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Corps Member Monday: My Understanding of “Literacy”

November 18, 2013

by Erin Olds, corps member proudly serving on the New Schools for Baton Rouge Entergy Louisiana team at Broadmoor Middle School

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My experience with City Year has given literacy an entirely different meaning.  I used to see textual communication as permanent communication, and therefore, a history of our species.  Text started as cave drawings and eventually involved into symbols, symbols that make sounds and sounds that make words.  They could document the history of slavery in all cultures, the tragedies and successes of our race.  But more than just what we read in World History, text gives us perspective that these emotions we feel, they have been felt before us.  When Thoreau writes, “Better for the earth to be taken from my feet than the thought of you from my mind,” I–we–find refuge in those words.

But upon meeting my students, I realized that literacy means something entirely different.  Yes, it is the history of our species, but it is more than that.  When I walk through my kitchen, I see labels that say “Progresso Minestrone” and “Crunchitize me Cap’n!”  I see buttons on the microwave that read “Popcorn” and “Frozen Pizza.”  And when I ride the bus, I see signs that say “Ritolo’s Italian” and “Izzo’s Illegal Burrito.”  Even on the morning commute, I see exit signs that read “Essen Lane” and “North Airline.”  This is an entire WORLD around me, constantly.  A world I take for granted.  And this world is right in front of my students’ eyes, but they can’t see it!  Imagine being blind to something that’s right in front of you.

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Occasionally, I get frustrated with my students.  Say my student pronounces the sound “sci” like “psych,” and it was a sound we mastered several weeks ago.  He just can’t remember it.  Or perhaps my autistic student, who is normally really sweet and friendly, tells me he hates me because he can’t figure out how to pronounce a word.  I can’t say that I always stay with those students the entire period every day.  But when I take a ride in a car and begin to read the signs around me, I remember again that literacy is not to be taken for granted.

I may play a great deal of “main idea jeopardy,” “synonym bingo,” and phonics cards, but do not be deceived, I am not always the teacher in school.  My students have taught me how to dance (I’m working on my floor tricks) and some Vietnamese as time passes.  Undoubtedly, though, the most important lesson they teach me is patience.

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