Davidson Valley Public Library System in North Carolina began using a bookmobile in 1929, fewer than six months after opening its doors. The current Davidson bookmobile is 26 years old, and most of its parts have been rebuilt – except for the driver, who is still the original and going strong. The bookmobile pictured here was delivered to the library in 1970 and was comparable in size to a modern RV. While the number of bookmobiles has decreased in recent years, almost 700 continue to serve the nation’s readers.
If you can read this sentence, then you are luckier than nearly one-third of adults who struggle with literacy every day in our country.
According to a survey conducted by ProLiteracy, a national organization that has advocated for adult literacy for more than 50 years, 29 percent of U.S. adults older than 16 can read at only an eighth-grade level, and 14 percent of adults older than 16 read at or below a fifth grade level. To put this into perspective, consider the fact that the average newspaper is written with the vocabulary and sentence structure complexity between a sixth- and ninth-grade level.
The facts are startling. We don’t like to think of our nation as a place where a large portion of the adult population can’t read the newspaper or complete basic job applications.
It would be easy to blame the educational system. But adult literacy isn’t only an education issue; it’s a civil rights issue. Educator and literacy advocate David Barton has said, “People use literacy to make changes in their lives; literacy changes people and people find themselves in the contemporary world of changing literacy practices.”
Writers can be a part of that change. Indeed, they can help lead it by creating adult writing workshops, which serve the dual purpose of supporting their creativity and resumes as well as contributing to the public good.
What steps are necessary?
To start, let’s define literacy.
Literacy is an individual’s ability to read and write and to apply those skills to the world around him or her to make meaning and communicate. This can also apply to math skills (numeracy) and technology (digital literacy).
Research shows that the most effective adult literacy instruction teaches students the skills they need to know to improve quality of life, whether that includes learning how to create a resume, craft a letter to a child’s teacher or express thoughts and experiences in personal essays.
A writing workshop can do that.
Many nonprofit organizations and places with built-in adult communities (VA hospitals, nursing homes, half-way houses) seek out these types of workshops led by writers who are skilled and passionate. And you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.
If you’ve never taught a writing workshop, especially one geared toward literacy, the first step might be connecting with an adult education or literacy organization as a volunteer. America’s Literacy Database can help you find an organization near you. Some organizations provide training, access to resources and ongoing professional development for tutors.
The workshop proposal
The next step is to develop a workshop proposal. These five steps can help.
- What specific types of writing or writing techniques do you plan to teach? Do you see yourself teaching professional writing (resumes and cover letters) or creative nonfiction (essays, poems, articles)? Would your instruction focus more on the nuts and bolts of grammar, or on organization and clarity? This helps a program manager determine if students will find value in your workshop and to market the workshop to the appropriate population.
- Do you have previous teaching or other relevant experience that qualifies you to run this workshop? Do you have your MFA or teaching credentials? Has your writing ever been published? Do you have experience working with the elderly or immigrants?
- How many students do you plan to work with? This helps a program manager determine the best location for the workshops and anticipate possible material costs (if any). Don’t overestimate this number if you’ve never taught before. It’s better to have a small group of students and a productive workshop than too many students and a chaotic teaching experience.
- What days and times do you plan to hold your workshop? How long will your workshop run (five weeks, two months, all year)? Again, this helps a program manager determine the best location for your class and schedule your proposed workshop around existing classes. You should also consider the amount of time adult students could dedicate to completing a workshop. Could your students attend classes twice a week for fewer weeks, creating a more “accelerated” program?
- What kind of support would you require from the organization to facilitate this workshop? Do you need help marketing and promoting the workshop? Do you need suggestions for resources? Will you have to purchase instructional materials? Hint: The more you can take on, the more appealing it will be to an overworked program manager.
Making the approach
Once your workshop proposal is outlined, approach a local supervisor or volunteer coordinator. If your workshop is interesting, you and the local organization leader can work on the logistics of marketing and organizing it.
A word of caution to aspiring writing workshop teachers: Make a plan, but be prepared to adapt it (or discard it entirely) to target the needs and goals of students. When I taught my first writing workshop, I had planned to teach resume and cover letter writing skills, but ended up teaching my students about pre-writing strategies, prefixes and idioms.
While the power dynamic in a K-12 classroom is clear, the lines in an Adult Basic Education class are less defined. In my experience, an ABE instructor is more of a coach or a mentor. To create an effective workshop environment, consider that adult students may come from backgrounds and experiences that may or may not be similar to yours. Despite their best efforts, your students’ attendance may be poor, and it is important to understand that this doesn’t mean they don’t care or they don’t want to learn. Many adult students struggle to fit learning in amid job hunting, children, financial problems and transportation.
But let’s assume students do sign up. Where do you start?
As any writer will tell you, good writing doesn’t just happen. Good writing is a result of planning, revision and editing – a process that should be explicitly taught. You can begin by teaching students to brainstorm, research and outline ideas before they ever start a draft. You can engage students in this process by thinking aloud as a group and modeling how writers use graphic organizers to collect thoughts.
Remember to always provide students with examples of good writing that they can study for form and style. In Writing Workshops: The Essential Guide, teachers Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi argue that a writing workshop should have a generative curriculum, a series of mini-lessons based on the needs and interests of the students when problems arise. If you decide to teach grammar, target one or two specific grammar issues in short 15-minute mini-lessons as these issues come up in student work.
As with younger students, adult writing students require a targeted approach to developing resources. While elementary school students should be exposed to a broad range of reading and writing forms, this isn’t always appropriate for adult students. Adults in a writing workshop need writing instruction that aligns with their goals, such as getting a better job, communicating with coworkers or recording personal experiences.
Likewise, reading and writing activities that might engage children are not always suitable for adults. It is important to incorporate authentic reading materials (newspaper articles, job ads, chapter books, recipes) and writing exercises for older learners. Reading Research Quarterly reports: “The growth made by participants in general literacy programs is likely to be lost if recently learned skills are not applied, and thus practiced, in real life situations.” To help students retain the new skills they learn, provide plenty of in-class opportunities to practice real life writing skills. These writing opportunities could be as simple as writing holiday cards, drafting letters or emails and journaling.
A decade ago, we didn’t rely nearly as much on written communication (texts, Tweets, emails) as we do today. The growing number of outlets for individuals to communicate with the world does not represent the true voice of America; so many adults in our country are silent because of illiteracy. Using your writing skills to give voice to others struggling with literacy creates a ripple of positive change that affects not only your students, but also the entire community.
Sarah R. Flynn is the Basic Literacy Program Manager at Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, Connecticut. She has a graduate degree in writing popular fiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program.
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