The Power of Literacy

By Jagir Patel, guest blogger

A young teacher writes about the power of literacy.

The profession of teaching is often associated with the reform rhetoric that dominates the political landscape of public education. Less emphasized among the debates surrounding teaching are the everyday struggles of teachers who work in communities with traditions of low literacy. As a recent graduate of an undergraduate teaching program, I have spent the past four years attempting to understand best practices in teaching within the context of high school social studies. I am now licensed by the state of North Carolina to teach middle and secondary grades social studies; however, as much as I find power invested in this license, I must admit that teaching—no matter to what extent one is trained and experienced—is direly under-equipped to handle the literacy challenges in North Carolina.

Education is complex. It is difficult to point to one factor that results in systemic issues in public schooling. In respect to literacy, a wide range of factors has led to the challenges teachers face in teaching literacy. One factor in particular that I noticed as a teacher-in-training was the absence of accessible and affordable early childhood education in North Carolina. Coupled with the poverty many children in North Carolina are born in, limited early childhood education in the state has resulted in long-term consequences for young people, particularly those of color and those who identify as English-language learners. As a high school teacher, I noticed how struggles in literacy at an early age had a snowball effect; as the ball rolls with age, literacy challenges grow larger at an exponential rate.

As a young person afforded many privileges by my family background, class, and past schooling, I can be blinded by the power of literacy. Literacy, as I was taught in college classes and my teaching experiences, includes the knowledge and skills to interpret symbols and apply those symbols to gain conceptual understanding. In my role as a social studies teacher, I developed curriculum for financial literacy. I explained to my 10th and 11th grade students—many of who read at a 4th grade reading level or below—that financial literacy is a fancy term for “knowing how money works.” By the end of teaching the unit on financial literacy, I learned two things: first, literacy is dynamic and relates to all content fields (including mathematics and sciences); second, I knew that my students would need more than a couple of weeks to recover from a lifetime of poor literacy education. It was during this teaching experience that I solidified my commitment to playing some role, however small, in improving public education.

Literacy is power. I am currently in graduate school hoping to learn more about how students in the United States can access this power. I find meaning in this exploration because, to me, equal education opportunity can lead to social justice. Perhaps for this reason, education has become a hot-button issue for many age groups in this country. Through different avenues, young teachers like I am, parents, and others can support literacy and, in doing so, play significant roles in education. I chose to teach. A close friend of mine chose to be a reading tutor. My mother and father chose to read to me when I was a child. I ask you, “What choices are you making?”

Jagir Patel is a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina and Duke University, where he studied learning and teaching. He has taught middle grades reading in the Mississippi Delta and secondary grades social studies in Durham. He currently is pursuing a master’s in education policy and management at Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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