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Big Class Takes a Big Step Towards Literacy

The adult illiteracy rate in New Orleans is nearly twice the national average. A student-driven program called Big Class is changing that.

The number of illiterate adults in New Orleans is nearly twice that of the national average, a statistic that's all the more frightening when we consider their children. For an elementary school student coming home to an illiterate parent, basic literacy is the benchmark for average reading rates, not the starting point. This child will likely be unaware of literature’s loftier goals—expression and communication.

Big Class is hoping to change that by involving elementary school students in the creative process behind words on a page. The organization is like a version of the PTA, revamped and injected with a shot of colored pencils. Former elementary school teacher Doug Keller, founder and director of Big Class, saw the need for change and started project No. 1 with 43 of his first graders at Lincoln Elementary in Marrero, LA, just outside of New Orleans. By integrating creativity and collaboration and taking the community involvement to a whole different plane, Big Class hopes to grow literacy in the New Orleans area by supplementing existing school classrooms with engaging, student-driven projects.

“Our schools are approaching literacy in a vacuum," says Keller. "They're treating literacy as a skill, and in doing so are leaving out literacy's grand purposes- put simply to communicate and express. Big Class engages students in literacy by reinstating that purpose.”

Big Class No. 1: Animals was a collaboration between students and illustrators, designers, and artists. The result is a book written by kids and illustrated by adults. With $1,500 raised on Kickstarter, Keller printed 250 copies of the book, 43 of which went home with the students. The rest were distributed to teachers and independent book sellers. To date, 100 copies have been sold, with the profits going towards future projects.

New Orleans' distrust of the education system is palpable in the shaky relationships between parents and their kids' schools. “What this did was build the trust back into what was going on," says Keller. "There was a physical object that documented that their kid was learning and enjoying learning."

Between projects No. 1 and No. 2, the Lincoln Elementary student's reading levels changed dramatically. And the project is still going on. Big Class No. 3: The 504 brings personal narratives and illustrations from third graders at Batiste Cultural Academy in New Orleans. Not only could the kids read the words on the page after the second project, but the students could connect the motivation behind writing a book with the product they held in their hands.

“Their writing is mind-blowingly better," says Keller. "They were more aware of what they were reading, and connect with why people write stories in the first place ... Most importantly, though, there were observable leaps in student confidence, engagement, and joy for school and learning."

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