Patricia Edwards, a new appointee to the Michigan Department of Education PreK-12 Literacy Commission, has written eight books about parents and schools. Her most recent book, “Partnering with Families for Student Success,” describes 24 scenarios where students are best served when teachers and parents work together.
I asked Edwards, a Michigan State University College of Education professor, which scenario most reminds her of what is going on during the pandemic. She said the situation where parents/caregivers have a low level of literacy.
“A lot of parents don’t want to admit they have this problem,” Edwards said.
I imagine African American parents especially suffer with this. Literacy, even in its limited understanding as being able to read and write, has meant freedom throughout American history.
For good reason, much is made about the derring-do of Harriett Tubman, who, under moonlight through the swampy woods, conducted people out of enslavement on the Underground Railroad.
Yet, untold numbers found their freedom through literacy. Enslaved persons who could write their own permission note to move about, i.e. to escape, were free.
The history goes like this: The patroller could stop any person on the road with the call, “State your business.” For enslaved people, a written note outstripped spoken word because it meant a powerful person had their back. That spoke volumes beyond the ability to read and write. Just as education was forbidden most enslaved people, schooling was difficult for poor whites to acquire as well.
Frederick Douglass recalled in his autobiography how his mistress, not his mother, was teaching him to read until her husband, not his father, found out and made her stop. Then Douglass went to the Baltimore docks and tricked the white boys his age into teaching him to recognize words. Learning to read was good, but Douglass had to build on that to engage his future.
Illiterate Black people have been swindled out of property because they had to trust in others for a true interpretation of what a document said, or meant. The illiterate person couldn’t read it or, without experience with reading more than individual words, couldn’t make out the meaning. Mostly, it didn’t work out for them, particularly in real estate.
Literacy continues to be of value. Last fall, I was making special parking arrangements connected with my son’s wedding at a park in Canton, Michigan. I identified myself as an African American to the office lady, who was very nice. Because she does not work the weekend, she offered to send me an email with her permission. In case park security had a problem with our arrangement, I could show it. “Yes,” I said, “We Black people are used to having a note like that.”
Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction is Michael Rice. A press release documents his comments in early February to state legislators sitting on the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, and the House Education Committee. Rice primarily asked for more instruction time beyond the current 180-day minimum required by law. But in an important paragraph at the end he makes a solid pitch for literacy.
“We also need to reduce our elementary class sizes where educators are laying the literacy and math skill foundation that will be necessary for success as students continue in school.”
He continued, “Nothing is more critical to the success of young people in school than literacy skills.”
But why is literacy limited to school success?
Because Rice is the state superintendent of public instruction? OK. Because his authority lies in that realm. I get it.
But surely in addressing the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, he could speak to literacy beyond elementary school. The only way to accept short-sightedness is seeing literacy simply as basic skills: spelling, grammatically correct sentences, pronouncing words on the written page, and knowing their definition.
But literacy is so much more. Literary is the ability to make meaning. And to apply that meaning to situations. That is what enslaved people trying to escape did.
Schools are the only place where literacy is taught and encouraged and given space and time to grow and develop. But that’s just the start.
Literacy is a general term that that has universal application. Doctors’ handwriting is often criticized and ridiculed because it can’t be read sometimes. But no medical student earns a medical degree because of flowing handwriting. Doctors achieve a medical literacy in codes other than English. They use Latin for pharmacies and numerical codes for insurance companies. They use “Gray’s Anatomy.” And finally, they practice.
Most Americans will freely and without shame admit to being computer illiterate. They know basic things about a computer, like how to use it for their purposes. A Lansing Community College administrator I worked with called that computer dependence. Literacy makes a person free.
Here’s a very bad, terrible, not-good-at-all example of literacy, also in computers. It involves Brandon Betz and Michael Lynn Jr. Both are community leaders in Lansing.
These men got into a beef that started on Facebook and carried over to texting and into self-destruction. Betz political star was on the rise. Now, he faces calls for his resignation from Lansing City Council, including from his political party’s executive committee, and he lost his employment as a public policy analyst.
It looked like Lynn, a Lansing Black Lives Matter movement leader, had the social media/texting upper hand. Disposing of political opponents is what politics is all about, but then Lynn got tripped up by his Facebook post. Though on disability leave, he faced misconduct charges from his employer, endured a disciplinary hearing and was terminated (for a matter unrelated to his spat with Betz).
Lynn had a spelling error in his message, Betz contended. But that did not mar Lynn’s meaning. On the other hand, Betz spelled all the words correctly in his letter of apology to his City Council colleagues, but they remained unconvinced that he knows how to handle his public position. Disbelieving his public service literacy, they still stripped him of his committee assignments.
Each of these men needed literacy in the combination of social media and texting and the Freedom of Information Act, and the First Amendment. Their level of literacy in that situation proved nonexistent.
Literacy exists in all areas of life, and is useful in school and the world. It is an ongoing proficiency that helps people succeed and be free.
(Dedria Humphries Barker, a Lansing resident, chairs the Andrew and Mary Jane Humphries Foundation and is the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of every month.)