Journal Extract: Excavating in the Trenches by Sally Crawford

Who is this woman anyway?!

I have been fortunate enough to have had many opportunities to reinvent myself. I am married to a bit of a corporate gypsy. His job has necessitated a number of family moves over the years. Each time has been a great chance to try out something new. After a brief glance at my resume prospective employers, less astute about the advantages of lifelong learning, jokingly ask “What’s the matter? Can’t you keep a job?”

I have a science background. The idealist in me is often at war with the pragmatist. I have arrived in the adult/family literacy world after a number of stops along the road: participated in biological research; taught in public and private secondary schools as well as in a university; worked in community and school libraries; clerked in an independent bookstore (great with the books and authors, hopeless on cash); ran my own small book repair business; facilitated an ESL class; survived being raised by three sons.

For the last several years I have worked for the Saint John Learning Exchange coordinating a family literacy program in Fredericton. What my job description did not say was:

  • Must be able to write funding proposals that, for a pittance, will guarantee reproducible, quantitative outcomes in an unrealistic time frame.
  • Before program begins and funding starts, find invisible learners and design an individualized program for and with each.
  • Facilitate adult literacy classes—program delivery may also include making the muffins, janitorial work such as mopping flooded floors, unplugging toilets and/or jumpstarting a geriatric furnace, fending off learners’ unsupportive partners, take phone call from learner attempting suicide, visit Learner in hospital who has become catatonic, maintain personal boundaries.
  • At all times, stay attuned to needs of staff, partners and volunteers.
  • Lead children’s programs that include, but are not limited to: aerobic exercises to determine if one’s Ears Hang Low; messy, germy hugs and kisses from toddlers; consoling the tender hearted as they learn about life when a group of non-vegetarian pigs eat the Big Bad Wolf; possessing the tact of UN diplomat as a twenty-something dad rants about “not believing” in war and Remembrance Day observances as a refugee from Yugoslavia looks on.
  • Keep up with mountains of paperwork/evaluations/assessments - in spare time.
  • Rant as necessary. (I often speak up about literacy—sometimes I’m even invited to do so. I now know enough to stop talking when people’s eyes glaze over. I once spoke to a local Rotary group who meets at 7 a.m. in the lounge of Delta Hotel. So I can now claim to hang out in bars for literacy.)
  • Participate in “RIGOROUS” research.
  • Leap tall buildings ……………………………

And on the Eighth Day of the week, she did rigorous research

I seem to have an innate curiosity to look deeper into new things. I want to know how my experiences and practice compare to those of others. Are their findings applicable to my situations? Should they be? How can I be more effective? What are other ways of approaching something? It’s great when someone else’s idea or observation resonates with what goes on in our program. But sometimes our program seems unique and I wish I could discuss it with someone.

Although I love being connected to academia via the research, the conferences and the odd research project, my passion lies in working with the learners and their children. I have come to realize that I have only so much energy and time that I can allot to my work. The best work-life/personal-life balance for me is attained when I devote most of my energies to my families.

I must admit I become somewhat intimidated around academics. Work takes on such serious import. Does a PhD trump a Bachelor’s, several diplomas and life experience? But then I slap myself up the side of the head and say “Hey—You are doing the work, you are in the field. Your Voice is credible.” I tend to use humour a great deal. It is not that I underestimate the gravity of the situations or challenges. At the risk of being taken for an airhead, I think that a little levity alleviates the load so we can approach things more easily. Call it “fool’s license” or the “Patch Adams” approach.

Formal research and reading the literature are both stimulating and crucial to keeping my work vital, but they can eat me up and divert me from where I know I am happiest—in the trenches. So I call the reflections that have emerged from my journals “Excavating in the Trenches”.

Wish I had said that

I found some wonderful quotes that mirror my philosophy about research and practice:

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”

—Elias & Merriam (1980)

I have always tried to connect theory and practice. I have also always tried to practise reflectively.

Know that no one is silent but many are not heard. Work to change this.

How to Build a Global Community, 2005 poster, Syracuse Cultural Workers

The text for programs must be real life. I firmly believe that literacy skills are only tools for social action. Literacy is embedded in all aspects of life. We cannot separate addressing concerns surrounding literacy apart from those of poverty, health, employment, justice and other societal issues. We must move forward on all fronts concurrently.

Nobody knows everything and Everybody knows something.

I am both a Learner and a Teacher.

Partners make the road by walking (A. Machado Selected Poems 1980)

Not having come up through the ‘education’ or ‘academic setting’ ranks is probably an advantage for me. I have been free to read indiscriminately and to talk to a variety of people in the field—learners, practitioners, academic researchers, service providers, policy makers and Jane Public. I take delight in “welcoming the wild” and the “not literacy” pedagogy as Elsa Auerbach phrases the work.

And well you might ask…..

Query—What would a symmetrical relationship between the academy and the literacy community look like?

  • Academics and practitioners working together to influence public policy
  • Funds for practitioner research—not just honoraria to supply academics a class for focus groups, etc
  • Questions to research developed by all involved—research with, not on
  • Academics and practitioners contributing what they do best

Query—What are the strengths of RiP?

  • It makes us all better
  • It is grounded in the realities of the field
  • It gives practitioners and learners an opportunity to respond to the theory
  • Theory and practice supporting each other can be a powerful voice with funders and policy makers
  • Practitioners feel as though their work has credibility
  • The wheel needn’t be re invented
  • Knowledge can be built to solve real life problems

Query—What are the barriers to RiP?

  • Confidence/experience/know—how/connections of practitioners
  • Research is perceived to be reserved for a sterile controlled environment in academia
  • TIME—who has time to do their jobs and research???!!!
  • Adequate, long term funding
  • Envisioning the audience and the implications of the research to them

Query—How do/could our literacy communities support reflective thinking?

  • The Literacies Journal
  • Workshops/conferences
  • LCNB’s Community of Enquiry
  • Online conferences
  • More discussion and collaborations among practitioners and academics

When it’s good, it’s very, very good... And when it’s bad, it’s horrid

Imagine if you will–a rambling two story Victorian house that extends from a busy street back towards the river. The house has had many incarnations–originally a stately home, then an apartment building when the neighbourhood became less fashionable and heating costs skyrocketed; and now the home of the Family Resource Centre—the home to our family literacy program, Learning, Laughter & Life. Downstairs, a group of toddlers squeal as they gyrate to the Hokey Pokey. Upstairs, their mothers attend an adult leaning program. The coffee pot is on, muffins and fruit sit on the counter. One woman works on math problems at the classroom table, occasionally glancing up to gaze out across the river to the Fredericton skyline on the other shore; another is writing a biology essay for her correspondence course; someone else does a language arts exercise on the computer. In the kitchen two learners talk about bedtime routines and how best to wean a baby—one ( a baby bouncing on her knee) has a chemical engineering degree but speaks very little English; the other, thinking she may like to take teacher training, has volunteered to get some practical experience by facilitating some ESL sessions with her classmate. Two learners have called to say their children are sick and can’t make it in to class. The class facilitator reminds everyone it will soon be time to gather at the table to do some group writing exercises. Magic.

And then there are the mornings from hell. The thermometer has dropped and the upstairs pipes have frozen again. The Children’s Program Coordinator is suffering from a bout of food poisoning and can’t come in. The roads are a skating rink. When you arrive at the Centre you learn that schools have just been cancelled so you should close too. One mom and her daughter show up. This Learner is the most “difficult” in the class—multiple layers of “issues”. She just presses your nerve—constantly. You sometimes feel she comes only for the free child care. She spends class time with busy work and becomes affronted with the discussion around goals and outcomes. You take the opportunity, since it’s just the two of you, to give a not so gentle prodding to apply to finally write her GED. This elicits a torrent of tears. She storms out. Sigh. You spend the remainder of the day catching up on paper work and prep. At the end of the afternoon you inch your way home over the treacherous roads wondering why you do this work at all.

We do it for the money and the status—NOT

Ever examine who works in the field and why? It seems to me that it’s mostly women. Is it that the work somehow demands the “nurturing female thing”? Is the job not valued by society so let the women do it? Are women more willing to put up with the working conditions because they know if they don’t, the programs will fold? Should we be more militant? I’m of the age and stage where I can do this because I love the work. I’m not putting bread on the table so the lack of secure salary and no benefits is not crucial for me to continue.

I enjoy the fact that everyone I talk to has come to the field by a different route. I’ve not met one person yet who woke up one morning as a youngster and said “I think I’ll be a literacy facilitator when I grow up.” And they are all passionate in some way about their work and about social justice. They all seem to be comfortable choosing “curiosity over certainty”. Such richness!

I appreciated Hardwired for Hope (published by Malaspina University College, 2004, found on the NALD site). So many of the statements resonated with me. A little political, a little nurture. I kept muttering “Yes! Yes!” ‘til my husband finally asked what in the world was I reading.

I hope as the field becomes more and more defined and there are more opportunities for practitioners to become credentialed, we don’t lose the spontaneity and dynamism. I think because everyone comes with such diverse backgrounds there is a richness and freedom to the field that may be lost if things become too delineated.

Cockles and mussels, alive, alive o…….. 

I love the ocean. Sometimes even in February, especially when the snow banks become too oppressive, we make the two-hour car trek to the coast just to smell the sea and walk along the beach.

The blue mussel, Mytilus, is common on the shore, in the tide pools and clinging to the rocks. The larger ones are often covered with barnacles and have bits of seaweed attached. I think that learners are like those mussels and that literacy is one of the barnacles—only one. There are also the barnacles and bits of seaweed called poverty, ill health, injustice, poor self-esteem, and all the other issues of life. The blue mussels are extremely tough and can thrive in the most inhospitable of environments.

I was tempted to title this part of the wildcard, Dr. Sal. Literacy is only one aspect of the learners’ lives. An article Jenny Horsman wrote stating “But I’m not a therapist” ( certainly resonated with me. Although the thrust of the piece was mostly with respect to violence in the lives of learners, it could also be extended to other areas. I am not a trained counselor or health professional. Yet when working with people whose lives are in constant crisis one is tempted to try and “fix” things. It can be very dangerous.

Once a staff member came to me with some FAS/FAE material. Pointing to one of the illustrations she asked, “Who does that look like?” At first I had no idea but when she pointed out some features, mentioned some accompanying behaviours and suggested one of our toddlers, I could see the similarities. The dilemma—we are not trained physicians; a downloaded photo and some observations a diagnosis doth not make. But…. We do know children with FSA/FAE. The mom has no home support and has talked openly about drinking and drunkenness. What was our job/responsibility?????

Every literacy worker can ream off examples of where life, not literacy was the issue.

We must not pretend to have all the answers. Ideally, we can only struggle with the problems and build the knowledge needed for a solution.

Reading the word and the world vs. Reading the workbook

One of my ongoing research-in-practice endeavours has been to try to truly promote a participatory/learner-centered approach in the class. I’ve read my Paulo Freire and Elsa Auerbach. I studied Victoria Purcell Gates and Robin Waterman’s We Read, We See, We Speak (Erlbaum, 2000) from cover to cover. Myles Horton and Septima Clark have inspired me. I’ve followed Frank Smith’s logic. Jane Mace has challenged me about “writing up vs. writing down”.

Building relationships—I can only involve myself with my learners’ lives to a point. I don’t live among them in their world.

Me—middle aged, married for 32 years with three grown sons, middle class, university educated, possess some confidence and have expectations that my actions and ideas can take me where I want to go.

They—young, often single parents of toddlers, on income assistance or the working poor, little formal education, little self-confidence (lots of bravado, let me tell you) lack the means and support to pursue their dreams.

However—we all

  • are interested in learning and making change
  • love and have dreams for our kids
  • have experience(s)/knowledge to bring to the class

Developing Themes: Using a number of ideas (family trees, life journeys, oral histories, community maps), we developed topics to use as text for classes. One learner was particularly interested in how people/she learned. This led to reading articles, searching the net, discussions and writing around learning styles, multiple intelligences, etc. One Learner picked up clues to help her take in and retain information.

Social Analysis:  Lots of talk and writing around current events—election, daycare policy, housing, schools, tsunami relief versus helping the poor in our city, family and celebrations in different cultures, Remembrance Day ceremonies and glorifying war, freedom. Newspapers, magazines, TV, pop culture—all sources for social commentary and reflection.

From the Learner’s world ] Back to the Learner’s world

Problem-posing rather than problem-solving

Lady Bountiful

I am very conscious of the fact that I must always sit in that place of tension where, while attempting to maintain my own integrity, wholeness, and authentic self—I don’t inadvertently shut down someone else from being her/his whole person. At the same time I have to keep the good of the entire class in mind.

I have knowledge, experience and a set of life principles with which I manoeuvre through life. I can’t help but share them. I love to be part of another’s journey—to cheer, console, or help discover answers. Some learners may perceive that I have power or authority and give more credence to my input than is appropriate. Keeping the right mix of give-and-take is a daily juggling act and a serious responsibility.


Who am I

From across the bridge

To come and say

Let me help you

Why do I come

Why do I care

Why do I cajole

Why do I do this

To make me feel good?

To make me look good?

To assuage the guilt?

Guilt for what?

Can knowledge set you free?

Free for what

To leave the safety of your world

To be dissatisfied with mine?

Do we have a plus or minus gene

To see the pitfall or potential

Can we really change the headtalk

Or is it all predetermined

Jumping though hoops, scaling walls and breaking down roadblocks

I sit at my computer, classical music playing softly and a cup of tea at hand. I have a report to write and I have procrastinated long enough—cleaned the oven, folded laundry, clipped my toenails, fed the cat, checked the fire extinguisher—anything that enables me to keep from doing the job.

This makes me think of the young moms I work with and how much perseverance they need to continue to not only come to class but stay focused on longer term leaning goals. Do I demand from them something I couldn’t/wouldn’t do? What are the obstacles facing them?

When asked what inner “voices” cautioned against attending the program to pursue their goals, these were some of the responses from participants in the Learning, Laughter and Life Family Literacy Program:

  • Do you have the finances?
  • Who will mind the children?
  • When would you have time?
  • How will you get there?
  • Why would you want to do that anyway?
  • Don’t you have enough on your plate?
  • You’re not as smart as….
  • Too bad you don’t live up to your potential
  • Bad blood (in you)
  • When will you learn you can’t have everything you want!

And so…our program has tried to address some of the barriers families face:

  • it’s free
  • there is a concurrent children’s program—not just child care
  • it is not a huge time commitment—three session per week
  • it’s on the bus route and some funds can be obtained for travel
  • we have a somewhat flexible attendance policy (this drives funders crazy)
  • folks can connect to other programs/services available at the Centre
  • we respect and encourage the Dreamer and her dream

The only time slot available this year at the Centre was afternoons. This is proving to exclude some families–those with school-aged children coming home mid-afternoon and those whose little ones nap in the afternoon. Not a good fit. As Ellen Long and Sandy Middleton’s work indicated, program timing proves to be a factor in why people did not enroll in literacy classes. (Patterns of Participation in Canadian Literacy and Upgrading Programs. ABC Canada. 2001)

Single parenting is really a misnomer–it should be designated double parenting. The twenty-four-seven life of these moms is exhausting. Budgets are tight. Many have no backup support from family and/or no extra funds for babysitters. Travel is often limited to family unfriendly busses taking them to child unfriendly places. One mother of five who lived in public housing said the best summer holiday she ever had was the three weeks she spent with the children in a transition house. It was close to the park and a shopping mall. Meals were provided and the children had others to play with in a safe environment. That summer we designed a Making Summer Memories family learning program in response to her statement.

Just give me the money and let me do the job

I hate the idea that success of a family literacy program is all about the number of participants, improvements in reading levels and how many participants got a job.

There’s something immoral about reducing the justification for funding to numbers and the bottom line.

I guess we just have to be smarter about articulating success. Have used Naming the Magic: Non Academic Outcomes in Basic Literacy (Battell et al, 2001) and found it full of insights.

I must agree with Nayda Veeman (The Proof of the Pudding… A Response to the Sticht-Murray Debate about the IALS and ALL.  NALD. 2005) that we need a more social democratic approach to adult education. We need one based, not on a charity model, but one which regards adult education as a public investment that raises the educational level of the whole society.

Literacy is indeed embedded in all aspects of life—health, education, justice, housing, employment, and parenting. And by making our curriculum contextual, we are really doing the jobs of other service providers. How can we effectively support community development by working with other service providers? If literacy is everywhere, what is the role of the literacy practitioner? For example: Many of my learners are “clients” of the provincial Department of Family & Community Services. I visited the department case managers to talk about our family literacy program. I stressed our mutual interests and goals. FCS wrote a letter (but that’s another story) to about 400 of their clientele, encouraging them to attend my program. We had one young woman and her son come. Many of the topics explored and skills developed in our class correspond to those advocated by FCS. How can FSC be convinced it would be beneficial to direct people to our literacy program and help to fund it?

So, a good area to research might be literacy, working with other service providers, and community development in the NB setting. There are models out there (BC and Alberta).

How can we give more than lip service to working together to improve life for all of us?

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