Phil Rabinowitz was involved in the early days of The Literacy Project as a teacher and a counselor. In 1988, he assumed the role of Executive Director, a position he held for 9 years. Here he reflects on the learning environment he and others set up at The Literacy Project.
Our assumption was that academic problems weren’t just academic. And our assumption was that reading problems aren’t just reading. And a lot of people who kept coming, and as a result made progress, originally kept coming for the social stuff. Because they didn’t have anyplace else where they got that kind of support. That was very important to people.
Part of the basic, absolute, fundamental way we approached the work was that we had to respect people as adults, and respect them for what they could do. And not disrespect them for what they couldn’t do. Because there were people who had wonderful skills. I mean, there were people who could do amazing things, in spite of the fact that they didn’t have the skills that supposedly they needed.
There was one guy in the early days who had been a Selectman in his town for years, and had been a trouble shooter at the Erving Paper Mill. He was the guy they would call at three in the morning when the mill broke down. He had memorized the blueprints. He knew every wire, every pipe, everything at that mill. And nobody knew that he couldn’t read. Not only was he a selectman, but he was known as the person you go to when you want the answers. He would memorize everything. He memorized the laws. His wife would read them to him, he would memorize every document on one hearing.
We were very clear that we wanted people to understand that they weren’t alone. We wanted people to understand that there are other people out there struggling with the same stuff, maybe at a different level, maybe at the same level, but still struggling. And that, “You’re not the only person.” Because everybody thought that they’re the only person in the world, that everybody else can read just fine. They’re the only one. Everybody else can do their checkbook and they’re the only one. So, we wanted to break that down.
We started out with the assumption that the best way to do this was in groups, but individually. That is, people would be in a group, but they wouldn’t be working as a group. Each person would be working on their own stuff and they would help each other and give each other moral support. So in a particular group you might have a person who was a beginning reader and one person who was doing a GED and someone else who was working on math. Because everyone needs to work at their own pace, but people need to know that they’re not alone. People found very quickly that even the people at the lowest levels were getting the same respect… And I love that. It was incredibly powerful. It was just amazing.
Our concern was not so much that they learn to read and write. I mean, obviously, that’s extremely important. But the thing is that literacy is a means to an end. Yeah, people need to know how to read, but they need to know how to read so they can use it for something.
And so, the obvious outgrowth is that you work with people not only on what they need to learn, but also on getting to the point where they can start to see themselves as actors in the world, instead of acted upon. And where they can understand what they can do, and how they can do it.
And it wasn’t that we would give people control over their lives, because you can’t give anybody control. They have to take it.
There’s no such thing as teaching, there’s only learning. You can put stuff out there, you can look for ways to present it so people take it in. But it’s the learner that has to do the work. [Good teaching is] presenting stuff in a way that speaks to the learner’s perceptions and the learner’s abilities to take it in. And then stepping out of the way, and letting people struggle. Because it’s the struggle that makes the learning. And that’s something we don’t understand in our society, you know, and people don’t understand about school, and I didn’t understand when I was in school. You’re supposed to struggle. You’re supposed to get it wrong.
We had a poster up, that was there the whole time I was at The Literacy Project. It was a mama whale and a baby whale, and they’re swimming around, and mama whale says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” And the baby whale says, “Well, what if you try and try and you don’t succeed?” And mama whale says, “That’s called learning.”
Something Jim Vaughan said, which was actually one of the most important things that anybody said about The Literacy Project, I think, was that if somebody’s sitting there with a tutor, and the tutor was helping them at every step, the success still belongs to the learner, not to the tutor. And that’s exactly true. Most people probably get out of school feeling that, you know, I had a teacher who did this wonderful thing for me. No! You did it! That’s the thing. And they have to realize that they can do it.
Teaching and learning are a partnership. Our motto for a while was, “We are teachers and we are learners.” I think we all felt that we were learning as much as students were learning, and learning constantly.
I spent 13 years basically, nine of those as Executive Director, trying to make it happen. And did make it happen. I honestly believe that. If I were to do it again, there’s a lot I would do differently. But I managed, with a lot of help, to make it a viable organization. I couldn’t have done anything without the folks who worked there who were really amazing people.
I was the Chair of the Public Policy Committee of MCAE, Mass Coalition for Adult Ed, for 13 years. And in that time we went from $2 million to $29 million in state funding, most of it over the course of about four years. And we busted our butts to make that happen, by getting to the right people in the Legislature, and just doing the legwork. And really, there were about six of us that were responsible for that. At one point, they wanted to cut funding for Adult Ed. We got out 5,000 letters. In a week. We had phone calls to the point that the then-President of the Senate was saying, “Have your people stop calling. We’re getting too many calls!”
What kept me doing it was that I believed, and still believe, profoundly, in the value of what we were doing. People used to ask me, “What kind of program do you run?” And my answer was, “Profoundly subversive.” What I want to see is a change in the society. I want to see social change for the better. I want to see social change that benefits the poor, but I want to see social change that benefits everybody. Because of the way I look at the world, I tend to think that any social change that benefits the poor is going to benefit everybody.
Learning is so fundamental to being human. I mean, it’s something we all need to do. We are hard-wired to do that. And it’s beaten out of us to a certain extent. And it shouldn’t be.