The Joy of the Difficult

I remember early on in my teaching ABE career, I ran into a colleague who wanted to have stories and articles with happy endings so we didn’t add to the misery of the students’ lives. I couldn’t then tell her why that seemed so wrong-headed to me. She didn’t want anyone upset and wanted the class to be comfortable for everyone—and I suspect most of all for her. —Evelyn Battell, comment on an earlier post

Many ABE instructors will give the same reasons as Evelyn’s colleague for not wanting to use “difficult” material with their students: it will upset the students, and it will make the teacher uncomfortable. The reasons come as two faces of a weighted coin: What is most comfortable for the teacher often turns out to be what is “best for the students.”

triggersIn this series on trigger warnings I have given some examples of what I have learned about shaping my teaching around material that reflects the lives, struggles, hopes, and current conditions of literacy, ABE and GED students.

Most of us exercise a large degree of control over the content we bring to our students. Teaching the skills of reading and writing can be done using any subject—in fact, studies of best practices usually recommend that we pick something relevant to the student when we begin to work on those skills. Usually the difficulty we face is a lack of resources, when neither the students nor the program have funds to buy texts. Often we resort to things we can download from the net, or photocopy.

So given that we can choose anything, why should you choose material that you think will need a trigger warning?

  • Because it’s respectful. However hard people’s lives are, you don’t make them easier by ignoring them or leaving their stories out. Reading material that never reflects students’ own situations perpetrates a lie. It is damaging, not healing. It tells the student that s/he is wrong, and doesn’t fit within the human context.
  • Because it teaches the true value and purpose of reading and writing. People read because they find something useful in the text: information they can use in their daily lives; a reflection of themselves that inspires or consoles. People write because they have something to say. Reading offers us the powerful experience of seeing our lives reflected back to us. However, if students always read stories about people they don’t recognize and don’t care about, reading itself seems boring and pointless.
  • Because it connects us. I want to help students understand that they are not alone in their experiences, by showing their experiences represented in text. When you see you are not alone, you can begin to understand that it is not your fault.
    One year my class read a little novel about a woman whose husband beat her. I was concentrating on vocabulary and plot, and making sure I had up-to-date referrals to local groups that could help women in the same situation. Into my busyness a South Asian woman threw a stunning statement that shows how reading connects. “I didn’t know it happened to white women,” she said.

Leaning In

The process of dealing with tough stuff is wonderful and powerful. Teachers and students both “lean in.” Everyone is aware that something important is up for discussion, that language is being scrutinized, that boundaries are being negotiated. The awareness electrifies the atmosphere.

That’s where the power of the written word is revealed to students who have already decided that reading and writing are not relevant to their lives, that school is just a hoop you have to jump through to get to the real prize—a better job. That’s where the power of language allows them to see themselves and their lives in a new and interesting way. That’s where the transformation happens.

And in that electrified atmosphere, dealing with real issues and important themes, the skills we are charged with teaching come into sharp focus: finding the words to express yourself and getting immediate feedback as others respond to your words; paying attention to the ideas of others. What are they saying? Do they have reason on their side? How are they manipulating my thinking? Why is it important to me and to others not like me? (What is the main idea? Are the supporting details relevant? Is it fact or opinion? How does it evoke emotions?  What difference does it make in my world and in the larger world?)

Not Safe, But Safer

And all of this in a space that the teacher has managed to make, not absolutely safe, but safer, by showing respect for students’ lives, by acknowledging that painful experiences interfere with present life and learning, and by providing students with access to stories and articles about people who share their experiences, their problems, their joys; in short, by including them and their lives in the description of the human condition.

Previously, in this series on trigger warnings: 1 Trigger Warnings,  2 Trigger Warnings from Students, Trigger Warnings 3: An Outlier, and 4. Trigger Warning Tells a Lie

7 thoughts on “The Joy of the Difficult

  1. HI Kate I would like your permission to republish this post in Fine Print journal, Melbourne Australia. We had great feedback last time edition #1 2015 Neither kind nor patient. We have a feature article from Tasmania about using narrative texts with young migrants and asylum seekers. This post and your series on Triggers links well. Please let me know in the next week or so. We would love to see you downunder if you are looking to travel in 2018 – we are hosting national conference. Cheers Lynne Matheson

  2. I am currently retired from my ABE/Literacy instructor job in Ottawa and have relocated to Quebec’s Gaspe coast where they (guess what?) also speak English. I am making headway in contacting local adult programs and hope to find part-time work here. I totally agree with you, Kate. My experience, too, has shown me that real nuts and bolts life with all its up, downs and complications is vastly a better vehicle for literacy instruction because it engages the learners in issues that may touch their heart. Of course, how sensitive subjects are approached and processed with the learners is crucial. Generally, being aware of the emotional state of the learners helps to navigate through touchy subjects. Thank you. Kate.

  3. Hi Kate, I couldn’t agree with you more. Much as we might want to spare people harm, no one can do that and thinking you are equipped to judge what a person needs to know (or do) just never works. I would more think that lots of people enrolled in ABE classes have had to develop a lot of resilience, so that should be a teacher’s guide rather then deciding for them what they can or can’t cope with.

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