in progress edited by Daniel
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)
Students for Literacy
In 1989, two McGill graduate students took it upon themselves to pioneer a student-run literacy program on campus. They recruited and trained four fellow students as literacy tutors and matched them with learners in the Montreal community. They held their meetings in the school cafeteria and were given a small start-up budget from the McGill student society. In 1991, Frontier College, Canada’s oldest literacy organization, caught wind of their efforts. They asked themselves this question:
university and college students want to get involved in social issues, to
volunteer their time to make things happen, and to use their skills and
knowledge to improve the world, then why don’t we help them to do just
that?” (Miller, 1993).
College asked the McGill program coordinator, Stephanie Miller, to join their
organization and spread this idea of student literacy programs to universities
and colleges across Canada. Miller agreed to join their forces in September
1991, right after she finished up her graduate degree.
in the spring of 1991, Frontier College’s funding for the project fell through
and they informed Miller that, unfortunately, she would not be able to work for
them come the fall. Unwilling to let a “little thing” like funding get in
the way of this national movement, Miller volunteered to spend the summer
knocking on the doors of corporations in Montreal and Toronto to raise funds for
this initiative. By the end of the
summer, she had raised a million dollars and Frontier
College: Students for Literacy was founded.
for Literacy’ takes off…
years later, under Frontier College’s guidance, the McGill program moved to
its own office in the Student Union building and began to involve more than 100
learners in the Montreal community. The volunteers started working with women at
Shawbridge Youth Detention Centre, adults with mental and physical disabilities,
youth at risk in high-school drop-out centres, and other local adults who needed
help with their reading and writing. The program soon had so many learners that
the organizational team had to call upon students from Concordia University to
help them out. Frontier College began to approach students across the country to
get involved, and campus by campus, the program grew.
Today, Frontier College: Students for Literacy involves over 35 chapters
and over a thousand tutors on campuses across the country. Each chapter, with
the constant support of Frontier College, recruits their own students to work as
literacy tutors in their respective communities. Each chapter researches their
community and partners with existing literacy groups to ensure that all literacy
needs are being met without an overlap of services. Trainers from Frontier
College then arrive on campus to deliver an initial program management training
for the student “Organization Team” (OT), and then return a few times each
year to train the recruited tutors. As members of the OT graduate, other
students step up to fill their places. This is a movement that touches all who
College’s vision goes beyond the simple goal of training students to deliver
literacy education in their communities. As the Frontier
College: Students for Literacy Program Set-up and Management Manual reads,
this is the vision:
Frontier College will set up student-run literacy programs on university and college campuses across Canada. By doing so, literacy access will increase, schools and their surrounding communities will learn to cooperate, a new generation of graduates will look at the world with new eyes, and most importantly, new readers will acquire the literacy tools they need in order to take control of their own lives (Miller, 1993).
the spirit of the movement
Although Frontier College: Students for Literacy began officially in 1991,
the spirit behind this movement is a very familiar one for the College. Alfred
Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College, emphasized the importance of
delivering education to people wherever they were from as early as 1920:
“Wherever and whenever people have occasion to gather, there is the time,
place and means of their education” (1920). In the bush and lumber camps of
Nova Scotia, Fitzpatrick saw a need to provide opportunities for workers to
gather together to read, discuss ideas, to learn literacy skills and to feel a
sense of community. He bought some circus tents and painted the words, “All
Welcome” on them. Then he decided to recruit young, idealistic university
students and challenge them to be teachers at these Reading Tents. As they did
(and are still doing) 70 years later when asked to join the Students for Literacy movement, the students accepted the challenge,
and the Labourer-Teacher model was born.
more Students for Literacy chapters are pioneered by students across the
country. Their programs are as varied as their communities, as the following
examples illustrate. In Vancouver, the Simon Fraser and UBC chapters team up to
run a pre-employment program for aboriginal youth and work with African mothers
and their children on reading and numeracy skills. In Saskatoon, students run
fun literacy activities at a local detention centre, and involve at-risk youth
in the creation of their very own weekly radio show for a community radio
station. In Toronto, the U of T and Ryerson chapters work closely to deliver
literacy programs for Somali students, Native women, and inner-city youth. In
PEI, students put up a reading tent in a local mall each week, and in St. John,
Newfoundland, Memorial students run “Homework Haven” programs to assist
youth with school-based learning at seven local community centres across the
city (www.frontiercollege.ca). And
this is just the beginning. Clearly, university and college students from all
reaches of Canada are taking the challenge seriously and working hard each year
to make a real difference in their communities.
College: Students for Literacy is a national
movement which involves hundreds of students, learners, and community groups
across Canada. It is a program that continues to grow each year owing in large
part to the incredible number of volunteers who sustain it. As long as there are
Canadians who need help with their reading, writing, numeracy and other basic
skills, Frontier College: Students for
Literacy will continue to deliver programs that reach a wide range of people
across the country. To learn more about Frontier College, a local chapter of Frontier
College: Students for Literacy, or its many programs, visit their website at
Alfred. University in Overalls. Frontier
College Press: Toronto. 1920.
Stephanie S. Frontier College: Students for Literacy Program Set-up and
James H. Camps and Classrooms: A Pictorial History of Frontier College. Frontier
College Press: Toronto. 1989.
Written by Shannon Wall, (OISE/UT), who founded the first Frontier College: Students for Literacy at Bishop’s chapter in Lennoxville, Quebec in 1994.
Citation: Wall, Shannon (2001). 1991: University students begin to deliver community-based literacy programming through "Frontier College: Students for Literacy" chapters. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/1991frontier.html (date accessed).
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