When I was a Special Education teacher I always said, “Early intervention is important.” Now that I teach adults who are struggling readers, I’m saying, “Intervention is important at any age and it can empower adults to succeed.”
Imagine that you never graduated from high school. Would you be able to work at your current job without a diploma? What job could you do? What salary could you earn?
Imagine that you’re an adult who reads and writes at a fourth grade level. How would your life be different if that was you?
I just started teaching Adult Basic Education Reading classes at a local community college. My students read at a 4th-8th grade level and are trying to improve their skills so they can pass the GED test. They range in age from 19-58 years. Most of them attended public schools in the U.S. but never graduated due to reasons that include work/family economic needs, poor attendance, academic difficulties, or disengagement from school. English is the second language for many of them. A few have learning disabilities or dyslexia. All of them have a wide variety of skill levels and abilities.
On the first day of this Reading class, each student entered nervously. My two volunteers and I were friendly and encouraging but I could feel the tension in the room. I tried to imagine what my new students might be thinking.
“I hope that this teacher doesn’t make me read out loud in front of the class.”
“I’m so embarrassed about my spelling.”
“I don’t know when I can find the time to do any homework.”
“I wish it wasn’t so hard for me to understand the meanings of words.”
“I wonder if I should tell the teacher about my learning disabilities.”
By the end of the first week the students realized they were in a “safe zone” and that we were going to support each other. Each student had been given a reading assessment so we tried to address their individual needs through leveled materials and small group instruction. For example, some students needed extra practice with comprehension strategies while another group needed to work on phonics and decoding. My volunteers and I made sure that the students understood that they were going to be defined by their abilities, not their deficiencies.
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On the second day of class one student named Sandy commented to me, “I’m not smart since I can’t read well.”
Her statement brought back memories of the discussions that I had with my middle school students who had learning disabilities. I always told them, “You’re smart kids who just learn differently.”
I told Sandy, “Reading problems have nothing to do with intelligence. If English is your second language then you may not have learned some basic skills. If you didn’t finish high school then you may have missed instruction that would have helped you become a proficient reader. Students with dyslexia have brains that are wired differently so they may not have received the specialized instruction they needed. In this class you will learn and practice essential skills that will help you become a better reader. Everyone in this class is smart and has the potential to improve their reading.”
As the weeks passed my students worked on phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Trust developed and no one was afraid to make mistakes or to ask questions. We shared stories, recipes, and supported each other. We had a baby shower for one mother-to-be and a going-away party for a woman who was traveling to her homeland of Pakistan.
Not all the students who started the class were able to complete the semester. One homeless woman couldn’t find a place to live close to campus and she didn’t have a car so she quit. One young lady worked at a fast food restaurant. The owner told her that she’d be fired unless she stopped trying to arrange her work schedule around her GED classes. She desperately needed the job so she stopped coming. One young man went to jail. A woman had a close friend who was murdered and she needed time to deal with that issue. Adult learners have many obligations and situations that impact their attendance.
During the final weeks of class we read short biographies about adults who had overcome obstacles that included poverty, racism, illness, drugs, and violence. I told my students that none of the people in these biographies were rich or famous. These “heroes” had found the strength to continue their education and become respected members of the community. The students loved the stories in these books and I was delighted when they begged me to let them take the books home so they could continue to read more stories.
One of my students named Lisa said, “Why can’t we write stories about our own lives? All of us have had to overcome challenges and we haven’t given up.”
“What an amazing idea!” I exclaimed. I knew their stories could be inspirational to other struggling readers here on campus. “We can also interview former students who have passed the GED and see how their lives have changed. Let’s do it!”
On the last day of class it was heartwarming to see how these students had transformed. Their reading and writing skills had improved, but more importantly, each of them had gained confidence in their own worth and abilities. My students were chatting and laughing and hugging each other. We were all posing for photographs. They were organizing their completed work into binders so they could review it over break. Everyone was excited when I said that my boss loved Lisa’s suggestion and that he gave us permission to write biographies that will be compiled into a book.
Lisa and I scheduled a date to meet so we could work together to organize this biography project. Right now the working title for our book is Everyday Heroes From County College.
Over the years I have had many memorable teaching experiences. Working with this class of adults has been one of the highlights of my career. I’m so grateful that I was able to facilitate the learning process for those involved. It’s never too late to empower students to succeed.