“It’s OK To Be Illiterate As Long As You Are ‘Woke’.”

Talk to anyone who has made education equity their life’s work, and you will find, more often than not, that at the root of their drive and determination is a painful, formative experience in which they were confronted with illiteracy.

For some, it was their own personal experience, or an experience of a family member. For others, it was an experience they had while working with students or community members. For D.C. Teacher of the Year Kelly Harper, it was her legal internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights and realizing how many of her clients had underlying struggles with literacy, which led her to shift her career trajectory from the legal field to the education field.

For the 1991 Michigan Teacher of the Year, Thomas Fleming, it was his personal experience that fueled his teaching. Having left high school at 16, unable to read, he enlisted in the military. During his service he learned how to read, then he earned his GED and college diploma, and then became a teacher, determined to ensure that each and every one of his students becomes a “person who reads.”

For me, it was my first week of teaching. I had asked my 11th grade chemistry students to write a few sentences about themselves and things they wanted me to know. While many struggled with writing, there was one student in particular that really struck me. Even though it was just the first week of school, I already knew this student was one of the most caring, helpful, and charismatic people I had ever met. And yet, this student struggled to spell basic words correctly.

It hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s one thing to know, on a cerebral level, that our education system is rife with injustice; it’s another thing to feel it. I count that experience as the first time that I actually felt it.

If there’s one thing I learned during my first couple of years of teaching, it’s that I was very unprepared to teach high school chemistry to students who struggled with reading, even though my alternative certification program (Teach For America) had placed a heavy emphasis on literacy during our training. TFA made sure that we left our training with the understanding that all teachers are literacy teachers, and we were all responsible for ensuring that our students make significant gains, not just in our subject area, but in literacy as well.

We had a literacy specialist come in once a week to give us formal training on how to teach literacy, and the importance of literacy was imbued, in less formal ways, throughout all aspects of our training program.

Despite all of this, I was still unprepared. While I had my students read chapters from John Hersey’s Hiroshima when we learned about nuclear chemistry, and I held a short-lived after school book club for students who wanted to read more, I definitely did not move the needle in my chemistry students’ literacy abilities. There were a few students in our high school who were non-readers, and a significant portion who were reading well below grade level, and none of the adults in the school (me included) seemed to know what to do about that.

So, after my first two years of teaching, I was confident that teaching was going to be my career for life, but I was just as confident that I needed more training. I felt like the 5 weeks of training with TFA enabled me to get by, but I was not opening doors or moving the needle for my students in the ways that I wanted to. I decided that if teaching was to be my career, I should get trained the “right” way, and I should get a masters’ degree, so I enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s teacher education program. This was a traditional grad school teaching program, with a combination of coursework and student teaching, and it was “urban-focused,” meaning all student teaching placements were in the city of Philadelphia, and the coursework centered around themes of teaching in urban contexts.

Now, as a chemistry teacher, I had long since given up hope of ever learning anything chemistry-specific in any of my teacher training experiences. I realized through my TFA training and through the training and PD at my first school, that when you teach a subject that’s very specific, any training or professional growth related to your subject matter is something you have to seek out on your own time (and usually pay for with your own money). So I was prepared for the fact that grad school would be somewhat generic (which it was) but since the program was urban-focused, I figured that it would really help fill in some of the specific generic teaching skill gaps that I still had, despite having completed my two years of training and teaching through TFA.

Now, before I rip into my grad school program, I want to highlight what was good about it. Namely, my grad school program did a good job of educating us on issues of race, power, and privilege. I can say with confidence that many of my peers in the program really did have their eyes opened to issues of racial and societal injustice, and truly did see the world differently after completing the program.

Now, it must be noted that our “urban-focused” program was comprised of about 50 grad students, none of whom were Black, and a handful of professors, none of whom were Black, so how well they were actually preparing us to teaching in a city in which a majority of students are Black is debatable. But I can say with confidence that, compared to other teacher prep programs, my grad school program did a better job than most in ensuring its graduates were knowledgeable about racial and societal injustice, and other teacher prep programs, both traditional and alternative, could really learn something from what my program did.

The first book we read and discussed in our grad program was Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, a powerful, transformative book that every future teacher should read. In fact, it is the only book from my grad school program that I found memorable and relevant enough to keep because it gave me a vocabulary and a framework for how to talk about and work towards societal change in a world rife with inequality and injustice.

However, there is more to pedagogy than Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and that transition from overarching themes of societal change to actual teaching in public school classrooms in Philadelphia, is where my grad school program started to fall short. While our grad school coursework emphasized over and over and over the importance of a student-centered classroom that is co-constructed between the students and teacher, I don’t remember learning anything about teaching that was useful or actionable in the classroom.

Our professors generally tried to organize our courses in a student-centered, co-constructed way, which meant I was mostly listening to the thoughts and opinions of of other student teachers with maybe a few weeks or months of experience. To be honest, I felt like I just wasn’t learning anything and my teaching wasn’t really improving.

While I had come in to the program knowing that I wouldn’t learn much about chemistry teaching in particular, I thought that at least we would learn about education topics that affected all subjects, such as literacy. However, I don’t remember ever reading about or discussing anything about literacy at all. There we were, in an “urban-focused” teacher prep program in Philadelphia, a city where only 1/3 of students are reading on grade level, and there was zero focus on how we can help improve our students’ literacy skills.

Well, there was actually one time when reading ability was mentioned, and I think this vignette is very revealing about the type of educational philosophies undergirding our program. The director of our program was involved in the “free school” or “democratic school” movement (famous examples include the Sudbury Valley School in the US and the Summerhill School in the UK). These schools are private schools that charge tuition (not sure how that’s free or democratic?) that follow a philosophy of student governance where students are heavily involved in decision-making and there are no structured courses or curricula. Students are free to do as they please, and when decide that they want to learn something they can ask an older student or an adult to teach it to them.

Our program director’s spouse, also involved in the free school movement, came to our class one evening as a guest speaker to tell us more about these free schools and their philosophy. He showed us a news clip about a free school in Vermont. The news clip discussed how many students were spending their days at school playing video games, and the students met to discuss maybe agreeing to a limit on screen time.

I don’t remember much else about the news clip, other than a particular part that highlighted a 12-year-old white boy who was not able to read. They interviewed the boy and his family, and his parents said they were fine with him not reading yet, because they believed that he would know when he was ready to learn.

Now, nothing says “white privilege” like a Vermont family going on a national news program to proclaim that their 12-year-old can’t read, and this is probably why the majority of Philadelphia parents (and parents anywhere, really) would not want this type of education for their children. I can say with confidence that the vast, vast majority of parents would like a school that teaches their child to read before the age of 12.

So, now that you can see some of the philosophical underpinnings of my grad school program, it’s probably not a surprise that topics of “student-directed learning” and “student-centered education” reigned supreme in our coursework, and something like “improving student literacy” was never even mentioned.

Well, actually, there is one additional instance when being able to read was mentioned (besides the free school news clip). It was the spring semester, towards the end of our 12-month masters’ program. It was our Field Seminar course, a course that everyone in our cohort took together. In the spirit of “student-centeredness,” our professor had us get into groups of three, and for each class that semester, a group would be in charge of assigning the readings for that week and leading the class discussion.

So there was one class in particular, I can’t remember what the topic was exactly, but the students who were leading the class that day had us one of those activities where you stand in different parts of the room based on how much you agree or disagree. Now, this was many years ago so some of the details are a bit fuzzy, but one of the students leading the discussion asked us which was more important – teaching students how to read or teaching students to dismantle capitalist structures.

I was firmly in the “read” camp, so I headed to that corner of the room. Based on what I knew of my peers in my cohort, I expected a 50-50 mix, but I was shocked to find only one other person (out of the 50 people in our cohort) in the “read” corner with me. Everyone else was in the middle or all the way over in the “dismantle capitalism” corner!

Now I don’t know which is worse – the fact that we were at the end of an urban teacher prep program and this is what our beliefs were, or the fact that the professors would probably think that these were appropriate beliefs for future teachers to have. Now, I’m no champion of free-market capitalism, but I’d say the #1 job of schools and teachers need to teach kids how to read. That should not be up for debate.

Now, I don’t remember much else about that particular class after that activity. I vaguely remember participating in the class discussion afterwards and saying something like “they won’t be able to read your Marxist pamphlets!” or maybe “don’t you know Fidel Castro had a literacy program!” or maybe “stop trying to live out your anarchist fantasies on the backs of black and brown children in Philly!”

The thing was, my peers in my program were not vehemently anti-capitalist by any means. Maybe some were, but not many, which is why I expected a 50-50 mix. I think this example shows just how isolated our grad schools of education are from the schools, students, and communities they purport to serve, and how easy it is for them to perpetuate their own divorced-from-reality educational philosophies. This is what happens when a bunch of white people sit around discussing Pedagogy of the Oppressed in their ivory tower environs, but never actually attempt to bridge that philosophy with the on-the-ground reality of current educational injustices.

Public education in America is painfully and enragingly unjust. Black and brown students do not have the same access to quality education as white students. Unfortunately, a lot of the education professors and education grad school programs who are the most aware of this injustice also seem to be the most hell-bent on making the actual teaching and learning of basic skills so vague, muddled, and “student-centered” that the students most in need of the best public education possible end up being pawns in a failed, misguided “progressive” education agenda.

I am an educator; I’m not an economist and I’m not a sociologist. I don’t have the expertise to say what the socio-economic structure should exist in my version of utopia. But I do know, and can say with certainty, that in my version of utopia all of Philly’s kids can read.

“Once you learn to read, you are forever free.” -Frederick Douglass

Lindsay’s blog was originally published on Ms. Turk’s Education Blog.

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Lindsay Turk

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