Hi there tout la gang,

We don't have much to say about research in practice at the Café right now

but we are talking policy and practice over here now: Literacy Enquirers.

Friday, September 26, 2008


These election campaigns can be a bit hard to handle. And two on the continent at once is serious overload. Ze Frank is doing his own democracy projects and one of them is this song.

"I asked people to sing along to a basic track and send me the results as audio files. After I had about 20 in total I mixed the results together to create the chorus of the tune."

Have a listen. It will get you in a good frame of mind for the weekend.

This weekend is Word on the Street in some Canadian cities. If you are in Toronto, check out the Storied Neighbourhoods tent hosted by Diaspora Dialogues. I will be there. I think it is going to be good.

But whatever you do, remember to breathe.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

best laid plans

I am pretty sure that anyone who reads this blog also reads Wendell's blog but just in case you do not, check out his new posting, Plans.

Wendell writes about how, when we read intake forms and learner biographies, our minds inevitably drift to planning but

Of course, making plans before meeting the learner is simple folly. It's all too easy to impose my likes and dislikes on the brief biographies contained in the intake forms. What matters is their quality world pictures; their wants, hopes, interests, ideals. Better that I should wait patiently to meet them and talk with them.

because a learner's work and education history is NOT necessarily a predictor of what we want our work and education future to be.

None of this prevents me from scheming in advance of meeting learners. But it does prevent me from taking too seriously the plans I make for others.

I really hope all the policy-makers and -implementers with big plans for slotting teaching and learning into such things as learner-skills-attainment matrices read this post because this is why matrices DO NOT WORK with REAL PEOPLE.

Sorry - someone sent me this and I am feeling a little worn out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

literacy in the news BC-Style

The Vancouver Sun ran a 5-part series on literacy last week. The very best story :-) is the one by my cousin Suzanne Ahearne called A helping hand from literacy tutors. about Project Literacy Kelowna, a community-based program. In the story we hear about the program from the perspective of the program worker, a tutor, a learner and the executive director. We hear about teaching, learning, the muddy waters that are literacy and the funding roller coaster ride.

There is an accompanying audio piece where the learner and tutor talk more about working together.

Other stories can be found here:

There is a story called B.C. educators seeing more 'ground-zero' learners - but the link takes you to the Helping Hand story.

There is also a 4.5 minute video of an adult literacy class. And the photo gallery is here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

literacy workers speak out

Here are some excerpts from the comments on Carol Goar's article entitled Parties can't read literacy warnings:

42 percent represents a lot of votes!

42 percent of the working population that lacks the reading, language and vocabulary skills to participate in the knowledge economy represents a lot of votes. Pull those voices together under the banner of adult rights to literacy opportunities and funded programs and that’s a strong voice. Governments and politicians listen to strong voices (think banks). How can we get 42 percent of the working population to put adult literacy funding and opportunities into the mouths of our politicians? There lies the key to democracy. ...

short sighted and mean
Cutting funding to an adult literacy program is short-sighted and mean, but hardly surprising for heartless Harper.

Rhetoric costs nothing...
Students, instructors and employers know that we need to take urgent steps to provide quality, stable literacy programming so that adults who want to learn who want to improve their lives can exercise their right to do so. As you note federal politicians pay lip service to literacy but are unwilling to pay much more. The cuts in 2006 were cleverly engineered and packaged by the outgoing government. A quick tour of the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills web site appears to show that this government is engaged in supporting literacy – but, literacy organizations know the “real” story. The funding process is narrowly-focused, convoluted, and opaque. Literacy organizations across the country are understaffed, under- funded and over-stretched. Applying for funding is so time-consuming and costly that many organizations cannot afford to do it. Essentially the process disqualifies many candidate organizations.

response to LTragg
I have worked in literacy for over 20 years and have met many wonderful people. I have never thought of a literacy learner as someone who as "sunk so far down the ladder as to be illiterate". Many, many people lack basic reading and writing skills through no fault of their own. For every learner, there is a story. Some people will freely admit that they messed up in school by not participating, skipping school, getting caught up in other behaviours, etc. But by far the majority have other stories that can include domestic violence, moving from town to town, learning disabilities, health issues and more. For those of you who don't believe that literacy is a real issue, I suggest you try volunteering in your local agency and put a human face on the issue of low literacy. Talk to people. Spend some time with them. Discover how struggling with skills that many of us take for granted can impact daily life.

Taking a position on literacy
Throughout the country, organizations are working in their communities to support adults who have difficulty using written language. For a political party not to have developed policy on literacy says to these organizations and the people they support that this work is not important. The Harper Government has ripped apart the small but crucial infrastucture that has connected and sustained organizations doing this this work. We need at least one of our political leaders to commit to rebuilding this infrastructure, in consultation with communities and literacy organizations throughout the country. Who will take up this challenge? Thank you to Carol Goar for issuing this challenge, and helping our leaders focus on this unsexy but essential issue.

We all benefit from putting literacy on the agenda

Many people experience literacy issues today and have in the past; it's the demands of the knowledge-based economy that brings the issues to the forefront because reading, writing, and other functional literacy skills such as filling out complicated documents and working with computers have become an integral part of our working activities. Canadian schools aren't doing badly; they are ranked high in the international PISA study assessing the reading, writing, math, and problem solving skills of 16 year-olds. When not put to work literacy skills can diminish greatly, we have to acknowledge that as a society, and help adults to remain or become contributing members to their work environment, family, and community again. Many of these adults have or had jobs, have or had paid taxes, and support their families. They have a right to better themselves. In the end, adult literacy learner or not, we will all benefit from a society, in which more people participate fully.

We Need This
After working for an adult literacy program in another province, I've definitely seen just how important such work is. For whatever reason, some of our children aren't learning as they should in school and they are graduated anyway, becoming adults that barely have the minimum to succeed. So yes, our schools should be doing better. But in the meantime, we have work to do on the community level to help both those born here and those who come here and have to learn English. So much of our strength as people comes from our ability to understand and be understood and literacy programs offer that education. And as Goar stated, our strength as families has so much to do with literacy. I hope our government reads this.

Public funding
Literacy will always need public sector to support to make sure that programs are accessible to the diverse group of people who seek learning opportunities – including, but not limited to, those who need upgrading for work. The federal government used to support a wide range of research, including research-in-practice, and professional development that moved us forward as a field and enriched our practice as individuals. We have seen no support for that type of groundbreaking work since the NLS was replaced by OLES. If we are to meet the challenges of providing accessible, relevant and innovative programming in the 21st century, we need both funding (provincial) for programming and support (federal) for research and professional development that is accessible, relevant and innovative.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

jumping into the conversation

Literacy workers and learners from around the country are responding to Carol Goar's piece on literacy in yesterday's Toronto Star. Here is what the Jumping In Group had to say:

From a literacy group

Dear Carol, We agree with you. Adult literacy is important. We are people in a literacy program. We wrote this together. We have jobs. We work hard. We pay taxes. We have children. We need education for ourselves and for our children. It is also good for the country. If you have a good education you can get a good job and don't have to take no crap from nobody. Thank you for getting the information out about literacy. The Jumping In Group

Posted by Jumping In Group at 7:52 AM Thursday, September 18 2008

Go to the story to read what others have to say including Guy Ewing and yours truly (traceym). You can comment too or agree or disagree with comments made by others.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

literacy in the election campaign - NOT!

Literacy workers and learners who have been waiting to hear about how each party will fund and address literacy research and development after the election may have a long wait according to Carol Goar, who writes in today's Toronto Star:

...Regrettably, the federal government is withdrawing from the field. Eight months after taking power, the Conservatives chopped funding for adult literacy by $17.7 million [from a budget of $42 million]. They replaced the National Literacy Secretariat, set up Brian Mulroney 21 years ago, with their own Office of Literacy and Learning. But it deals only with national organizations. The network of provincial and local literacy organizations that linked thousands of volunteers has withered.


Across the country, educators, librarians, employers and community leaders are doing their best to reach out to people who need help reading, writing and getting started in a new country. But as Judith Maxwell, founding president of Canadian Policy Research Networks, notes: "Governments are more and more leaving it to the individual to find the right literacy training."

Naturally, this withdrawal of support at the top has affected morale in the trenches. Although charities such as the Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournament, ABC Literacy, the Movement for Canadian Literacy and Frontier College are doing a terrific job, they can't provide a pan-Canadian action plan. Nor do they have the resources to reach the 9 million Canadians whose inability to meet the demands of a typical workplace is holding them back.

This ought to be an issue in the federal election campaign. But none of the political parties has made it a priority.

The Conservatives regard literacy as a provincial responsibility. One of the reasons they cited for cutting federal funding in 2006 was that it wasn't Ottawa's job to do "repair work" for provinces that weren't teaching kids to read properly in the first place.

The Liberals have said they will implement a national literacy strategy. But there's no mention of it – and no money for it – in their election platform.

The New Democrats pledge to "press for a pan-Canadian strategy on lifelong learning that would go beyond simply restoring the Conservative funding cuts." But they have not released details.

The Green party is committed to eliminating illiteracy, but has no plan to do it. It says illiteracy is a reflection of Canada's social deficit.

The Bloc Québécois has no literacy policy, except to demand higher provincial transfer payments.

One way to let the Star, other media outlets and perhaps election campaigners know that it is important to keep shining a light on the issue is to comment on this story.

* Remembering the cuts.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

lavender freedom

Sometimes we ask ourselves the question, "What keeps us in this work?" Literacy workers in Canada are well-educated, smart and wise. They are self-directed learners who work hard at staying current in their field. They are self-directed innovators who use any available resource to maximum advantage. They play well with others. They could work anywhere.

In some places in Canada, literacy workers have stable employment, fair wages, good benefits and pleasant working conditions. But in most places, the opposite is the standard. So why do these talented and experienced people work here? Many talk about job satisfaction and I agree, but I wonder, if for some of us, there is not something else doing on.

I was twittering today and @hodgeman pointed to this interview with Bruce Campbell--any Xena fans out there?--who is a bit of a free spirit.

Mr. Campbell long ago stopped pursuing, deciding that instead of chasing stardom in Los Angeles he’d rather make his own movies, write a few books and basically not get involved in anything that would interfere with his ability to hang out on his middle-of-nowhere property, a lavender farm outside Ashland, Ore. ... Pleased as he is with the attention, and the steady work, Mr. Campbell admitted that there are days when he remembers why he has avoided taking parts in television series over the years. “For five years you’re trapped like a rat, in this lovely cage with silky paper on the bottom of it and a golden door that’s always locked,” he said. “Everyone takes good care of you, but you can’t go anywhere.”

Perhaps part of the literacy crazy wisdom is a free-spritedness that makes us resist the easy paths and the compromises that we have to make to walk upon them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

using our voices to make things better

It is Friday and we made it through the first full week back at school, the first week of the election campaign with its odd references to puffins and sparrows and so little reference to policy, another week in the endless U.S. election with its odd references to pigs in lipstick and Sarah Palin's odd performance, the seventh anniversary of the attack on the trade towers, earthquakes, hurricanes fires, the collision of particles in the Large Hadron Collider ... and so much more. Phew. And congratulations to all of us. This is a week that called upon our patience, our compassion and our critical literacy. I think we deserve a treat.

Last week zefrank posted this and I have been thinking about it ever since. I thought perhaps you would like it too. It is a poem about Deaf Poetry Jams by highschool students. Warning: There is a little bit of swearing in this video. Another warning: I always tear up a little at a certain point. But in a good way.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

grains of sand

Culture is, in fact, nothing but a grain of sand, but therein lays its power, in its silent front. It operates in the dark. That is its legitimate strength.

It is full of people who are incomprehensible but very adept with words. They have voices. They know how to write, to paint, to dance, to sculpt, to sing, and they won’t let up on you.

From an open letter to Prime Minister Harper by Wajdi Mouawad

Frontline 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. ...

We can better support our learners and ourselves if we use our own literacy abilities to shape this work that we love.

From Practitioners Making Time to Read and Write by Sheila Stewart, Literacies #1, Spring 2003.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

the feudal lords of profit read some books

Every two weeks since April 16, 2007 Yann Martel has been sending Stephen Harper a book that has been known to expand stillness.


"On March 28th, 2007, at 3 pm, I was sitting in the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons, I and forty-nine other artists from across Canada, fifty in all, and I got to thinking about stillness. To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene—doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

I was thinking about that, about stillness, and I was also thinking, more prosaically, about arts funding, not surprising since we fifty artists were there in the House to help celebrate the fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, that towering institution that has done so much to foster the identity of Canadians. I was thinking that to have a bare-bones approach to arts funding, as the present Conservative government has, to think of the arts as mere entertainment, to be indulged in after the serious business of life, that—in conjunction with retooling education so that it centres on the teaching of employable skills rather than the creating of thinking citizens—is to engineer souls that are post-historical, post-literate and pre-robotic; that is, blank souls wired to be unfulfilled and susceptible to conformism at its worst—intolerance and totalitarianism—because incapable of thinking for themselves, and vowed to a life of frustrated serfdom at the service of the feudal lords of profit. ...

The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute, certainly not. ...

Who is this man? What makes him tick? No doubt he is busy. No doubt he is deluded by that busyness. No doubt being Prime Minister fills his entire consideration and froths his sense of busied importance to the very brim. And no doubt he sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts.

But he must have moments of stillness. And so this is what I propose to do: not to educate—that would be arrogant, less than that—to make suggestions to his stillness."

Check out the reading list, the letters and Mr. Harper's response at What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

paperwork and program work

Last week I read this in a CBC story about the listeriosis outbreak:

"Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors have since [March 31] had to deal with significantly more paperwork, which reduces their awareness of the everyday goings-on at meat-packing and processing facilities. ...The biggest concern from the inspection staff is simply the amount of time now they spend looking at reports and generating reports."

Sound familiar? (The less-than-highlights)

Reading further, opposition parties accused the government of cutting the food inspection budget. The government argued that the budget had actually been increased but that processes had been changed.

The federal Agriculture Minister, Gerry Ritz was quoted as saying:

"Those that might characterize paperwork in a derogatory sense, I would challenge, given that that scientific review demonstrates the safety and security of the entire process used to produce food."

Perhaps a scientific review does demonstrate the safety and security of the entire process but is it not a hands-on review by an inspector using professional knowledge, experience and judgment to assess and evaluate that ensures safety and security?

Is this another case of practitioner expertise being disregarded and devalued?

It is unlikely that anyone is going to die if literacy practitioners are restricted from using their professional knowledge, experience and judgment in their work, but what will be lost?

Monday, September 8, 2008

happy literacy day