Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Teacher Who Couldn't Read

"Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.
But they are shapes.
They bring the world into focus.
They corral ideas.
They paint watercolors of perception."
~Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Last Saturday,
I was attending a big important conference
in a big important hotel,
with many big important people.
I noticed a distinguished looking gentleman, perhaps a tenured university professor or state senator and decided to chat him up a bit. I quickly pointed out my status as a doctoral candidate,(hoping to impress),and asked if he taught at a University. The gentleman replied he was presently working in real estate although he did teach at a public school for 17 years. The conversation continued politely for a few moments and then we headed off in separate directions, presumably to take our seats for the key note address.

I sat down. The gentleman, John Corcoran, proceeded to the podium and gave one of the most well articulated, impassioned speeches I had ever heard. It turns out, John was "The Teacher Who Couldn't Read". He had graduated high school, graduated college, and taught for 17 years without ever being able to read a single word!

The simple logistics of how he managed such a feat is a subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. However, what I'd like to share are John's reflections on the power of literacy. How as a young boy, he was forced to sit in the "Dumb Row"

John brought to life the fear, shame, and isolation of being in a system of educational haves and have-nots. How he became a non-person, a boy with a mask to disguise what he believed to be a permanent defect.

However, John was lucky. Not because he cheated and lied his way through the first 48 years of his life but because, as an adult, he had the courage to face his illiteracy and start over.

John talked about the ones that aren't so lucky. The boys and girls that end up in juvenile detention centers, prison, or dead. He talked about the high percentage of drop outs that become incarcerated.

It's a classic example of pay me now or pay me later.

I'd prefer to pay for pre-K literacy programs and after school reading programs. Not prisons. As teachers, we are in a unique position of power. We can literally change the trajectory of someones' life.

All teachers should have the opportunity to hear from someone like John. If you know of similar stories, I'd like to hear them.



lt said...

I think it is safe to say that there is at least one "John" sitting in every classroom across the nation. That being said~ when are we going to stop thinking that teaching students letter sounds and sight words is teaching reading?

Students need a continuation of support. Teaching students "to read" in the primary grades is not enough. John is proof of that. Students need to be recognized for what they are ABLE to do, rather than their shortcomings ... and supported to help them build upon those strengths~ specifically in their growth of reading development. Development of a learner/reader does not end in kindergarten.

Instead of focusing on worksheets that emphasize the sh sound.... teach students what to do when they come to a word they don't understand.

Instead of focusing on identification of character, setting and plot.... teach them how to CONNECT to the character, setting and plot.

Each day I go to work and am met with students who had the courage to show up for school that day. These adolescents ARE John Corcoran. We as teachers need to have the courage to meet these students with patience, compassion and tools that will help them to grow as readers and learners.

Pub Ed said...

"It" has got it right.

Parker J. Palmer wrote the courage to teach...

Let us not forget the courage it takes to learn.