Creative Writing Combats Adult Literacy

October 27, 2002

Lauren DeFrank, <i>Hullabaloo</i> Contributing Writer

Four out of 10 adults in New Orleans are illiterate. In fact, of the adults in New Orleans who can read, 40 percent read below the sixth grade level. The YMCA Literacy Project, a national project working to develop adult literacy throughout the United States, was expanded three years ago to include New Orleans, and Professor Peter Cooley, director of creative writing at Tulane, was asked to help set up this branch.

Cooley first taught a summer workshop with adults. This first class was composed mainly of people in their 30s or older who were learning how to read or were working on their GED. Through this experience and the YMCA, Cooley learned that startling percentage New Orleans adults who read below the sixth grade level.

"Many people cannot read street signs, they stay in their own neighborhoods. The world of illiteracy is just a closed world and the goal of the program is to get people out of that closed world," Cooley said. Cooley found that working with this group of people was very inspiring, so when he was asked to do more, he created a course at Tulane called "Teaching Creative Writing."

This class is only for those who have previously taken Introduction to Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing, so they will have had the experience needed to teach creative writing to others. Each week, students work in teams and meet with their class to teach adults about writing poetry, short stories, and other forms of creative writing. Tulane students teach at many different sites all over New Orleans.

Cooley meets with these students every couple of weeks to check on their progress and identify and solve any problems.

"The students who have done it here find it very inspiring because it's a way of getting outside just a regular academic course," Cooley said. "You are working with people who are less fortunate than you economically and in terms of educational background, but you may find that they have a lot of things that you don't have like gratitude for life, not taking things for granted, and a belief in god that a lot of college students or sophisticated adults have lost."

Even Cooley is still being moved by this teaching experience. This summer he taught another workshop where he was seated next to an 83-year-old man who was learning to read. "That (was) an inspiring experience, was this man grateful for living and learning to write? Yes. I was helping him to write and read and he was still participating in this workshop," Cooley said.

Setting up this creative writing class was not very difficult for Cooley because he had had previous experience with these types of programs. In Green Bay, he worked with school children and community centers teaching poetry. He also worked with the handicapped and young women who had been abandoned or kicked out of school. This experience helped Cooley set up this class and oversee these students. By allowing only students with much experience in creative writing, Cooley is confident in their abilities and has only had minor problems with this class.

One of the major results of this program was the publishing of Courage from Behind the Mask, an anthology of works by the adults learning to read and write. By putting together this anthology, the students expressed their desire to do more than just teach the students.

"We want to do more than put a band-aid on the problem, we want to start to heal it at its roots, the cause of it. In terms of this, it's not just about teaching these folks how to read and helping them out, but trying to change the situations that allowed them to reach the age that they are and not being able to read. Part of that is to get their stories out and get them to share their stories with the world with the politicians and the policymakers the depth and nature of the problem," Hamilton Simons-Jones, director of community services coordination, said.

Simons-Jones was formerly one of Cooleys creative writing students and is still involved with the literacy program. The book is meant to be a way of educating people about the struggles of these illiterate adults, creating understanding among those who may dismiss this problem and breaking down negative stereotypes about people who cannot read.

They received a grant last year from Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill allowed them to expand the program to five classes. A grant from the Arts Council of New Orleans permitted them to publish the book.

"[We want] to say here is their story and they want to share it to help other people out, they are not as embarrassed about it anymore," said Simons- Jones. "There's a real power with creative writing and these adults. They have such amazing life experiences," Simons-Jones said. "These people have so many stories to tell. There's something pretty powerful about them beginning to write them down."

Citation information:

Page accessed: Monday, May 30, 2016
Page URL:

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000