Communities II

childcare fell through - withdrew for now, but will call if something works out - if not back in Sept (she stills wants Bookwagon)



The Bookwagon program, like the Storytent program, is a rain or shine undertaking. From the beginning, our consistency in poor weather added to the neighbourhood's confidence that we were committed to our work and the families we served. In our perception, it also served to normalize literacy in the community. Residents said and did things which indicated that they saw it as commonplace for children to borrow a book or for books (and ourselves) to be part of community Christmas parties, etc. We see this as a small but significant shift in culture.

As time moved on, we heard fewer people complaining that their kids didn't like to read. Instead, we heard parents complain that their children never knew where borrowed books were, hadn't learned to return them, or insisted on reading the same ones over and over. That is to say, the parents had begun to take for granted that their children were, in effect, library users, and were now complaining that they were incompetent library users. The difference this implied did not escape our notice. Like our persistence in poor weather, kids wanting to read or be read to was something people were starting to expect.

Another example of this shift was the development of a literacy subcommittee of the tenants’ association in the winter of 2003 – 2004. For a time, this committee met regularly to plan events and activities for children such as "Pizza and a Movie," a "Cook Your Own Pancake Breakfast," a family "Paint 'n' Play Drop-in" and a Christmas Literacy Event where they made cards and had their picture taken with a story-reading Santa. Later, these activities were supplanted by the creation of a new community centre with family events and a neighbourhood run library. However, the sub-committee itself still exists, and we are obliged to give a literacy report to residents present at the monthly tenant’s association meetings.

By this point, as professionals, we are wondering what the phrase "hard to reach families" really means.
Brown & Dryden, The Bookwagon

Despite it's somewhat awkwardly not-geeky title, Judith Maxwell's paper It’s Time to Reboot Education for Adults with Low Literacy Skills is an interesting read. At least, my paper copy is now covered with smiley and not-smiley faces, earnest !!!'s and ???'s and maybe one or two curse words - always a sign of something engaging.

Judith Maxwell is best known as founder and first president of the Canadian Policy Research Networks. She is someone who mixes with the "think tanks" crowd, but also someone who cares about giving "unaffiliated citizens a voice in public policy discussion" (according to one website). Her working presence in a few spaces (the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business; the board of the Bank of Canada; the Economic Council of Canada; the C.D. Howe Institute) might put some people off, but let's forget the person, and look at the ideas.

She writes (page 4):

There are hundreds of inspiring stories of adults who overcame their literacy handicap, completed their high school equivalent and went on to higher education and a whole new life – as workers, parents and citizens.

The frustrating problem is that so few adults are engaged in learning activities that improve their literacy – less than ten percent of adults who could benefit from literacy training enrol in a given year and almost one-third drop out without completing their program. For many, the drop-out was triggered by job conflicts and family responsibilities, for others, though the problem is linked to program design – the programs simply do not meet learners’ needs.

The idea that learners leave - or don't show up at - programs because the programs don't meet their needs is a commonly felt but rarely voiced diagnosis. It raises important questions. What are those needs? How might programs meet them? Whose needs are programs meeting now? And why?

Unfortunately, Ms. Maxwell leaves these questions unasked, because she wants to bring up an example of a non-conventional, need-meeting forum for adult basic education. She spends a few paragraphs on the personal and social economic costs of low literacy, and then segues into an overview of Father Coady's Antigonish Movement.

I understand this: the paper is based on a talk she gave at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, where Moses Coady graduated in 1905 and which played a role in his work. Father Coady believed education in planning and modern business methods was one key to ensuring the well-being of the local economy; another was local reinvestment through co-operative movements. In the 1930s, the Federal government, through the Department of Fisheries, invited him to organize the fishermen and others who were working in industries with shrinking employment. Significant additional funding came from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Like I say, I understand why she brings this up, and I agree it's a pretty interesting place to start a conversation. Still, I can't help but feel that we've just given a very familiar, very academic elbow to the unmet needs of present day poor folks.

The closest we come is on page 6, where Ms. Maxwell, drawing on a "list was derived from key informant interviews" (Endnote 17), writes:

Four personal barriers prevent people with low literacy skills from participating in further education: stigma, fear, inability to navigate the system and poverty.

This sounds like a blame-the-customer list, but it yields real information. It tells us potential adult learners are looking for a non-judgmental environment and a venue in which they can participate openly and with pride. They want to feel respected, safe, and in control of the process. They want the process to be clear and accessible at each stage. And they want to be insulated from the special penalties poverty creates for those who try to improve their reading or maybe even go back to school.

That's why the author is able to say (page 8):

Informal learning activities organized locally in response to local needs are the foundational infrastructure for a literacy system – engaging people on what matters to them, opening their eyes to their own capacity to learn, helping them gain the self-confidence they need to be able to consider a more formal learning program.

Why? Because they tend to be safe, accessible, relevant and adaptive to special challenges and needs.

Unfortunately, Ms. Maxwell reminds us (page 8):

The community networks that underpin informal learning have been eroded over the past 20 years. Core funding has become the exception rather than the rule in many provinces. Governments and private philanthropists like to fund a project for a year, rather than support organizations for, say, five years and then evaluate their performance. So many organizations live hand to mouth, trying to boost revenues through fundraising (book sales and golf tournaments, for example). The result is that the program quality is not improving, volunteers are not well trained, and the managers are not equipped to recruit, screen, train, deploy and assess.

And, later (page 9):

The notion that community economic and social development will be the primary lever to strengthen the literacy system is becoming more widely recognized. In recent years, two provinces – Saskatchewan and British Columbia – have offered generous funding to communities that were prepared to build a coalition of local partners to strengthen literacy programming. But in both cases, the governments undermined their own investments. They funded the planning but did not set aside funding for operations. The apparent assumption is that money will be generated by more book sales and golf tournaments.

In British Columbia, the government recently went one step further: It cut the grant which paid salaries for the 16 regional coordinators whose jobs were to facilitate, stabilize and sustain literacy work generated by community and district plans. Decisions like this drive community practitioners to despair.

The decision also demonstrates the damage that is being done to the community-based informal learning system when adult education policies do not recognize the essential role that the informal programs play in recruiting the students who go on to the formal classroom programs offered by colleges and school boards.
There's not much to say from here on in: We've met the enemy, and it's our provincial government.

She does note that the federal government has deferred "to the provinces on adult literacy issues" which, she says, "leaves the field wide open to the provinces, which for the most part deliver a patchwork of programs aimed at communities, workplaces, school boards and colleges. Typically, responsibilities are divided across two or more ministries, such as education and labour" (page 10). But I'm not sure that's the real problem. And, anyway, to refer to various programs and systems as a "patchwork" (rather than, say, a quilt) betrays a central Canadian bias toward top-down organizing.

When she opens with the line, "Canada is turning a blind eye to the low literacy skills of nine million workers," she seems to be thinking of the Feds, not Canadians in general. When she cites potential goals or outcomes, they are almost all employment related (including the one for young, single moms) and never suggest literacy is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. I could be wrong, but I think her 'Globe and Mail - Bank of Canada - Economic Council' is showing.

Still, for all of that, it's an interesting read.

I opened with some passages from our Bookwagon document - an overview of one part of our efforts to serve a reputedly hard to serve neighbourhood by entering deeply but respectfully into the life of the community. I'd like to close with some passages from an earlier, similar report we wrote called Some Good Things that came from a Storytent Program. I write this, not to boast, but to illustrate that people will chose learning if and when they see value in it, see that they can trust you, and see you as a living part of the place they live.

Storytent and Bookwagon remain our highest profile programs, and the community has responded positively to them.... we are invited to read at Christmas parties and other holiday or special events. As well, our list of partners and the scope of our work have grown. Though our Storytent and Bookwagon programs are still housed by the CVCTA, the Crescent Valley Resource Centre has provided us with a room to offer one-on-one and small group learning for adults in the community. We, in turn, worked with them to create a self-serve community library. The library has books for readers birth to adult and is open when the center is open. Usage is small but steady (about 25 books borrowed each month).

Still, for us, the real reward comes from the other, more individualized work that has grown out our relationships with this community.

One morning, we met a mom who wanted singing books and nursery rhymes she could share with her daughter. In fact, she wanted something like the Parent-Child Mother Goose program. We couldn’t run a program like that out of the Bookwagon, but Cheryl was able to show her how to do Round and Round the Garden Goes the Teddy Bear. The Mom cried, "That's the teddy bear song! She keeps trying to sing it. I don't know it. She learned it at daycare." Later, we were able to offer a small, one-time Mother Goose like session for parents with infants and toddlers.

Another unexpected collection of small successes appeared when Cheryl was invited to help some woman learn to knit. Cheryl brought her Choice Theory (Rt/Ct) training as well as her adult literacy background to the program and created a small knitting therapy group. Already, this group has seen positive impacts on its members' mental and physical health. The women have shared with her how knitting at home sometimes helped them get through the day. One mom, looking at another Christmas without money discovered she could sell her knitted goods for enough to - for the first time - buy her own groceries for an old fashioned Christmas dinner.

There are other adults we have helped with health literacy, citizenship, and small business initiatives. But the core of our work remains providing books and tailored support for basic literacy. Just a few weeks ago a woman approached us as we wheeled the wagon through her neighbourhood. She wanted to improve her reading, she said, “but I don’t want to go to school. What can you do for me?”




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