Baltimore, MD

The Privilege of Knowing How to Read

Ryan Fan

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When I was in college, everyone around me could read. In high school, everyone could read. In fact, now that I think back on it, everyone around me could read at a very high level. I was in advanced classes in high school, and I was always insecure about my reading.

I always lagged behind reading comprehension tests compared to my peers and it always made me feel incompetent to read a difficult passage and have absolutely no idea what I was reading.

I scored above the 90th percentile in both the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) and the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test), so you can say I know how to read and I know how to do it well. But those insecurities never go away — I can’t quite explain it but it always feels like I’m a complete fraud when it comes to reading. No matter how insecure I was about my reading, I was always at grade level or slightly below grade level (in elementary level) or above grade level (in high school).

When I became a high school English teacher, I had a certain idea of what I would be teaching. I thought my class would try to connect the theme of what The Great Gatsby said about the American dream. I thought I would have rich, intellectually stimulating conversations every day like I was in a college lecture hall.

Now that I have been a special ed teacher in Baltimore City for more than two years, I have had multiple 9th graders reading at a Kindergarten level. I’ve had some students who just cannot read — they are in the minority but they are students in the ninth grade who still cannot sound out every letter in the alphabet. While my students’ average academic abilities are higher this year, last year, my average ninth grader was reading on a first or second grade level.

I am no fool to think one or two tests define a student. I do know a lot of my students were stronger readers than they performed on the test we gave, as those students showed me they were stronger readers over the course of the year. My students who can’t read on their own will understand a grade level text if I read to them, showing good aural comprehension.

But my students with disabilities tend to be very academically low. I see the data for the students in the general education classes, and it’s not much better. I can count on one hand the amount of students I know reading on grade level. And you wouldn’t know how much some students struggle with reading unless you knew them well and interacted with them — and some students are deeply embarrassed over not knowing how to read or not knowing how to read well.

And the expectation I had going into teaching was shattered. It’s not the students’ fault — I wondered how we as a society and education system failed students so much. How did some of these kids pass Kindergarten not knowing phonics? Where is the support from outside the school?

These questions don’t take into account the social and political factors that led students to not know how to read, how the legacy of redlining and systemic racism disenfranchised and disadvantaged predominantly Black cities like mine.

I go into spaces where high expectations are deemed the solution to our literacy crisis, but we would be absolutely foolish to think expectations are a panacea for students to grow 10 grade levels in reading overnight. The factors in special education are also very complex — sometimes students with intellectual disabilities struggle with processing and retaining information. I also have a lot of students who are dyslexic.

At the same time, I see the relationship my students have with reading. Every time we read together as a class, it’s a cause for significant complaint. Not a single student has told me they like to read — not one. I don’t like to read all the time, and I do certainly prefer TV and podcasts as mediums for information and entertainment these days — but I’ll read a book when I need to and can read papers when I need to.

One of my students came to me today at the end of the day. He wanted to show me his report card — all A’s and two B’s. The student was reading at a Kindergarten level at the beginning of last year. He came to class every day, did all his work, asked questions, participated, and did what he was supposed to do.

At the end of the year, he tested on a sixth grade level. It’s the most growth any of my students have ever made, but I don’t take credit for it. Yes, it’s my job to teach students how to read and write better. But he’s the one who put in the work and the commitment to improve his reading.

I influence my students and try to push them in the right direction, and I push them a lot. Every student complains about how much work I give and how much I make them read. But how can I be a good English teacher if I don’t make my students read?

Regardless, I am much more accepting of this reality than I used to be. Complaining about students who can’t read and making scandalous media reports about it, to me, is condescending. What are you doing to help? What are you doing to solve the problem?

When I see Fox News articles about schools without any students or very few students reading on grade level, I wonder how people find that to be surprising and shocking. I’m in the classroom every single day trying to help students improve their reading and writing — it just rubs me the wrong way when someone wants to shine a negative light on the school system and do nothing to help themselves.

But I found that reality very shocking myself two years ago.

And it has made me realize how lucky and privileged we are to know how to read. It’s definitely something you don’t think about every day, and it’s definitely a privilege you take for granted until you’re shown every day the reality of what it’s like not knowing how to read.

774 million people around the world can’t read. And 36 million adults in the U.S. can’t read enough to work.

I thought reading was a right. I thought, to some extent, that everyone could read at some point in my life. And now I realize how wrong I was. Now I realize knowing how to read is a privilege, and it shouldn’t be. Knowing how to read means you’re lucky.

It shouldn’t be this way. But realizing how privileged we are just to be able to read something like this and to be able to have everything reading opens us up to is important — because not everyone has that privilege. And everyone should.

Originally published on October 8, 2021 on Medium

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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