Gloria Houston helps inspire literacy in Macon County
by Rob Neufeld
He read it at Family Literacy Night, the culmination of Macon County’s Read 2 Me program, May 17.
Macon County Schools, the Macon County News, and other local organizations devoted their 5th Annual Read 2 Me program to Gloria Houston’s novel, “Littlejim,” and Houston has applied the essay first featured in her fiction to real-life classrooms.
“My uncle was in the army to fight for our country,” Giovanni related. “One day he got shot on the arm and on the heart…He was my hero…We spent a lot of time together. He was like my brother.”
Being an American makes Giovanni think of defending our country and of job opportunities. “My mom works in a hotel in Highlands. My dad works in construction,” he read. Giovanni would like to be “the best doctor in the world.”
Giovanni and hundreds of other students had received free copies of “Littlejim,” thanks to local sponsors.
When Littlejim, a teen living on a mountain farm in the novel, wins an essay contest on being an American, his hardened father begins to change his attitude about his literary son.
More significantly for the program, the boy’s essay reflects on experiences he’d had getting to know his father’s logging crew. When Littlejim writes that being an American means living in a place “we can call home” “although we come from somewhere else,” he is echoing those workers.
“In the old country, I would still be digging peat for pennies a day,” Adam McGuire, the head gaffer said.
“I reckon most of us come here from sommers else,” said Waits Wiseman, who ran the big saw.
Houston’s leadership career
Houston’s leadership in improving children’s chances through reading and writing goes back thirty years.
Houston’s father, James Houston, on whom Littlejim is based, developed, toward the end of his life, an interest in oral history, having been trained by Dr. Frank Brown, premiere collector of North Carolina folklore.
Gloria, while attaining her doctorate in interdisciplinary studies at the University of South Florida, Tampa, had come home to Spruce Pine and accompanied her father on his jaunts. She’d recently been tapped by her mentor, Dr. Phillip Pfost, to serve as a consultant on literacy skills to the Marion County, FL school system.
Her two worlds joined.
“I thought perhaps, if I could interest Middle School students in learning about their own family history,” Houston said in an interview with the Citizen-Times, “we could then begin teaching the skills of writing with what they were already familiar.”
One paragraph per student had been Gloria’s goal for the low-income children she visited. By the end of her term, many of them were getting A’s for the first time.
Gloria’s consultancy extended three more years, and attracted national sponsors. A firm hired her to create a poetry contest for KFC, based on memories of mothers, for a Mother’s Day promotion.
IBM hired her to develop and run a National Tell Me a Story Contest to introduce computers into schools. The project resulted in a model and a curriculum that continues to support new literacy programs; and in a Partnership in Education National Excellence in Literacy Education award.
When the first winner of the IBM contest, six-year-old Cara Forsythe, was to have her essay printed in “Good Housekeeping” magazine, Houston persuaded executives to retain the child’s inventive spelling. “The writing is more important than the spelling. Spelling can be fixed later,” Houston said.
“My grate grate grate grate grandpa wrktd in the undergrownd rarode,” Cara’s essay began. “Isaac Patterson was his name. He “lived on a fram in Logan County, Ohio. It had a Big cave 70 feet down.” A lawman knocked on Patterson’s door while he was holding a prayer meeting for his family and the fugitives. While the lawman waited outside for the preaching to end, the slaves escaped through a corn field to the cave and then to Canada.
The Macon phenomenon
“We knew we wanted to get books in the hands of children in Macon County and we knew we wanted to help educate parents on the importance of early literacy.”
Founding members—from Rotary, the Western Mountains Reading Council, Fontana Regional Library, Girl Scouts, the Health Department, the Macon County News, and other community organizations—worked with the school system in extending the initiative.
When Diane Cotton, Literacy Specialist at Macon County Schools, engaged Houston this year, Houston let her know that she had “a lot of written material, including a unit titled, ‘Collecting Your Family History.’”
The project blossomed further.
Houston initiated a publishing run of the book, and allowed the newspaper to serialize it. People made special trips into town to pick up copies. Extra printings reached 12,000 readers, Parker says—not just parents with kids, but also elderly people seeking a good read.
“Why don’t you publish ‘Littlejim’ in large print?” Houston’s aunt, Wilma Heaton, asked her. That’s underway.
Art teachers got involved, and a family portrait component emerged to be displayed at Family Literacy Night, May 17. Blank, bound books were handed out at an event workshop to kick off the Macon County Historical Society’s contest for Heritage Day in the fall.
“I have interviewed three people and asked them what they think being an American means,” Yailyn began. “These three people have different ideas.”
Her mom, Camelia, says it means having opportunities. Another woman, Valeria, thinks it means to help people in need. And Yailyn’s dad, Orlando, says it means being proud of fighting for freedom, Yailyn told the assembly.
Girl Scout Troop 30179 served as assistants in décor, publicity, book distribution, and program operation. Madison Tallent, Olivia Hedden, and Alyssa Hammaker won bronze awards for citizenship, Maria Tallent, Troop Leader, reports.
Houston’s mom, Ruthie, the heroine of Gloria’s best-selling picture book, “The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree,” was present and told some of her story.
“If you change the skills that children have with written language,” Gloria Houston says, “You can change their learning and change their lives…and the place to start with that is within the family.”
“Littlejim,” Gloria Houston’s novel for young readers, is now available from Coire Breagh (pronounced “Cora Broth”) Inc.; and through Kindle and Nook. Visit www.gloriahouston.com.