Seth Biderman delivered the following talk at the SCALE (Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education) Conference on Saturday, February 28, 1998

I'm going to start by commending David and Paula for setting up this gathering, and all of you for showing up, because I'm a big believer in sharing ideas and working together to try to change things on this planet. And as some of you who have had the misfortune of teaching with me know, I'm also a big believer in letting people know what I think about education, and I'd also like to thank David and Paula for giving me a chance to voice some ideas.

I'm going to spend ten or fifteen minutes telling some stories and sharing some lessons I learned doing literacy work, than talk for a few minutes about how my ideas about community service have been changing over the last few years. After that I'm going to turn the floor over to Consuelo, who has agreed to come in to say a few words about being both a literacy student and a parent of two children who are native Spanish speakers trying to learn how to read and write in the public schools. She has agreed to answer questions as well, so I encourage you all to take the advantage of the opportunity and think of some questions for her while I1m talking. I want to let you know a little about the work I've done, so you can decide right away whether or not you1re going to pay attention. I've worked with adults for about two years, teaching an English class here in Providence with other students from Brown's Center for Public Service. I've spent a semester student teaching in Spanish Harlem and doing a lot of one-on-one literacy work with fifth graders, and since December I've been doing some volunteer tutoring with first graders at a local elementary school. I just graduated college last May and I'm now working at an education research center here at Brown University, which has given me the chance to do two things: get some of my money back, and gain something of a research and policy perspective on literacy, which I hope will not corrupt this speech too much.

But what you should be noticing by now is that I'm not a professionally trained literacy expert, and most of what I've learned so far has been by experimenting and making lots of mistakes and experimenting again, which has actually not been such a bad way to learn. When someday I do get "trained" to be a teacher, I hope that one of the things they "train" me in is how to constantly be learning from my mistakes.

Let me give you an example of one of the mistakes I learned from. In Spanish Harlem I did some literacy work with a fifth grader who had never really figured out how this whole reading and writing process works, though he could whiz through most of the phonics drills. I sat down with him one day after school with a Babar book, written in fifth grade level English, which I figured would be appropriate, and struggled to help him read for an hour or so, with no indications of progress. The next afternoon I came back with Babar and we struggled again, again no progress. The next afternoon I left Babar at home and told Heriberto to tell me a story in Spanish, his first tongue, and his eyes lit up as he told me this incredible story about herding goats at his grandmother's place in Mexico, and how one day the goats had all scattered and he had gathered them all up but one, and after hours of searching came home to find the lost goat waiting in his grandmother's yard. I wrote it all down and we used it for a pretty successful literacy lesson, but I will never forget how articulate and intelligent this child suddenly became when I gave him the space to do so. From Heriberto I learned the first lesson I'm going to share with you today, which is that there is a difference between being able to read and being intelligent.

Now in making this point I don't want to downplay the fact that if we're going to help people think and act critically and maybe create some sort of authentic democracy in our society we've got to make sure that everyone understands printed English- and really understands it to the point that the reader has the upper hand on the newspaper editor or the political speech maker or the Brown graduated ad man (and I know how important it is to get the upper hand on these folks because I know some of them). I'm convinced that people who want to change the world had better count on education and literacy among their most powerful weapons, because I know that people who want to keep this world how it is have always counted on illiteracy and miseducation among theirs.

But as important as critical literacy is, the fact remains that people who have not learned to read and write, whether adults or children, should not be dismissed as incapable or unintelligent because of what they cannot do. We make this mistake when we label kids "at-risk" and adults as "illiterate" because to do so is to emphasize their deficiencies and ignore their strengths, which might be invisible to us. I once heard a psychologist describe it well, and though I usually don't put too much stock in psychology, I think he hit the nail on the head. He said imagine giving some people an object­ a blue rubber ball, for example­ and asking them to go off and come back with a description of that ball. These people, who only have experience with red, wooden boxes, go off and come back and describe the ball by saying, "Well, it's not red. It's not wooden. And when you put it on a sloped surface, it doesn't stay put." The people don't recognize the blueness of the object, or its roundness, or its bounciness because they are so busy defining what it's not. As educators- student or professional- we have a responsibility to avoid this trap, and always view our students as intelligent, capable, resilient human beings, no matter how old they are. I had to learn this before I could learn the second lesson, which is that it's important to learn something from your students every class.

There's two reasons why I think it's a good idea to learn from your students. The first is that I'm one of those liberal arts types who believes in lifelong learning and all that junk. The second, perhaps more compelling argument, is that teachers who think of themselves as learners are invariably the best teachers. Ask your favorite high school teacher or professor about his or her philosophy on teaching, and nine times out of ten he or she will say something about starting where the student is or making the classroom material relevant to the student's life and experiences. To do either of these things, you've got to understand where the student is, which means you've got to continually be learning about the student, and though books and theories can be helpful sometimes, the best way to learn about people is usually to get to know them.

During a break in my adult class last year a student named Dora began telling her story of how she came to the US from Guatemala, which involved weeks of walking, swimming the Rio Grande­twice, negotiating with border patrolmen, cooking tamales at a Red Cross border station in Brownsville, Texas, and more. I those twenty minutes I learned more about what it means to be an immigrant in this country than I have in years of social studies and sociology classrooms. I learned a lot about Dora and where she was coming from and what was important to her.

I asked her to write down her story and the next day, this woman, who not had been able or confident enough to try and write down more than ten complete sentences the whole semester came to class with her story written down in four complete pages, and then spent the next two weeks diligently translating, with our help. I have her story here today in our class journal, and I invite you to look at it afterwards.

Now from kids I haven't learned too many facts, and they're usually more interested in talking about imaginary pets or my hair than sharing some insight on their life experience, though in the right setting you'll get a kid like Heriberto who wants nothing more than to tell you a story about his life. But one thing I have learned from every child I've worked with is a new perspective on things, and a new approach to solving problems. Imagine for a moment the mental processes that go on when you're six years old and someone shows you a piece of paper with strange little circles and lines and dots on it and tells you in so many words that you1d better figure out how to make the right sounds and meanings out of the circles and lines else you're not going to be in the second grade with everyone else next year. Now that's a problem, and you'll learn about how different people deal with problems and challenges if you really pay close attention to how the student figures out reading and writing.

The third lesson I've learned through my literacy work is to recognize the power dynamic in your classroom. When I walk into a classroom as the teacher or the tutor, immediately I am the person in power, whether I like it or not. I have more power because I am the teacher and they are the students, because I have knowledge and skills (literacy) that they need and want, knowledge and skills that in some cases they have rested their dreams on, whereas (despite my liberal arts, lifelong learner diatribe) what the students know might have little to do with my dreams or desires, and probably almost nothing to do with my immediate economic needs. Moreover, and I1m speaking on more of a personal level now, I come into the classroom as a professional with a college background and a citizen while my students (I'm talking about my adult students) are almost all of them immigrant factory workers, some undocumented. I also have to recognize that I am middle class, with well off parents and health care; they are relatively­ and sometimes absolutely­ poor; I am white and my elected representatives and their corporate friends look like me and grew up like me and have enjoyed the same privileges as me; my students are often Dominican or Cambodian or Cape Verdean and poorly represented in our democratic and economic structures, if they are represented at all. Now don1t tell me that there1s no power dynamic there.

Now, I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with this. As of Thursday, I've decided that there1s three ways to approach this power dynamic:

(1) I can wield my power over my students and force feed them what they need to know;

(2) I can downplay my power; or

(3) I can explicitly explore it with the class and use it as a teaching tool.

If I take the first route (wielding the power), I walk a tightrope, on one side of which lies the paternalistic father, and the other the Napoleonic oppressor, and if I fall into either role, I run the risk of having the opposite of my intended effect and disempowering my students by making them dependent on me and my presence. Working with children is a bit trickier, especially when it is white middle class folk working with children of color, because we constantly have to distinguish between our legitimate authority as responsible adults and our illegitimate authority as beneficiaries of a society that bestows privileges on some and not on others. But if we maintain as our end goal the empowerment of the student, then we have to discard this first path of action because it means that the teacher keeps all the power.

If I choose instead to de-emphasize my power, and often I do, I believe that two things happen: first, my relationship with my students is harmed because it is no longer based on honesty, and second, I become a less effective teacher because I become hesitant to assert my power as a teacher.

Last spring, one of the Brown students I taught with and I had arranged a trip down to Guatemala and Mexico over Spring Break. My friend taught on Mondays, and when asked by the class what he was doing over Spring break, he lied and said he was going home to Pennsylvania because he was not comfortable telling the students, many of whom were from Mexico and had not been able to get back there for several years, that he was sauntering down for a ten day vacation. My friend told me that he had lied about this trip, but when I went in to class the next day I decided to try the other route and tell them about my plans to go to Mexico. I was looked at with jealousy and I felt uncomfortable telling them the truth, but my honesty led to a educational conversation about how much the ticket cost, where I had gotten the money from, how much money my parents make, how much Brown tuition costs, etc. It did not cost me respect, and it was an educative moment for both me and the students.

What I had done­ almost accidentally­ is taken the final approach to dealing with power in the classroom: I had made it explicit, and used it to teach. Which is what I try to do now. I've come to learn that it1s not about service, its about empowerment and understanding, and figuring out how to help people become more creative and more effective solvers of their own problems.

We've got to begin distinguishing between "service" and "empowerment," and not just on a semantics level. I feel like "service" is something you receive from a waiter at a restaurant, and it1s something you1re dependent on, because if you go into a restaurant and the waiter decides he's too busy or too tired to serve you today, than you're not going to get any food at that restaurant. I used to think that doing community service was like "waiting" on poor people around the city, serving them the knowledge and skills that I was learning at the "University on the Hill" which they just didn't have access to.

"Empowerment," however, is something you have when you know how and when to get up from the table in the restaurant and go into the kitchen and get yourself access to the refrigerator and the oven and some bowls and maybe even some knives, ask a few questions of the cook maybe, and then make your own meal, which usually turns out to be more like what you wanted for dinner in the first place. When you're empowered and you walk into a restaurant, you're not dependent on the waiter1s service, because somewhere down the line you have learned to meet your own needs.

That doesn't mean to say there's no work for people like us to do, but when we start thinking along the lines of empowerment, instead of service, we may end up doing different work than we had imagined. Like making and distributing copies of our keys to the kitchen, instead of writing menus.

This idea of educating to empower is not a new idea, but is an exciting one to think about, and I hope you'll continue thinking about it when you go back and begin your literacy work again. Thanks for your time; I'm going to turn the floor over to Consuelo Almanza now.

Consuelo Almanza then spoke about her views as a learner and parent, following her talk, participants had an opportunity to respond to Seth and Consuelo.

back to writing from the field