Practitioners Making Time to Read and Write
by Sheila Stewart
When I worked at Parkdale Project Read we
occasionally got calls from researchers, usually
graduate students, at the Ontario Institute for Studies
in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT).
They seemed to be calling from another world. They
wanted to visit the program, observe a group,
interview learners. We would ward them off. I
remember asking one such caller, “What would
Project Read and the learners involved get back from
your visits?” The distrust of researchers can be even
more profound in the Deaf and Aboriginal
communities where, in many ways, research has often
been a tool used to categorize and control.
Now, here I am working at OISE/UT
proponent of research, particularly research in practice.
How do I justify it? I believe that research in practice
can be a way for us to turn around the problem of
research being “done to” us. It can provide us the
opportunity to stop and reflect on what we
are doing and to ask and answer our own
questions about our practice. Doing it
ourselves is a way to feel that we can
become better at what we do, and
speak for ourselves. Research in
practice can keep people in the field.
The university, for all its limitations,
can help give us space and tools to
examine our practice and better
understand and value what we do.
Research sits in a particular place
between the field and the policy-makers. For
one thing, it can be a way to help make our voices
louder. Working with people who are poor and
marginalized means we don’t have many powerful allies.
Our work in classrooms and communities is largely
invisible. Adult literacy hasn’t had much attention since
International Literacy Year in 1990. The media’s current
focus in Ontario is on how many high school students
are failing the grade 10 literacy test. This kind of
“failure” does not result in smaller class sizes and more
money for special education and English as a second
language. Rather it just seems to be part of an endless
circle of assessment and standardized testing.
Front-line literacy practitioners are expected to do more with less. We spend
increasing amounts of
time on administration to answer demands for
accountability. As outcomes are measured, it is easy
to feel that our programs and our work are being
measured. Who has time to read in a literacy
program? Not the literacy workers. Who has time to
write? Again, not the staff, unless it is writing grant
proposals. What an irony that as literacy
practitioners we can become alienated from the
power of our own reading and writing.
Research can help us tell our
side of the story. It can help us move learning and teaching back
centre of literacy practice. We can become the ones
asking the questions and defining what is important to
literacy programs. We need to express our hard-earned
understandings so that we can dialogue with policy-makers and theorists, build community and thrive.
Like other teachers
and front-line workers, we deserve time to reflect. We need time
to read at work -- in between the
demands of intakes, groups, tutor
trainings, board meetings, and so on.
Research can only help the field if we
find time to read it, discuss it, talk
about it, argue with it and think
through how it might change the
way we do things. I’m sure I’m
not the only literacy practitioner
to have shelved a few research
never found a
moment to pick
them up again.
During my time at
Project Read one of the few
pieces of research I managed to
read was Jenny Horsman’s Too Scared
to Learn. This book describes how difficult
it is for learners who have experienced violence to
bring attention, focus and presence to their learning.
That really helped me. I could feel a shift in my
approach with learners. I blamed myself as a facilitator less, and developed a better sense of how to work with
what was going on. All of us can have greater insight
during our next encounters with learners once we read
good quality research.
Recently, I read the Ontario Literacy Coalition’s
report, Supporting Learning, Supporting Change. The
author, Katrina Grieve, built on other researchers’
work to create a new model for working with learners.
This report draws on international research and
insights from other disciplines. It presents findings in
the clear, accessible voice of someone from the field.
As I read, I felt I was in the midst of a rich dialogue
between research and the field.
A new kind of research is emerging which is close
to the ground and speaks directly to practitioners. It
is worth reading, critiquing and applying to our
practice. As well as reading, we need to write about
our work. We can better support our learners and
ourselves if we use our own literacy abilities to shape
this work that we love.
For an excellent article on research in practice,
Framework to Encourage and Support Practitioner
Involvement in Adult Literacy Research in Practice in
Canada by Jenny Horsman and Mary Norton (Ottawa:
National Literacy Secretariat, 1999).
For a thorough discussion of research in
networks on a national and international scale, see “It
simply makes us better” Learning from Literacy Research
in Practice Networks by Allan Quigley and Mary Norton
(Edmonton: Learning at the Centre Press, 2002).
Horsman, Jenny (1999). Too Scared to Learn. Toronto: McGilligan Books.
Katrina (2003). Supporting Learning, Supporting Change: A research
project on self-management and self-direction. Toronto: Ontario Literacy