In a recent post I told the story of Naomi, who said “I pass” for more than three months in our basic literacy class, refusing all invitations to take part in group reading, writing and math sessions, or to do any private work in those areas; who instead spent her time making and colouring banners.
She was able to refuse to take part because of the classroom rule “Just say pass,” which is one of my mainstays in teaching adult literacy. She sat on the outskirts of the class, watching, until she could find a way to participate that was comfortable for her. She tested us for three months until she decided she could trust the situation, until she decided it was safe for her.
Because she waited for so long, and because her non-participation was so visible (yards of banners being coloured every day are hard to hide) various people took issue with her, and with us teachers for letting her “just say pass.”
Other students complained
Some of the other students complained that she didn’t do the schoolwork, and the teachers should make her do it. Conversations went something like this, and were oft repeated:
Student: It’s not fair. She doesn’t do any work. She should have to do reading and math.
Me: Every student has the same choice. Did you want to colour banners today?
Student: What? No—that’s not what we’re here for. That’s stupid.
Me: What did you choose to do today?
Student: I went to reading group, and I worked on my math. We have a math test tomorrow, on Unit 2.
Me: So you decided to work on reading and math today. That decision is going to help you pass this level and go on to the next, don’t you think?
Me: Naomi chose to make banners. Maybe she has a different goal in mind.
Administrators wanted her gone
Administrators said that if she didn’t do the literacy work, she should be asked to leave the class, that she set a bad example for the other students, and that the College was not a daycare program.
I’ll say at the outset that we were in a privileged position—teachers at the College were unionized, although some of us on the literacy teaching team had temporary or contract positions, not regular (permanent) positions. As well, the administration generally thought well of our teaching and respected our professional judgement on most things.
Still, we had to keep them happy.
We offered to take in an extra student, above the class size limit, because we were not expending much time or effort on Naomi while we waited to see if she would decide to take part. No prep and no marking required for the banner-making project.
We reported the benefits of the conversations we were having with other students about choice and decision making, including an increase in engagement and an awareness of being responsible for their own participation.
We noted to ourselves that in the future we could keep administration happy by not telling them the details about students who took a while to settle in to the class work.
The end of the story
There is no fairy-tale ending to my story of waiting for Naomi. She made a stunning breakthrough in December, started writing, took the enormously courageous step of opening a public dialogue about racism, and was rewarded by seeing her work taken seriously as others in the College responded to it.
When the winter break came, the program closed for a couple of weeks. Naomi went to to visit family in the States, and didn’t come back to our community or our program. It was over for us. No matter what our hopes had been for Naomi, we would not get to see what happened next.
That’s life in Adult Basic Education.
Did we do the same again for other students who came after?
You bet we did!
Your story did have a fairytale ending. Naomi learned that words have power. She also learned that she had the power to use them effectively and to use them to make a change for the good. The whole point of a literacy program is to find the key that inspires people to learn. Natalie found the key in through writing on banners. What Naomi was doing was writing, spelling, editing and publishing — and seeing that there was a payoff in it! As a career journalist, I can tell you that getting a message across in one short sentence is not easy. And printing in a type large enough for a banner is going to make correct spelling a must. It’s a brilliant learning tool, one I’m going to use. Inspiring people to see the value of reading and writing — in everyday life — isn’t easy. Naomi figured it out on her own — thanks to you!
Thanks for this positive spin on my title, Karla. Of course, I agree with everything you say in your comment. I have long loved the banner as a “first publication” for literacy students.
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But very ‘small’ things can make very big changes if a teacher ‘sees’ a student, the way her teachers saw Naomi.
I had my students (not ABE) journal. One student was a dental hygiene student. In response to an angst of hers that she could not possibly allow a relationship to develop with a boy she really liked because he had bad teeth, I had written in the margin ‘the world does not revolve around a toothbrush’.
It was that comment which, she later told me gratefully, had changed her life.
I think it is being seen, respected, and engaged with that enables any of us to learn.
barbara, Jenny–thank you for adding your experiences to this discussion.
I’ve been away and reading these blog entries from England with intermittent internet access – i may have to go back through many entries and add comments because each one has sparked my thinking as usual Kate – thank you.
I love the concept of saying “I pass” – use a lot of rounds and always offer that option, actually offer it for activities in my workshops too – have been fascinated for as long as i can remember by the way a round opens up a space – I’m often particularly delighted by the folks who eventually speak in a round – with amazing pieces of wisdom that no one would have heard if there hadn’t been a very explicit space that they have to actively choose to decline. As someone who thinks out loud i often take up a lot of air time in a group – i don’t know anything until i hear myself say it out loud and begin to get clear on what i do know or think – when others engage with me – and I with them my thoughts and/or feelings get clearer – I’m always fascinated by the people who aren’t like me who think things through silently and only talk about what they are thinking or feeling if they are explicitly invited. Connected to that invitation i agree it’s important to have the option to pass so that no one is put on the spot. I love your clarity that it allows a teacher to quickly move the spotlight away so that the invitation remains just an invitation – and doesn’t become tortuous. I hadn’t thought about how helpful it is to be clear about a rule of passing for anything – taking the spotlight off the teacher too.
Your story of Naomi and her banner making – as always such a fine vivid one – shows where the pressure can get put on teachers too – to “show” success. Your comments Wendell (good to see you here) remind me of the ways those pressures are increasing in ways i find almost unbearable – because they are so counter-productive. I so believe in the importance of the space that allows anyone to explore how they want/are able to engage with learning – why do systems so utterly miss that? I suppose that’s a silly question – but oh i so wish i knew how to get the systems to pay attention to the impacts of violence and how that makes that smooth consistent engagement with learning – sign up, take the course, complete it, graduate, move on – that the system demands so close to impossible for so many people…..
thank heavens you created space for Naomi – and who knows what difference that has made in her life – even if you never get to know it…. somebody treated her respectfully…. what a gift!
“We noted to ourselves that in the future we could keep administration happy by not telling them the details about students who took a while to settle in to the class work.”
LOL – Now *that’s* familiar!
Alas, next came the accountability / efficiency regimen that required us to record each learner’s progress on a pre-determined, fixed curriculum presented as online (government monitored) check boxes. That, of course, moved us from sins of omission to sins of commission… with all the crazy-making strain that produced in facilitators who really did want to be good employees, but who were faced with contradictory demands.
Among my co-workers, the ‘solution’ that emerged – and here I’m talking about us securing our own emotional and physical health – was to do as the administration required (they became our real ‘client’) in our paid day jobs, and to offer learner-centered support as volunteers or after-hours workers in much smaller projects.
Wendell, it’s taken me a couple of days to be able to come close enough to your last paragraph to even think about a reply. It breaks my heart. Kate
I know in Literacy work we get used to students moving on with their lives and often moving away or disappearing before the story is over. I always thought to myself – “well she had a positive, pleasant respectful experience in school at least this once. Who knows where that will take her?” It also reminds me (when students move on in the midst of the story)that we are not such a big part of their lives as we often think we are. When I was a child I had a successful school experience and my whole world supported the fact that school was majorly important. Most of my students didn’t have that and I need to remember that school has usually been a sideline at best for them (even though it is hard on my ego – being a sideline)
Great story Kate.
Sometimes we provide short-term success in the midst of long-term failure. Sometimes we are one part of an – invisible to us – on-going story of progress. In either case, the good things that happen between ourselves and learners can’t be made to “un-happen” and no one can take away that part of a learner’s life… or, for that matter, of ours. 🙂
Thanks Wendell – I like the phrase “can’t be made to ‘un-happen” – that’s exactly what I want.