On learning to teach literacy
Susan Cowan Knebel ’60
“I had answered a call for volunteer tutors in a night school created by a gentleman who was born a slave. Literate, he wanted to help folks from the South who had come north for jobs in Ohio and couldn’t read or write.”
This past spring, I found an old 1959-60 photo from my senior year at Oberlin College. I had answered a call for volunteer tutors in a night school created by a gentleman who was born a slave. Literate, he wanted to help folks from the South who had come north for jobs in Ohio and couldn’t read or write.
I can’t recall his name, but I can see his graceful handwriting in my mind’s eye, to this day. In this photo he’s standing in the center of the middle row, dressed in suit and tie with a notebook under his arm. I’m standing at the right end of the back row. One of my two students stands tall in the middle of the back row with a light gray sweater. My other student is the pretty young lady standing next to our Founder. I quickly found out that she could read and write but wanted to know how to use the library to help her young son. I met her in the library during my lunch hour so I could devote more time to my totally illiterate student in the back row.
Although I began my Oberlin studies in the Conservatory of Music in 1956 as a piano major, I transferred to the College to major in Kindergarten Primary Education. This was on the advice of my piano professor who thought I could make a better living teaching in a school system than trying to run a piano studio as a single young woman. He said, “when you marry and have children, then you can teach piano in your living room and be home for your kids.” He also said that I could continue piano lessons with him even if I wasn’t in the Conservatory.
I jumped at the chance to teach in the night school because it seemed so right to learn to teach reading by teaching reading. My prize student from South Carolina first wanted to be able to sign his name with something besides an X. Then he wanted to write letters to his family in the South and tell them how he was doing in Ohio. His job was working on a bridge in Cleveland, so his hands were often swollen from the cold. However, he carefully held a pencil and slowly wrote letters to his family with my help. And read them back to me.
In the spring of 1960 I went to my piano lesson and my professor asked, “how did you like the Rudolph Serkin concert last night?”
“I didn’t go because it was my teaching night at the Night School.”
“Why wallow in the mud when you can have a touch of the angels?”
“I can always play my wonderful recording of Serkin performing the Schumann Piano Concerto. To see my student’s eyes light up when he puts a letter in an envelope to his sister in South Carolina is a touch of an angel to me.”
In the fall of 2007 I found a beautiful mud puddle to photograph and thought of that conversation so many years ago. I’ve been long retired from piano teaching. I do love playing my Steinway every day. And I hope my student is still writing letters home.
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