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Celebrating International Literacy Day in the time of COVID-19

Published on September 2, 2020

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Tuesday, September 8th, 2020 marks the 53rd anniversary of International Literacy Day. Created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) back in 1967, the day is meant to spread awareness about the importance of literacy worldwide. As students and teachers prepare to go back to school this fall, they are stepping into a whole new world of trying to learn during a global pandemic. This year, UNESCO is using International Literacy Day to highlight educators and the role they play in advancing literacy among youth and adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNESCO, the push to a more virtual society during the pandemic has only made the divide between the disadvantaged and the rest of the world deepen, hampering efforts in increasing literacy rates among the world’s less fortunate. In celebration of International Literacy Day, the Toronto International Festival of Authors spoke to two teachers about their experience teaching in the Spring of 2020 and preparing to enter the classroom in September 2020, and their efforts trying to advance literacy in the classrooms. 
 

David Wallace, English Teacher with the Toronto District School Board 

What has been your experience teaching since the onset of the pandemic? 

Well, that’s (teaching) been hard so far. It’s certainly helped that the Toronto Public Library did the digital library card, I had a lot of students taking advantage of that. I found that using the virtual classroom and using all sorts of electronic tools to communicate with students helped give students the message that we care and that we’re listening and that’s really important. 

Were there barriers for your students when trying to access work virtually? 

It’s obviously been a huge disadvantage for some students, especially frankly for the students who have lower motivation in the first place. It’s hard for them to motivate themselves to connect using technology and it’s obviously much easier for them to do that when the teacher is right in front of them, but I would say we’ve been getting by anyway. 

How do you encourage literacy in your classroom? 

I have a pretty full classroom library. I’ve got three or four hundred books littering the shelves of my classroom. We take time during the class to read. I always believed in trying to get exactly the right book in the hands of the right students. I always tell students that I only have one superpower, which is that I can recommend books. Giving time for it, giving time to talk about books, I think is the most important thing. 

In your opinion, how can we as a society increase youth literacy rates? 

We need greater access. Many of my students, even with that free Toronto Public Library card have found themselves unable to get the books they want because there aren’t that many digital copies. The Toronto Public Library doesn’t have infinite funding. The Toronto District School Board needs to have its own digital library initiative. We need to commit to this in such a way that students can choose either physical books or e-books for their textbooks, novels their reading and so on, but I don’t think that’s the only solution. If we want to increase literacy, I think we need to talk more about books. As a society, we need to have more respect for our writers and we need to have more space for our writers to connect directly with students. I love it when I can get writers in the classroom because it really inspires students. 

What do you expect your classroom to look like in the fall and how do you encourage students to continue to read? 

I don’t think it’s going to be what I’ve done in the past. I’ve got that classroom library of all those books, but I can’t have the students touch them. Whatever we do is going to have to be something that does not have their hands on any books that anybody else had their hands on. We still haven’t had full guidelines; we don’t yet know if we can distribute class sets of novels to students. Maybe if I can put gloves on and sanitize, maybe I can give each student a copy of a book that they’ll keep for a few weeks, but I don’t know that yet. I may be relying once again on digital books for kids and again I think we are not well set up for that.  

As a teacher, have there been any positives that you’ve noticed during the pandemic? 

I found that all the way until the end, I had more than half of my students still engaging in some way. Sometimes they were coming to my daily virtual class sessions, some of them were still submitting assignments, some of them were still doing readings.  

 

Carlo Santin, English and Writers Craft Teacher with the Toronto Catholic District School Board  

What has been your experience teaching since the onset of the pandemic? 

For a lot of teachers, they didn’t have anything prepared online for kids. They (teachers) were under a lot of stress. For me, it was hard to track all my students down. Some of them didn’t have phone numbers or their phone numbers were wrongor unfortunately, in some cases, parents didn’t want to be contacted. I had a really hard time gathering everybody to say, ‘Hey, here’s our website, here’s the work we’re going to be working on, here’s how we’re going to do this for period one English.’ 

Were there barriers for your students when trying to access work virtually? 

I had a significant number of kids who did not have regular access to high-speed internet at home or any internet. They did not have a computer, so all they had was maybe a phone, or they lived in different homes. They went to mom’s house one weekthen dad’s house the next and grandma’s house on the weekend.   

How do you encourage literacy in your classroom? 

You have to let kids read things that they are interested in, either through giving them options and choice, or at least bringing them material that speaks to them. If you’re not going to let them pick the material they like to readthen at the very least try to offer them material that speaks to them and is relevant to them. Otherwise, you’re not going to get anybody’s attention. 

In your opinion, how can we as a society increase youth literacy rates? 

I think giving students some choice and some say in the curriculum is very important. Yes, I’m the teacher and I’m the trained professionaland it is up to me to ultimately guide my students and make decisions, but students should very much be part of that process. They should be involved in those decisions and choices. 

What do you expect your classroom to look like in the fall and how do you encourage students to continue to read? 

Honestly, I have no idea. Nobody has told me anything. I am going to meet the kids where they are and say, ‘Hey what’s been going on in the last six months? Where are you right now? Let’s figure out what’s going on, work together and tell me what you need from me.’ That is going to be my starting point with my students on the first week of September. 

As a teacher, have there been any positives that you’ve noticed during the pandemic? 

I did remain connected to them (students) on Instagram and email. We were able to maintain a good relationship and connection that way. I had a lot of kids reaching out to me, checking in on me saying, ‘Hey Sir, are you doing okay? How are you doing?’ That was very, very nice. 

TIFA Blog

Celebrating International Literacy Day in the time of COVID-19

Published on September 2, 2020