The schedule says Reading but really means Listening and Obeying

From Clipart Panda: Circle Time

"No, no. I'm not reading the next page until every single one of you is sitting quietly with folded hands. I'm waiting. I'm still waiting."
-  the kind of person who thinks its okay
to keep a bird in a cage and is still
allowed to work with children
A Joke

Kid One: What's the difference between 'circle time' and 'jail time'?
Kid Two: I don't know. What?
Kid One: I don't know either.

I think, even before I knew better, I always hated circle time. I also think I will never again be invited to work in the field of organized early childhood education. Sure, okay, whatever.

The other day we were doing our weekly gig at a community library's children's corner. My co-worker was prepping to read about pirates, and I was vaguely sorting out SRC paperwork so I could up-date kids' numbers of books read. A boy asked if we could get the plastic chess set down from the tallest shelf. Sure, okay, whatever. But they were called out for sitting down to play where we were going to read; called out with that particular tone that shows up when one adult thinks another adult is going to complain about what their kids are doing now. The kids complained back (good for them) and were forbidden to play chess at all. Christ. I swept my papers to one half of the little cafe-style table I was sitting at and told them to set up their game there. Nobody yelled at me (I'm an old man) and the game proceeded, in a rickety sort of way, as the reading commenced. Pretty soon, the corner was full of the sort of talky-touchy happy kid chaos that tends to stress out big people, but is entirely familiar to us at this point - we having spent hundreds of hours reading to with free-range kids who have no etiquette whatsoever beyond insisting that every single other kid take off their shoes. In a few minutes, all seventeen kids, piled atop each other, seemed to have a book in their hands. Some were fanning themselves, some paging or reading, some building short-lived tent-shaped towers. A book with big googly eyes glued in it was passed or snatched from hand to hand. One tiny kid looked through an ancient, pictureless tome bigger that her head (I think it was a dictionary) until, unaccountably, she was told to return it to the shelves. An older boy asked for the "apple, orange, bear, pear" board book** and worked hard with finger and pictures to decode the text; read and re-read and built fluency and rhythm. You can do that sort of intimate reading and personal discovery in the privacy of a noisy crowd. None of this meant they weren't participating in the official reading, though it may have meant the kid beside them couldn't hear or see as much as they wanted. Sure, okay, whatever. At my table the game proceeded in fits and starts. A boy would move a pawn, crane his head around to listen to a page of Pirate Pearl, and turn back to find he'd lost a knight. Such is life. And mostly it's pretty good when you can be yourself and nobody is telling you to sit still or pipe down or stop playing chess or put that book back because the schedule says Reading but it really means Listening and Obeying. To their credit, the other adults didn't really interfere much. They mostly threw up their hands and left us to the bed we'd made. So, the reading and looking and learning and losing at chess continued for about an hour. Parents came to take their kids home. Seventeen became twelve and then just three. Then we went home too, feeling good.

A 2003 storytent

** This one. The publisher says it's for ages 1 to 4.

Which brings me to this: we do have Rules for reading time. Way big Rules that we make a real fuss about. One of them is that anybody, of any age or gender, gets to read or have read to them any book they want without editorial comment. We believe that kids know what they can read or can learn to read; and also what they want to have help with, or have read to them. We also believe that nobody learns unless they first feel safe.

The following abridgment is from our increasingly outdated Storytent Manual (2006):

Any child who enters the tent voluntarily is telling us that they think the storytent holds something of value for them. If we start right away to create a positive relationship, we can discover what that something is. Once we find out what each person wants from the storytent, we can begin to build a scaffold for them. A scaffold is something that lets someone reach higher or further then they can alone. 
Storytent is a place where people read. It needs to be full of a range of wonderful books about all sorts of things. Children are free to pick any books they want to read or look through on their own. In the Storytent, children's reading is not criticized. We wait to be asked before supplying a word or correcting an error. Also, we would never make negative comments about a choice of book. However, we would tell a child about a book that we thought matched their interest and reading level.
We do not require children to sit still or silently while we read. If children choose a book that is too long for one sitting, we negotiate: “I’ll read you one chapter of that today. Then you can borrow it, or we can save it and read another chapter next time.”
In the Storytent program, children decide themselves if they want to learn to read, and when they have become readers. They decide for themselves if they are "good" readers. They decide for themselves if they are happy with a book, with the storytent, or with themselves. In this sense there is no failure, no falling behind the crowd. We believe that this self-monitoring plays an important part in the positive shift in many children's perceptions of themselves as readers.
Storytents work best when workers are alert to opportunities and show the kind of flexibility necessary for any successful learner-centered, whole language program. Guided reading, reading to, and shared reading often blend into one another in the storytent. Having multiple copies of crowd-pleasers like Munsch favourites Mortimer or Stephanie’s Ponytail allow children to join in or follow along when a worker reads to a group: this is an example of how "reading to" can become "shared reading". Being flexible also provides for moments of direct instruction, as when, one time, a child snuggled into some shared reading of Blue Hat Green Hat suddenly stopped ‘reading’ the pictures and demanded of the worker, “What are all these letters doing on the page?”
A 2004 storytent

On making vs having visual aids

rainy day in city in october

One rainy day in late October, I decided to make a timeline for my classroom wall.

I'd probably tried before; I know I'd been thinking about it for a while. I had - and still have - the idea that effective, long-lasting visual aids are an asset.  I guess this is what ties this post into the previous two. I'm writing here about posters and other visual aids - the kind of things we make or get in the mail - and the ways in which they are useful. In any case, I had about 3 metres of free wall space, a ball of  twine, markers, and a pack of 4 by 6 cue cards. So, I decided to make a timeline.

It was me doing this, you understand. But I remember I needed help. I remember bugging someone who had a calculator when I was trying to figure out some kind of century per centimeter ratio. I tried doing it by hand on the whiteboard, but I kept getting different answers. Later, I conscripted helpers to compare various internet lists of significant events and dates for the last 6000 years. We only had one decent PC hooked to the web, so I printed these lists off, leaving me with too much paper for one man to manage. "What do you have for 1200 BC?" I would ask. Heads would go down, papers shuffle. "Genghas Khan," someone would say. "What? No! BC... BC!" "Upper Pale...lio...." "What?" By the time I was standing on a stool pounding concrete nails into the wall, I noticed pretty much the whole class paying attention; if only with crossed-armed scowls or motherly alarm. When it came time for drawing and colouring symbols and avatars on those 4 by 6 cards, I had lots of volunteers.

But that's not the point. The point is, this was something I was doing for my own reasons. (I'd read Herndon.*) If other adults were annoyed or charmed into co-construction - that wasn't my fault, and certainly not my plan.

The timeline hung there through the remainder of the fall. We made use of it in our class discussions. I pointed out things. They pointed out things. I noticed people squinting at it from their seats as they worked through the big blue GED book. We adjusted it a couple of times when we uncovered errors or changed our minds about what was important. There were on-going debates about whether a full 6000 years was necessary. They said it would have been enough to reach back 500 years, to Christopher Columbus. "We could see more," they argued. "You only care about the GED stuff," I said. "Of course," they said. "Well what about the Vikings?" I retorted.  "We can stick a piece of paper on the end," the barbarians replied. "You're all barbarians," I said, "and that would look awful. Do your math!"

Then, when we tried to decorate it for Christmas, it fell down. We left it down and put up some garland instead.

After Christmas, on a prep day before classes restarted, I climbed my stool and strung the timeline up again.  But an odd thing happened.

The timeline had become invisible.

It wasn't just the new people who didn't see it. (There was always a big turn-over that time of year.) Even people who had helped make it seemed to forget it was there. For that matter, I'm not sure I made much reference to it after that....

It was almost as if making the timeline was useful and helpful and engaging; and the echoes of that making lasted for weeks after.  But once the echoes died, it seemed like having the timeline was largely irrelevant.

When it fell down again, sometime in March, I didn't bother putting it back up.

wendell's classroom timeline

Afterword: Why not take it down, wait a few weeks, and then make a new timeline: start the process all over again? Well, I guess, because I'd scratched that itch. I'd made a timeline, and I'd moved on. If a learner wanted to make a timeline, then that would have been fine. I'm good at supporting people. But for me to do it again would have felt phony, forced. The learners would have known - they always know - that I was being inauthentic, and so I wouldn't have been able to draw them in. In fact, despite knowing this, I did try to make a new timeline the next year, thinking it would be a Good Idea and Good for the Class.  It was a flop both as an activity and a timeline, and the only thing that echoed was everyone's annoyance, including my own.

By the way, you could complain that I've written "I" and "me" and "my" too often in this post. I wouldn't disagree. But that's the sorry truth about how my classes run. I'm willing to accept that others do a better job of being inclusive or facilitating broad participation, co-construction and a sense of learner ownership. With me...  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Anyway, my point is that posters and charts and timelines are.... I guess, sometimes they seem like 'living' things, and then they are useful, and sometimes they don't and they're not. Make of it what you will.

* James Herndon:
Frank and I showed up at school on Monday feeling great. Were we planning to suggest to the kids in CA How About Making A Film? and hear them say No We Don't Want To, or There's Nothing To Do Around Here... Hell no. It never occurred to us to wonder whether they wanted to make a film at all. We wanted to make a film ourselves and spend the rest of the year doing it.... 
Had we wanted to See What The Kids Would Do With Film, we'd have no doubt come up with something more constructive - a film about Attitudes And Relationships or The Question Of Authority and/or Democracy In The Classroom . . . as it was, we really wanted to make a Tarzan film but couldn't quite see how it could be done and settled for The Hawk. 
... What was the difference between all the grand things we'd thought up for the kids to do and The Hawk? Why, merely that we didn't want to do any of the former ourselves and we did want to do the latter. Why should we have assumed that the kids would want to do a lot of stuff that we didn't want to do? 
-  How To Survive In Your Native Land (1971) pp.43-44. 

An easy way to make political language harder

So what do I do to help my learners get up to speed on political-economy? (I'm following up on the post below.) Well, I can tell you something that I do wrong.

Adult learners in my academic or GED preparation classes need to understand, broadly, the differences between capitalism, socialism and communism. They need to know enough about these terms to understand excerpts on the different ways nations organize their economies. They need to understand the way these terms get used, and the baggage the terms carry, in historical excerpts about the conflict in Korea or the Cuban missile crisis. As well, they need to know the associations the terms can carry in the context of political party platforms or campaign literature. In this last case, learners also need to get a grip on related shorthand like 'right,' 'left,' 'conservative,' 'liberal,' 'reformist' and 'revolutionary' (and sometimes 'tory,' 'grit,' 'whig,' and 'red').

Usually, in the early going, I talk my way through a three-column diagram like the ones pictured above and below. (By the way, this is likely my first major mistake: I talk instead of listening - but leave that for now.) As you can see, I typically stick capitalism on the left-hand side, communism on the right-hand side, and fit socialism in the middle.... And with that, already, my error is apparent.

Surely communism belongs on the left, and capitalism belongs on the right; in accordance with our shorthand way of talking about them (and in accord with how monarchists and anti-monarchists arranged themselves in the French parliament around the time of the revolution, or something... etc., etc.).

Well, Wendell, fix it. That's what you're saying.

But here's the thing. I have it bred in my bones that because capitalism precedes communism chronologically, I have to put capitalism on the 'starting side' of the board or page or whatever. I would, and do, follow suit when talking about the Creation (left) and the Resurrection (right), or the Big Bang (left) and the Heat Death of the Universe (right), or the acorn (left) and the oak (right)... though here, like the chicken and egg, things get complicated, and, well....

Anyway, its a habit and a problem. Repeatedly, I tell my learners that our society places capitalism/ists "to the right" even as I demonstrate placing them "to the left."

Is it any wonder my learners struggle with the Social Studies portion of the GED?

If I had to draw a conclusion from this, I guess it would be that I am not yet as skillful as I could be at using the many tools I have at my disposal to help my learners discover political-economy.

Telling people things isn't the same as teaching them. Teaching, I think, requires us to display, perform, articulate, demonstrate, reveal (I'm dissatisfied by all these verbs) information in a media-rich, careful and internally consistent manner; and then to clarify, clarify, clarify. Teaching well, maybe, means being awfully self-aware and aware of how things look from the other side. Better tools and techniques mightn't hurt, but they are no substitute for reflection and reflective practice.

_ _ _ _ _
P.s., I am deliberately using the term "teaching" here rather than "facilitating" or "scaffolding." I know there's some discomfort with this term (I feel it too), but it fits my purpose here in a way I'll have to try to explain in a different post.

Not civics, political-economy

Please choose one (because we don't do diversity or inclusion).

In my email:

"Elections Canada and ABC Life Literacy Canada are partnering on this survey to help ensure our civic literacy resources fit the needs of your students. Your answers will inform how we update our current resources, and what resources we create next.

"We want to know: how does civic literacy fit into your work?

"As educators, your role is crucial to informing students about voting, how the government works, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens and elected members of government. We want to make sure we're supporting your work with your students, the voters of tomorrow."

Well, ABC Life Literacy Canada, I'm worried you're not really up to supporting my work.  My learners, for example, are not caricatures: they are not "the voters of tomorrow," they're the voters of today, sometimes. Because we practice inclusion in this part of the country, I can't assign my learners to a single PIAAC pidgeon hole - PIAAC? Really?  Really? - and answering "I don't know" isn't a solution because I always know the skill levels of my learners.  More, I don't know that I do cover civics, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, in my classroom. I think the proper name for what we study together is "political-economy" - what Britannica calls "the study of how a country... is managed or governed, taking into account both political and economic factors. (citation, emphasis added).

So, I don't think I will take your survey.  But you carry on with the self-promotion you've become so good at.  And my learners and I will carry on with our do-it-yourself learning-about-government using our dumpy hand-draw posters and our even dodgier provincial newspaper.

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.