Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Illiteracy in our schools

Retired Teacher Reveals He Was Illiterate Until Age 48
John Corcoran graduated from college and taught high school for 17 years without being able to read, write or spell.

Corcoran's life of secrecy started at a young age. He said his teachers moved him up from grade to grade. Often placed in what he calls the "dumb row," the images of his ribulations in the classroom are still vividly clear.

"I can remember when I was 8 years old saying my prayers at night saying please [G]od tomorrow when it's my turn to read please let me read. You just pretend that you are invisible and when the teacher says, 'Johnnie read,' you just wait the teacher out because you know the teacher has to go away at some point," said Corcoran.

Corcoran eventually started acting up to hide his illiteracy. From fifth through seventh grade he was expelled, suspended and spent most of his days at the principal's office.


"My parents came to school and it no longer was a problem for me reading because this boy Johnnie the -- native alien I call him -- he didn't have a reading problem as far as the teachers were concerned. He had an emotional problem. He had a psychological problem. He had a behavioral problem," said Corcoran.

Corcoran later attended Palo Verde High School in Blythe, Calif. He cheated his way through high school, receiving his diploma in June 1956.


He stole tests and pursuaded friends to complete his assignments. Corcoran earned an athletic scholarship to Texas Western College. He said his cheating intensified, claiming he cheated in every class.

"I passed a bluebook out the window to a friend I painstakingly copied four essay questions off the board in U.S. government class that was required, and hoped my friend would get it back to me with the right answers," Corcoran said.

In 1961, Corcoran graduated with a bachelor's degree in education, while still illiterate he contends. He then went on to become a teacher during a teacher shortage.


"What I did was I created an oral and visual environment. There wasn't the written word in there. I always had two or three teacher's assistants in each class to do board work or read the bulletin," said Corcoran.

In retrospect, Corcoran said, his deceit took him a long time to accept. "As a teacher it really made me sick to think that I was a teacher who couldn't read. It is embarrassing for me, and it's embarrassing for this nation and it's embarrassing for schools that we're failing to teach our children how to read, write and spell!"

While still teaching, Corcoran dabbled in real estate. He was granted a leave of absence, eventually becoming a successful real estate developer.

It wasn't until he was 48 years old that he gave reading and writing another chance. He drove to an inconspicuous office with a sign he couldn't read. He studied and worked with a tutor at the Literacy Center of Carlsbad. Assigned to a 65-year-old volunteer tutor, Eleanor Condit, he was able to read at a sixth-grade level within a year.

How is this even possible?! How were there no teachers that made him read or realized that he couldn't? How were there no tests with essay questions in an environment where he couldn't cheat? How could he grade papers and administer tests? How can find out about real estate and what's for sale without reading? How could he drive and find places if he couldn't read signs? How could he not know how to read at even a kindergarten level just by virtue of being around written words all the time? HOW?!?!?!

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