The Rapidian Home

Summit focuses on empowering through multiple literacies

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

More than 200 people convened at Calvin College for the third annual Community Literacy Summit.

Alums digging in

Calvin College alums are at the forefront of conversations around improving literacy in Kent County.

Wendy Falb, a 1987 grad, was recently named the executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan. Falb, who serves as the president of the GRPS Board of Education, brings to the Literacy Center years of experience in education, advocacy and leadership.

Lindsay McHolme, a 2003 grad, serves as the director of the Community Literacy Initiative at the Literacy Center of West Michigan.

Dr. Ernest Morrell gives the keynote address at the 2014 Community Literacy Summit.

Dr. Ernest Morrell gives the keynote address at the 2014 Community Literacy Summit. /Matt Kucinski

In Kent County, the statistics are dismal. According to the 2014 State of Michigan Education Report just 56 percent of low-income students are proficient in reading. And only 42 percent of Latino students are meeting or exceeding standards in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

And the state as a whole isn’t faring well either. According to that same report, Michigan is one of just six states that posted learning losses in overall student performance in fourth-grade reading since 2003.

These statistics are a reason why more than 200 people, including professors, grade school teachers, nonprofit workers, public health officials, volunteer tutors and philanthropists convened at Calvin College on Monday, September 29, for the third annual Community Literacy Summit.

“The summit reminds folks that they are not alone in this work; literacy draws a diverse group of people who recognize the power of literacy in art forms and movement as well as print and digital texts,” said Debra Buursma, education professor at Calvin College, who was one of the organizers of the summit.

Pathways to literacy

The summit was put on by the Community Literacy Initiative (CLI), which is a literacy coalition that empowers community leaders, parents and residents to improve literacy for all ages in west Michigan. The focus this year was on everyone being a teacher of literacy and exploring the idea of multiple literacies.

Buursma said this idea of multiple literacies was developed throughout the various workshops and gathering times at the summit. She said Dr. Ernest Morrell’s talk connected with what CLI is all about, engaging and meeting people where they are at to discover the kind of literacies that are relevant in their daily lives:

“As Ernest would say someone might not be able to read a fifth-grade text, but they care about social issues and read the world through social media, pop culture, or hip hop – that’s the place to start. So if I, as an English teacher or tutor, take the time to listen to where the person is at and engage at the level at which they are reading the world, then I can begin to bridge and say ‘here’s an issue you are interested in. In order to be engaged civically in this issue, let’s use popular culture, and we need to learn how to write an essay, because we need to tell the mayor.’”

The summit also included various workshops that discussed literacy more broadly, creating interdisciplinary and interdivisional conversations. One of those conversations centered on how literacy levels are one of the key social determinants of health.

“Reading is important,” said Buursma. “But, it’s not just about reading. This is about reading, writing, thinking, communicating as social involvement/engagement. Understanding that literacy is linked to multiple issues in the city, such as access to technology, access to books/texts, access to healthcare, is important.”

Learning through listening

Buursma says the dialogue at the summit represents conversations Calvin is having of what it means to be a good neighbor.

“CLI seeks to empower people in the community and that walks right alongside our mission to be engaged in the community, to listen to the community and to see where we can step in, roll up our sleeves and work alongside, because we are part of this place,” she said.

Part of Calvin’s engagement with literacy efforts in recent years has come through working to improve the quality of teaching in local schools through professional development grants from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Mathematics professor Jan Koop and dean of education Jim Rooks have received a total of nine grants to improve the quality of teaching of math and reading in local schools. And education professor John Walcott received two MDE grants to improve the teaching of writing in local schools.

Buursma also says the college is deliberate about getting Calvin students into area schools, working alongside P-12 students, as early as second semester of their first year. She said that’s part of recognizing and understanding what it means to be a neighbor—to learn about the demographics of the school and how it is contextually situated in the neighborhood.

“It’s not just about rolling up sleeves, but also teaching our students that we have to be good listeners, we have to be good observers, we have to be good at asking questions and then hearing the answers to those questions in order to serve well,” she said.

Alex Bass agrees with Buursma. The Calvin sophomore is a community partnership coordinator for her residence hall. Students in her hall are helping students at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center get to grade level in reading and comprehension.

“It’s good for Calvin students to realize the education system that is around them in Grand Rapids and how different it might look from the education they received,” said Bass, a speech pathology major. “It helps students to understand the different backgrounds that people have within the city.”

Drawing out literacy

Buursma said Morrell hit the nail on the head in his keynote address, saying that he believes in the capacity of all people as innately literate people and that we need to be culturally responsive in order to help them see themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, communicators, and engaged citizens.

“When that begins to happen, there’s a vision, a hope that begins to be instilled,” she said. “If I see a problem, I can step in and do something about it, but if we don’t believe in ourselves as communicators or thinkers we risk becoming part of dismal statistic sheets.”

Buursma added that multiple literacy experiences bring hope and that community engagement in literacy efforts can turn around dismal statistics and empower people of all ages.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.