I first became aware of the darkness of illiteracy when I started teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the mushroom labor camps of Eastern Pennsylvania. I worked in a government-sponsored ESL program, teaching evening classes to thousands of migrants during a period of five to six years. Most of those students were either Mexican or Central American immigrants, and most of them were functionally illiterate, meaning that they could read, write, and count in Spanish (and sometimes English, as well), but not at a functional level. They could not write a check, read a book, write in cursive, or calculate how much money they were owed for the ten-pound baskets of mushrooms that they had picked during the last week. This functional illiteracy made it almost impossible for them to integrate into everyday American life. Mostly they stayed quietly in the shadows, content to be Mexican heroes to the ten to fourteen family members whom they typically supported back in Mexico.
But the most interesting men were those who could not recognize even a single letter of the alphabet. These men were not easy to identify because they carefully hid their illiteracy. Unless they came to you and declared their illiteracy, you would never get to know the darkness that they endured. A story that a Mexican friend of mine told me once helped me to understand how desperately these people wanted to learn to read. My friend and his uncle were walking through a parking lot one day. The uncle saw a truck with some letters on it, and he said to Rodolfo, "Look, I am learning to read," and carefully spelled out the letters that he saw on the truck: F-O-R-D. Rodolfo complimented him on his newly acquired skill, but he was trying not to laugh because the letters on the truck actually read C-H-E-V-R-O-L-E-T.
Rodolfo did not laugh at the man because he, too, understood the darkness in which the man suffered. Once you see illiteracy, you cannot forget it. The worst part is knowing that if you both had just a little time, in a few weeks you could begin to take the darkness away. But these adults in need see their lack of knowledge as a weakness, so they hide it and fear exposure.
DESIGNING THE PROGRAM
When our Phi Kappa Phi chapter was notified about the literacy grants, I approached the director of a Latino agency to ask for help in getting clients for a literacy program. Because so many functionally illiterate individuals exist in the immigrant community, it seemed unlikely that we would have any problems getting clients. My only worry was finding tutors among the busy staff and faculty at my university.
The grant initiated a new community program for residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, and its surrounding rural counties. It matched Phi Kappa Phi student members and University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) chapter professors as tutors with young Latino adults. North Carolina has a large and growing Latino population with a severe need for one-on-one literacy tutoring. The local Latino organization did not have the funds to run such a literacy program, so many students who wanted to take ESL classes were not capable of keeping up with other students. To encourage the Latino students to continue the literacy classes for an extended period, the lessons were structured around learning to read well enough to pass a North Carolina driver's license test. Dr. Martin Kozloff, an expert on literacy issues from the UNCW School of Education, set up an easy-to-teach lesson plan that was effective and up to the standards of the "No Child Left Behind" program. I purchased the needed books over the Internet. The literacy training was designed to prepare these students to continue to improve through ESL classes offered at the Centro Latino. Our tutors were trained to encourage the students to continue their general education as well.
Our program was designed to have at least two beneficial outcomes: learning to read and encouraging driver safety. …