Reed This.

I saw the cows who cannot spell as I was driving home from class. You know, the illiterate cows we see daily and just accept into our cultural norm? But somehow, it bothered me more than usual. I think my new label, Literacy Coach, makes me tuned into a multitude of literacy topics and issues.

Now, when I see the cows, I just want to pull over to the side of the road and teach them a few phonics lessons. I would suggest that they write in pencil before marker, and definitely before paint. I would ask: Is standing upright uncomfortable for a cow? Then I wonder if my personification lessons have gone too far.

I also noticed that they spelled EAT correctly. Why? Why not misspell all of the words? Why go half way? Or, two-thirds of the way?

I imagine the advertising team sitting at one of those long shiny tables talking about this great idea:

“Let’s make the cows tell people to eat more chicken.”

“YES! But, cows can’t read or spell. So…I know! We will misspell half of their words, because everyone knows that cows cannot read.”

“Great idea. But, we make them savvy enough to create this entire advertising campaign.”

I looked up the cow controversy. This happened because I was supposed to be doing my homework for grad school.

I didn’t realize the issues reached so many groups. Apparently, the cows do not like gay people. I found that the company supports literacy through giving free books away with the kids’ meals. ?????

Those same kids write in their daily journals about ‘reeding’, eating chikin, and wanting mor fries. No, it is true, I have had students spell like the cows.

Sadly, I didn’t find many articles from disgruntled educators and parents. I’m sure they are out there, but I stopped clicking at the third page. And if the article I’m looking for is to be found on any page other than the first one, it isn’t too important.

I am learning in my reading theory class that literacy has various definitions and criteria, depending on the community and on the culture. But, as I type these words, I have an advantage over many thousands of people, all over the world. I understand words. I speak words. I write words. I recognize words. I love words.

Illiteracy statistics vary. I believe this depends on the researcher’s definition of literacy. According to this map, the U.S. is less than 10% illiterate. For the resources we have in this country, that number is horrendous. I have worked with illiterate parents. They are savvy. They make their way through life, dodging words; but compensating with a myriad of techniques they have learned in order to hide their disability. Yes, I’m saying illiteracy is a disability. It is. I cannot imagine, living my life without understanding the words that saturate each and every experience I have.

This same theme has found me in various scenarios. Yesterday, in class, our professor had piles of children’s picture books for us to look through. We were to find passages that would lead to engaging writing activities.

I am fascinated with Eve Bunting, and I was glad when our group chose that pile of books. She is a topical author who writes picture books that deal with serious issues like: riots, homelessness, the Vietnam war, individualism, divorce, illiteracy, and many other relevant topics. Of course, my obsession with such heavy literature made me overlook a child copying the plot line to Corduroy during a writing conference, in one of my friend’s classrooms. Another humbling experience. Another story. Who has time for bears and kleptomaniac children when there are world issues to tackle?

The Wednesday Surprise, by Eve Bunting is a book about a child meeting with her grandmother each Wednesday. The nature of the meetings are kept secret until there is a birthday celebration for the girl’s father. He is floored when he hears his mother read, and learns that his daughter has been teaching her to read every Wednesday. I imagine in this fictional family, Grandma’s illiteracy was understood. Apparently, it took a small child to help fix this problem, while the parents looked the other way.

Lately, every spare moment of my time is consumed with labeling my “mentor texts”. These are the books I use to introduce writing lessons. It started slowly, then somehow, it has snowballed into stacks of picture and chapter books, piling up and surrounding me. I made bright pink labels for each book.

Some of the categories are:

  • word choice
  • sentence fluency
  • onomatopoeia
  • repetition
  • narrowing the focus
  • rhyme scheme
  • voice
  • conventions
  • figurative language (which can be further categorized, but I had to save myself)
  • developing ideas
  • coined words
By the way, not one of these books uses misspelled words as literary devices.
Another book that deals with illiteracy due to a disability, is written by another wonderful author: Patricia Polacco.

The girl in the story is brought up in a literacy-rich environment. But as she enters school, she finds that she is unable to read as easily as the other kids. She has dyslexia. She begins to hate school because of her reading difficulties, and the kids teasing her. She finally gets a teacher who cares, pays attention, and works with her. We find out that this is Patricia Polacco’s autobiography.

Every time I have read this story to a class, there is always at least one student who relates to the girl’s struggle. It is a powerful book. It reminds me that there is always the probability that there is a child, in my class, memorizing what they need to in order to “seem” literate.

So, what does this have to do with the cows?

I see the cow company using illiteracy as an advertising campaign. We don’t see other disabilities advertised in order to sell a product. What a horrible thought. Illiteracy is covert, the cows are cute, and there is no intended harm. I get that. But, when you have seen people struggle with those same words, it hits home more than it probably should.

Also, as a side note, the cows are everywhere. Ubiquity with the cows is overkill. Maybe, the next campaign could be the cows in school, overcoming their spelling issues. They can even put a smart cow teacher in there for good measure.

I’m not sure if I’m one of those, “EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON PEOPLE”, but I’m beginning to think that my hyper-awareness of people’s words can be a good thing. Maybe, the cow comparison is a stretch to some; but they still bother me.

Do you remember learning to read? Probably not, if you don’t have a reading disability.


Graduate School…Again

Last week, I returned to graduate school. I remembered the day I received my Masters degree, when I thought, “I will NEVER go back to school.”

I suddenly became an amalgamation of all of my students as I pulled into the parking lot. First, I had to go to the book store and spend $200 on text books. I feverishly searched for the cheaper used books-I found two. Later, a lady in class told me that I should have either rented them, or bought them on Amazon. Rent text books? Really? Now, I know.

Next, I had to find my classroom. Of course, it is in the Education Building. My surroundings began to look vaguely recognizable. It was similar to a dream that weaves your familiar experiences in with a Twin Peaks episode. But..wait-my class isn’t posted. How will I get there? What if they count me absent? I’m three minutes late. I followed the masses to the wrong classroom, then I asked for help. I dropped my phone, when I went to pick it up, other stuff fell. High school flashback…

I made it to the classroom, and I was happy to see other people straggling in, calm and happy-with smelly snacks.

I found a seat in the back and settled in. Oh, we have to introduce ourselves AND diverge one unique quality or experience. Wow. “Don’t pick me..don’t call on me.” I suddenly thought of three of my current students (who I call on all of the time) who hate to be called on. I apologized to them in my mind. I was chosen FIRST. I quickly thought about feigning uniqueness:

I don’t like introducing myself. What does unique really mean, anyway? No, too anti-system. Not a good start.

I can dance very well, wearing socks, in the kitchen. No, that is stupid.

I can mix a mean Mojito. No, then they will think ill of me.

A colleague and I started drama club at my school. Yes, not boastful, yet something new and different. I went with that.

I listened to the other unique experiences. Some were happy they weren’t moved to other grade levels. Some lost weight. Man, I could have gone with something simple like that? I thought of a girl in my class who over-thinks everything. No wonder she has bulleted note-card lists all over her desk.

I moved around in my seat, trying to get comfortable. Only thirty minutes had passed, and I had to sit still for another three and a half hours. I doubted anyone was going to let me walk down the hallway, touch the last door, and come back. I looked out of the window, and stared at the trees. Oh crap! What did I miss? Ok, just a snack sign-up sheet. I rarely make my kids sit still in class, they can stand, sit on the floor, or take a break when needed. I was very glad that I had made this a regular practice in my classroom. Especially since I seemed to be the only one squirming and searching for a comfortable sitting position.

Now, let’s get on with class, and stop all of this silly getting-to-know you stuff.

The thick, weighty syllabus made its way around the room. What will be inside? How many hours of re-reading the same text will I endure? Apparently, I was one of the few in class, new to the program. The students in class were like old war buddies. They flipped through the syllabus saying things like, “Oh, this is like last semester.”

Meanwhile, I have my notebook out, along with my twelve pack of Paper Mate, bold colors, felt tip pens. I read the syllabus. I was clueless. I remembered my student who suddenly flares into a panic when a new assignment is handed out. I felt his agony and discomfort. I turned to the lady next to me,

“We have to read four chapters, write a paper on educational philosophy, and write two article critiques, for next week?” I hoped the panicked look on my face was mild. I had read syllabus wrong. I did find a better way to create the schedule, on the syllabus, so that it was easier to read. I kept those thoughts to myself.

Then everyone started talking about the Galileo website where we find all of our peer-reviewed articles. Of course, I know about Galileo. But what about the password? How will I get it? What if it doesn’t work and all the papers are due next week? The two kids in my class, who are the “what if” kids, blasted through my mind.

I had to go to the library to get the new password. I couldn’t get the new password because I didn’t have my new school I.D. I didn’t have the new school I.D. because that building closes at 6. So, thirty minutes later, the gentleman behind the desk gave me a temporary library card. It took so long because I didn’t have my school identification number with me. He had to look that up. He made me promise to get my school I.D. in order to get the permanent card. Then I thought of the students who always take an inordinate amount of time in the library. I always ask, “What have you been doing for so long?” Now, it is all clear to me. They lose time, or it wrinkles as they enter the library-like it did with me.

Although we are in the last weeks of school, this experience has made me very conscious of the thoughts and processes that occur with my students. How often we forget what it is like to sit on the other side of instruction. Nervous, confused, frustrated, and scared to ask for clarification. The further away from we are from being students, the less empathetic we are to the mindsets of our own students.

After the stress of the first week dissipated, I found the classes to interesting and valuable. My homework is done, and the discomfort of learning has set in; resulting in a forest fire of synapses.

My obsession with pens is another issue.