When Dominique’s son came home from school complaining that he was not allowed to go to swimming lessons with the rest of his class, Dominique wondered what had gone wrong. Her tutor at Project READ, an adult literacy program in Decatur, discovered the unsigned permission slip for swimming in a collection of other unread school papers clumped at the bottom of Dominique’s backpack. That is when Dominique realized how much her inability to read affected not only her, but also her children and their school experience and education.
Another Project READ student recalls his memories of starting a fight in his elementary classroom to avoid reading aloud. He told the teacher he did not want to read, but she kept pressing until he panicked and punched a boy in the nose. He said that he would resort to anything and everything to prevent the embarrassment of stumbling through passages on a page.
One woman tells the story of how, little by little, teachers gave up on trying to help her. She was assigned to the lowest reading group but not given the support she needed, and she withdrew. Eventually, she was not in a reading group at all. She tells of how her family told her that she was “dumb as a box of rocks” so many times that she believed it herself. It was not until she started at Project READ, well into her 40s, that she realized she could learn to read and do math. Her newly found confidence changed her outlook on life.
Project READ provides one-on-one reading and math tutoring for adults. They conduct intensive and targeted assessments with each new student to identify where to begin. Many times, the starting place is basic phonics or multiplication tables. Students are encouraged to “Fail Forward” and not to be discouraged when they get things wrong, but to resolve to learn from their mistakes. Through trial and error and evidence-based procedures, Project READ has written and developed a truly remarkable curriculum that has provided consistent evidence that their approach works.
How many teachers consider illiteracy as a challenge to parent engagement? How many have wondered how adults get through the school system as non-readers? What did their teachers miss? What could they have done better?
Illinois State University preservice teachers have a chance to ponder those questions when they visit Project READ on clinical visits to Decatur. At first, they do not recognize any connection to their work as future educators, since they won’t be teaching adults, but then they are introduced to Julie Pangrac, the program director at Project READ. As a former public school teacher, Pangrac has now been teaching adults how to read and do math for 15 years. She is passionate about her work and hopes the stories preservice teachers hear from her adult students can help current and future teachers provide successful tools for their younger students who are struggling.
It is difficult not to be moved to tears listening to the stories of the adults whom our school left behind when they were children who struggled to read. Future teachers can learn much from “Failing Forward” and from the mistakes our predecessors made in meeting the needs of every student. Project Read is a truly remarkable organization making a difference in Decatur.