I teach adults. My rooms are filled with students who juggle work, family, and sanity in order to come to my class three nights a week. They straggle in exhausted, hungry, harried, sometimes even despairing, but they come. They come to learn, to make their lives and those of their children better. They come to declare to themselves and the world that they can change their little bit of this earth. And I am their cheerleader.
I am the one who whispers in their ears that they can do it and they will do it, we will do it together. I harass and cajole and bother and plead, till sometimes they disappear for a while just to be rid of this crazy teacher who is worse than a restless fly on a summer’s evening. But if I don’t, who will?
At 6:00 I trudge up three flights to my classroom, but when I see my students I feel a surge of energy as class begins. We greet one another every evening like long-lost friends who are relieved to see that we’ve made it once more, despite everything that could keep us apart. Papers are shuffled, notebooks come out, pencils are sharpened, and we begin.
When I began teaching adults over 10 years ago, I taught reading the way I used to teach high school kids. We struggled through that year, with me assigning readings and asking questions that never got the right answers. I couldn’t understand why my students couldn’t understand what they were reading, no matter what I tried. I was frustrated and almost in despair. What was I supposed to do?
Then one morning at the yearly ACLS Directors meeting I saw a flyer about a thing called STAR. My eyes popped open. This was exactly what I needed. I convinced my boss that we needed to do this pilot and dragged him to the trainings. They were a revelation.
I learned about using diagnostic tests to discover my students’ needs and strengths, and that not all students needed the same things at the same moment. I learned that there were four components of reading—alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—that were all linked, and that each one affected the other; that a lack of fluency and vocabulary could affect comprehension; that you could read a word but not understand it; that reading aloud helped fluency; and that learning vocabulary using your own contexts was a lot more effective than looking it up in a dictionary and memorizing it. And that all of it was evidence-based, backed up by research done with adult readers. I was a sponge who couldn’t soak it up fast enough.
I couldn’t wait to get back to my class to try it out. To my surprise, my students were just as excited as I was. They loved the one-on-one testing, where I learned more about them in an hour than I had in a year of classes. I learned that Diana needed comprehension strategies, Gino needed fluency, and they all needed vocabulary. I learned that they were all at various levels, depending on the component. And best of all I learned strategies for teaching it all, methodically, efficiently, and explicitly.
My students were using the vocabulary every day in class, on their Facebook posts, in the streets. Their reading became fluent, their levels rose, and their understanding exploded. It seemed like a miracle. But it wasn’t. It was simply EBRI, evidence-based reading instruction—learning what they needed, teaching them based on their needs, and then practicing the strategies together before moving on.
And so this is how we spend our nights together, this community of souls from all of Earth’s corners, teaching one another, questioning one another, supporting one another, and laughing at the long climb ahead because crying would only lead us nowhere. Teaching is connection, teaching is light, and however much I might complain and moan, this is where I belong.
And that is why I teach.
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SABES, the System for Adult Basic Education Support in Massachusetts, promotes high quality adult education services through training, support, and resources that improve the skills and knowledge of practitioners and strengthen programs.
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