Life and Literacy Lessons From Cook County Jail

Since February, I’ve been involved with a literacy project that has become one of my most rewarding yet.

The location? Cook County Jail.

My students? The female inmates of Division 17.

It all started with a class of just three women. During my first few weeks, I was brought in under the impression that I would be tutoring the inmates, teaching them how to read using the strategies I’ve employed for years with my students at Literacy Chicago.

But when I started by putting the vowels up on the board and reading through them slowly (“A … E … I … O … U”), it quickly became apparent that these women thought I was crazy.

Not only are they eloquent and intelligent – they’re also pretty good readers already. My attempts to teach them were therefore unintentionally demeaning, and I had to switch gears completely. In the months that have followed my initial snafu, I’ve been teaching them how to teach others to read using the Hot Dogs & Hamburgers Literacy Tutoring Manual.

And it’s been a BIG hit.

The class size has grown from three women to more than 42 with a waiting list. With a little of my help and a lot of their hard work, these inmates are building a unique skill set so that they leave jail equipped with the tools to teach their family, their neighbors and even strangers how to read. Several of the women who have since been released from jail have already walked through the doors of Literacy Chicago to become tutors themselves. Others who are still serving out their time have put their skills to use by teaching fellow inmates who may be more reluctant to attend the class.

They are learning how to pay it forward and they are doing it with an awe-inspiring gusto.

In addition to our classes, we have started our own book club, and first on our reading list is Hot Dogs & Hamburgers. Thus far, reviews seem to be positive. I’ve even seen one of the guards with a book in his hands!

The opportunity I’ve been given at the Cook County Jail has taken on a life of its own. My goal now is to not only spread my program throughout the entire jail, but also implement it in other jails around the country, creating a whole new group of uncharted tutors – a tutor army, if you will. How cool would it be to have jails across the country participating together in a virtual and interactive literacy course? The possibilities are endless.

My female students were the inspiration behind my plan to create this concept of an army of tutors. Anyone can learn how to teach someone to read. Whether it’s someone getting out of jail wanting to make a difference, perhaps helping someone get the chance they were denied … or high school students … postal workers … doctors … lawyers … insurance salesmen … firefighters … anyone!

So here’s the challenge: just like Billy brings his dad to school for show-and-tell or mom brings her daughter to work, I challenge every tutor out there to bring one new volunteer from an area of your life to become a tutor. It can be a family member, someone from work, your health club – anywhere. If 1,000 of us do this, the world now has 1,000 new inductee tutors. If 2,000 of us do it, there are 2,000 inductees, and so on until we create our tutor army.

Recruit, recruit, recruit!

I look forward to sharing more in the coming months. I also want to mention how grateful I am for all the support and kind words I continue to receive from friends and followers. Truth be told, there are many, many adult literacy advocates out there who have taught and inspired me more than they know. I’m just grateful to be part of their team.

Who or what has inspired you in your work lately?

Comments are closed.