[Assessment 1093] Celebrating Cora Wilson Stewart
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Mon Jan 14 15:44:39 EST 2008
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January 17, 2008 is the Birthday of Cora Wilson Stewart:
The Queen Mother of Adult Literacy Education in the United States.
International Consultant in Adult Education
Quote: "The elderly lady gently took the letter that she had just dictated.
Because she was blind, she had to be shown where to begin her signature.
Her hands trembled so that her writing, which had been so graceful earlier
in life, seemed shaky and uneven. Determined to complete the task, she
doggedly persevered; after carefully completing the signature, she rested
her pen." End quote. (Nelms, 1997, p. 3).
Only a few years later, in December of 1958, blind and infirm, Cora Wilson
Stewart, founder of the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky "for the emancipation
of adult illiterates," passed away. Her death came just shy of half a
century after she had started the Moonlight Schools, which historian Wanda
Dauksza Cook (1977) said "
might well be classified as the official
beginning of [adult] literacy education in the United States." (p. 13).
Starting the Moonlight Schools for adult illiterates in Rowan County,
Kentucky, was the first of a long list of innovations for adult literacy
education that Stewart introduced: the first newspaper designed especially
for adult literacy students, called the Rowan County Messenger; the first
reading series for adults comprised of three Country Life Readers; the
Soldier's First Book used during World War I, and the Mother's First Book:
A First Reader for Home Women.
In her approach to teaching adult literacy, Stewart explicitly recognized
the importance of not using materials for adults that were designed for
children. All of her materials integrated the teaching of literacy with the
teaching of important knowledge content in farming, healthy living, civics,
home economics, financial management, parenting and other functional
contexts. As Stewart (1920) stated, "
each lesson accomplished a double
purpose, the primary one of teaching the pupil to read, and at the same
time that of imparting instruction in the things that vitally affected him
(sic) in his daily life" (p. 71).
Striking out in a crusade against adult illiteracy in Rowan County Kentucky,
Stewart went on to convince President Hoover to create the first National
Advisory Committee on Illiteracy, she initiated a National Illiteracy
Crusade, chaired for five times the Illiteracy Section of the international
World Conference of Education Associations, spoke before the national
Democratic party convention in 1920, spoke at numerous meetings across the
United States, reached hundreds of thousands of listeners through radio
broadcasts, and inspired numerous other states to initiate campaigns to
combat adult illiteracy.
Along with her national and international accomplishments, perhaps one of
the most important things that Stewart did was to develop a simple method
of teaching adult learners how to write their names. She developed a
special tablet that had soft paper into which students' names were etched.
Then the students used thin paper to trace their names over and over until
they could write their names unaided.
Later this simple technique was picked-up by Wil Lou Gray of South Carolina
in her initiation of campaigns to teach illiterate adults to write their
names. In turn Gray taught this technique to Septima Poinsette Clark who
used it in the Citizenship Schools of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference. Through this work, over 700,000 African Americans were taught
to write their names for voter registration, and this political empowerment
helped to stimulate the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s which
would eventually transform the political landscape of the entire Nation.
Cora Wilson Stewart was profoundly aware of the importance that learning to
sign their names had for the illiterate adults of the Moonlight Schools. It
was their means of escaping the stigma and humiliation of making their mark.
With her understanding of the importance of being able to write one's name,
it is no surprise that in her older age, and blind in both eyes, Stewart
clung to the power of the pen and insisted on signing her own name on
letters and important documents up to the end of her life.
The year 2008 marks a half century since Cora Wilson Stewart's death, but we
celebrate the 133 years since her birth on January 17, 1875, and the years,
approaching the century mark, following her founding of the Moonlight
Schools for adult literacy learners. No other person before or since has
more forcefully fought for, and won, the right to literacy education for
adults of all stripes: men and women; young and old, whites, blacks,
Hispanics, and Native Americans; prisoners, soldiers, urban, and country
On January 17, 2008 adult literacy learners and educators celebrate the life
of Cora Wilson Stewart, the woman who above all others may rightly be called
the Queen Mother of Adult Literacy Education in the United States.
Cook, Wanda Dauksza (1977). Adult Literacy Education in the United States.
Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Nelms, Willie (1997). Cora Wilson Stewart Crusader Against Illiteracy.
London: McFarland & Company.
Stewart, Cora Wilson (1922). Moonlight Schools for the Emancipation of Adult
Illiterates. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net