerous plastic shopping bags full of who knows what in that giant square basket.

One year, the bike riding lady took to sitting in on some of my English classes.  She would sit right in the front row and pull out a handful of loose leaf paper from a plastic shopping bag and spend the whole class taking notes.  One day she sat beside me and a couple of times I looked over at her notes to see what they said.  Her light and measured scrawl left bits and crumbs of the professor’s lecture, as if she were just catching words as he released them and getting the ones she managed to secure down on the page.  Each line of the loose leaf was filled to capacity, and then she would turn the page over.  At the time I thought she was probably only taking notes to make herself blend in, and I thought that was too bad because she would probably get much more out of the experience if she just sat and listened, rather than trying to hide by taking notes that didn’t say anything.

One time at the start of a new semester, she arrived on the first day and this time she asked the professor if she could sit in.  Maybe this time she thought if she had his blessing, she could just sit and listen.  But he said no.  He said the seats were limited, and they had to be reserved for paying students.  I’d venture to say that a good percentage of the payers for those classroom seats were probably mommies and daddies whose little darlings would cease to populate those seats after a week or two in favour of a sleep-in or something else more fun than an English class.  Given that, I couldn’t understand what possible harm she could be in the classroom.  At least she wanted to be there; and even if it was just to keep warm, it sure beat lots of other places she might otherwise find to keep warm.

Whatever his reasons, this professor certainly seemed to reinforce the notion that university (i.e. knowledge) is for the paying elite, not meant to accommodate the likes of the community in which it sits.

Today I’m wondering what this lady might have got out of the class if she were encouraged to not only sit there, but to listen and to offer her own take on the literature in the discussions.  More importantly, I wonder what the students, even the professor, might have learned from her window on the world.

Read the article here.