By Alain Castillo
Leslie Borhaug Tillit wants everyone to master their ability to read.
“It’s so important to be able to read in order to be in control of your life,” said Tillit, a former North Carolina school teacher who taught for 16 years, including nine years of instructing at-risk students.
Nowadays Tillit writes the young adult urban street lit series, Gravel Road, published by Saddleback Educational Publishing.
Tillit shares the stories of teenagers who face real-life conflicts such as date-rape, gangs, violence, pregnancy, and drug abuse, a stark difference to today’s hot topics of love triangles with vampires and werewolves in Twilight or the magical adventures found in Harry Potter.
The series may not touch on what’s popular today, but they speak to a different audience — teens who connect with these situations and read at a third grade level.
Though the teens in her stories face harsh situations, Tillit said she intentionally made the characters academically strong so that they would not be stereotyped as low-readers themselves.
Stereotypes about low-level readers are common, Tillit notes, and says that people would be “surprised” to know that they are found in every ethnic group and socio-economic class.
“It is true that you find children struggle (with reading) when fewer resources are available to them, including written texts in the home or if they have no adults that model reading for them. (But) in addition, if education is not valued in the home, then those students can struggle, too.
According to ProLiteracy, 29 percent of the country’s adult population —over age 16 don’t read well enough to understand a newspaper story written at the eighth grade level. Forty-three percent of adults with the lowest literacy rates in the United States live in poverty. More than 65 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can be classified as low literate.
However, having low literacy skills doesn’t begin in adulthood, it starts in childhood and it’s a learning challenge Tillit wants to attack head-on with her book series.
Tillit bases her stories on her students’ real-life experiences at Davidson River School, in Brevard, an area in southwest North Carolina. There, she built positive teacher-student-parent relationships with low-level readers and at-risk students at the 6-12 school.
“For me, teaching has always been about the relationships and about inspiring individuals to believe in themselves so they will one day become responsible, productive adults who can then touch the lives of others,” said Tillit.
One way Tillit inspired her students was to engage them in working on a book project. Over a three-year period, Tillit worked with various classes on researching the local town’s history.
Blessed by school administrators with the freedom to teach what and how she wanted because her students were considered possible dropouts, Tillit’s efforts paid off.
The students created three books: Behind Closed Doors of the Allison-Deaver House (2003), Lake Toxaway…Back in the Day (2004) and Brevard Standing Alone, North Carolina’s First Integrated Football Team, The Untold Story (2005).
The book project led to a total of six North Carolina Society of Historian awards, including the Jim and Lynn Rumley History Book Award from 2003-2005.
Tillit says that this proved to the students “that by engaging in their learning they could produce a product that others, especially adults, could respect and value.”
“As a result, the students experienced authentic learning by reading, writing, researching history, editing, using critical thinking skills and ultimately took an interest in their own learning.
Tillit looks forward to the success of her series and plans to write more on school bullying, depression, homelessness, overcoming a learning disability, challenges as a teen mom and even love stories.
To Tillit, reading is a gateway to a better life.
“If you cannot read, you remain at the mercy of those around you who can access a greater amount of knowledge,” she said. “It is also about self-confidence. As those, like me know, when you cannot read well your confidence is low because you are embarrassed. Some students act out as a result because they do not want others to know they can’t read well. So if others at least think the low reader is tough, then he/she feels a sense of protection.”
But putting on a tough act lasts only so long. The real solution is what Tillit advises her readers to remember:
“Read as if your life depends on it,” she said. “Because it does!”
Latina Lista contributor Alain Castillo is based in Dallas, Texas.