written by Jonathan Masci, Service Leader at Parker-Varney Elementary School
Fifty years ago, my grandmother was a first-grade teacher in a public school in Queens, NY. Her highest priority, as she saw it, was starting her students off strong in reading. She worked tirelessly to find the best teaching methods for her individual students, and prided herself on meeting her students where they were and building them into confident budding readers and writers.
Education is a field constantly in flux. Teachers are always innovating, whether it is in curricula, teaching methods, or classroom structure. They are always searching for the best ways to engage a diverse group of students and prepare them for a rapidly-changing world. Undoubtedly, methods and philosophies of teaching literacy have evolved and differentiated dramatically since my grandmother's day. What has not changed, however, is a focus on literacy as a critical skillset for college and career readiness, as well as for being the type of well-informed, critically-thinking adult essential to a democracy.
As we celebrate National Literacy Month this September, we should reflect on City Year's role in building and supporting literacy, and why this goal is so important. City Year's Whole School Whole Child (WSWC) model identifies low course performance in English Language Arts (ELA) as one of the four indicators of high school dropout risk, and so we provide support in this area. City Year AmeriCorps Members lead small-group and one-on-one intervention sessions targeted to specific learning objectives in ELA, supporting off-track students in moving to or above grade level and building their confidence and enthusiasm for literacy. We also work as school teams, often guided by team-appointed Literacy Coordinators, to implement and support whole-class and whole-school initiatives that cultivate a culture of literacy in our schools and our communities. Through these efforts, we support our students in their college and career success. However, above and beyond the importance of ELA performance as a dropout indicator, I believe it carries special significance for City Year's fulfillment of its mission and place in our society.
City Year’s Idealist Handbook states, “City Year’s mission is to build democracy through citizen service, civic leadership and social entrepreneurship.” As I alluded to before, literacy holds a special place in building democracy. Literate members of society can understand news from a wide variety of sources, and can learn to judge these sources critically. They can take in new information, process it, and integrate it to build a more realistic worldview. They can participate more fully in debates around politics and law, make their own arguments effectively, and share these arguments widely to influence the society around them. Democracy can thrive in a nation of such engaged participants. These skills also help make them strong civic leaders and social entrepreneurs, letting them build diverse coalitions of likeminded people and take meaningful action on issues that matter to them. In short, they are empowered.
City Year holds “Social Justice for All” as one of its core values. Literacy, as well as equitable access to literacy education, are matters of social justice. Without strong reading and writing skills, people are deprived of the civic power that is rightfully theirs in a democratic society, and justice suffers as a result. When we consider our role as City Year members, and when we implement literacy support, we must view our service through this lens. We must remember that we serve to nurture not only academically successful readers and writers, but also empowered members of our society.
To learn more about what City Year New Hampshire does to support literacy and other focus areas, click here.