Friday, November 30, 2012

Teaching offers lessons in literacy

The Reading and Writing for Literacy project we are taking part in at The Mercury and with our TownSquare network of bloggers has meaning beyond raising funds for the Pottstown Adult Literacy Center.
The project, in which bloggers are writing about what literacy means to them, also raises awareness to the difficulties our newer citizens have in becoming skilled at the quirky language they must master to succeed in schools and in jobs in this country.
The majority of us for whom English is our first language tend to forget that it isn't for everyone. We are in many ways English-language snobs.
Read Sound-Off on a regular basis and sooner or later you'll detect the resentment at having to "press one" for English in a phone menu.
Some believe English should always be the default language, no others allowed, everyone else get in line to learn it.
But we're not that nation anymore. According to Census statistics, 8.3 percent of American households speak a language other than English at home. Many citizens in our region were born in places or in households where English was acquired, not native, as a language.
When we speak of literacy in our town and our nation, we're talking about the ability to read and write in English. That's what's needed in schools and workplaces in the U.S.
Many immigrants or children of immigrants can speak articulately but have not been afforded the learning necessary for mastery of reading and writing in English.
The difficulty, particularly in writing, can plague an adult taking college courses or applying for jobs.
I witness this firsthand, as I teach writing at Reading Area Community College to adult learners who do not test high enough for freshman English. Many of them are ESL students.
Three years ago I started teaching at RACC as an adjunct two nights a week, initially to help pay the bills for my own children in college and to explore teaching as a possible second career if I ever retire from the media business.
My classes are made up of high school dropouts coming back after getting a GED to give college a try, adult learners changing careers, parents who work in service industries or manual labor and want to improve their future job opportunities. Some are recovering addicts or ex-prisoners on parole living in halfway houses.
Ages range from 18 to adults in their 40s; some are parents of infants, and some are grandparents of teenagers.
What they have in common is a desire to improve their ability to read and write so they can succeed in college. I help with the writing part.
Their patterns of errors map the path of difficulty in writing in English. I can follow the trail from pronoun antecedents to singular verbs that end in "s", to family becoming families and child becoming children to see the struggle.
I tell them to read aloud and listen for their mistakes, and they stare back at me. They don't read with the inconsistencies that our language of exceptions provides.
Working with my students is among the most rewarding tasks I accomplish. I tell them there are two things I want them to achieve in my class: the first is to find their voice in writing and express themselves in a way that gives them confidence; the second is to learn the rules and basics of grammar and spelling so they can write effectively.
The second frequently interferes with the first.
My students are an inspiration to me as they work to learn to read and write at a level that allows them to be successful in their lives. Some of them want so badly to master the academics, while roadblocks like unfamiliarity with computers and poor training in the literacy basics get in their way.
They keep trying, and I smile at the unmasked honesty in their journals and their essays.
Without learning, they couldn't read or write their stories. That's why I teach.
The Mercury and TownSquare Reading and Writing for Literacy project is raising funds for the Pottstown Adult Literacy Center.
We are asking our readers to simply add your name to those who support the Adult Literacy Program.
A donor will give $1 for every signature as submitted on the following form.
The project, which lasts until Dec. 11, has thus far collected 721 signatures which translates to $721 to help fund literacy efforts in Pottstown.
Help us reach $1,000 by signing the form.
These dollars will go a long way to buy materials and help people learning to read.
Sign on to support our program: Pottstown reads.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A really cool idea, or two

"Do you know what would be really cool?"
These words from Mercury reporter Brandie Kessler were usually followed by:
"I know you probably don't want to do this, and you can say this is a dumb idea -- you're the boss, you do what you want, but I was just thinking wouldn't it be cool if ..."
A soliloquy along those lines preceded a number of really cool ideas that we have embraced at The Mercury and turned to successes for this newspaper and the community of the Pottstown area.
We collected more than 16,000 food items for area food pantries and nearly 1,000 containers of laundry detergent by joining efforts with TownSquare bloggers to spread the word about dwindling food supplies last winter.
Cool idea.
We created a Pinterest board of Most Wanted criminals in area police departments, getting pictures out to the public on a platform they use. Tips have led to arrests, which make police happy and make us proud.
Cool idea.
We are posting cards with donors' names to Operation Holiday on the window of The Mercury Community Media Lab as a colorful display and a thank you to the readers who send us thousands of dollars for our holiday giving program.
Another cool idea.
Brandie's coolest idea, at least in her mind, was raising money for the Pottstown Relay for Life by taking donations to pie a Mercury employee in the face at the Bark for Life event. The 2008 collection raised $2,700 and gave Brandie the opportunity to throw a banana cream pie in my face.

 I have had some cool ideas for Brandie, as well. One of them was sending her on the river with the Schuylkill River Sojourn last summer to live-blog four days of the river journey, traveling in her kayak, tweeting and taking video along the way.
Dedicated police reporter that she is, she fought me on leaving the office for a week to enjoy the outdoors.
I prevailed, and the blog was a gem.
Another idea I recently had was that she apply for a reporting job at our larger sister paper, the York Daily Record/Sunday News. I had learned about the job from colleagues at York, and I told her it was an opportunity she should not pass up. At least go for the interview, I insisted.
Again, the retorts that there are too many stories in Pottstown still to write, too much work still to be done.
But she went, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sunday was her last official day at The Mercury. She stopped in Monday though and I expect to see her again this week.
Brandie is one of a kind.
Her passion for reporting, her dedication to this craft, her persistence for excellence and her fearsome loyalty to her colleagues and others around her is unmatched.
That's why we already miss her.
There's a warning here, too, for our friends at YDR: Get ready for cool ideas.
And watch out.
You could end up with banana cream on your face. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blessings of near-misses, minor crashes

I had a bad start to my day today, as this photo clearly shows.
Untreated roads were covered with an icy mix of rain and snow, and I headed out with an extra measure of care. My mistake, however, was wanting a second cup of morning coffee, taking Old Reading Pike to Dunkin' Donuts  instead of staying on the more heavily traveled business Route 422.
Snow was falling pretty steadily; the KYW traffic report was noting minor crashes in those ever-popular northern and western suburbs.
I was coasting along about 30 miles per hour on a straight level stretch of road when the car started skidding -- sideways, then the other way, then sideways again.
The car was on its own, me helpless as I experienced in slow motion my red convertible making its way off the road. 
Into a tree.
The front right corner hit the tree before the car slid sideways into a large bush. The air bags didn't go off; I wasn't jolted or hurt in any way.
We are firm believers in our household in the coincidence of threes, and indeed, this was our third car mishap in five days.
The first of those three bears retelling:
Four of the five members of our family were driving home together Thursday evening after a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at our son and his girlfriend's apartment in New York.
Our younger son was driving, his twin sister the front passenger,  my husband and I in the back seat.
Traffic was light, and we were two-thirds of the way home on I-78 approaching Allentown.
As we passed the Hellertown exit, the unthinkable happened. My son saw it first - a car coming the wrong way up the ramp onto the interstate, crossing lanes, and speeding toward us in the passing lane. 
The car was barreling full-on at us, both vehicles going at high speeds in the passing lane.
Scott swerved the car slightly to the right but couldn't get completely out of the way because of cars alongside us.
The approaching car also swerved and went partly onto the grass median, narrowly avoiding the head-on collision that would have killed us all.
We were shaken, to say the least, thankful for the blessings of quick reflexes and angels watching over us.
We later learned the driver was arrested for DUI after going five miles in the wrong direction on I-78. The news report said nothing of crashes or near-misses, so we can assume he avoided hitting anything.
Those who know me well know incidents with cars are my plague and probably my greatest annoyance.
But today I am thankful for the near-misses and skids that end slowly. They remind me of how close we come to tragedy and how remarkable the forces of fate are in sparing us.
Be careful out there. Always.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Learning value of education from those who missed out

I was raised with the importance of reading and writing drilled into my life by two people who learned the hard way.
My parents, both born in the middle of large families, had to quit school after the 8th grade. My dad had to work full-time on the family farm; my mom was needed at home to help care for younger siblings and to start earning a wage doing housework for others.
Both families were poor in dollars, rich in lessons that my parents passed on to me and my brothers.
Education was a privilege denied them, and that made its value so much greater. As parents, they never let us forget it.
I've seen the emphasis passed on among my cousins, a message strengthened through my parents' generation by the hardship it took to acquire it.
I didn't realize until much later in my life that my parents were fortunate in what they took from those eight years of schooling, in both cases taught in rural one-room schools of the early 1920s.
My dad had flawless spelling and could write a good letter when he needed to; he was quick and adept at math, and served as president and treasurer of nearly every group he joined, including being an elected school board president and the treasurer of the Boyertown Area School Board during the era of expansion that included building the junior high west center.
He was surrounded by people much more learned than he, and yet he was often at the head of the table in clubs, the church consistory and sports teams.
Although he worked at Doehler-Jarvis as his day job, he ran his own taxidermy business in our basement, having learned the trade through distance learning by mail.
My mom's lack of education showed in her spelling, but it didn't stop her from communicating well. She spelled things phonetically, a trait that brings a smile upon reading her handwritten recipes for "punkin" pie or "dumplins."
She had insights and an understanding of people and situations coupled with a desire to keep learning. When my brothers were in college, she borrowed some of their textbooks as leisure reading. She particularly liked psychology courses.
She emphasized always that we have books in our home and in our lives as children. But even more important to her were "educational" toys, as she called them. Of course I had my share of dolls and my brothers had plenty of sports gear, but she made a point of insisting that blocks, puzzles, word games, and books were more important.
We were raised knowing we would go to college. It was a rule that my mother enforced. Although I didn't know it until my parents were in their twilight years and I was settled into my adult life, my dad had at one time thought a college degree wasn't necessary for me because I would "just get married and have a family."
My mother prevailed with her philosophy: "You can lose the people around you; your job can end. But no one can take away your education."
Her strong stand molded my future.
My parents knew from experience that education does not come easily to everyone.That's what the Pottstown adult literacy program is about. It benefits people whose lives did not start easily, and it has the potential to further those opportunities we know come from education.
Pottstown's literacy effort needs your help.
With just a few minutes of your time, you can sign on to support the Adult Literacy Program. A donor will give $1 for every signature as submitted on the following form. 
Those dollars will go a long way to buy materials and help people learning to read. My mother would call this effort "educational;" I call it a second chance.
Sign on to support our program: Pottstown reads.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

From Agnes to Sandy: How we cover a hurricane

Our staff at a news site in Pottstown where the Philly suburbs complete their turn to rural Pennsylvania rarely covers a hurricane. We have our share of flooding on the Schuylkill River and large creeks -- Perkiomen, Manatawny, French Creek  -- and sometimes the effects of hurricanes have been involved.
Last year, Irene caused some evacuations and flooding of the Perkiomen at Collegeville and Graterford. We had some Floyd-aftermath flooding in 1999, and I remember writing headlines about the approach of Gloria some years back.
But for full-fledged hurricane reporting, we have to go back 40 years to Hurricane Agnes.
Until this week and Sandy.
Like Agnes in June, 1972, Sandy set her sights on New York and New Jersey, and slammed Pennsylvania in-between with gale-force winds and drenching rain.
The AP reported winds reached 81 miles per hour in Allentown; Hanover, Pa. got 8.15 inches of rain.
Twelve deaths were reported in Pennsylvania, several of them from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
In our area, a 62-year-old man was killed when a tree crashed through his porch roof while he was taking the dogs out.
The biggest difference between reporting a hurricane and reporting some after-effects like flooding is the breadth of the storm and the dangers to ourselves.
When I send reporters over to South Pottstown to report on damage to the homes along the Schuylkill River, I tell them to wear boots, protect cameras and stay out of deep water.
But on Monday with Sandy "looming large," the warnings were more stern. We put a plan in place to keep paginators and online producers at home, as long as their power lasted. We bought car chargers for laptops; put fresh batteries in flashlights; kept cell phones fully charged.

Reporters and photographers and two editors were in the office, coordinating coverage. We planned a front page by phone, brainstormed headlines like we always do, but in phone and email instead of in person. We kept website, Facebook, Twitter and mobile sites up to date.
By 8 p.m. Monday night, we closed up at the offices and drove home just as the wind speeds were picking up. Two people were on alert to go out overnight if they got word of a water rescue, fire or building collapse. The message was: Don't go out for flooding or wind damage. That can wait until daybreak. Don't risk going out in this wind unless it's a disaster that demands immediate reporting.
By Tuesday, many of us had lost power in our homes, but The Mercury did not. Neither did the offices of our sister sites in the Philly cluster, except Montgomery Media and a portion of the Delco Daily Times building.
To be sure, not all systems were working perfectly due to the devastation Sandy caused around us, in New York City and the Jersey shore. But for the most part, we could work.
The greatest damage here were giant trees uprooted, wires down and limbs everywhere. Fortunately, none of our staffers suffered damage to their homes except for some damaged gutters and broken tree limbs. The inconvenience of losing cable or Internet or lights and TV is minor compared to what we witnessed at the beach and in New York City.
Ironically, Sandy stormed our way the year of the 40th anniversary of Agnes and a recap of that coverage. There was no comparison to the devastation caused by Agnes, but the approach was the same.
When we pulled out the old Agnes papers for research last summer, we noticed there were no bylines in those editions, just a box that said everyone on staff contributed to everything they produced.
That's how The Mercury covered a hurricane 40 years ago.
With a bit of sarcasm and some silliness, our staffers like to say "there's no I in team." (I won't repeat the second half of their slogan about three "u"s.) 
That's how we covered Sandy, and why it was different than a normal storm. 
The bylines don't matter in a hurricane; the team effort does.