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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

learning iran

For those of us who want to learn more about what has been happening in Iran, check out the Perspolis-style cartoons illustrating the chronicle of #iranelection.

"Since the Revolution in 1979, Iranians have coped with an increasingly repressive regime. Attempts for greater social and political freedoms have resulted in brutal crackdowns by the hardline government. The ensuing apathy and significant boycott of the 2005 presidential elections led to the election of the ultraconservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Four years later Iran has become increasingly alienated and its people more polarized than ever before. The campaign of former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi galvanized voters hoping for change, especially among the youth – two thirds of Iran’s population is younger than 32. On June 12th 85% of eligible voters cast their ballots and what happened next changed Iran forever…"

Friday, June 26, 2009

deep in my heart

It has been incredibly harrowing following the news from Iran. We are learning lessons about bravery, commitment and justice.

Joan Baez sings "We Shall Overcome" (with some lyrics in Farsi) for the Iranian people.

We are also learning more about how to navigate the so-called new media. One thing I like about the new media is that it is all critical literacy all the time. As I read along on Twitter, 140 characters or less at a time, it was interesting to watch how some sources came to be trusted(ish) and some were rejected.

Vietnam was the first "television war," the first "living-room war." What did it mean to the war and what did it mean to the people watching?

"The conventional wisdom has generally been that for better or for worse it was an anti-war influence. It brought the "horror of war" night after night into people's living rooms and eventually inspired revulsion and exhaustion. The argument has often been made that any war reported in an unrestricted way by television would eventually lose public support. Researchers, however, have quite consistently told another story... Only during the 1968 Tet and 1972 Spring offensives, when the war came into urban areas, did its suffering and destruction appear with any regularity on TV. For the first few years of the living room war most of the coverage was upbeat. ... By the fall of 1967, polls were already showing a majority of Americans expressing the opinion that it had been a "mistake" to get involved in Vietnam ... television was probably more a follower than a leader in the nation's [United States of America] change of course in Vietnam." -- from the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Television told its story from September 1959 to April 1975. The Winter Soldiers told theirs in February 1971:

"We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out." -- John Kerry at the Winter Soldier hearings :: transcript.

The Winter Soldier Investigation received little media coverage at the time but did prompt the April and May 1973 Fulbright Hearings.

But a revolution was tweeted and You Tubed. We turned our profile pictures green. We navigated amateur and professional news reporters and we tried to find a truth. As reporting gets more and more immediate and we hear more and more perspectives, we work on our media literacy skills so that we can understand our world better and see it more clearly and deeply. I am not happy about the violence and injustice in Iran but I am happy that everybody seems to be questioning everything again.

Monday, June 22, 2009

pro se (& poetry)

The last in the series of artifacts from Rebecca Commisso is a poem. (See the post from Wednesday, July 17, 2009 to see her brochure and why she is making these things.) :

My final artifact is a reworking of the poem “Don’t dress your cat in an apron” from the book (and album) Free to Be You and Me.

I wanted to include at least one artifact that exemplified the optimism and respect for the rights of young people to make their own choices about how and what they learn. This album always represented that for me, growing up as I did in the 1970s and 1980s.

I am hesitant to criticize the status quo without making a suggestion about how to improve the situation, and while my poem does not actually do that, the spirit of the original poem and book do concur with ways of living and learning with which I agree.

I want to conclude this paper and my artifacts with a look at the more organic, respectful ways of learning explored in articles about learning circles and the attributes of democratic versus hegemonic learning. I believe that it is possible for learning to occur in a way that allows even the very young to direct how they learn, and to respect the gifts we all bring from our families and backgrounds. The school system might be too big to accommodate these respectful ways of teaching, but as individual educators, and as learners, I think we can use the ideas of this course and a trust in our own intuition to help us find space for new ways of learning and teaching.

The Poem (mine)

Don’t make your kid do equations
‘Cause you want him to be an MD

Don’t think your kid isn’t brilliant
Just because she can’t stand history

Don’t ignore what your kids are quite good at
While wondering why they won’t learn

Useless crap that they just can’t make sense of
‘Cause you said it would help them to earn

A person should learn what he wants to
And not just what other folks say

A person should learn what she likes to
A person’s a person that way


The original poem

Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron
By Dan Greenburg

Don’t dress your cat in an apron
Just ‘cause he’s learning to bake.

Don’t put your horse in a nightgown
Just ‘cause he can’t stay awake.

Don’t dress your snake in a muu-muu
Just ‘cause he’s off on a cruise.

Don’t dress your whale in galoshes
If she really prefers overshoes.

A person should wear what he wants to
And not just what other folks say.

A person should do what she likes to-
A person’s a person that way.


Friday, June 19, 2009

pro games

Another in the series of artifacts that Rebecca Commisso is going to make is a Snakes and Ladders game. (See the post from Wednesday, July 17, 2009 to see her brochure and why she is making these things.) :

I chose the medium of the board game because I saw a Bingo-style game in the Careers course textbook entitled “Bingo for Life”. In this game, the students randomly assign numbers to a variety of life choices or trajectories, such as being a single parent, going to university and traveling the world. The caller then calls out the numbers, as in traditional Bingo, and when the student gets a line, the “choices” are put together to form the picture of the future life of the player. The message of this game, as indicated by the reflection exercise intended to be done after the game is played, is that leaving life to chance is not a good idea.

This message is problematic because it assumes that most things which influence an individual’s options are choices, and not luck. But many things which are rewarded in the world of work and school are not governed by choices. Even in the game, it is not clear which of the items is a choice and which just happens to a person. For example, is it poor planning or poor luck to be a single parent? Is it even correct to assume that there is a problem with being a single parent at all?
Here is the scheme:

Snakes and Ladders

This late 18th century snakes and ladders board was then known as the game of Heaven and Hell (Jnana Bagi).The longest ladder reaches from square 17 'Compassionate Love' to 69 'The World of the Absolute'.

The board game will advance, as does the original game, based on the roll of a die, and players will land on “Snakes”, which will give them disadvantages in their careers, and “Ladders”, which will give them advantages. As in life, these events are entirely random, although the fact that any particular event is a snake rather than a ladder is based on the inequities of our society.


Your parents are so busy with their poorly paid part time jobs that they cannot help you with your homework.

You have a mental illness that goes undiagnosed until your thirties.

Your professional credentials are from a country other than the US or Canada.

Your professional education finishes just when an unexpected slump in the job market occurs in your chosen career. Poor planning on your part!

Your cultural background makes it difficult for you to ask the teacher for help, so you end up looking lazy and not very bright.

You come to school tired and afraid after watching your Dad beat the crap out of your Mum the night before.

The manners that your culture has taught you inadvertently rub your boss the wrong way, which prevents your skills from being recognized in the work place.

You spend your twenties and thirties raising your children.

Your parents become ill in your fifties and you are the only one to care for them.

About five years before you are eligible to retire, your plant closes down. You have to start school all over again.

You are born with a disability.


Your parents were both educated in a Canadian university.

You are able to perform complex but inherently meaningless tasks well, such as quadratic equations and five paragraph essays, which gives you a real advantage in your education.

“School” skills, such as text interrogation, are practiced regularly in your home, so it is easy for you.

You are fluent in the Queen’s English, and can pick up quickly on the jargon of any workplace.

Your cultural background gives you the unearned ability to impress your teachers with your intelligence and good manners.

Your parents are both teachers and can advocate on your behalf throughout your educational career.

A perceptive teacher or boss recognizes your potential and takes you under her wing.

You are able-bodied and healthy, attractive and either white or able to “pass” for white by virtue of your speech, dress and deportment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

pro tips

Rebecca Commisso is a student at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education. She is taking a course with Guy Ewing in Adult Education about The New Literacy Studies.

Guy sent us some work Rebecca did in preparation for an essay so that we could share it with you.

Workers in Ontario are expected to be prepared, from an early age, to compete in the global marketplace. As part of this preparation, the Ontario secondary school curriculum requires all students to partake in a half-credit course in Career studies in order to graduate with a high school diploma. The Careers course, and the larger mandate of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), aims to prepare Ontario citizens with the skills required for economic success in this country.

The course and the assumptions behind it are problematic for me, because they make a number of assumptions with which I have always been uncomfortable.

The first assumption made is that there are certain transferable, or “essential” skills which lead to career success, and that these are learned in the formal school setting.

The second assumption made is that everyone can and should learn them, no matter what their background or culture.

The third, and to me the most insidious assumption, behind the way in which we prepare young people for the world of work, is that the individual has almost complete control over his or her success, and that a lack of success is the fault of the individual alone.

In her essay, Rebecca proposes to "critique a number of artifacts in order to explore these assumptions" and has "created three artifacts of my own in an effort to creatively express my continuing frustrations with these assumptions.

One of the artifacts is a "is a mock brochure, based on the brochures I collected from the guidance departments of the high schools at which I teach."

These brochures are intended to inform adolescents and their parents about which skills are desirable in the twenty-first century workplace, and how students can best acquire these skills. These brochures are in keeping with the message of the HRDC, which lists essential skills: reading text, document use, numeracy, writing, oral communication, working with others, continuous learning, thinking skills and computer use (Essential Skills website). ... Many of the brochures employ a colloquial question and answer format, like a Socratic discussion, which I have imitated.


So You Want to be a Success in Ontario

Q: So what if I cannot get a job in the field for which I have trained?
A: The government has invested millions of dollars in retraining to help prepare you with essential skills for the twenty-first century job market. We have all kinds of web sites which are updated every two or three years with job prospects averaged out across the nation for your chosen field. If you make a poor choice, that is your fault. If conditions change midway through your training, we can help you with more training to transition again. Better luck next time!

Q: I volunteer at a nursing home and I really like seniors and I want to be a nurse someday, but I am not good at math and my guidance counselor says I need to have a lot of math to be a nurse. How does learning quadratic equations help me become a good nurse?
A: It is important to be capable of performing decontextualized skills in order to achieve the flexibility required for twenty-first century success. You never know when you will be laid off, and such skills prepare you to learn all kinds of other things. Just don’t ask us what.

Q: Why would I want to train for a career in the service industry when I made more money working for GM? Why can’t I get another job like that instead? I mean, someone is still making cars, right?
A: Yes, someone is making cars, but you and your union cronies got too big for your britches and started making all kinds of demands for higher wages and safety and all that other fancy stuff, so we moved the plant to China. Now, learn this new skill and remember this lesson so that we don’t move that job, too.

Q: I am fifty years old, and I haven’t been to school in thirty years. How can I compete with the twenty- and thirty- somethings coming out of the same college at which I am retraining?
A: You can’t. Had you made an earlier commitment to lifelong learning, you might at least have had something meaningful to do while you looked for work. At least you can be a highly-skilled, literate unemployed person.

Q: If Canada is supposed to be part of a global economy, how come my education from :: insert country of origin :: is not recognized here?
A: Canada’s economy must compete in an international market. Workers, like oil or lumber, are commodities. A sound economy is based on exporting more commodities than you import. Since you came from somewhere else, you are importing your skills, which undermines our Canadian economy. To balance things, you need to help us export our skills by learning them all over again. If this does not make sense, don’t worry. The global marketplace is very complex, and only a few very rich white men are capable of understanding it.

Q: If the twenty-first century economy is supposed to be a knowledge-based economy, how come most of the new jobs are in the service sector?
A: With ever-rising minimum wages and troublesome workers demanding things like respect and benefits, it is necessary to place educational barriers in place to regulate the number of people eligible for such privileges. You would know this if you had more essential skills.

Q: Instead of making me train more at something I don’t really need to earn more, why don’t my employers just pay me more?
A: If you lack the essential skills, as defined by your employer, you do not deserve more money. If you have the essential skills, you should develop them more.

Q: If everyone all over the world is simultaneously involved in continuous learning, doesn’t that undermine the purpose of upgrading?
A: Not if you are just a little bit faster than the curve. Back to school, slacker.


We can't wait to read your essay Rebecca.
Stay tuned: On Friday, we will publish more of Rebecca Commisso's work.

Monday, June 15, 2009

condors among us

I am...the Great Supersonic Condor. I chose the walking staff as my 'weapon'. Really I think the big stick is something to lean on when the going gets tough...

Monday, June 8, 2009


Teachers' Domain: Poetry Everywhere Collection
"Explore the power of language, look at the world with a fresh sense of wonder, and build reading and writing skills. These video segments, drawn from the PBS Poetry Everywhere series and produced in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, capture some of the voices of poetry, past and present."

Friday, June 5, 2009


The reading and research I have done this week has left me feeling a little out of sorts. I just wrote a post about how everything is changing and nothing is changing but I now do not want to publish it. Maybe some other time.

So instead I am going to re-publish something I wrote for the The National Institute for Literacy (NIFL - US) Technology List discussion about integrating technology. (You can sign up here.)

I do not feel like this today but I did on Thursday and I will again soon I am sure. I face the weekend with hope.

Some people have talked about how integrating technology changes the role of the teacher.

In some ways, I think that integrating technology allows teachers to do some of the things they have long wanted to do but found challenging.

One thing I have been thinking about lately is the role of the canon — that “dead white guys canon” we deride but that still gives us currency we use daily.

We used to talk a lot about how to bring the canon to literacy – how to balance giving literacy learners access to the canon that lets us be part of the Western Judeo-Christian discourse with creating an alternative canon that includes a more diverse range of contributors. We valued the alternative canon and wanted to promote a more democratic, post-colonial canon but we knew this canon is not valued in some of the places literacy learners want to go.

Literacy students come to programs to change the access they have. I remember an occasion when we read Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening and the next day, Pierre Trudeau’s (former prime minister of Canada) son paraphrased the poem at his father’s funeral. The students knew the reference which made the quote more meaningful to them and also made them feel they were part of a conversation – not onlookers or outsiders. I think that is an important role for literacy education.

The challenge in finding the balance was always access to resources and the ways in which resources were organized. We used libraries and indexes that were developed by experts. They were useful but we had no ownership and no way to contribute. Most of what students saw was stuff we brought. Most of what students thought was valuable was the stuff we brought. They trusted us to know the index and to choose wisely.

I think that the internet and publishing tools help us find a better balance – or a better way of creating balance. It allows us (compels us?), teachers and students alike, to create our own resource lists and index them in ways that are useful to us. It allows us to index items from the revered canon with items from our own personal canons side-by-side. It allows us to publish our own work and see it beside, linked to, and with reference to any other work we choose. It allows us to join a discourse and create a discourse. And it means that each teacher and each student can create their own balance.

And the great thing for those of us working in literacy, those lists and canons and conversations can be less print-based and people who are not primarily reader-learners can participate in them more easily.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

getting ready for web 3.0

This post will probably take even longer to load than usual because of the audio/visual content.

Just as most of feel we are finally getting our heads around Web 2.0, here comes Web 3.0.

There are parts of Web 3.0 that sound like a giant leap forward in terms of organizing data so that the internet is less of a great library where all the books are lying on the floor. It should make the routes to the information you are looking for more transparent and easier to follow.

There are parts of the "semantic" web that sound a little Big Brother to me.

If you use Gmail, Facebook, or Google, you will have seen the beginnings of the personalization that is part of Web 3.0. Gmail and Facebook use "behavioral advertising" -- those little sidebar ads based on keywords in your emails or your Facebook profile (try changing the information in your profile and see how the ads change). Google is starting to introduce "intelligent search" where the items that get top ranking are based less on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies implemented by companies and more on what you have searched for before, what you have clicked on and what you have ranked yourself.

Digital Inspiration has collected a series of slideshows of Web 3.0 Concepts Explained in Plain English. I have embedded my favourite two below. The first one explains the concept clearly and simply IMHO. The second part is the "behind the scenes" look at how the semantic web is built. It is a bit techy but it explains the alphabet soup that is Web 3.0 so we will be less baffled by acronyms.

I have included Michael Wesch's InformationR/evolution video which is another look at indexing in the semantic web.

Unfortunately, you have to read all these presentations. And the Wesch video has that anxiety-producing music that seems to accompany all videos about technological change.

Monday, June 1, 2009


If you are lucky enough to have worked in literacy, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for literacy work is a moveable feast.
                             paraphrasing A. Hotchner 

Here in Toronto, literacy workers used to get together quite a bit. The Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy and the Festival of Literacies used to provide us with many opportunities to meet and share professional wisdom. Neither of these organizations have been able to continue this and for a while we just stopped meeting.

Guy Ewing and Joy Lehman asked why. They asked, "Do we really need funding to get together and learn from each other?" Of course, the answer was no. They started to convene literacy workers at Moveable Feasts.

On Friday, Johanna Pax-Milic, coordinator of the Adult Education Program at LAMP, and a photographer, invited us to an evening of photography and discussion about creativity and community.

We met at a café in the community where Johanna lives, Parkdale. The city was well represented - there were people from all corners. And so was literacy work - there were people who work or volunteer at school board, community based, network and resource programs. They were Leo, Carol, Sue, Linda, David, Phylicia, Nancy, Joy, Johanna, Linda and me.

As usual, we spent some time catching up with each other about how our work is going. And then we talked about creatvity and photography. The theme Johanna suggested was "What moves you when you’re walking in Toronto’s neighbourhoods?"

We went out and took photographs and then returned to the café to discuss what we saw and learned. Those of us with digital cameras shared our photos.

I walked with David, Phylicia, Carol and Joy. Joy used up all her film and David did not bring his camera so the three of us used mine. These are the photos we took. The first three are by David. His pictures show the rainy night.

Then Joy photographed a window with the blind and bottles. She said it was a picture of need and want. That became our theme.

We saw that the Goodwill was still open and decided to get out of the rain. Serendipity because the Goodwill is a palace of need and want. You will see that there were a few raindrops on the lens that I did not notice at first. You will see that an out-of-control witch is only $24.99. You will see need and want comes in all shapes and sizes and is always "as is." You will see why Joy is called Joy.

The photos are in the order we took them so you can see the need and want unfold as we did.

The last three pictures are of a literacy moment that made us all laugh.

If you are interested in hosting a feast or want to be on the feast mailing list contact Guy Ewing - ewingguy [at] gmail [dot] com - or Joy Lehmann - jlehmann [at] idirect [dot] ca.

The song is "Roll On Oblivion" from the album Here's to Being Here by Jason Collett --- a beloved Toronto musician. You gotta love a guy who lists Nick Lowe as an influence. I have bought a few copies of his new CD for me and my friends. You buy one too so he does not get mad at me for putting his song in our slideshow.

feasting 2

Here are some more photos from that great night in Parkdale. The first 4 were sent in by the great, themeless photographer, Sue. The rest came from the great, experimental photographer, Nancy.

The song is "A New Name for Everything" from the album Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans -- a beloved band from Winnipeg. I have bought a few copies of their new CD for me and my friends. You buy one too so they do not get mad at me for putting their song in our slideshow.