Spring, 2016

It's been four or maybe five years since self-appointed leaders in adult literacy set our field alight.

(Remember those campaigns and conferences on literacy as poverty reduction or economic stimulus or employment readiness? Remember when we promoted key-note speeches from bank VPs and CEOs? Remember how they reminded us that being effective and accountable meant focusing on international test rankings, financial literacy scores and workplace essential skills - even while banks and investment houses received more than $100 billion in bailouts from our national government?)

By now, much of the field has burned to the ground.  The hungry gazes of professional organizers, guest speakers for hire and other social service looters have shifted elsewhere (schools, hospitals, carbon reduction, water).  Maybe, for awhile, they'll leave us alone.

I was thinking I might start writing again.

Changes, Autumn 2014

I've changed my employer, my location and the tone of my work.

My class is now hosted in a largely residential neighbourhood community centre that also offers drop-in programs for seniors, as well as some early childhood and afterschool programming.  I'm still a basic adult education facilitator - which largely means doing GED preparation.  But there is less emphasis on employment readiness, and there is a bit less of an institutional feel to my work even though I'm working more closely with provincial government representatives.  The community centre has asked about the potential for me to offer more basic adult literacy support in an "after hours" context - so that's interesting.

I'm also continuing to do easy-access family literacy projects like storytents, reading corners and book lending in various venues; though this remains part-time temporary or straight up volunteer work.

Choices, Autumn 2013

I've given up my evening class. Probably for good.

It was what I wanted. It opens up space and time for new, equally important things. It was what I wanted, and I talked it over with some good friends.

The morning after our last class, I woke up with hives and a sore throat. The next night, the nightmares started.

It's foolishness, of course. Sheer egomania. My learners The learners will be fine with whoever takes over.

It was what I wanted.

9 Things I Learned In School (Summer 2013)

I'm five-eights of the way through my adult-ed certification process with UVic.  Here, in no particular order, are some of my learnings.

1.  None of the fun kids take the same courses as me.  Everyone is very earnest.  I haven't laughed even once.

2.  Although I really didn't care about marks when I started, I now do.  I consider 96 to 98% to be an acceptable range.  Higher is nicer.  Modestly, I set my sights on 95%.  I'll take 90% as a pass.  Below that, I angrily scratch the numbers out with a thick crayola marker, black.

3.  I'm happier with a steady pull - one light assignment per week - than a heavier assignment at two or three week intervals.  I can only imagine what a year long course ending with a one-shot GED test feels like.

4.  There is a glaring flaw in the implied philosophy of the courses: namely, that it is possible and appropriate for us as educators to determine what our students will learn, as well as the ways and means they will do this learning, long before we meet them.  It's not just didactic, it's dictatorial.  In the Roman sense.  No student-centered, individualized curriculum here.  I'd heard about this sort of thing, of course.  When I took my first job with a literacy organization?  I remember my manager gently explaining that "top down teaching" would be cause for immediate termination.

5.  School is an ineffective learning environment for me.  After five 12-week courses, I only remember a tiny bit about one (some terms used in assessment) and the content of three of the 12 or 14 short papers I wrote.

6.  I don't like learning from the YouTube videos they show us.  It's not YouTube's fault.  I learn crazy big stuff about science and computers and playing top 40 guitar licks from YouTube.  But with these guys, it feels like I can read faster than people talk.  It takes forever.  So, I skip to the end. Then it doesn't make sense.

7.  I'm a liberal, not a progressive.  Pretty much a classical liberal.  I get along best with the angry old Marxist and a couple of family-friendly humanists.  But the progressives make me bite my tongue.

8.  Hardly anyone in the adult education field knows that, philosophically, the term "critical" means "critical of ideas that are self-serving, serve the interests of the ruling class, or both."  They seem to think it means "seeing things in new ways" (which, itself, would be a pleasant change, but I digress).

9.  As in the past, the modern university can function without ever touching upon, or being touched by, the world around it.  Nothing we've done or said in class has been said or done differently because of climate change, government spying scandals, illegal military ventures, election fraud, the dismantling of the social safety net, stagnate low employment or Charter contraventions by local and national police forces.  It's all been pleasantly Platonic and imaginary.  Well... a few people complained about their employers.  And the Marxist talks about the Capitalists, but nobody pays any attention to him.

Course Six coming soon.


My Literacies t-shirt is too full of holes now to wear even on weekends.  I'm forced to wear my other superhero shirts.

I'm thinking it's time to learn how iron-on transfers work.

Literacies Renewed

Giving It Away (February 2013)

Somebody else will be doing - or not doing - Storytent and Bookwagon in this neighbourhood from now on.  Which is a thing we'll talk about down the road.

A pedagogy subtle as a ditch

Instead schools were organizations designed to colonize, imprint, and shape from within….
                                                Kirsten Olson, Schools as Colonizers

I owe Kirsten Olsen an apology.  For a couple of years now, I have been scribbling dismissive notes in the introduction to her Schools as Colonizers.  Despite my appreciation of later chapters - you can, by the way, read the first chapter in pdf here - I found her use of the term "colonizers" nonsensical.
It has taken less than six weeks in an educational institute to bring me to my senses.

Tomorrow's assignment, for example, is to relate a significant learning moment from my life using a narrative structure.  Then, I am to reflect on my learning process - not the what, but the how - and ask myself if there is anything in it that I can translate into a principle or idea that might make me a better facilitator.

Okay.  Significant learning.  Think about the process.  Translate into a way to help others.

Well, hell.  I can do that.  I have 50 or 60 posts on this blog that do exactly that!  I just have to write a new one.

Ah, yes...  but that is not the assignment, really.  The real assignment is to do the above while drawing on (and quoting from) class readings and notes from the past few weeks.  Also, it would be swell if I could point out where one or another of my classmates made a remark that, you know, helped with this reflection.  Show how I've grown as a person and facilitator.

Okay.  Significant learning.  Think about the process.  Translate into a way to help others.  Relate to class reading.  Relate to classmate's remark.  Illustrate positive outcome of/from course materials and activities.

You see, this is not an exercise in reflective practice.  It is a test.  It is a test of my ability to internalize, to make the authorized texts (class reading) my own.  On the side, I am charged with validating - offering personal witness to - the pedagogical effectiveness of our group discussions.

It's been a long time since I have felt this level of manipulation.

I'll do it.  What else am I going to do?  I'll look back through our class posts to find somewhere where I agreed with a classmate's point.  Then, I'll go find a reading assignment that made the same point.  From there, I'll pick out - or just make up - some realization I've had that I can use to illustrate their point.  Then, I'll write it down in narrative structure as though I really were telling a story from my own life.

I'll do it.  But it won't be authentic, or useful, or learner centered.

I want to stress that I'm talking about a structural issue here.  The dear soul who has set me this assignment would be puzzled and hurt by my cynical reaction.  She would say - as she has elsewhere - that these are only suggestions.  True enough.  But they are suggestions we're being graded on.  That's a powerful hammer in the toolbox of manipulation.  Even I, someone who doesn't much care about grades, wouldn't like to be exposed as the kind of idiot failure who can't finish a simple writing assignment.

I also want to say that this same professor has alerted me to some quite interesting essays - pieces I want to spend time digesting and learning from.  But that will have to happen later, after I'm outside the artificial box created by curriculum and assignments and group work and authority.  Just like 30 years ago, I have to wait for school to be over before I'll have time to learn.

Valuable reading materials.  Interesting perspectives.  A smart, well-meaning facilitator…  all for naught because we can't any of us escape the jail house called school.

To "colonize, imprint, and shape from within."

The virtues of paperwork


She was saying she got a bunch of paperwork done, and so that felt good.

Thinking to tease her, I said, "Yeah, but you love paperwork.  I mean, I'll put up with it, but you really like it."

"Well," she said, "it's something tangible.  It's a physical thing you can do - you can see that you've accomplished it.'

"Yeah.  Okay.  I can see that."

And then she said this: "And to me it seems like it's all about communication.  I think communication is really important."

Chastened, I determined to do my paperwork better this year.

Communication is really important.



The employment - education disconnect (Part 2)

saint john 2012 r4
In New Brunswick, even the NDP blame unemployment on the unemployed, blame poverty on the poor - and suggest a little more learning will sort everything out.

Yesterday, Jim Stanford wrote a short post on Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, speaking to a union audience at the most recent CAW convention (Spinning Mr. Carney).

Among the things that caught my eye was this:

He noted (citing previous Bank of Canada research) that Canada had the second worst export performance of any G-20 country in the last decade (measured by the decline in our share of world exports).  Two-thirds of that weakness, he argued, is due to the structure of our trade: the fact that we export primarily to the U.S. and other relatively stagnant markets, rather than faster-growing emerging economies.  One-third of the poor performance is due to competitiveness.  Within that latter category, the high dollar has been the dominant factor (explaining two-thirds of the erosion in competitiveness).  The remaining one-third of the one-third is due to the combination of faster-growing labour costs and slower productivity growth.

Mr. Stanford discusses some particulars about the Canadian dollar, and about whether free trade agreements help or hinder economic growth.  Then he writes:

It was Mr. Carney’s comments (after his speech) about the growing hoard of idle corporate cash that generated maximum media attention, however - including front page of the Globe and Mail the next day....  Carney called it “dead money” and urged corporations to either spend it on capital, or give it back to their shareholders.  (That’s not my favoured solution, by the way … since much of that hoard is directly attributable to corporate income tax cuts, I’d prefer giving the money back to governments, who could then spend it on public capital and infrastructure projects, thus generating far more economic benefit than would be derived from pumping more money into the chequing accounts of wealthy investors.)

"Mr. Carney’s appearance," writes Stanford, "thus sparked a useful and timely debate about whether corporations are indeed adequately doing the “job” they’re supposed to under capitalism."


Today, Brad Woodside, mayor of Fredericton (New Brunswick's capital city), was quoted in a regional CBC story reacting to news that the "Marriott Global Reservation Sales and Customer Care centre will be closing its doors in February, putting 265 people out of work" (CBC).  In fact, his reaction was similar to the one he had a few days earlier when hundreds of NBers flocked to an Alberta job fair held in his city:



The CBC also got a reaction from provincial NDP Leader Dominic Cardy for that same Marriott story:

The Marriott has received more than $750,000 from the provincial government — $324,000 in a forgivable loan from the Liberals in 1998 and $427,500 from the Conservatives in 2000, said Cardy.

“Marriott is not going out of business, they are getting out of New Brunswick, and taking our tax dollars with them,” he said in a statement.

And the Marriott is not alone, he said. Since 2000, New Brunswick governments have given at least $15 million to call centres that have closed.

“This money should have been spent on building the strength of our education system, to make sure our workers have the essential skills they need to compete in a global economy,” Cardy said.


Okay.  Let's connect some dots.

Banker Mark Carney says - and autoworkers' economist Jim Stanford agrees - that our economic woes have a lot to do with the fact that our trade ties are to shrinking European, US and domestic markets "rather than faster-growing emerging economies."  According to these two, our economic woes also have a little to do with "competitiveness" - by which they mostly mean the competitiveness of the Canadian dollar, but also mean (the "remaining one-third of the one-third") faster-growing labour costs and slower productivity growth.

Now, like "competitiveness", the noun "productivity" is a plastic word (Poerksen or here) which needs be defined.  I'm guessing it means something like 'cost per unit of production' or 'how much can you make given how much you spend'.

In either case, neither the bourgeois Bank of Canada Governor, nor the proletarian unionist, labour-centric economist, suggested that the problem is that Canada's workers are too poorly skilled and under-educated to make a buck.

No... that suggestion came from our own NDP leader Dominic Cardy: “This money should have been spent on building the strength of our education system, to make sure our workers have the essential skills they need to compete in a global economy."

I understand the pickle NB's economy is in.  And I understand the temptation faced any leader of the NDP to combat a reputation for being a "tax and spend" party by promoting a "theme of fiscal responsibility," as Cardy stated for another CBC news story.  I understand the strategy of seeming more "progressive conservative" than the PCs themselves.

I understand.

But I cannot accept - and will certainly never support - a party that explicitly blames the misfortunes of New Brunswick workers on the workers themselves.

Nor do I recognize as an employment and economic development strategy, "Send everybody back to school."


Barriers in adult education

meeting them where they are


As can be seen, learners prioritised publicity since they could not participate until they knew what was available. Once they knew what was available they wanted to meet someone to talk to about the course. They particularly valued individual contact that would focus on their needs and this was their preferred method for finding out about the courses on offer and getting detailed information about their chosen course.
                        - Evaluation of the Scottish Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALN) Strategy - Final Report (2006)

1.  I wrote a few months back about the parent who approached our bookwagon seeking reading help.  "I just want to learn to read," is what she said.  At the time, QLNB wasn't running classes and I wasn't doing any tutoring, so all I could think of to do was encourage her to call one of our literacy orgs.  She did: she called one I work with.  But, when it came time for her to start, well....  Let's avoid blame language and just say phone calls were made - she didn't start.

Not long ago, I caught another chance to connect with her.  Circumstances had changed, and I was in a position to invite her into a class - my evening class - right away.  "Come tonight," I said.  "Or, if you can't, then come Tuesday.  Or come next Thursday.  But come."

That night, I prepped.

It's not easy to prep for someone when you don't know their independent reading level or their points of interest.  First, I gathered books ranging in levels of reading difficulty from 1 through 6: the Grass Roots Press readers, the PRACE Pageturners, Janet Dailies' romance novelettes, Ms. H's Jack Sloan and Tony Jefferson novelettes, a handful of lower levelled Oxford Bookworm titles.  I cast about for writing exercises - I knew I would want to do experience stories, but also wanted some writing she could do independently.  I tracked down my binders with the Marshall materials and the 'best of the reader' exercises.  I made sure my whole numbers binder was complete.  Then I plotted seating arrangements, waiting to see if she would come.

She didn't show that night, nor the next week (after a weekend when I again hustled about feeling - as Kate N. uncomfortably puts it - "conscious of the work I put into preparing this lesson, the knowledge I bring to teaching reading, or the experience I have with students 'exactly like her'").  Well... what are you going to do?

She was/is still on our waiting list.  Should she be?  It entered my head to write a note to my colleagues saying that, at this time, she was not a good candidate for our programs.


Hold that thought.




Since the 1980s, federal and provincial government polices have supported a range of public awareness efforts and programs to encourage and help adults to develop literacy skills. However, despite the availability of programs and growing public awareness about adult literacy, only five-to-ten percent of adults who may have reading difficulties actually enrol in programs (Long, 2002).
                         - Mary Norton, Widening Access (2005)

2.  So, I sent in my application for admission to UVic, and my non-refundable $50, and got this email in return:

Thank you for submitting an application to the UVic Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) program.
We have received your application, application fee, letter of interest, and resume. The following documents are outstanding in the application process:

        - Proof of High School graduation – this may be submitted to our office as an un/official copy of degree, diploma, or transcript from High School or a post-secondary institution.

Yeeeaah....  I didn't send it because I don't have any proof, actually.  I was hoping there would be a sort of "mature student" category, and that my work record, publications, and awards might speak louder than something that happened 32 years ago.  But, if it's proof of graduation academia needs, then proof I shall try to find.

Here's the thing, though.  In New Brunswick, that stuff is handled by each local school's administrative staff and they may or may not be in the office during the month of August.  In any case, in 1980 school records were not computerized, so somebody is going to have to do a hard-file search.

In the event, I called my old high school and left a message.  I checked online, but couldn't find an email address for the school.  I did find an online printable form for requesting transcripts, complete with checkboxes for how I planned to pay for this service, but no information about how much it would cost nor to whom payment would be made.

I called Fredericton and talked to the records people, but they said Oromocto High had to handle it.  They also gave me a contact name, but that person isn't actually listed on gnb's mail server or, for that matter, as a Department of Education employee.


I do have an email into UVic hinting that this might take a Long Time and so maybe they could move my application along....  maybe they'll think I'm worth the trouble.





     Look out kid, they keep it all hid
     Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle
     Don’t wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals
     Don’t wanna be a bum, you better chew gum
     The pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handles
                       - Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues

3.  I was saying I'm trying on this Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education thing as a sort of exercise in ethnomethodology.  But that's a lie.  No offense, Denny, but ethnomez bores me stiff.  My poison is systems analysis through a critical, para-marxist lens.  And already, there's a whole bunch I could say about the commitment of formal educational institutions to formal institutional paperwork, and the obstacles (and expense) that commitment throws up in front of adults who come to their door looking to learn.

But I'm not going to.

Because I've got a more serious problem.  I know a lady who said she wants to learn to read, and I - I who so proudly wave my experience and accomplishments in this field - was about to tell the people I work with that since she can't seem to follow our intake processes, we should strike her from our waiting list.

Like me, she can't "get the paperwork right" and isn't worth the trouble.

Wait, what?

"Obviously, even when you're poor, it's hard to take time out of your day to do this thing called learning," said my friend as we drove east toward Indigo (me scribbling her words down on a map of Miramichi City).

I mean, look at me.  When I was trying to go to school I had to take time away from my sleep.  When I went to university two nights a week, I would come home and do laundry until 4 in the morning.  It's not like someone can replace you in the job of life.

Really?  Four in the morning?

Really. I'd finish up my paperwork from my day job, get the kids' things ready for the next day, and then do the washing.  I can remember folding clothes, and the clock would say 4 a.m.

Yeah, well.  I'm not doing laundry at four in the morning for anybody.  Still.  Barriers to adult learning and literacy are either the things we whine about in between writing posts and papers full of empty aspiration (not least when the barriers affect us).  Or, they're things we purposefully identify, take seriously and then remove.

So, what now?

Now, I guess, I go find her, and find out what going on.  Maybe walk with her for a couple of blocks.  If I can, I'll get invited into her kitchen or get her into a Tim Horton's - someplace she'll feel safe enough to talk at length.  Does she have a quality world picture of learning to read?  What is it?  What would work?  What would my helping look like if she could design her own learning process?

And UVic will have to decide what they want to do about me - that's outside of my control right now.

Though I hope they let me in.

There are issues in adult education I'd really like to talk to somebody about.


Like Louis and I, they are uncertain that they want to go back to school. They know they risk ridicule and failure and being harshly judged - not because they are "educationally disadvantaged adults" but because that's the nature of school. In addition, unlike Louis and I, many have children in their care. Family responsibilities, as well as chronically poor health and a shaky socio-economic situation, make a mockery of intentions to attend regularly in a good frame of mind over an extended period.
                 - On the retention of adult learners (Oct. 2010)


meeting them where they are

The employment - education disconnect


I came across two stories online this morning related to the twin themes of employment and education.

1.  In New Brunswick, we often use Alberta as our example of a working economy - something slightly disturbing given that province's environmental record and NB's own flirtation with oil and gas extraction as a substitute for our failing fishing and forestry sectors.

But if Alberta's ruling class (and their friends in Ottawa) have their way, it may not be the land of high wages for much longer.  The Alberta Federation of Labour’s Tony Clark has a guest post on The Progress Economics Forum titled Alberta’s Bogus Labour Shortage.  In it he gives an overview of the province's re-working of projected labours stats to predict a looming storage:

The Alberta Federation of Labour took a long hard look at the Government of Alberta’s projections showing an astronomical labour shortage of 114,000 workers by 2021 and found them to be based on misleading methods.

Instead of a straightforward calculation of demand for labour minus supply of labour, with a shortage occurring when total demand exceeds total supply, Alberta used a strange formula that subtracts the annual change in demand from the annual change in supply.

The result: even though the Alberta government’s projections show the supply of labour exceeding demand (a labour surplus, one would think) for every year through 2021, their strange method shows a labour shortage.

What’s more, the government accumulated these phony yearly labour shortages up to 2021 to show a “cumulative shortage” of 114,000 workers even though this supposed shortfall would be captured in the following year’s demand. Put another way: one vacant job over ten years is still one vacant job, not 10 as the Alberta government would have us believe.

Mr. Clark observed that Alberta's poor math nicely justifies Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney steps to expand the "Temporary Foreign Worker pilot program whereby employers won’t have to consider hiring Canadians in certain occupations first before turning to offshore labour."  Meanwhile, "anti-union interests in the province" have been using "the government’s faulty labour shortage figures to call for radical changes to labour markets with the end goal of depressing wages in the oil sands."

There is more to this article, as well as a couple of notable comments: I would encourage anyone trying to sort the politics from the jobs in Canada's economy to go to the original post; and, indeed, to vist the PEF frequently.

alberta too


2.  Meanwhile, south of the border, the Center for Economic and Policy Research published, in July of this year, a study showing the US workers are better educated than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but have less opportunity to get a good job.  In their abstract or synopsis, John Schmitt and Janelle Jones write:

The U.S. workforce is substantially older and better-educated than it was at the end of the 1970s. The typical worker in 2010 was seven years older than in 1979. In 2010, over one-third of US workers had a four-year college degree or more, up from just one-fifth in 1979. Given that older and better-educated workers generally receive higher pay and better benefits, we would have expected the share of “good jobs” in the economy to have increased in line with improvements in the quality of workforce. Instead, the share of “good jobs” in the U.S. economy has actually fallen. The estimates in this paper, which control for increases in age and education of the population, suggest that relative to 1979 the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market. The deterioration in the economy's ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

The full report is available here.

What is interesting to me is what this says about the future of Canada.  I began this post by noting that New Brunswickers often look to Alberta as a place to get a good job (if not exactly a model for healthy economic development).  For their part, Albertans - and their friends in Ottawa - often look to the U.S. for their model of how to grow an economy.

But if Tony Clark and the CEPR study are correct, wages and job opportunities are shrinking - and are going to continue to shrink - across North America, leaving us with Ian Welsh's musical chairs economy:

So, there will be recessions and non-recessions (amidst what is an ongoing long Depression).  And in each recession those who fail to grab a chair will be cast out into the dispossessed.  Those who keep their chairs will be allowed to keep some facsimile of the “American lifestyle”.

And, by the way, education can't do a thing about it (except, of course, allow a handful of individuals to stave off the worst for a few more years).

Well… unless we start talking seriously about voter education.

into the storm

Literacy (and life) is more than workplace essential skills


- Up-dated Aug. 3rd -

I spotted this on a site I often visit for comment on larger and smaller events in US politics and culture:

People have a lot of stupid ideas about the vast riches that recipients of disability, or welfare, or SSI have to roll in, but the thing that gets me is that you don't have to press too hard to get these people to tell you that they assume those recipients are precisely the people they wouldn't want to hire and sure don't want to work with. If you really think someone is lazy, shiftless, a doddering old fool or whatever other stereotype you impart to "losers", there's no way you want them working with you. "They don't want to work," you hear them say, and when they insist that such people should just "get a job," well, what do they think such people could contribute to their workplace? What I know is that the world is full of people who don't fare well in the workplace, who are inept at office politics, don't have whatever attitude is fashionable at the moment, don't even know how to dress the part, and though they may be very bright indeed, they end up losing jobs because they simply don't fit in. And the people who force them out of those jobs don't seem to worry much about where they will go next. To another place where they are unwanted? To a cardboard box in the sewers? To your office? Whether they are bright but inept at the office game or simply lazy people who "don't want to work", just what is the virtue of torturing them and those around them by forcing them to search for jobs they will function poorly at and ultimately lose? Personally, it seems to me that in an ideal world, it would be a jolly good thing to have the government pay people who can't function in the workplace to stay out of the way of those who are trying to get things done. Who knows, maybe if they had a guaranteed living income and could just sit around reading or playing games on their own, they could come up with some bright idea that would create jobs for other people who, you know, want to work. Hell, the worst that could happen is that a bunch of "losers" would be spending money in the economy and creating demand.
                                      Avedon Carol at The Sideshow, August 2012

Somewhere in all that is an idea very close to one that's been bouncing about in my head for about 18 months.  As a question, it would be something like, "What do I do with the adults who enter my class with the stated goal of improving their skills and finding a job, but also with visible mental or physical health, cognitive, age-related or socio-cultural barriers?  What do I say to the family member or institution that referred them (sometimes under threat of withdrawn support)?"  A related question would be, "Where, in our cities, are such people allowed to live and, in their own way, contribute, unhounded by do-gooders and bullies?"  I'm sorry that these are impolite questions.  I assure you they are real ones that are asked frequently when facilitators speak privately with one another.

A former mayor of Saint John gave a speech at a literacy funder raiser wherein, after praising the GED-bound learners for their progress, he said he wanted to make sure people knew there was a place for everybody in Saint John, including those who never obtain a GED.  It was a wonderful, heart-warming thing to say, and I believe he meant it.  But here's the thing…

Here's the thing.

I don't think he meant that there was a place for everyone in Saint John's employment rolls.  I don't think he meant everybody gets to have a job.  Well, he couldn't have.  There aren't enough jobs to go around.  Even factoring in fly-by-night commission jobs and out-bound telesales jobs, we're short by a factor of ten.

A place for everyone.

So fund literacy, yes.  By all means.  But understand that literacy means reading and writing and numbers, and some information about geography and politics and science and the human body, and maybe some basic life skills like using a computer or a cellphone or operating other household machinery or making soup from scratch or some such.  Don't fund literacy if you think you're funding a some kind of finishing school for potential employees or a welfare to work scheme - unless, of course, you're going to give me several million dollars yearly so I actually can employ people.

And come to my class to learn, yes.  By all means.  As long as, together, we are making progress - and as long as some part of society is willing to foot the bill for this open-ended learning (because I have to pay the rent) - you are welcome to learn as much and as long as you wish.  But if you want a job, well… I wish you all the success in the world.  But I'm not an employment counsellor, I have no special skills or insights into successful job hunting, and I am not prepared to invest time or energy toward your job search.*

Support for improved adult literacy is not a poverty reduction strategy.  High rates of unemployment are not caused by insufficient education.  Moreover, the idea of a job for everyone is both silly and - when used punitively - irresponsible.


*Here I draw a distinction between, for example, someone who wants to learn how to read a job board or make a resume and cover letter, and someone who wants me to tell them which jobs are good jobs and what they should say on their resume and cover letter to get one.


Up-date: Yeah, but no

A compassionate commenter wrote "I agree Wendell that there are not jobs for everyone, and of course, there are some folks that unfortunately no one would ever hire. On the other hand, there are lots of great people who I would hire in a minute if they were literate enough to work in my office."

But I'm sure that's not true.  The Government of New Brunswick has a hiring freeze on.  The civil service is not taking on "lots of great people" right now.  So, no, this person wouldn't hire "lots of great people" no matter how literate they were.  If my whole class obtained their PhDs, they still wouldn't get a job in this office until a job opens up.

Now, what she means is that if she could hire them - if jobs opportunities appeared - she would hire them, if only their skills were up to par.  But if we are going to hypothesize that there are jobs opening up, why not also hypothesize that these people receive solid in-house training and rise to the occasion?

I'm not being bloody-minded and contrarian here.  I'm saying that it is - at best - dishonest to say to someone, "I'd hire you if you were more literate," when, in truth, you wouldn't hire these person no matter what their skills because your budget does not allow it.

When I graduated, NB was moving into a recession and many in my class had a hard time finding work.  At a certain point in this process (and as Frank McKenna became our premier) talk radio programs explained that the reason for our unemployment was our lack of skills suitable to the "new" workplace.  Meanwhile, an awful lot of my friends and neighbours moved out to Alberta where they quickly secured jobs.  Most of these are looking toward retirement now, having had steady, well-paid employment over the past three decades.  In NB, we silly sods who stayed behind are still talking about how to reskill our work force so they can finally get all those hypothetical jobs.  Indeed, my commenter tells this story:

My nephew, who has not finished high school, could not earn enough here in NB to live on. He went to Alberta where the labour market is tight and is making $35/hour. He has had a number of jobs in the last 9 months, each one better than the last. AND, his employers have been willing to put him in the apprenticeship program. In NB the apprenticeship program wouldn't touch him.

But none of that yet touches upon the other problem - the one I've been trying to sort out and articulate - about finding a place in our community and lives for folks we know aren't going to find conventional jobs; people with mental health issues, for example, or chronic pain issues, or addiction issues.  With September around the corner, lots of adults will choose to try out an adult education class.  Some will be encouraged by friends and support workers who will dangle make-believe well-paid, lasting jobs in front of them.

I can help these people learn to read better, or come to enjoy mathematics, or get a handle on basic computing.  But - with one or two exceptions - that won't really change their dependence on the state or charity organizations for their income, housing, clothing and food.  And it will - and this is a very harsh thing to say - take a seat and opportunity away from someone who could end up better off economically if they upgraded their skills.


"What is sad to me," my commenter wrote, "is the assumption that is often made that there is something 'wrong' with people who struggle with literacy and learning."

I hear you.  But what is frustrating for me is the assumption that is often made that literacy and learning are all that is 'wrong' with people who struggle with poor health and poverty.



             There is no other justification for an acte gratuit.
                                                         - M. Herzog, Annapurna

Today I mailed my application for admission to Unv. Vic's Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) Program.

I decided to try it out for a variety of reasons.  I'm hearing that distance education isn't quite as chaotic and discouraging as it used to be.  I have a friend and co-worker to take the course with me (and blame it on if it all goes wrong).  I've got the funds.  I'm not really employable anymore with just High School.  And, mostly, I'm interested in what the content of the course consists of.  (Think of it as ethnomethodology.)  In any case, this kind of adventure seems commonplace among my learners.  So why not me?

In other news, we're starting the 5th week of our summer Storytent program.  I've some stories from that I want to share.  Soon.  I'm still facilitating an evening class twice weekly with a range of learners (some working on basic literacy, some prepping to enter NB Community College).  I'm been doing some computer hardware/software learning - ooh! And I bought a new laptop!  I was going to wait until spring, but I wanted to get in before Windows 8 became the default OS, which is likely to happen this fall, so….

Of course, the big news is Kate Nonesuch's blog Working in Adult Literacy.

She's been telling interesting and important stories.  Go there.  Read.  Comment.  Check in often.



Low literacy is not to blame for bad business choices

saint john 2012 r4

My next post was going to be about a Telegraph Journal column by David Campbell on adult literacy and the economy. It was in the business section, and it said what always gets said - ie, NBer's don't read well enough and that's why nobody can make a buck around here.  But, well….

I got up a little late this morning, pulled up the CBC news online, and read about an apartment building that had been overcome by a stiff rain:

Five adults and seven children in Saint John are homeless after their north-end apartment building was declared unsafe following several days of heavy rain.
   In a neighbourhood where buildings are often damaged by fire, it was the rain that forced three families out of their homes this week.
   Several days of wet weather caused a buildup of water, which damaged the building's electricity.
   The Saint John Fire Department decided the apartment building was no longer safe and shut off the power. The three families were forced to move into a hotel.

I skipped breakfast, running late, because I wanted to get uptown before the heat and do some banking.  Despite their promise, Bayview Credit Union, once again, refused me access to my money.  That was last weekend and, since I work long days most days, I couldn't get in to talk to them until today. Over time, I decided it was best not to talk to them at all: I'd just pull out a wad of cash and open an account across the street at Scotia Bank. Alas, the Bank of Nova Scotia doesn't open before 10 in the morning.  I walked down the hill to the Toronto Dominion Bank and half-heartedly stuck my head in. It was open, but full of two dozen customers and only two clerks.  Anyway, they've been paying Frank McKenna big money to tour about and insult NB literacy workers (e.g).

Back up the hill I trudged, past people lined up outside Scotia Bank, and on to Cora's.  I was thinking I'd have breakfast - you remember I hadn't had it yet - and then stop by the bank.  Sadly, Cora's was also over-busy and under-staffed.  I waited about 10 minutes at the head of the restaurant (they have a 'please wait to be seated' policy) watching the busboy clear, wipe and reset tables up by the windows. While I was waiting, somebody scooped ice from a nearby ice machine.  A stray ice cube skittered out into the main aisle.  She eyed it for a moment, and then walked away.  I eyed it too, thinking that after it melted a little, somebody was going to step on it and have a nasty fall. I hoped they weren't holding a pot of hot coffee right then.  Finally, a waitress yelled "How many?" across the restaurant at me.  I held up one finger.  She tossed a menu into a booth and said "There you go," walking away.  "I'd like a table," I shouted after her, thinking I'd like a coffee, too. (Most booths don't work with my back.)  "By the window?" she asked.  "Sure," I said, assuming she was offering me a window seat.  "Well," she grumped, "you'll have to go back and wait because I'll have to clear one." Never caring to eat where the people who make my meals are pissed off at me, I demurred and wandered off home.

"Screw it," I thought. "I'll go down to the convenience store and get a loaf of bread, some bacon and eggs, and cook my own breakfast." (The mixed commercial and residential center of Saint John, where I live, doesn't have a grocery store - or a department store, or a hardware store, though we do have 26 bars.)  But, no.  The convenience store didn't have eggs. Or bread. "Well, there's the stuff in the video room in back," he said.  But that's the mouldy stuff he sells for a dollar.  I'm not that desperate, yet.  I just plodded home, made a coffee, and carried my laundry across the street to start my weekend chores.  That means that in 2 hours I engaged in exactly $2 worth of economic activity.

(Did I mention the families who had to move because it rained?)

I swear.

If today, someone in a suit tells me the problem with Saint John's economy is that people aren't literate enough, I'm going to punch them out.

From Mary Nanninga and Education News Colorado


I never do this, but I'm going to lift a comment wholesale out of a discussion on the sudden rise and fall of newly-succeeding schools.  This is Mary Nanninga writing in the comment thread of an Education News Colorado post on February 5, 2012:

Joanne, no, what I have is subjective information. I knew a couple of teachers from Bessemer, and they transferred out, due to the excessive test prep environment. As someone who has worked in a low scoring school for ten years, I know to be very suspicious if scores dramatically rise, then fall. Either it’s test-prep-to death-then-quit, or maybe, I hate to say it, someone could have been less than honest? We’ve had cheating scandals in a lot of places, so I don’t know….

Hi Mark. I’m sure that as a teacher you’ve read all the reasons why poverty matters, and I actually wrote quite a bit about it in the VAM thread, so I won’t bore you with it here, nor will I make myself type it all again. But I do have a perspective as a reading teacher for low-performing kids in poverty:

There are two things to remember about learning to read–the first thing is that we are actually programmed to do this between the ages of 4 and 9. We’re hardwired to acquire literacy at that time. The second thing to remember is that kids in poverty have all the disadvantages you already know about, but they have some you may not realize.

So, we’re hardwired to learn to read and write between 4 and 9 (or 4 and 11, depends upon who you read). But anyway, if we’re adequately prepared and given really just enough instruction (which isn’t worksheets and it isn’t programs–it’s reading self-selected, level-appropriate material AND being read to daily), most kids will learn to read pretty well and pretty naturally. You can do phonics, and that’s great, but the main thing is that kids need access to a wide range of literature, and they need time to explore and discover it. This is true for middle class as well as poor children, as poor children aren’t stupid, just disadvantaged.

A very few children will present with reading disorders, but most poor readers are poor readers because they don’t practice.

But for kids in poverty, these things like being read to don’t always line up, for myriad reasons. Middle class kids get read to a lot by the adults in their lives; kids in poverty don’t. We know that being read to is very important. It’s estimated that at the start of kindergarten, in order to be a successful beginning reader, a child needs to have been read to a MINIMUM of 3000 hours. They typical child in poverty has been read to only 15 hours. The result is that these children have very limited vocabularies, and the result of THAT is that we are actually limited in the thoughts we can even think if we don’t have words. (The reason you don’t have memories that begin before the age of 2 1/2 or 3, the reason you can’t remember being an infant, is because it takes language to form memories). It’s hard to learn new concepts and think about new things if you’re largely without words. And it’s especially hard to understand what you’re reading, even if you decode decently (which is why phonics-heavy programs don’t help kids in poverty much). I once heard a reading specialist speak and she was talking about reading Three Billy Goats Gruff to an impoverished kindergarten class. At the end of the story, she realized that over half the children had no idea what a bridge was, even though they crossed two every morning to get to school!

Whether it’s due to poverty alone, or poverty issues compounded by ELL issues, lack of vocabulary just kills young readers. Children in poverty arrive at school with extremely limited vocabularies, which also hurts them in every other subject. Teachers know that kids need to be able to “hook” new information to established background schema and vocabulary, but children in poverty have neither, so they learn less.

Also remember that kids in poverty move a lot, and miss a lot of school and when they’re not at school they’re not reading and they’re not learning.

So anyway, if you don’t read well, you don’t test well in any subject, even the one or two you might be good at, because the problem with tests is that they’re all READING tests. All of them–math, science, social studies, even the driver’s test. If you can’t read the test questions accurately and well enough, you’re not going to do too well on the test. Is it angle or angel? Is it then or than? Where or were? Though or thought or through?

So these kids miss a lot of school and move a lot and no one reads to them and they don’t practice on their own (and you can take THAT to the bank) and all of a sudden, they hit puberty and the plasticity of the brain changes, and now learning to read is a lot harder. It’s not impossible, not by any means, but it’s not an easy thing anymore. You and I barely remember learning to read. One day, we just could, or at least that’s my sense of it. That didn’t happen for a lot of these kids and now it’s a chore that often doesn’t get done because now they’ve fallen behind in school and the reading, especially in high school, is just too hard. I teach, by choice, all below level readers in a middle school, and I have eighth graders all over the place who are reading at a third grade level because of some of these issues, and by eighth grade, they are OVER IT. The reading thing is just too hard, and no fun at all. So they avoid it even more steadfastly.

That’s why third grade reading scores are so important. If you’re a low reader in third and fourth grade, research says you likely will never be a good reader, and low reading levels in these grades is correlated with a higher than average risk of dropping out of school.

So Mark, that’s what happens when you ask me a question. You get more than you probably wanted, but that’s the long buildup to my short answer:

No, the tests do not show learning in high poverty schools, because the learning that is taking place isn’t measured so much by tests and high poverty schools have a much higher number of below level readers, due to the conditions of poverty with which everyone is familiar, and some reading information that many are not. And high income schools have much better readers, for the same reasons, therefore they learn more in school and are easier to teach, they can read the test with relative ease, and their scores reflect this.

There are lots of bits and pieces I disagree with here.

Ms. Nanninga's careless "kids in poverty move a lot, and miss a lot of school and when they’re not at school they’re not reading and they’re not learning" suggests a pretty blinkered notion of "learning" and a startling disregard of family.  It seems to me unlikely that the "typical child in poverty has been read to only 15 hours" before kindergarten; but maybe things really are that different in the States.

Too, her school-centric focus might explain some of her challenges with Grade 8 students.  By that age - when, she says, "they hit puberty and the plasticity of the brain changes, and now learning to read is a lot harder" - kids are also becoming adults, with an adult's dislike of external control.  Maybe their brains don't lose plasticity: maybe they just get big enough and old enough to stop wanting to put up with teacher bullshit.  Elsewhere she writes (maybe of younger children):

You also need to make kids accountable in Reader's Workshop for what they've accomplished every day. They need to write down how many pages they read today, their response to the reading (NOT a summary) and one interesting word they discovered in their reading today. You must either grade these, or let the kids think you'll be grading them.

Yeah, that's a winner: let the little twerps "think you'll be grading them" or they'll never do anything worthwhile.  So much for co-construction, self-directed learning and the joy of reading.  If the "reading thing is just too hard, and no fun at all" for eighth graders, maybe it's time to look at the content and context a little more critically.

But never mind all that.  She makes many insightful and important points (in my perception), and it's quite possible that she's right and I'm wrong about these other things.  I'd encourage you to go read the full conversation under Holly Yettick's Today’s miracles usually fade, Education News Colorado Jan 2012.

When community literacy is personal - Book Town, St. Martins

showcase st martins

We spent a wonderful Saturday out in St. Martins, a small coast side community an hour's drive from Saint John.  They were holding their third annual Showcase St. Martins, a chamber of commerce type event to promote and draw people into the village.  We had been invited to bring the Storytent in support of their Book Town initiative.

Event tents are frequently high-effort, low-reward affairs.  They are useful for promotion and networking - as a step in the building of something - but they do only a limited amount of good.  We were on hand for four hours, during which time we met 6 families and read to, or provided a reading opportunity for, 9 kids.  We were just slightly less popular than the brand new fire engine placed proudly on display out front  As event tents go, that was pretty typical.

But I was glad we went because we met some people with literacy concerns who were feeling pretty isolated.  Our contact began about a month ago when volunteers at their small community library were looking for a home for an overflow of books.

Carson Library 3

"How come, when I called Fredericton," our host Jackie Bartlett asked, "they didn't tell me about you?"

"Who did you talk to?" we asked.

She said she called Literacy New Brunswick.  "Do you mean the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick?" we asked.  "Yes," she said.  But, she may have had it right the first time, and ended up talking to somebody with the province.  In either case, no, they probably wouldn't think of us even as a regional resource (though we've supported people from one end of the province to another - the "NB" in our name isn't mere vanity).

"So," we asked, "how did you get a hold of us?"

She said she called the East Branch of the Saint John Regional Library, and they put her on to us.  From there, somehow, they got the idea of bringing out the storytent.  (I fear they may have mistaken us for the kind of popular children's entertainers who can draw a crowd.)

"We have a literacy problem," Jackie said, and talked a little about what the village was doing to encourage reading.  Originally - and some of this I'm taking from the web - their Book Town initiative focused on adding books to the village's commercial establishments.  For example, Jackie created a shop focusing on mystery novels above her tea room.  A same-minded campground owner began stocking camping and adventure books.  A local artist hosted books on arts and crafts.  In 2007, the village convinced the New Brunswick Legislature to proclaim St. Martins "New Brunswick's official Book town."  By now, there are about a dozen booksellers in the village.  But our host told us their dream is to be more than booksellers.  They would like to see free books available "in every little inn and shop" in St. Martins.

Later, we met Betty, the town's chief volunteer librarian.  A school secretary, she'd been more or less shanghaied into the librarian job.  Her mother was a professional librarian, and her father founded the Quaco Historical & Library Society.

According to their webpage, the Historical & Library Society was founded, in 1971, by a small group of residents around a kitchen table.

[They] agreed that their Society should promote an interest in the history of the Quaco-St. Martins area in New Brunswick and to create a museum and archives to preserve its artifacts and documents. They also decided to establish a general literature library to serve their community.


The library they describe as "a light-hearted, volunteer-run community library with an amazing selection of popular and classic novels, non-fiction titles and reference works. We are especially proud of our children’s section. New books and the classics get equal shelf space."

Personally, I'm impressed by how "professional" it looks.  (You could eat off that floor.)  But Betty's most proud of something else.  One day, she told us, someone said to her, "Oh Betty, you have made this place where people can come and get together and talk."

When I was Small

We met other people.  Local children's author Sara O'Leary dropped by (before heading off to volunteer duties at the library).  We met the St. Martins & District Chamber of Commerce president, Kathy Miller-Zinn.  I didn't see any provincial or federal representatives; but, then, there was a lady out front collecting signatures on a petition protesting the EI changes, so, maybe it was all for the best.

Anyway, like I said, they were interested in talking about literacy and books.  I think maybe they were pleased to have a chance to do some justified bragging.  But they were also isolated from the larger New Brunswick literacy community.  Of course, that's partly because there isn't any larger New Brunswick literacy community - especially for people doing community based literacy work. Our province has some shaky adult literacy and early childhood literacy networks of a sort, but there is no organized support for community literacy.

And yet, what could be more natural than organizing literacy efforts around geographic locations?  You can't do community literacy work from an office in Fredericton, I grumbled to my colleague.

"You can't really do community literacy work unless it's personal," she said.  She reminded me how often we had talked about feeling like Crescent Valley was home to us, even though we lived elsewhere.  "It's our community - we're part of it.  It's personal."

I don't know when or if we'll get out to St. Martins again.  They really don't need us, and we'll only ever be visitors from outside.  But I wouldn't mind a chance to sit around one of those kitchen tables and listen to them brag a little more.   We could help hook them up with the Summer Reading Club program.  We might even be able to help them find some other literacy money.  On the other hand, a different word for isolated is self-sufficient.  In the community literacy field, that's an often overlooked strength.

Quick facts from the web:

St. Martins was settled in 1783 by a detachment of the King’s Orange Rangers (Loyalist soldiers from Orange and Duchess Counties, New York). The original name, Quaco, derived from Micmac for “haunt of the hooded seal”.  The third largest producer of wooden sailing vessels in NB, the township launched more than 500 vessels over the next 125 years.  Today, it is a retirement and tourist destination, with a year-round population of about 400 people.