Cora Wilson Stewart
Cora Wilson Stewart (CWS) was born on January 17, 1875, in Rowan County, Kentucky, a rural area populated in large part by farmers, woodsmen, and other country folk, many of whom were illiterate and unschooled.
Educated as a teacher in Kentucky, in1911 CWS started the Moonlight Schools for adult illiterates in Rowan County, Kentucky, the first of a long list of innovations for adult literacy education that she introduced, including: 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.
Striking out in a crusade against adult illiteracy in Rowan County Kentucky, CWS 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, advocated for adult literacy education at 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.
In her approach to teaching adult literacy, CWS 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 she 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 in his daily life" (Stewart, 1920, p. 71).
The instructional approach that CWS used in the Country Life Readers and in the Moonlight School classrooms followed functional context education principles in which much contemporary practice in adult literacy education is grounded:
First, she built new knowledge of reading and writing on the prior knowledge that learners brought with them thereby making it easier for adults to learn by relating new learning to old learning.
Second, she integrated the teaching of reading and writing with content related to the daily life of the adult learners outside the classroom to hold interest and maintain motivation to attend class.
Third, she facilitated transfer of learning from the classroom to the world outside the classroom by developing new knowledge that learners could apply in their daily lives.
Fourth, the latter, in turn, offered the possibility of further learning by adults to extend and sustain the development that they achieved while attending school.
Perhaps one of the most important things that CWS 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 and social landscape of the entire Nation.
In her later years, CWS became blind. Willie Nelms, one of her biographers, wrote: "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).
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.