- President Clinton on International Literacy Day, September 8th 1994
“Literacy arouses hopes, not only in society as a whole but also in the individual who is striving for fulfilment, happiness and personal benefit by learning how to read and write. Literacy... means far more than learning how to read and write... The aim is to transmit... knowledge and promote social participation.”
- UNESCO Institute for Education, Hamburg, Germany
Ok, take a walk on the slightly nerdy side with me as I explore something that’s near and dear to my heart. Literacy. Living in the ‘land of opportunity’ does not, unfortunately, mean that our country is functionally literate. Now, some of you may think, who cares? Honestly, I do. In 2003 in the state of Florida 20 percent of sampled adults were found to be lacking basic literacy skills. That’s just basic…meaning that 20% of my home state does not meet the basic literary requirements considered necessary to function in society. A fifth of my state?!? This breaks my heart.
Want to know about your state and/or county? Check it out here.
Being homeschooled myself, I didn't really witness the literacy (or lack thereof) of the average young American until I started college (at 16). My first semester I took an English course that required a mixture of basic literature reading and analysis skills as well as the ability to write a 3-5 page paper. Cake, right? False.
After being paired with a partner to exchange papers and 'peer review' each others writings I was somewhat terrified by the results. My partner didn't correct one thing on my paper (which was far from perfect), handing it back and saying, 'Wow where'd you learn to write like that?'. I managed to mark up her entire paper with run on sentences, mispellings, elementary-level vocabulary, etc. I felt terrible after for marking so many flaws in her writing when I knew I was by far the youngest in my class and had a long way to come as a writer but honestly, a 6th grader could have written that paper.
After I left downtown Indianapolis's IUPUI to further my education at Purdue University (when I was 18), I found that college was an interesting mix of people. Including those I couldn't in my wildest dreams determine the reasoning behind their acceptance into higher education and people who were far smarter than I and probably could have taught my profs a thing or two. How could there be such vast differences in the educations of students raised primarily in the same several states? Is it lack of education or lack of motivation that should be credited for the flaws in my fellow classmates educations? As for those who wowed me with their expertise, how did they get so far ahead? Being a social worker by nature and trade I'm always interested in people, so I learned as much from my observations in college as I did from any of my textbooks.
Later, after graduating from Purdue and taking a job that involved teaching in high school health classes (here in Hillsborough County) I was shocked to experience first hand (for the first time) the local public school system. In one class (I will leave the high school's name off out of respect) I was informed that they were to turn in their big assignment on my 3rd day of teaching. I inquired about said assignment to find out it was a binder they were to keep the notes they were given in, and turn in at the end of the year. Best assignment ever if I were still a 16-17 year old...they didn't even have to take the notes themselves! This was to be 75% of their final grade (the rest was determined by attendance and such). On the day this was due I watched as 4 students handed in the binder.
I was confused. I asked the teacher again if I had the correct day and she sadly said yes, that most of the students would return to repeat health the following year for not turning in their binders. Some of her students had actually been in the course previously and would return for a 3rd time before they would be allowed to graduate. Are you kidding me? All you have to do is turn in a binder of notes you were GIVEN and you don't bother to turn it in? How could you possibly let that keep you from graduating high school?
As my friend Joy and I decided in December that we would make a pact to read 50 books in 2010 I was relieved to have a challenge and motivation to continue reading regularly (more than just e-mail and text messages, that is). So few people my age do much reading after their education ends. I love finding other readers. In joining a book club I found out I actually read quite a bit less than many 20-30 year olds....or at least 5. I have a hard time imaging life without the ability to read and write. I'm left wondering this week how I can help lower illiteracy in my area. I consider this to be a horrific social injustice that in a country where I feel somedays like what I pay in taxes alone should send few of the kids in my county to a good public school. With such a large problem, where do you start to find the solution?
Ideas are welcome.