Common Principles, Individualized Practices

While cleaning our office last week, I came across the pile of books from "The Coffee-Table Books Story (Winter 2004)."

One winter, we often passed a man out gathering up shopping carts and recyclables. The man was shy, and his rare verbal utterances suggested a serious cognitive delay of some kind. All the same, one morning we asked if he would like to borrow a book. He answered, "No", adding, "I can't read."

Our response was to visit a used bookstore and purchase several coffee-table books full of interesting pictures and little or no text. Two weeks later, when we met this man, we showed him the books and asked if he would like to borrow one. He said "Yes" and took a book with him.

The following week, we met him at his house with new coffee-table books. Standing at his door, we asked, "How did you make out with the book you borrowed last week?"

He replied, "I read it."

"I can't read": "I read it". In the space of a week, this man went from being a non-reader to a reader, from alliterate to literate. There was no magic in this, and no need for hundreds of thousands of dollars. What was required, on our part, was a diversity of strategies for supporting literacy, and the freedom to innovate as we saw fit.

Of course, someone might say he really couldn't "read". All he was doing was looking at pictures. How was he ever going to get a job and get off welfare?

Here's the thing. When we met him, he already had a job - gathering up shopping carts and recyclables. What he didn't have was relevant, accessible, literacy support appropriate to his personal goals and abilities.

I've told that story here before, and I fear I'll tell it again, because those few weeks changed my perception of both what was possible in basic literacy work, and what was called for from me as a literacy worker.

I also like the story because it explains what I mean when I'm ranting on about literacy being about reading and writing - not jobs or health or justice or housing or the gawd-damned GDP.

Reading is an important, valuable, noble thing in its own right. When literacy field workers and administrators and researchers like you make reading more accessible, more everyday, more enjoyable, you do something important and valuable and noble.

But how you do it, the concrete steps you take... I can't help you there. I don't know your town, your hood, your neighbours.

The principles behind what we did in the Coffee-Table Books Story are well-enough known. They are all about reducing barriers:

  • We met the learner was he was - physically as well as in terms of skills.
  • We offered our services, but did not impose them.
  • We allowed him to self-identify his limits.
  • We provided materials that were in his zone of proximal development.
  • We allowed him to chose his reading materials.
  • We followed up by asking questions and respecting his answers.
  • We allowed him to define success.
  • We built upon success by doing more of what worked.
  • We avoided institutional barriers like registration forms and unneeded paperwork.
  • We avoided the imposition of testing, a time-line or learning contract.
  • We avoided criticizing his choices or learning behaviours.
  • We built upon a positive relationship.

For perhaps eight months, this man borrowed. He never suggested expanding his reading and writing, and we were not in a hurry to press him. We saw that his basic needs were being taken care of, and our explicit goal was to "provide access to books and reading." Still, I wondered about providing a "reading-to" service, and thought to get to know the family better.

Then, that fall, the family moved away - a happy move into the countryside, I understand - and we didn't see him again.

A New Brunswick politician - who would later become the minister responsible for adult literacy - read that story and told me he was planning to arrange for a van to pass out coffee-table type books in his riding. Perhaps, he thought, it could be integrated with the van that passes out hot meals and blankets to our homeless and under-housed population. (He and I live in the inner-city core.)

It was a lovely gesture, for he is a warm hearted and well intentioned man, but I don't think it would have been effective. The context would have been different.

That's the problem with best practice and research-based approaches and all that top-down, cookie-cutter stuff. That's also the limitations of documents like The Bookwagon or the Storytent How-to or whatever.

We can try to explain how we got where we got, and why we think something worked for however long it did.

But when you start, you will always start from scratch in some sense. You have to if you're going to be responsive to the people that you meet. Hell, we had stacks of good advice from all around the English-speaking world piled in our office. We read most of it, and we talked about most of what we read. But we still had to figure out, for ourselves, how to capture moments like these in Crescent Valley.

That's partly why my new mantra is "One community, one program." Everybody deserves literacy work tailored to their wants and needs. We can share our vision, commitment, principles, resources, learnings, encouragements and fears - everything but a curriculum.

We believe in following sound principles, but we don't much do assembly-line literacy. It doesn't work well, it costs more in the long run, and it forces literacy workers to pay attention to the priorities of the wrong group of people.

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