Reflections on a Research in Practice Gathering
by Sally Crawford
“Your Jenny Horsman is speaking at a literacy
conference in Edmonton. You should go.”
My Jenny Horsman? Me go to a literacy
conference? It was this off-hand comment that
launched me on the road to connecting with other
folk around the world concerned with literacy
practices, reflection and research.
Months earlier I had come across an article
by Jenny on the NALD site decrying “but I’m not a therapist!”
The words immediately resonated with me. I facilitate
an intergenerational literacy program in the
community centre of a government funded housing
neighbourhood in Fredericton, NB. I e-mailed Jenny my
comments and she graciously replied. Here was a
chance to speak with her further and to meet others in
the field. But, and a big ‘but’ it was, what did I know
about research in practice? Screwing my courage “to
the sticking place” I applied and, lo and behold, I was
not only accepted, but received some funds to attend!
Still thinking I was venturing forth under false
pretences I nevertheless went blithely off to Edmonton
to participate in Bearing Blossoms...Sowing Seeds. A
Gathering about Literacy Research in Practice, 2001.
I listened, I learned, I peeled back more layers of literacy practice.
I did present
a small piece in a workshop about my “living contradiction” – seeing the
value of literacy as a tool but not knowing how to communicate that value
to Learners and Funders. Mary Norton and Sharon
Skage were most helpful with my queries in this area.
Jane Mace’s workshop began to demystify some of the
questions I had concerning what constituted research.
“Writing up or writing down?” and “being a creative
writer” are phrases that stick with me from her session.
I appreciated the Kiva, that circle meeting place where
all voices were heard. I came away with confirmation
that our work has to have a holistic approach. I met a
host of others – academics, funders, practitioners – all
as impassioned about literacy as me. I was astounded at
spending four days with people who would talk as
long, as fast and as much as I did. I came home
recharged with a wealth of information as well as new
authors to investigate, new ideas to ponder, new
approaches to try, new friends to enjoy.
The next year, to my amazement,
there was another gathering, Portraits of Literacy, being
planned – in Vancouver! I had been involved in a small way
with an action research project with Dr. Pam Whitty
and Dr. Pam Nason at The University of New
Brunswick. Pam Whitty suggested that we attend and
present a paper about the work. She, Cheryl Brown
and I (both Cheryl and I work with The Saint John
Learning Exchange) facilitated an inquiry group
about developing partnerships and policy to sustain
intergenerational and family literacy programs. The
paper, to my delight, was later published in English
Quarterly. In Vancouver I had the opportunity to
renew friendships and forge new ones. I listened, I
learned, I peeled back more layers of literacy practice.
I took delight in “welcoming the wild” and the “not
literacy” pedagogy as Elsa Auerbach phrased the
work. I began to feel that perhaps I did have
something to contribute.
When the announcement appeared that there
would be yet a third gathering, I didn’t hesitate a
minute. I applied (love those Aeroplan points) to go
to Newfoundland. This time I would volunteer to be a
rapporteur (whatever that meant.). I felt that because I
expect learners in the programs I facilitate to stretch
and to venture outside their comfort zone, I must as
well. Being a rapporteur would compel me to grow.
Besides, I wanted to put something back – I had
gained so much from attending the two previous
Gatherings. So this time, off to the Rock I went for
Research in Practice in Adult Literacy. Participating in
Marina Niks’ session on Getting Started in Research in
Practice gave me the confidence to realize that I was
doing/could do research. We focused on what is
research? who does it? and how? I found the whole
tone of this third gathering very practical and the
sessions that I attended very applicable.
The challenge of being a rapporteur forced me to
delve deeper for understanding, to listen very attentively
and to articulate points most carefully so that others
could see what I saw. I was constantly surprised at the
energy, enthusiasm and creativity of the people
attending. I found myself continuously jotting down
ideas, things to try and phrases I found meaningful.
I was asked to say a few
words at the closing. Great
Scot – since Edmonton, I had gone from feeling like an
interloper to helping facilitate an inquiry group to
being a rapporteur to speaking. Wow. My journey to
that point was not unlike learners in literacy programs
who travel from a place of hesitantly eager to belong to
one of realizing and raising their voices. I went home
more determined than ever to do research in practice.
I am not so naïve
as to be unaware of the
undercurrents, the politics and the tensions occurring
in the field. We all seem to soldier on, underfunded
and undervalued. No one seems to have enough time
to do everything. Our tasks range from making the
muffins for the program to writing up proposals and
lobbying policy-makers and everything in between.
All this and do the research as well?! The task is
HUGE. But what unites us all and must encourage us
all – learner, researcher, funder, practitioner – is the
passionate belief that what we do counts. We all are
challenging injustice and helping people get on with
following their dreams.
Anything that one person can do alone is
not worth doing when you’re dealing
with social problems. If a problem is that
small, then the goal is too limited...If a
goal isn’t something very difficult, all
that people will learn to do is tackle little
Sally Crawford a lifelong learner, has worked in
university labs, public libraries and school classrooms. Currently, she is a
family literacy practitioner with The Saint John Learning Exchange. She
does some freelance writing and runs her own book repair home business.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Horsman, Jenny (1998). “But I’m Not a Therapist” The Challenge of
Creating Effective Literacy Learning for Survivors of Trauma. Paper
published in: Sue Shore, (Ed.)
Australian Council for Adult Literacy 21st National Conference: Literacy
on the Line. Conference Proceedings. Adelaide, University of South Australia,
Horton, Myles, Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl (1990). The Long Haul:
Autobiography. New York: Doubleday.
NALD – National Adult Literacy Database
Inc, Scovil House, 703 Brunswick St., Fredericton, N.B. Canada E3B 1H8. www.nald.ca
Pam, Cheryl Brown and Sally Crawford (2002). “Family Literacy in New
Brunswick: A Glimpse into Selected Initiatives.” English Quarterly, 2002,
Vol.34, Nos. 3,4, p. 46.