Hobart and William Smith Colleges hosted the second annual Upstate New York Literacy Coalition Summit on October 20. Sponsored by Literacy Powerline, the coalition advocates, “100 percent community participation for 100 percent literacy.” The first coalition convened just outside of Syracuse last year. After the event, Katie Flowers, director of the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, offered the Colleges as host of the summit for the 2010 school year. The group was welcomed by HWS President Mark D. Gearan.
The coalition serves as a meeting point for librarians, principals, Head Start coordinators and other literacy collations from the Upstate New York area who are interested in sharing and gathering practices that are useful in understanding and teaching early childhood literacy, as well as fighting adult illiteracy. Flowers thought it was relevant for the summit to be held at HWS because of the increasing success of the Geneva Reads program.
Kim Scott, a Literacy Powerline network partner and the day’s facilitator, told the story of George Washington’s fight against illiteracy. It was during the American Revolution that he noticed how many of his troops were illiterate and taught his off-duty troops to read and write. In Europe, only those with aristocracy ties were literate. However, Washington understood that for there to be strength in numbers, the people of America would need to be literate. For America to succeed, we would have to distance ourselves from the European model. Today, the military still turns away volunteers who are illiterate.
As one attendee stated, “We are doing things to combat illiteracy but there hasn’t been any noticeable outcome.” Only 39 percent of parents nationally read to their children and yet, it’s proven that, “Long before children enter school, early experiences with books build a strong foundation for learning.” One emotional attendee commented, “If every parent reads to their baby for 15 minutes a night, we would have a revolution!”
Toward the end of the day the participants were told to juggle handkerchiefs that were handed out. Some people succeeded while others tried, but gave up quickly. Though perhaps childish, the idea of the exercise was that when anyone learns something new they feel uncomfortable and awkward; they may even give up. People enjoy doing something only when they become good at doing it. The same analogy can be found in sports, music, the arts and even literacy. Kids will give up unless they are helped along the way and encouraged to continue trying until they become good at reading and writing.
The day ended with an appearance from Geneva Mayor Stu Einstein who talked about his childhood memories of reading the condensed books in his grandmother’s “Reader’s Digest” magazines. It was these short readings that sparked his interest to go to the library and read the entire book. It wasn’t until his stint in the Army during the Vietnam War that he was aware of kids who, unlike him, didn’t know how to read or write. In fact, he recalled the times spent in basic training camp writing letters to loved ones back home on behalf of men in his company.
Thus, he stated literacy begins within communities, “Citizens often have disconnect with their local governments. Most community members see the government as a restricting force on personal freedoms.” He noted the community must realize instead that the government is here to help serve the people and their needs.
As one satisfied attendee walked out the door, she made the statement that this meeting was worthwhile and productive for the future of a literate Upstate New York. “We have to start somewhere,” she said.
Literacy coalitions from Madison Country, Onondaga County, Herkimer and Oneida Counties, the cities of Buffalo and Rochester, and the Amsterdam literacy zone were all represented at the conference.