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Teens for Literacy’s beginnings in Southeast Georgia

Allen Berger, Ph.D., founder of Teens for Literacy

Born in upstate New York, Allen Berger, Ed.D., could not have predicted that his life would lead him to inspiring teens to read in the southern city of Savannah, Georgia. He started his teaching career in high schools. After completing his doctorate, Berger began working in higher education, serving as a faculty member at Southern Illinois University and the University of Pittsburgh before he was invited to join the faculty at the University of Alberta, Canada. Berger would then move back to the midwest to accept the position of Heckert Professor of Reading and Writing at Miami University in Ohio where he taught reading courses across all disciplines for nearly two decades.

It was during his tenure at Miami University that he started Teens for Literacy, beginning with three inner-city schools.  Teens for Literacy has three goals: (1) allow students to take ownership of improving the reading and writing skills of themselves and others; (2) encourage students to pursue education and growing professionally after high school; and (3) to have students consider teaching as a profession by working with younger students in the school.

“I just knew I wanted students to reach these goals in any way possible,” said Berger, “and the best way to do that is to encourage student innovation and enhance buy-in from the students as they see their own projects and ideas come to life.”

When Teens for Literacy was founded in 1987, Berger and colleagues focused on providing diverse experiences for the inner-city students of Ohio. For instance, students read about agriculture and then were taken on a field trip to a regional farm where they could connect real-life experiences with the information they read.

Berger traveled the country promoting Teens for Literacy at conferences and sharing information about the program’s progress. As the program grew, and success was noted, word of the Teens for Literacy framework began to spread and be incorporated in schools and institutions across the United States. In 2002, Berger received a request to help consider how his framework could be used in Dade County, Florida, at a juvenile offenders facility to help incarcerated youth to enhance their reading skills and promote the pursuit of education.

When Berger’s career at Miami University was complete, he gave away almost everything he owned, packed his car with the remaining necessities, and made his way to Savannah, a city he fell in love with after one visit for a reading conference.

“The city is marvelous,” he said. “It is friendly, and the culture is captivating.”

Not having much of a plan of what was next, Berger ran into a colleague he had met years before — John Hobe, Ed.D., a former department chair in elementary and special education at Armstrong State University. As fate would have it, Hobe needed a faculty member for reading courses, and Berger was more than happy to oblige.

“It was a three-year appointment, but I actually served four years,” Berger laughed. “And I had a lot of fun.”

Seeing the same opportunity to start cultivating a love of reading among teens in the Savannah-Chatham County area, Berger brought Teens for Literacy to Southeast Georgia.

Two Georgia Southern University College of Education faculty members are currently working with Teens for Literacy.

Anne Katz, Ph.D., is in the eighth year of implementing the program. She ran the program at East Broad Street K-8 School for seven years, and recently she and Vivian Bynoe of the University’s Lane Library on the Armstrong Campus, received a grant to collaborate with the Teens for Literacy program at Hubert Middle School. Katz also provides programming support to Claxton Middle School to help with their literacy programming.

Linda Ann McCall, Ed.D. (far right) is pictured with Allen Berger, Ph.D. (middle) and Isle of Hope K-8 School during the Fall 2019 Shadowing Day.

Additionally, COE’s Linda Ann McCall, Ed.D. has been the program’s with Isle of Hope K-8 School in Savannah for over five years. Up to 12 middle school students are selected to serve as mentors to the elementary students (primarily kindergarten and first graders), as well as promote literacy within the school.

“I feel very passionate about Teens for Literacy,” McCall said. “It’s a marvelous program and a lot of fun!”

Anne Katz, Ph.D. is pictured with students from East Broad K-8 School and Claxton Middle School during Spring 2019 Shadowing Day.

“Teens for Literacy looks different everywhere that it has been implemented because it is based on the creativity and imagination of the participants,” Berger said. “The adults working with the program help steer the ideas of the teens into academic adventures that will be fun and educational.” 

Participants in the program are selected by teachers at each school. Many students also volunteer. The students serve as the influencers of the school, helping to craft and tailor literacy events that they feel their peers would enjoy.

An integral part of every Teens for Literacy program is Shadowing Day, where the school participants spend the day on a college campus learning about the college experience. 

Thanks to Berger’s program and the collaboration with Georgia Southern University, hundreds of students, teachers and administrators have participated in Teens for Literacy.

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