Reflections on Reading: Bringing Progressive Ideals to the Adult Classroom

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One teacher spends her summers teaching reading, and it's not only her students who benefit

By Ann Fyfield

From the Fall 2010 Caller
Summertime is a chance for teachers to gain that much-needed balance that prepares them for a busy year back at school. Although many of us take classes or go on vacations, I return every summer to the community college where I first began my career as teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL). Now I use that background—and the progressive philosophy I bring from Catlin Gabel—to teach reading to adults of all persuasions.
After receiving my master’s degree, I began teaching again at the community college level, joining my new focus on reading with my love of ESL. I taught the lowest remedial reading classes, with students ranging from high school age to 55, from countries spanning the globe, and with many working full time trying to juggle school and families. Thanks to what I had learned teaching at Catlin Gabel, I soon realized that some of these students came with non-diagnosed reading or learning disabilities. For many reasons they had not fully learned the tools to decode words, or had not learned the important study skills that help students prioritize and persevere through discomfort. Many had been demoralized or fallen through the cracks in their teen years of schooling, yet still they had the fortitude to try schooling again.
Their fear or anxiety about education came out in a variety of ways. One young high school dropout looked at me sullenly on the first day, and said, “Don’t try to tell me what to do. I’ll always say no.” One older man pleaded with me to never ask him to read aloud in class, because he couldn’t pronounce the words. With John Dewey’s progressive philosophy in mind, I began allowing them to choose their own readings and used techniques of group work, the reading and telling of individual stories and responding to others’ reading. This paid off. On the last day of the class, I received a note from the sullen student, who wrote, “Thank you for letting me choose the book for the final project. Now I can love reading.” The man who hadn’t wanted to read aloud said his teenage children began reading a book after he told them about it.
At Catlin Gabel, teachers provide thoughtful commentary on a student’s progress instead of giving a grade. In community college level, a passing grade can mean the difference between receiving financial aid or not. But a passing grade says nothing about what a student has learned or not learned. Sometimes I hand back tests with no grade, but with comments in the margins. This leads to a lively discussion: does the grade motivate you, or does the learning? As the debate goes on, an authoritative response from a quiet Hispanic woman says it all: “I came here to learn, not to get a grade. A grade says nothing about whether I can speak or read English,” she says. At the end of one such class, a young man asked for his homework back, saying that he hadn’t put enough effort into it and wanted to do a better job. He became a different student after that class.
Spending time teaching adults renews my devotion to the belief that a strong foundation in reading and study skills during middle school carries on throughout life. It also affirms my belief that the progressive ideals we hold true at Catlin Gabel, those that value and build on a student’s interest and the rewards of effort and taking risks, can be brought to places outside of our privileged environment and ultimately understood and appreciated by everyone. That’s what I obtain from my strongly held belief in progressive education. That’s the balance I find in taking my teaching beyond Catlin Gabel.
Ann Fyfield is a reading specialist in Catlin Gabel’s learning center and teacher of 6th grade humanities. She has also served as Japanese instructor and worked in the admissions office.