Naomi started in September, a quiet young woman with a wary eye. She began to say “I pass” immediately upon hearing the classroom rule, “Pass if you want to.”
We were team teaching the literacy class, in two interconnecting rooms. In one we held group sessions in reading, writing, math and science; in the other students could work individually on assignments or on private literacy work (filling out forms, reading and responding to business letters, etc.). We teachers scheduled ourselves so that we each taught some of the group sessions, and spent the rest of our time in the other room, helping students individually. Students were free to choose to take the scheduled classes, or to spend time working on their own. Some students spent all their time in the group sessions, and did assignments at home; most divided their time between the two rooms.
Naomi was different. She chose not to go to any scheduled classes. Every hour or so, as the group activity changed, one of us would invite her to join the next group session. She would pass. The teachers figured it might take her a few days to get comfortable enough to join the group.
She was interested in working on the computer, so we showed her the program that made cards and banners, and she began by making a card and a banner for the birthday party of a family member. We did not have a colour printer, so she figured out how to turn the font to “outline” and, when it was printed, she used bright coloured markers to fill in the letters.
Naomi got more and more expert at the banner-making program. At first she held herself apart from the other students, but eventually her expertise became known, and a few other students asked her for help with their computer work, and she showed them what she knew.
She made more banners every day, for all kinds of family occasions. Her banners were a hit at the birthdays and anniversary parties she made them for, and soon various sisters and cousins were asking her to make a banner for their special occasions. Our classroom became a banner factory. Her usual pattern was to come in in the morning, open up the computer, design the banner that was on her mind, which usually took less than 10 minutes, wait for it to print out, then spend a couple of hours colouring it. We bought more felt pens to replace the ones she was using up. Sometimes she got so backed up in her orders for banners that she had to borrow the felt pens and take them home to finish there.
Whenever we asked her if she’d like to join the group for reading or writing, she passed and continued colouring.
By the end of the month, behind the scenes, everyone was worried. She was spending her days coloring! How was that an appropriate activity for an adult literacy student? It didn’t seem like literacy work to us. Were we running a day care centre? What was our responsibility here?
Administrators said that if she didn’t do the literacy work, she should be asked to leave the class.
Some students were complaining that she didn’t do the work, and the teachers should make her do it.
We teachers decided to wait for Naomi. We had set up the program so students could choose. She was choosing to colour. We hoped and worried and wondered what would happen.
No change. The banner factory went on.
Some teachers were warmer than others in trying to persuade her to join the class activities, trying to convince her that she’d like them, or that she would be able to do the work easily. I was cooler—I always asked her if she would like to join, but when she said no, I left it at that. I liked the fact that different teachers had different reactions to her continual passing, but in fact, the approach made no difference. She kept on refusing. In any case, none of the teachers tried to force her to take part, or threatened her with dismissal if she didn’t take part.
As we moved into November, one of the themes of reading and discussion in the group work was discrimination. Everyone in the class had had experiences of failure in school, and had stories of being put down, punished, called stupid, and teased and taunted by other students and by teachers. Many of the students were First Nations (aboriginal), and a couple were immigrants from Asia. They had stories of racism as well as stories of “stupid.”
One morning, during a discussion about our class, and how we tried to make it different from other schools, someone said, “Everybody is somebody here.” Although she didn’t go to class, Naomi had developed some ways of knowing exactly what went on in class, and the next day a banner appeared: “Everybody is somebody here.” We put it up on the wall in the main classroom.
In the middle of the month, the class held a big event for the community in our cafeteria. Although she “passed” on going to any planning meetings, or participating in any way at the event, Naomi produced several banners to decorate the cafeteria.
After the event was over, she began to produce banners that seemed to be instructive, although it wasn’t clear who she was instructing. “Help someone feel smart,” was one I remember, and “Help someone feel safe.” We hung them up in the hallways.
One morning she sat down at the computer as usual. I was surprised to see her open up the word processor and start to type. She wrote about a hundred words, about herself, and about the racism she had experienced as a First Nations child in elementary school. She said that racism was wrong, and that everyone deserved respect.
She read her story to me, and I said I agreed with her conclusion, and that her story deserved a bigger audience. I asked her if she would like to post it in the hall and invite other students to write in response. (Today, I’d probably ask her if she wanted a blog.) She said she’d try it.
So she made a display on the bulletin board, with her story in the middle and lots of space around it, and made a sign inviting other students in the College to post their stories on the same topic. One of the English teachers took it up with her students, and Naomi got four or five responses on her bulletin board.
Although I had taken the writing as an indication that she would start participating in class activities, Naomi kept on passing when invited to take part. She didn’t have time. She was busy hanging out in the hall, watching people read the bulletin board. She wrote a note in response to everyone who added their writing to her display, and posted the note beside their story.
Then the holidays came, and the program shut down for a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, I’m curious to hear people’s reactions. Could the same thing happen today? Could it ever have happened in your program? Do you agree with our letting Naomi continue to “pass” for three months? What do you think was happening as she coloured? How has “outcomes-based” programming hampered our ability to do holistic literacy work?
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“Could it ever have happened in your program?”
In one context, ten years ago, this would have been okay with the institution(s) (though the 10-yrs-ago me would have too impatient and insecure to let it happen): today I don’t think I could keep that sort of space open. My classes move faster and see more top-end success, but I don’t have institutional permission – and the institution does not have funder permission – to give that much latitude to an individual learner.
In another, smaller scale, funding-stressed, wildly inconsistent, wonderfully eclectic context, I can still offer learners that kind of support… But that inconsistency, and the fact that It’s not a viable way to make a living, hampers how effective I can be. Helping people feel safe needs be a steady, long-term process in which we coaches/facilitators also feel safe..
Thanks for the comment, Wendell. I’d like to echo your last sentence, and am well aware of the importance of secure employment and a living wage in making practioners feel safe, and able to do their work. Following on those external safety nets, other, more individual and interior factors come into play.
Rarely in my reading life have I found myself in such unanticipated suspense!
I wholeheartedly agree with your approach.a wonderful lesson.