Research in Practice: Trying out new ideas
by Dawn Romanowski
It was the very first class of my graduate studies. I did my best
to conceal it, but I had no idea what my professor was talking about. “Make
a list of the people in your class and the literacies that each student
brings with him or her,” he said, prompting a flurry of furious
writing that shook the tables around me.
“Literacies?” I thought to myself. “Is that even
I saw graduate studies as an escape route. I craved motivation,
a challenge, fresh opportunities, a diversion from the day-to-day
monotony of teaching. After having taught adult literacy and high-school
courses at a learning centre for a number of years, my once-vibrant
enthusiasm was fading. I began to consider my options: I could be
a resource teacher, a reading clinician; I could focus on the early
years. All I knew for certain was that I needed to move on. I imagined
doors opening, pathways emerging, I was on my way out.
And then, on the first day, I was awakened to the idea of multiple
literacies. As the classes progressed, my mind unfolded as I envisioned
the myriad ways that such theories as New Literacies, Critical Literacy
and Sociocultural Theory could enhance and transform an adult literacy
curriculum. Unexpectedly, I was on a path back to my own literacy
classroom, newly energized by the opportunities awaiting me.
Once I’d absorbed the concept of multiple literacies, with
the help of my class and such texts as Larson and Marsh’s Making
Literacy Real, I realized that my concept of literacy had been
rather narrow. The idea that students bring literacies like language,
technology and art with them to any classroom helped me to shift
my focus away from the limitations of my students and toward their
strengths. The notion that literacy is found in communication helped
me to see the necessity of interaction in an effective literacy classroom.
I began to vividly envision an actively literate adult literacy classroom,
and I couldn’t wait to bring it to life.
“Research in practice” sounds official and daunting
and might raise the question, “How could we possibly find time
for research in our busy adult literacy classrooms?” Fortunately,
I didn’t approach it with that phrase in mind. I was just trying
things out. “Let’s see how this works” was my opening
I walked into the classroom each morning. I wanted to create a space
where students could be an integral part of a community, where they
could learn to value the literacies that they brought with them.
I wanted the students in most need of help to be a part of an inclusive
team. I wanted to make reading and writing purposeful and meaningful.
I wanted my students to take a chance on a new kind of class where
we took literacy on the road and actively engaged in projects that
would empower them to see that they could have an impact on the world.
If they were willing to take that chance, I was willing to run the
risk of a crazy idea here and there. The worst they could say was, “We’re
But they never said that. My students were so open to change from
the irrelevant, isolated norm that they were willing to try anything.
Being part of a group is empowering, and through field trips and
co-operative cooking and planting projects, purposeful letter writing
and building projects to communicate with and raise funds for refugees
on the other side of the globe, my students and I were growing together
in confidence, knowledge and experience. Though I wasn’t sure
how field trips would go at first, I soon discovered that, no matter
how many buses it took them to get there, my students would be at
that library, museum or art gallery on time, rain or shine. It takes
reciprocal trust to build something new together, and they never
let me down. I believe that their motivation was rejuvenated along
with mine by our new adventures.
That’s not to say that there weren’t a few hitches along
the way. Email dialogue journals were a great idea in theory, and
ultimately worked out in the end, but the implementation of email
into a class where the students were, for the most part, unaccustomed
to computers in general was a challenge. There were a few mornings
in the beginning where I nearly packed up the computers and handed
out paper and pens.
Forgotten passwords, loss of papers with passwords on them, changed
passwords, frozen computers, disks stuck in the tower (what does
a disk have to do with email?) all tried our collective patience,
but we stuck it out, and it was worth it. Do I believe wholeheartedly
in email dialogue journals? Yes. Do I still use email dialogue journals
in my much larger class this year? Well, let’s just say that
notebooks work just as well.
I think that the most telling and satisfying outcome of the experience
has been the movement forward of each student from the initial Real
Literacy classroom. One of my students has since moved on to technical
college, two have moved into high-school credit courses and others
have improved to the extent that they, too, are thinking about moving
forward into computer or math credit courses. Most of these students
had been in literacy classes for years before we began our journey,
and didn’t appear to have any future educational goals. One
of my main aims at the outset was to encourage my students to move
out into the world, to realize their own potential. That they gained
the confidence to move forward speaks to the effectiveness of such
interactive theory in an adult literacy classroom.
As I proceed in my graduate studies, I continue to implement new
theory into my practice. This year, since I have a number of EAL
students, I’ve incorporated more ideas linked to interaction
and oral language. I’ve been testing out the power of relevance
in reading and writing. I’ve incorporated shared reading and
a number of other co-operative strategies. Some ideas are successful
and others aren’t, but I’m always acquiring new students
as my others move up and so my opportunities to learn continue.
I think that research in practice, or “trying ideas out,” can
only benefit both teachers and learners. What began for me as an
inquiry into how the application of new theory might affect an adult
literacy classroom has now become a way of life. Now I can’t
stop testing theory in practice; the assigned readings from my studies
have constant, tangible outcomes, and I’m stimulated and facing
new challenges each day. New theory informs my practice, and the
thirst for more ideas keeps me happily acquiring knowledge.
One doesn’t need to attend a graduate course to be inspired
by innovative ideas. Professional reading on its own can be very
effective, as can the sharing of ideas with other teachers, whether
within or outside your school. I think that too often we keep our
great ideas and practices to ourselves, when so many could be inspired
Larson, Joanne, and Jackie Marsh (2005). Making Literacy Real:
Theories Practices for Learning and Teaching. London: Sage
DAWN ROMANOWSKI is a graduate student in the Faculty
of Education at the University of Manitoba. She currently teaches
adult literacy at the Stevenson-Britannia Adult Learning Centre in
New Literacy Studies (NLS) “assumes literacy is a critical
social practice constructed in everyday interactions across local
contexts” (Larson and Marsh, p. 3).
[I]n a classroom based on NLS principles, students do not understand
literacy learning to be restricted to any one place or time but,
rather, that it occurs in everyday activities in multiple contexts
and at different times (p. 38).
NLS is inquiry-based learning which values what students already
know, providing an opportunity to apply it to the wider world. It
offers real experiences to expand literacy. The notion that students
always bring their own literacies to a classroom is something that
can easily be overlooked in a traditional classroom setting where
outcomes are predetermined, and the view of literacy is limited.
How We Put New Literacy Studies to Use in Our Classroom
According to Brian Street, “New Literacy Studies can offer
a solid framework for building upon what students bring with them
from home and community…” (Larson and Marsh, p. 37).
The idea that they bring vast knowledge and experience to the classroom
is one that my students had a hard time understanding at the outset.
In the first class, I listed the following three headings on the
Reading Writing Math
I had the students make lists under each heading of where they used
each discipline in their everyday lives. After they had a chance
to complete their own lists, I had students share their ideas with
me as I wrote our class lists on the board, under each heading in
turn. We managed to fill two full chalkboards once the ideas started
flowing, and more and more new ideas were shared throughout the class.
In the next phase of the discussion, I had students get into small
groups and, using our exhaustive lists, come up with field trip ideas
and activities we could involve ourselves in that would “make
from “Literacy — Expanding The Definition to Create
A New Kind of Adult Literacy Classroom” by Dawn Romanowski, Journal
of Adult Learning in Manitoba, Volume 1,2007.
Available online at www.mb.literacy.ca/JALM1.pdf.