Beyond Reading, Adult Literacy Is Survival

By Michelle Gottschlich, poet, writer, and service industry worker living in Bloomington, Indiana

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Limestone Post Magazine, “an online culture and lifestyle publication for Bloomington, Indiana, and beyond.” We chose to share this well-written article because it discusses adult literacy and adult education in Monroe County and discusses challenges familiar to educators and learners involved in this field. The original article can be viewed here.

Reva Duke and I grew up in Indiana and both refer to Bloomington as “home.” We have things in common. I knew I’d feel comfortable with Duke as soon as I met her. She has style. She’s the kind of person who probably stands under 5-foot-3, but you can’t be sure because you remember her as tall. When we met in early August, she was wearing an outfit I’d wear around the house with close friends. She had on a Mickey Mouse baseball cap, the sort of accessory that says to me the wearer’s got humor as well as deep tenderness.

Reva, how long have you lived in Bloomington?
Duke: “I’m from here, all my fifty-or-so-something years. I’ve lived a lot of places, but Bloomington’s been my home.”

How long have you been coming to VITAL?
Duke: “Six years.”

What was your reading level when you started at VITAL?
Duke: “When I came to VITAL, I could write an X for my name. I’ve learned a lot from VITAL. My math was at a kindergarten level and now is at the fifth grade, my reading is at the sixth-grade level.”

To understand literacy as the ability to read written language is to imagine literacy in a vacuum, bare and without context. Literacy is not a question of “Yes, I can read, I am literate,” or “No, I cannot read, I am illiterate.” It, instead, operates on the question, “Does my level of reading and comprehension empower me, or does it disempower me?” This allows the answers “sometimes yes” and “sometimes no.” For example, a person may be able to read but may not have the necessary aptitude to successfully file legal forms, like an application for disability. When a person cannot apply a particular level of skill with language, they can be disempowered by it. In most communities, literacy and its sustainment through education is survival. It’s a housing application, a citizenship test, a phone bill, health insurance, access to social services, a diploma, a job that can support a family. For decades, literacy and adult-education programs in Monroe County have found ways to reach adults where they are in life and in our community.

Volunteers In Tutoring Adult Learners, or VITAL, began at the Monroe County Public Library in 1977. It predates the Indiana Literacy Association and has been a flagship program for literacy services throughout Indiana since. VITAL is just one of many free adult-education programs offered in Monroe County. VITAL, Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC) Adult Education at Broadview Learning Center, the Bookmobile, and New Leaf – New Life work together as a powerful network of partnerships to answer the educational and life needs of adults in Monroe County. Bethany Turrentine is the director of VITAL, a program at the Monroe County Public Library (MCPL), and has been with the program for five years.

I asked Turrentine what expectations people have about adult learning that may be inaccurate. “The complexity to the barriers to learning,” she answers. “There’s an initial hump that makes follow-through difficult. Adults are competing with life’s priorities that make it hard to carve out time … work, moving, children, transportation, cellphone with enough minutes.…” Turrentine describes how even the work of assessing an adult’s reading level is, in itself, a tricky business. VITAL uses a particular assessment survey called the Bader Reading and Language Inventory, which places an individual at a relative grade level. But it’s not always the most effective tool for adults, Turrentine explains. For example, a reader might not score very high, only to realize they have vision impairment — the print size being cause for their struggle. “Adults have a deep vocabulary just from being an adult in the world,” says Turrentine. Finding teaching materials that match a learner’s reading level and are also appropriate and interesting to an adult learner can be a challenge if using traditional metrics and materials.

VITAL is an option for adults who want one-on-one tutoring that can fit around their schedules. Paired learners and tutors are encouraged to meet for 90 minutes once a week in the library at a time of their choosing.

Turrentine tells me VITAL offers “an opportunity that’s different than what happened for them in school.” She explains that many adults who come to VITAL were, in various ways, let down by their schooling experiences — whether their class size was too big and they were passed over or they had special needs that couldn’t be fully met. In expression of this, VITAL also uses an alternative taxonomy, using the terms “learners” and “tutors” rather than “students” and “teachers.” Tutors and learners form a partnership that begins with the question, What is most important and relevant to you? The learner may need to pass their driver’s test so they can start their new job, communicate with their child’s teacher, fill out forms, pass the high school equivalency test, and so on. The learner and tutor collaborate on choosing reading materials and forming the curriculum, curated for the learner’s particular goals. Turrentine tells me the tutor is a conduit for learning, and then she smiles, remembering, “A client once told me his tutor was his Google.”

What do you read?
Duke: “Heidi, Lassie, Little House on the Prairie, fiction, nonfiction — science.” Duke tells me she inherited her interest in science from her father, who worked in a lab.

Of the 200 adults, on average, who go to VITAL every month, about half participate in one-on-one tutoring and the other half join VITAL’s conversation groups for English as a Second Language (ESL). These groups are scheduled weekly and, while they previously had a more formal registration process, are now welcoming drop-ins. “For a lot of our ESL learners, here is the only place where they can practice English. It can be really isolating,” says Turrentine. Recently, numbers of learners are down at VITAL, Turrentine tells me, as well as in IU’s ESL intensive courses. In her opinion, for folks who speak English as a second language, it’s the political climate; going out into the community, there’s uncertainty, she says, pausing around the word.


What changes have you noticed, living here?
Duke: “Discrimination. Everything changed after 9/11. 9/11 toughened up people to abuse.” She tells me, “Bloomington,” and pauses. “I’ve lived in seven different states, I’ve been homeless …” she pauses again. “Bloomington is a good town. But the population is humongous; students, homeless, low class. We need help here in Bloomington. The mayor is opening his eyes to do his best and what he can.” She tells me she wrote Mayor John Hamilton a letter telling him the “low-class people and homeless are not just quote-unquote ‘a number.’ We’re not just a number that doesn’t exist.”


MCCSC Adult Education at Broadview Learning Center offers adult education in a more traditional classroom setting. Rob Moore, the director at Broadview, says the program is a good fit for adults who have the skills to participate and progress in a class. But unlike traditional high school, one teacher instructs all subjects. “Students form a closer relationship with the teacher, and teacher with student,” Moore says. In the 2016-17 school year, 482 students enrolled at Broadview. Eight students pretested at the beginning literacy level, or grade zero through the end of grade one. Forty-three students pretested between grade two and the end of grade three. For ESL, thirty-four students began learning basic English proficiency. Adult Education at Broadview also uses skill attainment rather than grades as its metric of assessing success.

Broadview is also a good option for adults who may have a timeline to pass the high school equivalency test (HSE) and are looking for more intensive instruction. Typically, students attend class nine hours every week for six weeks, which is the average length of time it takes to pass the HSE. Yet, Moore explains, “Most adults without a high school degree work part-time jobs, often two, and many are raising a family, and they can’t get to class.”

What is perhaps most impressive and dynamic about Broadview’s programming is their response to this problem through their many partnerships with other groups in the city. One such partnership is with Cook Medical, the medical manufacturing behemoth headquartered here in Bloomington. “As a company, Cook Medical had a need for workers in production, quality control, warehouse, and assembly — which are jobs that need a high school degree,” says Moore. “Monroe County has about 5,000 adults without a high school degree, and [Cook] recognized that as a great population.” My Cook Pathway is a program that allows students to work and take adult-education classes, all during the workday. Cook Medical hires Broadview students without a high school degree to work in their cafeterias. Students work in the mornings and then go to Adult Basic Education classes in the afternoons. Once they pass the HSE, they move from cafeteria to a full-time production position.

Broadview offers many partnered programs like My Cook Pathway, including ESL classes for hospitality, partnered with White Lodging; with Juvenile Probation under the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative grant to help expelled 15- to 17-year-olds finish their degree and train for employment; and also with the U.S. Army; Ivy Tech Community College; WorkOne; Monroe County Jail; VITAL; and Crestmont Community Center, where students without reliable transportation to Broadview can take classes in their north-side neighborhood.

How has adult education changed since you began seven years ago?
Moore: “I haven’t noticed a change in the students I’ve seen. They still come with goals in mind, which have always been usually in the area of employment or to improve their financial sustainability. Their barriers are still the same.” Then, referring to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development taking over adult education from the Indiana Department of Education in 2011, he adds, “The change has forced us to ask ‘Why do you want the GED?’ ‘What do you want to do differently that you can’t do now?’ so that we can get them to reach their specific goals.”


Back at VITAL, Turrentine also named education and changes to the workforce as challenges to adults trying to gain economic mobility. “In the 1980s, a lot of manufacturing jobs were lost to automation. You didn’t need reading or writing skills to obtain a job to support a family,” she tells me. “It’s happening again, there’s a huge scale gap. People are passed over in school. We have huge class sizes and adults [coming out of] special education who could have done more.”

Weaknesses in early and intermediate public education often won’t manifest most discernibly until students become adults entering the workforce. For many — the 5,000 adults in Monroe County without degrees — one must wonder what weaknesses entrenched in Indiana’s Department of Education pedagogic and funding practices let so many students down. For this reason, and for all those shared by Moore, MCCSC Adult Education at Broadview shines as a tremendous example of how dynamic, responsive, and invested classroom education can be.


One inherently dynamic service that’s increasing access to reading and learning materials in our community is the MCPL Bookmobile. The Bookmobile is a solar-powered bus that houses a curated collection of books from its mothership at the MCPL. This iteration of the Bookmobile is not the first or even the second iteration. It’s the sixth — the community’s first Bookmobile made rounds starting in 1929. “My understanding is that the advent of Bookmobile service in 1929 is what changed the Bloomington Public Library into the Monroe County Public Library, bringing services beyond the city limits,” says Chris Jackson, MCPL’s special audiences strategist.

Why a Bookmobile in 1929 — what were residents’ needs?
Jackson: “I don’t have a good sense of what the county was like 80 to 85 years ago, but needless to say, the infrastructure was far less developed, and given that the Bookmobile got started at the same time as the Great Depression, I imagine most families had very limited resources. One significant difference was the school system — limited transportation meant that schools were much more dispersed throughout the county, with most children walking to a one-room schoolhouse. The Bookmobile served most of these and, presumably, was the school library for many.”

The Bookmobile has added a second truck called the Outreach Van that sets up carts of books and other materials inside of assisted living centers and nursing homes, creating mini libraries for patrons with limited mobility who can’t easily come out and board the main truck. The Bookmobile has historically focused on providing access to materials in low-income and rural areas. Recently they’ve added a Sunday route that stays out after library hours to accommodate families’ schedules during the school year. The wealth of media available online has changed people’s reliance on public libraries and has revolutionized libraries’ approaches to providing digital media. Even so, Jackson says, “While this has lessened some residents’ reliance on the Bookmobile, many users don’t have high-speed internet at home, and many who do still prefer physical media, particularly when it comes to books, and overwhelmingly when it comes to children’s books.” The Bookmobile’s collection is curated and rotated daily. “Each of the drivers is responsible for this curation,” Jackson says, “and as they get to know the clientele that visits their routes, they customize the selections to match the current interests of those users. Thus, despite a smaller selection than in a library building, many patrons actually prefer the browsing experience on the truck, since it is indeed curated for them.”


New Leaf – New Life is a nonprofit organization that has been offering services since 2005 to inmates of the Monroe County Correctional Center (MCCC). It offers a transition program that helps inmates navigate social services and obtain resources upon release, as well as therapeutic programs within the jail block, such as Women Writing for (a) Change, HSE preparation (through Broadview), and rehabilitation for substance abuse. I spoke with Marilyn Burrus, the transition manager of New Leaf – New Life about their clients and programming.

How often is education a contributor when a person commits an offense that ends with jail time?
Burrus: “I would say 75 percent of the time. Addiction, poverty, homelessness, addiction — addiction right now is the big thing — probably a good portion of the addicts, especially the homeless population, [have experienced] a lack of education. Even if you have someone who is in a good home and they start using at a young age, education gets put on the back burner because addiction is a more powerful pull. It plays out in a lot of different ways.”

To help with recidivism, MCCC offers a six-month cut to an inmate’s sentence if they pass the HSE test (MCCC uses the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC), and New Leaf – New Life will pay for the cost of the test. “One of the things of New Leaf,” Burrus says, “is that there’s a real belief that if you can help the person become more independent and have more self-worth — and getting the [TASC] gives you more self-worth — that’s going to be one of the big things that is going to help them improve and help with recidivism.” After passing, a person can access the John Holland grant, which is funded through the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program and is used to pay for a person’s first Ivy Tech class after release. “It gets their feet wet,” Burrus tells me. “We’ve had three different people go through that, and one girl who is going to start full time. … There are benefits in the prison system to get people more educated. Plus, they have to do something while they’re in there.”

Aside from adult education, New Leaf offers volunteer-run writing workshops. Frank Brown Cloud and John-Michael Bloomquist facilitated one such program. Poems written by men in this program were published this year in the anthology Poems From The Jail Dorm (published by Monster House Press, where I work/volunteer). Increased literacy and access to education expand a person’s ability to navigate their world independently, to access certain parts of our society, and to bypass hard consequences. The ability to read, write, comprehend, and contemplate written ideas also has softer effects that many of us benefit from but take for granted. In an email, Cloud and Bloomquist describe how reading and writing affect men in the jail block: “We share the work in class and there is a lot of gratefulness, which builds up the courage needed to process those raw experiences into a creative work of art.” They emphasize the need to slow down and how contemplative activities have shown to decrease impulsive behavior. “Reading poetry, in particular, seems to make people more empathetic as well,” Cloud and Bloomquist write. “After they left the jail, several men told us that the poetry classes were the only times that they’d been able to think while inside.”


Education is just one significant factor in rates of incarceration and recidivism that dovetails with other challenges facing Bloomington’s vulnerable populations. Burrus says housing is the big problem. “So many in addiction — they really have nowhere to go after prison,” she says. “They go right back. Look at the amount of rental companies and corporations with apartments. All of those that hold onto the ability to rent to someone, only 10 percent of all the apartments to rent in Bloomington can be tenanted by someone with a felony. I know this, we made phone calls, we just got a list. The door is not open to people with felonies.” She continues, “Their chances of starting over are slim. That needs to change. You can’t expect people to change if you put them right back in that neighborhood.”

This is an experience Duke echoed herself.

What has been a challenge for you?
Duke: “Society gets on the computer and gets scared. They see me, I’ve had some charges, and they shut down immediately.” Duke details her fights to attain health insurance, disability, and housing. She’s worked at the Shalom Community Center for 16 1/2 years, as well as at the Community Kitchen of Monroe County and in the library. “I’ve had to go door to door to get a house. I tell them, ‘Don’t judge me.’”


What would you have me include in my article, Reva?
Duke: “Tell the world that VITAL, V-I-T-A-L is a real good program. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Duke participates in an English and art program in VITAL that’s led by a docent from the Indiana University Eskenazi Museum of Art. She tells me about her class, saying, “When I start my work, no matter how stressed I am, there’s this calm.”

A word from the author:
​Since beginning this piece, I received a letter from Duke. Like many people, I have trouble throwing out a birthday card. I give myself a pep talk — They still know you love them. Have you told them lately? Handwritten notes affect me. Opening a letter, I feel seen and considered for a length of time that makes me bashful and sweaty. There’s a sense of time to it; that this person held me in their mind for this long. There’s a sense of labor and consideration — all emotions run through like an old deck of cards, dealt and returned to find the word most fitting. Every sentence could be measured in hours for what they mean to me, and for what they mean in value, time, labor, history, small victories, and pain. Holding a letter — language in that tricky, scared, guarded form — it feels as though it channels a deeply human connection. But it is that channel — real; imagined, and material; necessary and sustaining. I feel it so much so, reading Duke’s letter, it hurts my whole heart to see it spent on me at all.