“Story is Medicine”: New Brunswick Instructor Brenda Wright tells her Story

Turning the Page: Transformative Learning in the Classroom

Brenda Wright

Brenda Wright

This month’s installment is from guest blogger Brenda Wright. Brenda completed her Master’s in Adult Education in 2009 at St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, and also completed a Masters in Education in Counselling Psychology at the University of New Brunswick.  I invited Brenda to write this installment because she is one of the few adult educators in Canada to have researched the topic of transformative learning and adult literacy (and, if you are interested, her master’s thesis and a paper we did are referenced at the end of this blog).  

Brenda turns the page for us in this blog series as tells us about a teaching experience that made a profound impact on her while teaching—an experience that transformed her perspective of herself and the world around her back in 2006. As she discusses, that experience pointed her to her career. Brenda is now working full-time  as an Employment Counsellor for adults in Fredericton.  She also works part-time as a contract therapist in Saint John, N.B. for a private not-for-profit organization.

In her story, Brenda notes how she, “kept a copy of Jenny Horsman’s book Too Scared to Learn close by and referred to it often.” In that book, Horsman points out: “It is particularly important to look at the impact of violence on learning in the area of literacy.” Horsman also notes how, “ “extremely large numbers of adult literacy learners … have experienced violence” (1999, p. 19).  And, as most Basic Education practitioners can attest, learning basic skills; “which many assume should have been learned in childhood, can pose a challenge for anyone, [but] more so for someone struggling with a sense of self and low self-esteem, who may also have experienced violence or trauma” (Horsman, p. 19).

Most of the stories we have seen so far in this series have been from learners talking about the struggles they have had, violence included, and the transformative learning that lead them to literacy and basic education. Now, Brenda turns the page as we see begin to see how transformative learning can change the lives of practitioners and how tranformative learning can occur in our classrooms.

Do you or one of your learners have a story to tell? Contact Allan Quigley (aquigley@stfx.ca) or Jacqueline Bruce ([jacqueline.bruce@onionlake.ca])  for story guidelines.


“Story is Medicine.” New Brunswick Instructor Brenda Wright tells her Story

In the fall of 2006, I began teaching a community adult learning class in a halfway house for women. The focus of the class was adult basic education and GED preparation. The class was comprised of twelve adult learners, most of whom were connected to the community halfway house, either through their past or present circumstances. The other women who had no previous connection with the house were mainly women from other countries who had come to Canada in search of a better life. Regardless of where they had come from, most of the women in my class were survivors of trauma.

During the first few weeks of the program, my focus was to create and maintain a safe and respectful learning environment for all, which was no small task given some of the behaviours.  However, I soon realized that most of these behaviours were a form or self-protection and some were as a result of our basic human needs not being met, such as the need to be seen, heard and valued. So I remained curious and open. And, I kept a copy of Jenny Horsman’s book, Too Scared to Learn close by and referred to it often.

Creating a Safe Space to Learn

I knew it would take time for these women to trust me, so we started that process by doing a Social Studies project together where we—myself included—researched and presented information about a country or culture we were interested in learning more about.

Each morning we started class by writing in our journals. I would first place three journal topics on the whiteboard and the learners could pick which to write about (“guided choice”).  After journal writing, we read for 20 minutes. They could choose to read whatever they wanted whether it be a novel, a short story, the newspaper or a magazine.  Once the reading period was over, the class was provided an opportunity to share their journal writing if they chose.

Because a number of the learners’ lives where chaotic, establishing a routine created a sense of safety. The journal writing eased them into the learning process and created a safe “container” for their feelings. I noticed that when learners felt cared for, heard, accepted and supported, it created a safe space for them to express their true voice. Throughout those journal writing discussions, many stories emerged…..many transformative stories. As Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”

This routine of journaling, reading, sharing and discussing the journal writing took approximately 60-90 minutes of class time. Apart from this activity, we followed the community adult learning program curriculum for New Brunswick.

I realized early on that before learning could occur, I needed to honour what the women were feeling and honour their stories. Otherwise those needs would resurface as unhealthy and unproductive behaviours in the classroom.

One woman was married with a family and had lived on the street for many years.  Another young woman was from a country in Africa and, with the exception of one sister. was separated from her family. Because of the extreme violence of the ongoing war in her country, the sisters had no knowledge of whether the others in their family had survived or not. There was another young woman from Russia. She spoke about how she would get on the bus each day to go to work in her home region never knowing whether she would arrive to work alive as there was a rash of buses being blown up daily.  One young girl, barely nineteen, never shared her story openly, but each day she gave me her journal to read privately. I became witness to a story of unspeakable abuse which started early in her life. Each day I would write a note about her courage and inner strength before I returned her journal to her.

As they changed, I can easily say that the women’s stories changed me too. The students, the stories, their changes —they all transformed me–and the experience also changed the class in ways I could continue to keep writing about for days. All this within the context of literacy education. All through the power of reading, writing and speaking.

A Classroom Activity That Made a Difference

One particularly resistant and aggressive woman, whom I will call “D,” shared with me that she had always wanted to learn how to read a map, but insisted that she would never be able to learn how to do that. I simply listened and then waited for an opportunity to present itself.

“D’ liked to read novels written by Laura Ingalls Wilder because of the idealistic family life in those novels. One day she told me about a journey that one of the characters in the novel had taken. So I suggested that it might be interesting for her to create a visual representation of the character’s journey to which she excitedly agreed.

The project took her about two weeks to complete. First, I asked her to trace a map of the United States, as this was where the journey took place. Next she was to put the names of all the states and their capital cities on the map. Then she created a red line that represented the character’s travel by horse and wagon from their starting point to their final destination. When completed, I asked “D” to explain it to the class, which she did beautifully. At the end of her presentation, I congratulated her on reading a map. She could hardly believe that she had actually accomplished, albeit unknowingly, one of her life-long learning goals.

This learning experience had a profound positive impact on her self-concept. She could now see herself as someone who could learn and who was not an outsider in the world of education. It was a world she could now step into. It changed her inner- narrative.

Stories as Medicine 

I used other stories to teach as well. The story of the “Ugly Duckling,” which I took from Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s (1992) book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, was very useful. I noticed that the story and the discussion that followed improved the women’s ability to make meaning out of their grief and related feelings of “not belonging” in society due to their life circumstances. When the learners were able to connect with a deeper perspective—what I call a “sacred perspective”—they were often able to begin the difficult work of examining their own distorted perceptions of themselves and a change took place. I saw their approach towards themselves and others become more accepting. Their inner-narrative changed, their self-concept grew, and their quest for knowledge and meaning began to expand. “Transformation is the emergence of the Self,” as Cranton and Roy have stated (2003, p.92).

All of these learning activities were turning points for our class. And, that class was a turning point for me too. Through the process of reading and writing activities and by sharing stories, the women started to see themselves as learners and as part of a community; a community where learning was possible and where we were each connected through our humanness.

Reflections on What I Learned 

One of the many things I learned was, in order to foster transformation in a learning environment, you must believe in the power of the human spirit and in the power of story. As a result of the learning experiences in that class room, I became a better educator and, I believe, a better human being. My world view changed. I learned the only difference between me and the women in that class was our life circumstances. I learned the value of writing about life experiences and how sharing those stories connects us in meaningful ways.

One of the goals of transformative learning is to assist learners to make meaning of their experiences. If learners are unable to make meaning of their experiences, they remain disconnected from their education and from a healthy sense of self.  I learned so much from each one of them and I went on to become a counsellor as a result of my teaching experience. As the educator, author, and Jungian Analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her classic book, “Story is medicine (1992).”

Sources Used

  • Cranton, P. & Roy, M. (2003). When the bottom falls out of the bucket: Toward a holistic perspective on transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(2), 86-98.
  • Estes Pinkola, C. P. (1992). Women who run with the wolves. New York: Ballantine Books.
  •  Horsman, J. (1999).  Too scared to learn: Women, violence and education. Toronto: McGilligan Books.
  •  Ingalls Wilder, L. (1976). On the Way Home: The diary of a trip from South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.
  •  Wright, B. (2009) Seasons of Loss, Learning, and Self: Grief, Transformative Learning and Individuation. (Master’s Thesis). Copy may be requested from the Department of Adult Education, St. Francis Xavier University, NS.


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