Today’s post comes from one of the winners of the Her.meneutics Summer Writing Contest, responding to the question, “What do you wish the local church knew?” Winning entries will appear on the site each Wednesday through Labor Day. –Kate
I spent my first year out of college teaching social studies in an urban Title I middle school. Meeting all 125 students that first day was overwhelming, but one stood out right away.
Deja was bright. She was a leader—confident, athletic, witty, and well-liked. She rarely completed her homework, but actively participated in class and always had the right answer. When it came time for our first test, I was shocked that Deja failed. She scored 20 percent, despite having won all the in-class review games the day before.
I met with Deja during my planning period to figure out what was going on. After going through the first few questions with her, it hit me: She could not read. I ended up administering the test orally on the spot, reading each question aloud to her. She didn’t get a single answer wrong.
Afterwards, I sat in my empty classroom and cried. Going into teaching, I knew that the opportunity gap plaguing high poverty schools like mine was fundamentally a literacy gap. Kids growing up in families on welfare hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers—and that’s just before age 3. Those who fail to read on grade level by third grade continue to lag behind in middle school and high school, and they’re less likely to graduate or make it to college. These kinds of statistics motivated me to teach in the first place. But after meeting Deja, I felt hopeless. What can a good, or even great, teacher do in a middle-school classroom when kids enter so far behind?
I reached out to Deja’s parents, tutored her after school, and made other teachers aware of this issue. I wish I could tell you that she finished seventh grade knowing how to read. Even after making significant progress, Deja could only read on a second-grade level by the end of the school year. I felt like I had failed her as a teacher. I’m still haunted by the knowledge that she had reached an academic dead-end as a 12-year-old.
America’s reading crisis has been recognized by our nation’s military leaders as a national security threat, and leaders on both the Left and the Right have declared educational inequity to be “the civil rights issue of our time.” But the alarmingly high rates of illiteracy in our country also hold troubling implications for us as Christians.
Reading and writing are deeply woven into the fabric of our faith. The truths underpinning our faith, the foundation of what we believe, come from a book that spans thousands of pages. Scripture is brimming with commands related to reading and writing. What does it mean to worship and follow a God who is called Logos—The Word—when you yourself can't read?
Certainly, you can know the gospel even if you don’t read. Spoken evangelism is a powerful force, and people are coming to faith in remote areas where they don’t even have a Bible in their native language. But in 21st-century America, where both our culture and our church relies on this written word so heavily, being unable to read means missing out on a lot.
There are millions of kids like Deja in our country. Only a third of our eighth graders—kids who are 13 and 14 years old—scored proficient or higher in reading in 2013. The rates are even lower for children born to poor households. Fourth graders living in low-income communities are less than half as likely to be able to read at grade-level than students from wealthier homes.
There remain systemic issues of inequality that our country and our education system as a whole need to address to change these outcomes. But Christian communities can recognize our current reality and get involved now:
Tutor. If you can read, you’re in a good position to teach students. Identify the closest school with the greatest need and reach out to the volunteer coordinator or office staff there. Tutoring produces results. A study by the education research firm MDRC found that students who met twice weekly for 45 minutes with a volunteer tutor gained an additional two months of reading growth compared to a control group of students who also received supplementary literacy support.
Organize Book Drives. Research shows that reading abilities correlate directly with the number of books in a household; on average, children growing up with books in their homes achieve higher levels of education than those without. In higher-income communities, there are an estimated 13 books for every 1 child; in lower-income communities, the ratio hovers at 1 book for every 300 children. Churchwide book drives can get reading materials into the hands of children who need them the most.
Host Classes. Designate a space in your church building for literacy classes and launch a weekly tutoring program. Research best practices, set goals, recruit and train tutors, and develop a volunteer rotation for church members to provide food, childcare, and transportation for participants.
In her book Educating All God’s Children, Nicole Baker Fulgham cites a 2014 study indicating that “95 percent of pastors believe that Christians should get more involved in public schools.” If that many churches began actively combating the illiteracy epidemic, I am confident we would begin to see that literacy gap close.
I haven’t spoken to Deja in five years. I do not know if she ever learned how to read, or whether or not she graduated from high school. Statistically speaking, her chances were slim. One in three children growing up in poverty won’t graduate, and only 9 percent earn a four-year degree by 25. I pray that people intervened on her behalf and helped change her trajectory, but I can’t be certain.
Reading Scripture has the power to transform lives. My prayer is that the church will play a key role in working to ensure that each one of our neighbors—no matter their socioeconomic background—has the ability to do just that.
Sara Kay Mooney is a teacher librarian at a large, urban, Title I Middle School. When she's not giving book recommendations to adolescents, you can find her blogging, taking pictures, or writing for Misadventures Magazine, among other things. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband. Follow her on Twitter at @sarakaymooney.