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(HOST) As election day approaches, commentator Peter Gilbert has been thinking that if there were a silver bullet for creating both good and successful citizens, it would be education. Education starts with the ability to read. And in Vermont, literacy programs to promote reading and books can be found everywhere from play pens to prisons.

(GILBERT) I recently met with people who lead literacy programs for inmates in Vermont’s prisons. Unfortunately, that’s a growing population. The leaders talked about the countless lives they’ve touched – even dramatically changed.

There are the reluctant students who gain new confidence in themselves, who come to realize that maybe they do have something to contribute to a discussion – that they do have good ideas and insightful observations. There are the students who are convinced that “I can’t write a poem,” but end up doing so, and who grow in the process. There are the inmates whose lack of self-worth is palpable in their question to the teacher, “Why are you here?” There are the classes that end with students asking, “We get to keep these books?!” and “When are you coming back?!” And there are countless instances of what one teacher called “collateral uplift” – unintended positive impact – like the world-weary prison educator who was as energized and inspired by an outside teacher coming into the prison as the prisoners were themselves.

I also met with a dozen dedicated people who run literacy programs across Vermont with the parents of young children, particularly kids whose circumstances make them at-risk of not succeeding in school. Those teachers spoke about their excitement at sharing their infectious passion for reading with parents so that their young children could catch it, too. They talked about getting parents excited about books that they’d missed when they were children. They noted how rewarding it was, over a series of meetings, to break down parents’ isolation. And they talked about how many connections can be made in a discussion between even simple children’s books and our lives.

There was the teen mother who defiantly proclaimed how much she hated to read. But ten years later, when her former teacher saw her at a child care center, now with three children in tow, the kids exclaimed with delight, “We have that book at home, and that one, and that’s my favorite.” And then the three children started playing some of the reading and language games the teacher had taught their mother a decade earlier! That reluctant teenage reader had become a parent committed to ensuring that her children learn to read in a way that she didn’t.

The literacy teachers and I talked about how, over time, social norms and behaviors can change for the better: We’ve seen it happen in recent decades with regard to smoking, for example, as well as drunk driving, littering, seat belts, and bike helmets. That’s a goal of early literacy programs – to make it a fundamental social norm that people read with young children daily and engage them in conversation about the books – because research shows that it’s not just reading, but reading and talking with kids that make the impact. That’s a reasonable social expectation and therefore an achievable goal.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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