Re-Inventing The Saskatchewan Action Research Network (SARN) & Allan’s Farewell

Last June we heard from the Ministry of the Economy that, due to budgetary restraints, SARN would not be funded this year; nor could the Ministry make any promises for future funding for SARN.  While I don’t think any of us on the SARN team were terribly surprised given the Saskatchewan economy and the financial challenges currently facing the post-secondary system, it was nevertheless it was a very sad day.

Going forward, the SARN Advisory Board and training team met in late June to review what our project has accomplished over the past 13 years and if there could be a future for SARN. The  good news was that the training team, comprised of Teri Thompson (Cumberland College), Jacqueline Bruce (Onion Lake First Nation) and Bula Ghosh (Great Plains College), graciously said they were each prepared to continue on a voluntary basis. Without a grant, they will need their travel expenses  covered by the host institution; and, of course, permission from their home institutions to be away from their classrooms for a day to do this.

So, with this in mind, it was  agreed that SABEA (the Saskatchewan Adult Basic Education Association) would be asked if they would take SARN on as a sub-committee. And, just by the way,  the original proposal for SARN funding a decade ago was submitted by SABEA along with the Saskatchewan Literacy Network. The SABEA Executive agreed to the proposal in their August meeting. This means the “reinvented SARN” movement will be under the auspices of SABEA beginning this academic year.

WHAT WILL THE RE-INVENTED SARN MOVEMENT LOOK LIKE? 

In the words of Teri, Bula and Jacqueline:

“The SARN Team will try to assist anyone interested in learning more about Action Research anyway we can.Teri and Jacqueline [the primary contacts], are willing to be available for skype/call or email. The Team plans to attend the SABEA conference this year and will either present or just promote SABEA at the general meeting. We are also willing to facilitate a workshop if we can have our travel accommodated in some way. Not sure that’s an option for any group or campus but it might be. ”

They can be contacted at:

Further, in Jacqueline’s words:

Plans are also  underway to have the SARN website under SABEA auspices. The web address may change, but the resources built by the field will not be lost. Hopefully, if an address change occurs, there will be links to the new SARN website on the SLN website and TESL Sask so you will always be able to find us. We expect there will be website additions into the future with SABEA managing the site.

For my part, however, this is my last blog installment. As discussed below, my wife and I now live in BC. After 13 years of building the SARN movement–10 of which have been funded by the provincial government– it is time to turn the movement over to the team. They are willing and more than able to  continue to provide action research guidance and training workshops in order to continue building best practices. Maybe this blog will continue with another author(s) down the road, but the SARN movement will continue to grow with your continued support.

But, let’s look back for a moment. 

What has SARN Accomplished Since 2003-2004?

Here’s a snapshot: 

  1. TRAINED: Approx. 280 practitioners have received hands-on training in action research in Sask from 2013 ->2017, resulting in 36 “BEST PRACTICE PROJECTS” as completed and posted on the SARN website (click here for the website). A total of 36 action research projects appear on the website and we estimate approximately 50 more projects have been conducted but not posted, totaling approximately 86 completed projects.Take a look…
  1. CAMPUSES & LOCATIONS THAT HOSTED WORKSHOPS:
  • Southeast Regional College
  • Great Plains College
  • Cumberland College
  • Northwest College
  • Regina Polytechnic
  • Saskatoon Polytechnic
  • Prince Albert Polytechnic
  • Dumont Technical Institute
  • Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies
  • Several of these workshops included staff from the Northern colleges
  • Plus 3 early provincial workshops held in Saskatoon that included a wide number of CBO’s, band members, literacy volunteers and library staff.

PRACTITIONERS REACHED THROUGH VARIOUS MEDIA est. 4,750

  •  BY WEBINARS: Approx. 120 were reached through 3 province-wide webinars, each dedicated to transitioning adult students into the workforce. The 2017 webinar focused on “Helping EAL Students Transition to, and Succeed in, the Workforce.”
  •  BY PRESENTATIONS: Approx. 350 participants were informed through presentations at College annual conferences, SLN annual Exchange conferences, SABEA annual conferences, Advanced Ed’ Round Tables, poster sessions & book displays at SLN and SABEA conferences. Also approximately 20 were informed through out-of-province presentations at Brock University, ON. & Montreal TEAL conference.
  • THROUGH THE WEBSITE:                                                                                             Website readers included: 
  •    approx 1,450 visitors in 2016-2017
  •    approx. 1,900 visitors in 2015+ 2016
  •    approx. 900 visitors in 2014-2015

In total, approximately 4,250 readers were engaged over the years we had access to website statistics. This included 261 returning visitors in 2016-17. Most returning readers were  from Saskatchewan and were blog readers

  • WITH BLOGS: (39 installments posted).
    • 2016-2017, Heroes & Heroines of Literacy 
    • 2015-2016, Transformative Learning (student postings) 
    • 2014-2015, How Literacy/BE delivered in 5 Canadian provinces
    • 2013-2014, How to Retain Adult Learners?
    • 2012-2013, What Constitutes Excellence in Literacy/BE? 
    • 2011-2012, Intro to SARN & Guest Contributors 
  • WITH PUBLICATIONS: (Approx. 26 Publications)
    • Approx. 20 SLN monthly E-News + 2 Polytech newsletter articles
    • 1 national & 1 international article
    • 1 article posted to ONTARIO Literacy website
    • 1 book chapter describing SARN and the success of SARN

    WHY SARN MATTERS

The Early Years: I began teaching adult literacy in Nipawin in 1972 when adult basic and literacy education was not really a “field.” At least, not a field, as such, in Saskatchewan. There were no Sask colleges then—not community colleges, not regional colleges. Adult Education was a small branch administered out of the Department of Education with BE programs located at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences centres in urban centres and  several northern and rural locations. I can well remember how isolated I felt as a new instructor in those early days. No internet. Certainly nothing like SARN to help a new instructor.

In 1974, my wife and I moved to Fort McMurray where I taught “Voc’ Prep” (i.e., BE) at what was then an Alberta Vocational Centre. Then, as a member of management, our AVC became today’s Keyano College. But, needless to say, our BE program was still isolated from the wider literacy/BE field.  

In 1975, my wife and I moved home to Regina and I was involved in starting the Regina Plains Community College. This move included directing the BE/ESL programs with some 25-30 instructors decentralized around the city. Then, in 1978, I moved to what was to become the Department Advanced Education and Manpower.  The community colleges in Saskatoon, Regina and Moose Jaw were closed in the early 1980’s and the BE/ESL programs were transferred to their respective city SIAST campuses. I was then responsible for GED, ESL and most of the ABE programs with Advanced Education and Manpower. And, although I was still determined to help BE and ESL/EAL become a more unified, sharing field of practice, frankly, not much changed on that level either.

WHAT I LEARNED AND WHY SARN MADE SENSE

What I learned through those early years was that the way new adult instructors typically learned how to teach adults was not through university preparation programs, as in the public education K-12 system. New instructors, like me, normally learned from the more senior instructors in their program. And, many of those senior instructors taught BE the way they had been taught back in school. More politely, perhaps, but much like school.

But, here’s the problem.

Adult basic education is not, and should not  be “a repeat of schooling.”  Students may expect it to be “school all over again”–that is often their only frame of reference–but we shouldn’t necessarily seek to fulfill that expectation. Why? Because most of our adult learners carry very negative memories of their past schooling experiences into our classrooms. Leaving school early typically has a life-long impact on our learners.. And, as author Malcolm Knowles said: “Our adult learners typically carry over from their previous experience with schooling the perception that they are not very smart, at least in regard to academic work.”

As our annual  rates of attrition can attest, our learners often require much more support and affirmation than other post secondary students. Reproducing schooling is often not good enough for the adult population we work with.

BUT ARE OUR ALTERNATIVES? 

Though the years, both in practice and government, it was not clear how new teaching methods were to be acquired or even shared in this model. Moreover, I couldn’t help notice how “isolated” each college’s ABE program remained from its neighbouring colleges’ BE programs. So how does a field build innovation and knowledge on a province-wide basis? As far as I know, Saskatchewan has no courses or diplomas dedicated to adult literacy and basic education at the UofS or UofR. Research journals and recent professional development books on adult literacy rarely find their way into the classroom milieu. How do you affect literacy change in a province like ours?

THE TRIANGULAR WORLD OF ADULT LITERACY 

With a completed doctorate, my family and I moved to Pennsylvania in 1987 where I joined the adult education faculty at Penn State University. Surely, the research world of academia was the place to discover a better way to help build our field. And I did conduct research on literacy and did publish articles in the best journals on adult education. I was awarded  an international award for my 1997 book, Rethinking literacy education and gave presentations at conferences across North America. But it was obvious that the countless grassroots classrooms where the action is was not really being reached. Again, little was changing. At least as I saw it.

Then, I read about and ultimately developed a fore-runner of SARN with a team of five of my Penn State graduate students. Our team conducted workshops with literacy/BE teachers in action research in various colleges across Western Pennsylvania with funding support from the state. Our project was called the Pennsylvania Action Research Network, (PAARN). I later experimented with various action research training models speaking at conferences and giving workshops in New Orleans, Kentucky, Kansas and Pennsylvania. Then, back home in Canada at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, I conducted workshops in Nova Scotia, PEI and BC from 1997 to 2017.

I realized that adult literacy and basic education teachinggovernment administration, and university research made up a kind of “triangle of solidarities.” Having worked in each sector, I saw how the three may work with each other but out of very different cultures, often with different agendas. I have become convinced that learners and society would benefit much more if ours could be a closer circle of practice + research + sponsor support. The PAARN model came closest to this approach.  I began dreaming of a sustained action research movement that could be developed across a wide region. 

Happily, I was invited to conduct an action research workshop back home in Regina at Wascana SIAST and, thanks especially to Jennifer Bain and Janice Galbraith (now Ward) and several administrators at the Department of Advanced Education and Manpower, the idea of a province-wide action research movement began to grow.

My wife and I moved back home to Regina in 2017 to “retire” and I began working with  Jennifer and Janet, then with Teri Thompson, Bula Ghosh and Jacqueline Bruce, as we built SARN. And, with a solidly representative advisory board, we came to create what I believe is the best model for building practice-based applied research. Our province created a model that can be used by virtually any sub-field of adult education or training.It is not limited to adult literacy or basic education.

ALLAN’S FAREWELL

If you have had a chance to read any of the blogs I posted last academic year on our “Heroes and Heroines of Literacy,” you will probably agree that ours has a long  history of singular initiatives lead by passionate adult educators. Most of our heroes and heroines, in the past and today, have a vision of what adult literacy and BE could be. For at least 200 years in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada, brilliant adult schools, programs and national initiatives have risen. And often fallen…fallen when the lead individual(s) are no longer with the project and/or when sponsor support ends. What is clear to me  is that individual initiatives are no longer enough as we go farther into this century.

If we are to learn our way forward into a better 21st century, the proven SARN model can be a model to help Canada achieve a better grassroots literacy future. A collaborative, evidence-based movement from the ground up has a better chance for sustainability than individual efforts, however heroic. And this is the message I want to leave for our field. The adult low-literacy population is surely the last major marginalized group in Canada without a public voice.

We need literacy and BE to become a much higher public and policy priority. Improved awareness and public pressure is desperately needed. Consider other marginalized groups in Canadian society: the LGBTQ community, the Aboriginal community, the African-Canadian community, the many Disabilities communities, the rise of women’s voice through the decades. Each has gained a public voice through the years. The wider public needs to be more aware of the issues of adult literacy. How?  In my view, our field needs to become more visible on behalf of, and in collaboration with, our past, our current and our potential adult learners. We need to gain a public voice. At least this is my personal view after some 45 years in the field. 

In closing, it has been a privilege to have been a part of the SARN journey and an honour to have been a part of the Saskatchewan world of adult literacy. I know our field will build and will flourish, even in the face of today’s challenges.

Thank you.

Allan

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