Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Literacy Gang Fights Summer-Setback in the Name of Jesus

My wife and I read to our children regularly. They have recently begun to read to us. Their voices convey the magic of early literacy. For children without books or an adult to read to them, I feel great pity. I've often wanted to counter this problem.

I first encountered the concept of a literacy gap when working in a Denver public high school. I grew up in the suburbs. Minorities were few and mostly Asian. Their school performance put mine to shame.

The kids at George Washington High School lived a different story. Many of them rode the bus an hour to attend their school of choice. Many associated with gangs--solid red tees and over-sized blues tainted the hallways. The White and Asian students secured their own wing of the school in the International Baccalaureate program. The remaining students pushed and shoved and meandered through the rest of the building. Fights broke out regularly. Class participation happened on occasion.

Perhaps my memory has dramatized the sights and sounds of inner city education. Nonetheless, I perfectly recall the impoverished sense of literacy and grammar. The epidemic has spread to Warsaw, Indiana.

Sociologists, politicians, and educators alike have tried finding ways to eliminate the achievement gap. Individualized education plans, full-day kindergarten, block scheduling, tutors, mentors, and after-school programing top the list.

But these solutions don't account for one major issue: summer break. For the student who comes from a home where reading is not valued, literacy will take last place to soccer camps, cartoons, and water play. This phenomenon has been deemed the "summer-setback theory."

The theory is straight-forward: Gains made in reading during the school year fade during the summer. Like any muscle suffering atrophy, the mental muscle grows from repeated practice. Daily reading groups help students learn to read; two months of video games, camping trips, daytime TV, and bike rides do not.

The problem continued to gnaw at me. I began to envision myself riding a golf cart through a nearby trailer park. I'd fill the vehicle with books, bags of candy, and a giant blanket to sprawl out on. I'd announce my visits with a PA system and ditty that put the ice cream truck's to shame. I'd ask other adults from my church to go with me. We'd be a band of readers: the Literacy Gang.

Perhaps my imagination exaggerated the sights and sounds of a mobile library ministry. Nonetheless, the Literacy Gang took flight today. Fifteen kids, twenty-five books, and one hundred Tootsie Rolls later, I believe we're on to something. A simple ministry is born.

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