Before I helped establish CTN as a nonprofit, I lived in New York City and worked for the Parks Department in their Computer Resource Centers. In 2003 I was teaching a group of women who were transitioning off welfare learn how to use Microsoft Office so they could update their resumes. It was here that I first encountered people who were illiterate. I was working with one woman and asked her to type in the word pumpkin, and she asked, “how do you spell that?” I was shocked, but quickly answered her and went on with the lesson. It was this experience that led me to become a volunteer for Literacy Partners and to devote six hours a week for two years helping adults increase their reading, writing, and math skills.
I just returned from the ProLiteracy conference, where I had the privilege of presenting with Amy Sonnie, a librarian from Oakland Public Library, about how we use volunteers to help increase access to digital literacy training. Our presentation titled It’s a Win Win: Engaging Volunteers to Advance Digital Literacy can be viewed here. The conference was an impressive combination of researchers, practioners, students, and administrators. Together, we are trying to make a difference in the lives of 36 million Americans who can’t read.
It always seemed strange to me that I would be asked to teach someone to use email if they couldn’t spell. But since those days in New York, many technology tools have been developed to help people gain skills in their own homes (assuming they have a computer and know how to use it). While nothing replaces being enrolled in an adult education class with a certified instructor, that is simply not realistic for many people.
I am hopeful that in my lifetime we will see an improvement, not only in the number of people who can read and write, but also in the number of adults taking the steps to continue their education. It’s good for their children. It’s good for the economy. And it’s good for our future.