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
- 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
- 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
- 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
—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
- 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
Query—How do/could our literacy communities support
- The Literacies Journal
- LCNB’s Community of Enquiry
- Online conferences
- More discussion and collaborations among practitioners and
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
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
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” (http://www.nald.ca/canorg/cclow/doc/Therapist/1.htm)
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
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.
- 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
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
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
- 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
- it’s free
- there is a concurrent children’s program—not just
- it is not a huge time commitment—three session per week
- it’s on the bus route and some funds can be obtained
- we have a somewhat flexible attendance policy (this drives
- folks can connect to other programs/services available at the
- 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
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?