A Memorial Tribute to Aretha Franklin: Meeting the Need for RESPECT with Adult Basic Skills Education

Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)

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Aretha Franklin, the high school dropout who went on to become the “Queen of Soul” with honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, wrote a song about her need for RESPECT. She sang out, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T Find out what it means to me”. Aretha Franklin passed away today, August 16, 2018, aged 76, respected by millions of people around the world. Not only was Aretha Franklin an iconic songstress, during the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s she contributed extensively to the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to bring literacy, civil, and voting rights to African Americans.

As a memorial tribute to Aretha Franklin, here is a brief note about what RESPECT means to adults seeking to improve their basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills.

In January of 2007, I went to Dublin, Ireland to present a speech at a conference of adult literacy tutors sponsored by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). The theme of the conference was Sustaining Motivation for Adult Literacy Learners. As I thought about this theme, and how I might frame remarks that would fit with it, I glanced at the bulletin board by my desk. There I noticed the photos of the grand, main building of the New York Public Library (NYPL) that I have tacked to the board. 

I have long admired the NYPL located on the south-west corner of the intersection of 42nd street and 5th avenue. I am particularly fond of the two massive sculptures of lions that guard the main entrance to the library. During the great depression of the 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dubbed the two sculptures of lions with the names Patience and Fortitude. Mayor LaGuardia told the citizens of New York that patience and fortitude were the qualities they would require to survive the economic depression gripping the nation and New York City. 

This lead me to think that these great lions, Patience and Fortitude, also represent the qualities that adult literacy tutors require to persist in helping adult literacy learners maintain their motivation in what can often be a long and difficult struggle for literacy. In many ways, the adult literacy tutors are the Lions of Literacy. They help guide adult learners into the great library of books of the world which provide access to the collected knowledge of the ages. 

As I studied the photo of Patience and Fortitude, I came to the thought that there was something that bonded these two qualities and sustained them. Then I thought of Aretha Franklin and her hit song, RESPECT. It occurred to me that respect is what builds the bond between tutors and learners, a bond maintained by patience and fortitude on the part of both tutors and learners. 

For my presentation in Dublin, I built on these thoughts and developed the idea that the seven letters of the word R.E.S.P.E.C.T. that Aretha Franklin spelled out in her song could serve as a mnemonic for seven factors that taken together can help sustain motivation for the work of teaching and learning in adult literacy education. 

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. 

R: Relevance to the learner's lives 

E: Engagement with the learning experience 

S: Social capital development for learners 

P: Participation by learners in choosing goals, curriculum materials & 
methods 

E: Educational opportunities across the life span & across multiple
life cycles 

C: Community support for adult literacy education 

T: Teachers/tutors who care about adults, literacy, & learning 

Following a brief overview of these seven factors, I focused on R, for Relevance. I recounted the stories of three great adult literacy educators who focused on the relevance to the lives of their students of the materials they were using to teach adults to read. 

First, the story of Harriet Jacobs, the former slave girl of the mid-1800s who taught an old black man to read using the Bible, which was what he wanted to learn to read.

Next, an account of the work of Cora Wilson Stewart in 1911 to start the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky and the materials she wrote in books called the Country Life Readers. These books taught reading in the context of farming, home making, health for the family, community development and other topics of relevance to the lives of the country folks who came to class on moon lit nights. 

Finally, the Queen Mother of the civil rights movement in the United States during mid-20th century was identified as Septima Poinsette Clark. She started Citizenship Schools to teach African-Americans to read and write so they could vote. This was the relevant goal for these American citizens who were being denied voting rights and hence social justice because of illiteracy. Septima Clark knew the importance of developing literacy and power by making the materials of education relevant to the lives of her students. 

To sustain the motivation of adult students in the often arduous task of learning to read and write adult literacy tutors need both patience and fortitude. But above all, they need to have R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for their students. And the primary letter of that word, R, stands for Relevance. Over a century of professional wisdom by those on whose shoulders we stand confirms the importance of relevance in adult literacy education. 

Today's adult literacy teachers and tutors carry on the important work of respecting adult students and providing relevant literacy education sustained by both patience and fortitude. They are the Lions of Literacy in the 21st century. 

With R.E.S.P.E.C.T. for Aretha Franklin may she R.I.P.!