Member Profile: Robyn Keystone – Literal Change

Robyn’s Story

I’ve been working as a remedial literacy specialist here in Toronto for the last 10 years. As a young child, I struggled with reading and writing in school and felt like learning in the traditional classroom was particularly difficult for me. In combination with my privilege and family support, I compensated for my learning challenges by developing a very strong work-ethic and persevered in school to earn a postgraduate degree from the University of Edinburgh. Today, I’m a social entrepreneur who is dedicated to supporting young people who are struggling in our systems as a result of low-literacy levels and learning exceptionalities.  

Since 2016, I have worked in partnership with some incredible people to develop projects that address three areas in education. Rather than describe the projects in chronological order, I’ll explain them in relation to an individual’s development and academic path.  

Early childhood education and pre-school readiness: 

During the pandemic, I teamed up with Rebecca McAllister, a long-time friend, teacher and mother of two toddlers, to create a company that aims to develop a child’s early literacy, numeracy, and pre-school readiness skills. The company is called The Active Reader, and we launched our first literacy-based product, The Early Reader Pack, in October. Next, we will be focusing on a math kit and advanced literacy cards with more advanced learning objectives. 

Our mission at The Active Reader is to set children up for classroom success by empowering parents and giving them the confidence and tools to take on the role as their child’s first teacher. When children are self-assured in their skills and abilities, they are more likely to create a positive connection with their learning environment and educational journey, more generally. 

Elementary students and learning exceptionalities: 

In 2017, Martha Jodhan and I started a tutoring company that specializes in remedial intervention for children with learning exceptionalities. The Learning Common is an education company and learning centre that is dedicated to helping young people who are struggling within the mainstream classroom. We ascribe to a specific methodology called Orton-Gillingham (OG). OG is a structured approach to literacy that’s founded on four fundamental characteristics: multi-sensory, direct instruction, student-centered, and basic to complex scope and sequence. At least 20% of children are not learning in the same way as their peers and thus find it difficult to succeed within a standardized system which is not teaching them in the ways that they learn.

In September 2020, The Learning Common opened a full-time private school that meets the needs of learners, grades 3 to 8, who have struggled in the mainstream system. Our teaching strategies utilize the four pillars of Orton-Gillingham (as does The Active Reader). The majority of our student-base has been diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, or a Specific Learning Disability in Reading and Writing. We developed an educational space that inspires children to create their own value for themselves, and in the last 3 months, we have seen incredible growth and development in all of our students as they have started to reconnect with their learning environment and feel more confident in themselves and their abilities. 

Students who have slipped through the cracks: 

When I learned about the Orton-Gillingham Approach in 2010, I quickly realized that it was what I had been missing in my own education. I became manic with excitement, not only because I had found tools and strategies that were working to remediate my own literacy weaknesses, but also because I could see immense opportunity. I started out in a private tutoring centre where the cost of my services was exorbitant, yet still I had a full roster of students who were unable to read and suffered academically as a result. It got me thinking about all the students who would greatly benefit from my services yet were unable to afford or gain access to them. In 2016, Martha and I started a Canadian charity called Literal Change. 

Literal Change is a volunteer-based organization offering remedial literacy education to young people and adults living in vulnerable and marginalized communities across Toronto. We work with the incarcerated population in Toronto’s two major detention centres and with justice-involved youth both incarcerated or at-risk of coming into contact with the law. We run diversion programming through the Finch Youth Courts and have partnerships with various community agencies across the city. All of our students struggle with low-literacy levels, exceptionalities, or MIDs and have slipped through the cracks of our education system as a result. This year, Literal Change became official educational partners of the Toronto District School Board and will be training teachers and educators across the board on how to incorporate effective literacy strategies into their classroom.  At Literal Change, we believe that every person has a right to an effective literacy education and aim to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline through the lens of literacy. 

I fell upon my career in literacy and education by chance, but I feel that my struggles in the mainstream system helped set the stage for this journey I am now on. Over the last five years, I have learned a great deal about the systemic gaps and institutionalization found in both our education system and our justice system. I have come to understand the need for preventative solutions, rather than band-aids that have continually failed to address the educational needs of our young people.

Instagram/Facebook: @literalchange 

Twitter: @literalchange