In 2011 after training to become an adult literacy volunteer at Literacy Chicago, I had the great fortune to be turned-on to Reading Against the Odds (RAO), a book discussion group for adult learners. The goal for RAO was “to enhance literacy, critical thinking skills, self-awareness and interpersonal connections through group-based discussions of thematically arranged novels by diverse authors, and relevant cultural activities in the larger community.”
Further, “the notion of “Reading Against the Odds” is connected to the fact that while in the group, students are not only challenging conventional understandings about what they can achieve as adult literacy learners, but also that they are engaging with writers, texts or even ideas that are often culturally marginalized.”
Literacy Chicago’s June Porter told me one day [when I came for one-on-one tutoring] ‘We have a great book discussion group that’s called Reading Against the Odds. They read, listen to recorded readings, and have group discussions about books, plus they visit museums and attend plays and other cultural events.” What?! What days are they meeting? I wanted to know. This group’s interests and activities had my name written all over it! When I first joined the group, it was being facilitated by Jaye Jones, who co-founded RAO with Literacy Chicago in 2007. They were wrapping-up the reading of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. After a month of sitting-in, joining-in, and otherwise getting a feel for how the group functioned, I was invited to co-facilitate RAO, beginning with the reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That year we also read selections from Yiyun Li’s short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
During RAO class periods everyone was encouraged to practice reading aloud. While some students struggled to sound-out “common,” “easy” words, I was reminded of my early school days when children were often shamed and labeled stupid whenever they were called upon to read and their delivery was punctuated by nervous starts, stuttering fits, and mispronunciations. In the RAO classroom I recognized the environment was free of the mean and impatient judgments I remembered from those days. Even though I could read aloud fluently and expressively, I realized that a deep part of my spirit had been waiting more than 30 years for a teacher who would make the environment safe for those learners who required more patient classroom support. (I have since spoken with people who told me that they gave up on school and themselves during their formative years after being marginalized for not catching-on quickly enough).
During discussions the RAO classroom crackled with exchange. Students had a lot to say based on their life experiences, rather than on theoretical suppositions. I realized that many of the people whose voices need to be a part of public discourse are those who have been dismissed and excluded because of their low-literacy skills. Another great takeaway for me was realizing how much I enjoyed reading and learning with others. Prior to my work with RAO I was mostly someone who read solitarily, in a vacuum. It was so wonderful to be “alone” and “away” while reading that I never suspected I was missing out on a lively exchange with others who were experiencing the same text in the same milieu as myself.
Ever since that time I have been contemplating literacies, not just in reading and writing but as a key to daily life, relationships and personal joys; rights and responsibilities as a citizen, as an artist, as a worker, as a consumer. A wish to examine some of the attitudes that prevent meaningful discourse between low-literate and more highly literate folk is only one of the reasons why I started folklore and literacy.