Literacy at the Library – by Bonnie Wyler

Read Bonnie Wyler’s column in the December 14, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. Bonnie is a Literacy/Outreach Librarian at the library.

Literacy has come a long way since the early 1900’s. The definition of literacy has been expanding because the world is constantly changing. A hundred years ago, being literate meant being able to sign one’s name. In the 1940’s, that definition had changed to being able to read at a 4th grade level. By the 1960’s, literacy was defined as having reading competency at an 8th grade level. In 1992, it was defined as “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Today, being literate requires one to have new proficiencies in the use of technology and in thinking critically to solve problems.

Since 1983, the Morrill Memorial Library has had an adult literacy program affiliated with Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts. In addition to American students, this year we have students from 36 countries, places as far away as India, China and even Kazakhstan. In late October, in spite of the approaching hurricane (that arrived the following day), the Literacy Program hosted the annual Harvest Dinner for an enthusiastic turnout of tutors and students. We celebrated a year of hard work and achievement by our students, as well as the dedication of our wonderful tutors.

Why do adults of all ages choose to volunteer their time to tutor a student, when their lives may already be so full and busy? Tutors from their 20’s to their 90’s come to us because they want to do this work. Their reasons for tutoring may vary, but they all feel the need to help other adults improve their literacy skills. I spoke to two of our current tutors to gain more insight into the reasons they tutor and what that experience has been like for them.

Donna DeCarlo is an example of one of our dedicated tutors. Initially she became a basic reading tutor because she has always loved reading and wanted to open non-readers to the joy of books. She became an ESL tutor also because of her desire to help people from other countries learn the English language. She understood that knowing English would allow them to do many important things, such as helping their children in school and obtaining citizenship. She recently helped a student navigate the health care system. No one had informed this young woman that the medication she was picking up would be covered by her insurance. Donna made phone calls to the insurer and the pharmacy to clarify the details of coverage, and then encouraged her student to return to the pharmacy with her prescription card and ask for a refund. The savings was $110, no small amount. Donna told me, “Seeing your student grow in knowledge and confidence is as meaningful to a tutor as it is to the student.”

June Siman, another talented and devoted tutor who speaks both English and Arabic, likes to work with immigrants learning English because she finds them so passionate about the freedoms and rights we have in this country, freedoms they didn’t have in their countries of origin. She has tutored students preparing for their citizenship test, something she finds very fulfilling. Once they become citizens, these students vote – they don’t take for granted the right to participate in our democracy. Students have told her how much it means to them to live in a country that respects its citizens. These statements move her deeply. Outside of the Literacy Program, June has been doing legal literacy work for American-born citizens dealing with the courts, acting not as a lawyer but as a self-educated advocate. She goes to law libraries to research the relevant law, and then educates people about their rights and options when they go to court. June advocates for people by putting together a case and helping them navigate the system. She is passionate about the importance of literacy, including legal literacy, and feels it is essential for citizens to know their rights and responsibilities in a democracy.

Both Donna and June tutor because they find the experience so rewarding. Like many other tutors, they feel that tutoring is a reciprocal experience because they get as much back as they give. When asked what advice they would give to a new tutor, Donna says, “Trust yourself. You are doing your best and anything you impart to your student is helpful.” June adds, “Jump in, try it, you really can’t make mistakes.” If doing this kind of work interests you, the Literacy Program needs more tutors and we’d love to talk to you about the program and the opportunities. If you haven’t done anything like this before, that’s not an obstacle. We will train you and provide ongoing support. Take the advice of Donna and June and give it a try.

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