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.


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…
  • 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.


  •  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


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 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.


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?


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.


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.


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“Knowledge For The People:” The Antigonish Movement

“Knowledge For The People:” The Antigonish Movement

The Antigonish Movement is, “the most famous adult education project in Canada and the best known outside our borders,” according to Canadian historians Selman et al., (1998, p.45).  This chapter in our history began when the “golden age of wind and sail” was waning across the maritime provinces and jobs, as well as the population, was in rapid decline. A once prosperous maritime region had come to be called “the graveyard of industry” (Coady cited in Welton, p. 48). And for good reason.


The Graveyard of Industry

Fishermen (or “fishers” as they are sometimes called) and their families were effectively owned by absentee conglomerate companies. The pejoratively named “Cod Lords” effectively owned the fishing boats, the fishing gear and the annual catch since most earnings often went to pay the “advances” on the year. In fact, many fishermen would end the season owing more to the fishery companies than when they began.

Meanwhile, coal miners worked in dangerous underground conditions and were typically required to live in the dilapidated houses owned by the mine owners. Families of the miners were compelled to deal exclusively with the company stores (remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “I owe my soul to the company store”)?

Man with bear fur in back of cartIn the bucolic country side, farmers worked to eke out an existence by taking their products to dealers and markets again controlled by absentee companies. The few steel mills of the day, especially in Cape Breton, actually exploited child labor. Conditions have been described as “feudal.”

One Catholic clergyman reported that families in his district “were living on 4 cents a day . . . children were clothed in discarded flour bags and . . . the only bedclothes were old feed bags” (cited in Welton, p. 45). In late December, 1925, after visiting the coal regions of Nova Scotia, the bishop of the Antigonish Diocese wrote a letter to all the priests in his diocese saying he had “direct evidence that there is a large number of people who are [on] the verge of starvation” (cited in Welton, 2001, p. 45). He urged the clergy to do whatever they could. As discussed below, two Catholic priests did just that.

Literacy as Tool; Not School

Up to this last installment in our series, we have seen how our earliest heroes were missionaries or motivated by a religious calling. In the later vignettes seen this year, the social gospel was typically the impetus for the literacy landmarks. One might reasonably assume that our two literacy heroes: Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, might have seen literacy as a way to promote the Catholic church. To “evangelize.” But not so.

Instead, the literature makes it clear that, for these two priests, adult literacy was not a vehicle to salvation or Catholicism. One famous quip by Father Jimmy, when asked if the Antigonish Movement should exclude non-Catholic participants, his reply was: “There is no Catholic way to catch lobsters.”Quite simply, these two priests sought to turn the economy around through adult education and, for our field of adult literacy, EAL and Basic Education, we see how literacy was a tool, not a school.

Father Moses Coady & Father Jimmy

With the help of hundreds of willing volunteers, within a decade the economy of the entire region was rebounding. The dignity of thousands was returning.

Here is a look at their story…

The Antigonish Movement began in Nova Scotia in the 1920’s and came to include the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and, to a lesser extent, Newfoundland. It was at its peak from the early 1930s to the 1940s and continued into the 1950s.

Father Jimmy Tompkins

Father Jimmy Tompkins

One of the founders was Father Jimmy Tompkins. An avid reader and a visionary, he published a watershed pamphlet in 1921 entitled Knowledge for the People. It was widely distributed and advocated “useful knowledge” as the key to the flagging regional economy. Father Jimmy urged the community to begin to share both their labor and their products. He also pressed his university colleagues “to go out to the people”(Alexander, p. 68) and, in that same year, the first People’s School was held at StFX with academic subjects such as economics, mathematics, agriculture and public speaking taught to the fishermen, farmers, and laborers who came forward.

But this approach alone was too centralized, too textbook-based. In 1930, while the rest of Canada was just beginning to see the start of an economic depression, the university decided to establish an Extension Department. They hired Father Moses Coady to direct it.The Antigonish Movement was born.

Masters of Their Own Destiny

Father Moses Coady

Father Moses Coady

The stated mission of the Antigonish Movement was: “The improvement of the economic, social, educational and religious condition of the people of eastern Nova Scotia” (cited in Alexander, p. 78).

Coady took this mission to heart traveling tirelessly through Nova Scotia. From town to town, he spoke forcefully in town halls, churches, anywhere he could assemble a public meeting. He advocated for cooperatives, shared resources, pooling incomes, and marketing products directly. Above all, he encouraged the people to stand up for themselves. They did not have to be “slaves to company owners.”

But how to actually accomplish this? Where to begin?

The communities did not begin with classes on poetry or art works, like Hull House. Nor did they start with formal evening literacy classes in school houses, as did Cora Wilson Stewart. In fact, they started with the tasks themselves. Informal Study Clubs were created in community after community with meetings often held in kitchens and farm yards. Each participating community was provided with literature on community development, including how to create cooperatives and credit unions. Communities were encouraged to begin to identify the issues they faced and were inspired by Coady to think about their options. To roll up their sleeves.

But how could a population with wide-spread low literacy engage with these pamphlets and bulletins?  How could study clubs succeed? Herein lies the difference between this movement and the others we have seen this year.

Literacy as a Vehicle for Change

Despite the fact that Coady was acutely aware of “the question of illiteracy” (Coady personal communication to a Nfld inquiry, February 7, 1933), his vision did not envisage a separated stream for  school-based adult classes. Instead, without school buildings, without formal teachers and no extra funding, neighbors simply helped neighbors in the Study Clubs. And they kept helping as needed with the projects that followed. Adults read together, discussed together, worked together, and many learned basic reading as was necessary. Literacy was simply one skill among many needed to get the job done.

In 1930-31, its first full year of operation, a total of 192 general meetings were held with 14,856 people attending. One hundred seventy-three clubs were established with 1,384 members by 1931 and, by 1935, there were 940 clubs with 10,650 participants. The reports showed that 84 cooperatives and credit unions were in place to make small business loans to members. By 1938—less than a decade after the movement began—more than 10,000 members belonged to the Antigonish Movement. This was a remarkable number for such a sparsely populated region. Especially considering many communities were accessible only by boat.

Houses that still stand today were built by the people

Houses planned & built by the people themselves

Fishermen started to get small loans to buy their own fishing equipment; miners began to cooperate and organize for better wages; farmers began to take their products directly to market. Some villages and towns undertook to build their own houses using a co-operative housing approach—always under the scornful eye of local builders who claimed every house would fall down. But they learned and worked together as they acquired practical knowledge (and the houses are still standing today)

Father Moses Coady

Above all—quite literally “above all” since he towered at over six feet—Father Moses Coady used his transfixing oratory to turn despair into hope (Welton, 2002). More than a regional leader, Father Coady addressed the United Nations in August, 1949 on “Organizing Rural People for the Proper Use and Conservation of Natural Resources.” He became a powerful force for change across the northern U.S. and throughout Eastern Canada, speaking indefatigably to co-operative movements, wealthy philanthropist organizations… anyone who would share the vision.

But, according to biographer, Michael Welton, Coady’s dreams were ultimately just that….dreams. The “new, permanent cooperative order” (Welton, p. 217) he preached never appeared. After a series of heart problems and illnesses, he collapsed at the microphone addressing a co-operative rally in Wisconsin during one of his speeches. He ultimately died July 28, 1959 in St. Martha’s hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. His casket was carried to its final resting place in the local Antigonish cemetery by a steelworker, a coal miner, two farmers and two fishermen…not an academic among them.  His life was a testimony to the fact that that people can create their own answers. They can be “masters of their own destiny,” to use Coady’s famous phrase.

Today, courses, seminars and international conferences on issues of development, micro-finance, and globalization are regularly held at the Coady International Institute on the St. FX campus. Named for Father Coady, it works with over 50 developing countries to continue the legacy of co-operative adult education practices and community development.

The Relevance of This Landmark Today?

My wife and I now live in B.C. but we lived in Antigonish and taught at StFX for over 13 years. In fact, our Department of Adult Education was located in the same office space used by the original Extension Department. Students and visitors would often ask me why the Antigonish Movement wasn’t still alive to help those living in that  same region today?  While StFX has an active Extension Department, and it is not as if there is no poverty today in the Maritimes, I wonder if perhaps adult education is sometimes at its best in times of crisis. In times of campaigns. I am not sure. But, there is another very important question here for adult literacy.

Given the range of models and approaches we have seen in this series, why are so many EAL, literacy and basic education programs so dedicated to the traditional bricks-and-mortar schooling model? Especially since we know that many adults with low literacy had negative experiences in their past schooling. And, we know that fewer than 10% of the estimated target group attends sponsored programs with dropout rates often over 40% (Quigley, 2007). In earlier blogs, we saw how outreach innovation with Frontier College made a difference. Why is it that distance technology is used so widely to reach mainstream adult learners and so rarely to reach our literacy population? Here we see how project-based literacy in a community can make literacy a tool, rather than a “school.”  In closing this series, perhaps we need to rethink Canada’s, America’s and the U.K’s history of proven approaches if we are to better diversify and reach as well as retain more of our potential literacy delivery in the 21st century. We have a rich history, let’s learn from it.

We have seen some of our history’s heroes and heroines in this series, but it is vital to add that the passion and commitment of our founders are still alive and thriving today–we still have heroes and heroines, and this includes so many of our learners.

I can personally say it has been a matter of personal pride to have been one among such people for some 40 years. And, ever optimistic, I believe we will continue to build new and better landmarks to serve Canada’s literacy needs. I hope these glimpses of our past have been enjoyable and will, perhaps, help inform our future.


Alexander, A. (1997). The Antigonish movement: Moses Coady and adult education today. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Quigley, B.A. (2007). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Selman, G., Selman, M., Cooke, M., & Dampier, P. (1998). The foundations of adult education in  Canada, 2nd ed. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.

Welton, M. R. (2001). Little Mosie from the Margaree: A biography of Moses Michael Coady. Toronto: Thompson Education Publishing, Inc.

This is the final instalment on the “heroes and heroines of literacy” series… we hope you enjoyed it.  Next month will be our annual “lessons learned” wind-up instalment–the last blog of the year.      

Hoping you will stay tuned…..

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team.


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Not the Exclusive Right of the Favored Few

“Not the Exclusive Right of the Favored Few.
Frontier College: 1899 to Today.”

We have now seen several historical literacy landmarks this year but, of all we have seen, Canada’s Frontier College is the only one that still exists. It is still thriving after more than a century. Volunteers are still taking literacy education to the remotest corners of Canada, including many of today’s “frontiers,”such as to the homeless on urban city streets, to penitentiaries, conducting summer camp programs for indigenous children and youth, and many other innovative outreach initiatives. But here is another major difference from those we have seen so far.

Reading tents in The Rocky Mountains

Reading tents for Canada’s earliest railway workers seen here in the Rocky Mountains

Every landmark we have seen has required learners to travel to a building or program or centre–and do so according to the program’s schedule. Not Frontier College. As its founder, Alfred Fitzpatrick, stated in 1920: “Wherever and whenever [people] have occasion to gather, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.” Frontier College has always taken literacy to the learners, not the other way around.


Alfred Fitzpatrick was born in the farming community of Millsville, Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1862. The second youngest of 12 children (Morrison, 1989), he grew up knowing that one brother, Lee, had worked and died in the Redwood lumber camps of California. He and his family had also said good-bye to his other brother, Isaac, who also left Nova Scotia for the California forests to earn a living. His family had not heard from him since.

Alfred Fitzpatrick

Alfred Fitzpatrick

After graduating in 1892 with a degree in theology to become a Presbyterian minister, Fitzpatrick decided to serve the workers in lumber camps and, in so doing, perhaps he could reconnect with lost brother Isaac and find the grave site of his other older brother, Lee. It was, “in the towering forests of California that Fitzpatrick was to define his life work” (Morrison, p. 5).

According to oral history, Fitzpatrick was driving a team of horses and wagon along a forest road when he offered a ride to a stranger. Imagine Alfred’s surprise when he recognized that it was Isaac, his lost brother. As historian James Morrison put it: “It was during this drive through the majestic evergreens” (p. 6) that Isaac realized he was suddenly reunited with the brother he assumed was some 4,000 miles away. As they talked, the stories Isaac told him about the brutal, even life-threatening work that most did in the lumber camps, together with the total lack of workers’ recourse to a union, governmental agency or, often, even a church, that led Alfred to resolve “to devote his life to those who laboured on the frontier” (Morrison, p. 6).


As seen earlier with the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, at the turn of the 20th century there was a growing number of social and reformist philanthropists, charities, church groups, and governmental agencies that were seeking to help the marginalized and working poor in Canadian and U.S, towns and cities; but, next to no help for the thousands—many of whom were immigrants–working beyond society’s urban and rural centers. These were the forgotten working in Canada’s mines, remote lumber camps, and on railway lines that moved across the vast expanses of Canada. For these forgotten men and women, as Morrison states: “Their working conditions were appalling, their living conditions primitive” (p. 7).

 citizenship class for Scandinavian newcomers

A citizenship class for Scandinavian newcomers taught by D.L. Mcdougal at a nickel mine in Northern Ontario.

Fitzpatrick worked out of the prevailing Social Gospel reform movement at the turn of the century. For Fitzpatrick, the social gospel meant knowledge was “the God-given right of every person, not the exclusive privilege of the favoured few” (Morrison, p. 8). He began his reformist work in a lumber camp near Nairn Centre in Northern Ontario in 1899, setting up his first Reading Camp  in October, 1900.

He recruited university student volunteers and they, in turn, managed to establish 24 reading rooms in log structures or canvas tents in various locations throughout this Northern region. These young university volunteers—mainly young males—were financially supported by church donations, private, commercial, and some governmental support. Interestingly, they had to decide how to engage with the workers, and began by waiting until the evening when the workers’ came back to camp when the long day was over. But, it was soon obvious this was not adequate.  The wait-for them-to-return idea soon evolved to where the volunteers, called labourer-teachers, no longer sat waiting for the workers. Instead, they set out each morning and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Then—exhausted, hands calloused, covered with mosquito bites and back-weary—they set up their portable blackboards and taught literacy to those who chose to come to their reading tent, donated box car, or construction hut at night. Among the famous figures who worked with Frontier College in their youth was Dr. Norman Bethune.

The labourer-teachers today still work for equivalent wages as their learners, still do the same work as their learners and still find the stamina to teach literacy on the job or after hours just as they have for over a century.


Fitzpatrick did not fight to unionize workers or bring about political reform. Much like the majority of our literacy programs today, his way was to work with individuals, not to seek systemic reform. Such an individualistic, “non-threatening” approach, especially when working with Canada’s newest Citizens, was highly attractive to a federal government that was trying to build the workforce. It supported Fitzpatrick’s early efforts.

Fitzpatrick personally wrote the Handbook for New Canadians in 1919.  “Each instructor was sent to the frontier grasping a volume to promote Canadianism” (Morrison, p. 13). Translations of 700 words of Italian, French, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish into English were added to “materials on Canada’s history and government, naturalization, and basic English language structure” (Morrison, p. 13). By 1920, some 100,000 workmen had been taught by over 500 labourer-teachers. By 1967, half of the labourer-teachers were working with those in railway work, a quarter were still teachig in the mines, and the remaining quarter were in logging camps


In 1919, degree-granting authority had been granted to the college by the federal government but, to Fitzpatrick’s dismay, the degree-granting charter, as given, was  never to be fulfilled. Why not?Many of Canada’s largest universities, colleges, and provincial departments of education simply would not accept a sweeping “Pan-Canadian  college.” The idea of a “national college” challenged the right of provinces and territories to have control of education within their own jurisdictions’ under the BNA Act. Despite the lobbying  effort of Fitzpatrick and a stellar Board of Examiners that included some of Canada’s most lauded scholars, ultimately, “little or no financial support was forthcoming from [the federal] government” (Morrison, p. 15). It was a crushing disappointment to Fitzpatrick.


Fitzpatrick died along with his dream of a degree-granting institution in 1925. Staff member Edwin Bradwin continued as president doing  what Frontier College had always done best—placing volunteer labourer-teachers throughout Canada to help those on the margins of society. But always as a non-credit institution. The original concept of taking literacy to the people nevertheless remains alive and well with Frontier College, as it has for over a century.

Through time, according to researcher Pierre Walter (personal communication), there has been a perceived shift from social gospel to a social justice orientation at Frontier College; from helping individuals, specifically, to working with learners and advocating for them in the face of systemic injustices. Reminiscent of the evolution in the way Jane Addams and her colleagues came to view the purposes of literacy education at Hull House, we see here  a longstanding point of ideological controversy among programs,  practitioners and academics across out history-rich field of adult literacy and basic education (Quigley, 2017). We have multiple literacy community-based tutoring programs across Canada but, essentially, “Why do we not have more distance outreach?”


Perhaps the most obvious point  of this story is point to the many ways our history differs from other areas of education.Meaning the histories of universities, vocational/technical schools and most colleges.Ours is a history of deeply dedicated individuals who found ways to continue their work despite the on-again-off-again sponsorship of so many funding agencies through so many years. Ours is history of overcoming barriers to learning. But, at least as I see it, Frontier College is an enduring example of outreach to those who can’t, or just won’t, come to programs. The Frontier College model says to me,  “In the 21st century, we need better use of distance education to reach our potential learners. we have the innovative technologies.” In fact, some post-secondary institutions in various provinces and territories have been experimenting  with technology to reach more adults and families with lower literacy skills, but those efforts hardly compare with the growing juggernaut of distance education possibilities offered in the technology-rich world of K-12 and post-secondary education. A sabbatical trip I made to Australia back in 1996 showed me how far ahead they were in reaching adults with literacy education even in Australia’s remotest outback regions. And I have read about highly successful examples of the use of distance technologies for literacy/BE in parts of the USA.

Will anything really be different I how we deliver adult literacy and BE in this century (Quigley, 2017)? Frontier College challenges us to revisit the potential of group and individual outreach for our field with technology. As Fitzpatrick put it:  “Wherever and whenever [people] have occasion to gather, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.”


 Morrison, J. H. (1989). Camps & classrooms: A pictorial history of Frontier College. Toronto: The Frontier College Press.

 Quigley, B.A. (2017). Will anything by different in the 21st century? How 107 million adults and the field of adult literacy became so marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26 (pp. 39-54).

Tune In Next Month For Our Last History Story: “The Antigonish Movement”

 Is it possible to help others build literacy skills without teachers, programs, curricula or added funding? If so, how? Tune in next month to see our last  story. Often called “Canada’s most famous adult education event,” the Antigonish Movement–which occurred in the Maritime provinces in the first half of the 20th century–is one more of the inspiring stories that make up a history that we should be proud of, and better informed by.

Until next month,, make a difference.

Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team.

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Jane Addams & Hull House

Jane Addams & Hull House: A Landmark in Citizenship & English as an Additional Language Education

Portrait of Jane Addams

Jane Addams

Unlike the heroes seen earlier with the Bristol Schools; the Port Royal Experiment and the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, Jane Addams and Hull House are still well known names. Not only was Jane Addams a leader in citizenship and EAL, but she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life’s work with immigrants and her courageous efforts to mediate peace between the Allies and Germany during WW I.  A less known fact, she later stood (virtually alone) against the peace treaty that was forced on Germany in 1919. She insisted, “it was so humiliating that it would lead to a German war of revenge.”

But, at heart Jane Addams was an EAL practitioner–and a superb one. She was the founder of Hull House, perhaps the most famous of the Settlement Houses, during the national movement that sought to help the thousands of immigrants flooding into America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her writing and speeches challenged a great many 19th century conventions, including challenges to the prevailing racism and prejudices towards immigrants and those living in poverty.

How Did She Come To Work With Immigrants & EAL?

Addams was born into a very wealthy family (Diliberto, 1999). In fact, her parents were friends with President Lincoln and many of the most influential families in America. She attended the Rockford Seminary near her family home in Northern Illinois and was encouraged by her teachers to follow a life of service to the poor. She read extensively and came to favor the “ideal of mingled learning, piety, and physical labor, more exemplified by the Port Royalists than by any others” (Ferris, 1943, pp. 198-199).

 Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

She had had a sheltered upbringing, but when she went on an educational tour of Europe with other wealthy young ladies, she was shocked to see urban squalor and poverty first-hand in London’s East End, South Italy and parts of Austria. She ultimately rented a house in what was then the worst slum in Chicago–an area where immigrants lived in destitute poverty. Joined by her lifelong friend, Brenda Starr Gates, Addams took up residence in Hull House on September 18, 1889–a house belonging to the Hull family. The Hull House charter they created and hung over the door read: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago” (Linn, 1935, p. 110). Addams and Gates were joined by other dedicated women, including Julia Lathrop and Florence Kelley (Linn, 1935).

How to Begin?  “Why Not with Shakespeare?”

Just try to imagine this small group of wealthy, highly educated young women finding themselves in appalling living conditions—in an area with no city garbage pick up, no law enforcement what so ever, a place where children played with rats as pets, and where entire families were dying of diseases brought on by squalor.

So “Roll up our sleeves”…but where to start? Incredibly, perhaps, they chose to begin with discussions and reading groups for young women. They offered courses on Dante and Browning. They encouraged “other residents [to lead] Shakespeare and Plato clubs” (Bryan, Bair, De Angury, 2003, p. 549). The earlier blog installments in this series pointed to morality, salvation and “social uplift” as the underling purposes for literacy education. But, for Hull House, the initial objective was to spread “cultural literacy” with the liberal arts.

Interestingly, these wealthy young ladies were connected with some of Chicago’s wealthiest families. So, they decided to expose the conditions of the area to the wider public. They invited philanthropists, intellectuals, artists and politicians to visit Hull House. They started a Working People’s Social Science Club and had speakers such as John Dewey and Susan B. Anthony visit. They created a lending library of books and loaned framed photographs of master paintings, often delivering them to the tenement houses. They held a biannual exhibit of works of art while encouraging the “Chicago matrons . . . to loan artwork from their private collections” (Bryan, Bair, De Angury, p. 550).  Imagine the public awareness created when some “50,000 people . . .came to the House” the first year and “the second year the number increased to 2,000 per week” (Linn, p. 115). Part of this public interest was undoubtedly public “voyeurism,” but, nothing changed. Slowly, the  women of Hull House  turned to more immediate, pragmatic actions.

EAL through Life Skills & Vocational Training

Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

EAL teacher Miss Bell and a Hull House citizenship class

In what might be called, “Phase Two,” art classes were transformed into craft-making courses. A book bindery workshop was attempted.  Dressmaking courses and millinery courses were established. A Boy’s Club was opened with shops to teach “wood work,  iron, and brass,…copper and tin work.” They added classes in “commercial photography, printing, telegraphy, and electrical construction” (Lagemann,1985, p. 179). A public kitchen to teach cooking American meals was opened (but it failed because the immigrants simply didn’t like American food).

Learning English and citizenship moved from culture literacy to English for everyday survival. The Hull House women helped with everything from birthing to helping wash and prepare the dead for burial. But  these efforts too came to be seen as inadequate to the task.  And this is where their story diverges from so many of history’s—and today’s—many individualistic approaches towards to EAL and adult literacy education.  The women of Hull House turned to social reform.

 Citizenship through Social Reform

Addams and her colleagues came to see how power rested in the hands of a small number of Chicago’s wealthiest. At that time in Chicago, the very suggestion of a “mere” eight-hour work day for adults and children “was connected in the minds of many employers not only with laziness but directly with anarchy, the blackest word in the vocabulary of the governing minority” (Linn, 1935, p. 101). Children of all ages worked as labourers. “Days off” and holidays were rare. Wages were what the “captains of industry” decided they should be. Brenda Starr Gates and Addams began demonstrating for union rights. Addams later fought for women’s suffrage and went on to become the first woman president of the National Conference on Social Work. She became the founder and first president of the National Federation of (Immigrant) Settlements and then on to become National Chair of the Women’s Peace Party. Then on to become the president and co-founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Addams and Hull House are actually credited with helping initiate the original Factory Acts so the youth of America would no longer be exploited. The introduction of social services in North America is often credited to Jane Addams and Hull House. As Davis (1973) has stated: “Jane Addams never became a radical in religion, in economics or in politics, but she did become a social reformer, a defender of organized labor, and she did come to believe that her main task was to eliminate poverty rather than to comfort the poor [emphasis added]” (p. 74).

Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her life’s work and for her courageous stand against World War II and her fight against what she saw as an unjust peace agreement with Germany.

She died in Chicago at age 74 following a heart attack. One of the greatest champions of the poor and oppressed in America’s history, Jane Addams devoted her life to creating  greater equality for all; but the consistent tool she advocated for and employed throughout her life’s work was English as an Additional Language.

What is the Relevance of this Story Today?

There are many points we could pursue, but two come immediately to mind:

  1. The Role of Women: Sadly, it is often overlooked that the allied fields of English as an Additional Language, adult literacy, and adult basic education have a long history of women teachers and administrators. Women have not only taken leadership roles but, quite literally, have been the mainstay of this field for over a century. In fact, had the countless women–including Jane Addams, her colleagues, and women such as Cora Wilson Stewart–not stepped forward, the shockingly high numbers of adults and children we see today with inadequate literacy skills across North America would be much, much higher (Luttrell, 1996; Quigley, 1997).
  1. EAL & Literacy for What Purpose? The story of Hull house continues to raise the question of what the underlying purpose of adult literacy and EAL “should be”?  The debate goes on in the literature, at conferences, and in daily practice (Quigley 1997; 2007); but there are clear themes in our history. These matter if we are to understand where we came from and where we are going. In the 19th century, the prevailing values of morality and the economy were explicitly reflected in the Bristol School Movement. In the early 20th century, we saw how Cora Wilson Stewart built the hugely influential Moonlight School movement around normative values of good-citizenship and, morality. By philosophical contrast, Rev. Richardson with the Port Royal Experiment, which was conducted during the civil war in the U.S., was about equality and justice for the freed slaves and about trying to educate Northerners that the Freedmen could in fact learn. And with the “three philosophical phases” seen with Jane Addams and the women of Hull House; from a pedagogy of liberal/cultural education, to a vocational and life skills approach, to a struggle for social reform and human rights, we see three distinctly different approaches to what we do today across North America.

Evelyn Battel, writing in the B.C. action research study, Hardwired for Hope, framed this on-going “purposes debate” saying adult literacy educators are of two types: “nurturers” or “political activists.” Perhaps, but the Hull House story would argue that there is a third approach; a “Vocational & Life Skills” approach.

I have written elsewhere on the “competing philosophies” of adult literacy education (Quigley, 1997) but will end with a question—one that continually comes to mind as I look back on my own career and the history of our field: “Why aren’t our learners’ voices more central to our pedagogical decisions?” Do researchers, curriculum writers, administrators, policy-makers and funding agencies really know what’s best for our adult learners? The mainstream adult education literature has long argued for andragogy—whereby adult learners are encouraged to be partners in deciding what they “should” learn and how they should learn it (Knowles, 1980).

What do you think the purpose of adult literacy should be, and who should decide what for whom? An interesting point for discussion…

Stay tuned..


Bryan, Bair, De Angury (2003). The selected papers of Jane Addams, Vol. 1. Chicago: University Press.

Davis, A.F. (1973). American heroine: The life and legend of Jane Addams. New York: Oxford University Press.

Diliberto, G. (1999). A useful woman: The early life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner.

Ferris, H. (1943). When I was a girl: The stories of five famous women told by themselves. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education. New York: Cambridge.

Lagemann, E. C. (Ed.). (1985). Jane Addams on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Linn, J. W. (1935). Jane Addams: A biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Luttrell, W. (1996). Becoming somebody in and against school: Toward a Psychocultural theory of gender and self making. In B. Levinson, D. Foley, D. Holland (Eds.). The cultural production of the educated person. New York: State University of New York Press.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Diliberto, G. (1999). A useful woman: The early life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner.

Ferris, H. (1943). When I was a girl: The stories of five famous women told by themselves. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Lagemann, E. C. (Ed.). (1985). Jane Addams on education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Linn, J. W. (1935). Jane Addams: A biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.

Quigley, B. A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar FL: Krieger Press.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Next Month Is Frontier College

The April blog vignette takes us to a very different approach to adult literacy—an approach where learners are not expected to come to our classrooms according to our institution’s scheduled times. Instead, Frontier College reached out to adult workers across Canada’s frontiers. And still does today. So tune in next month as we look at our nation’s oldest, award-winning and probably best known adult literacy organization.  

Make a difference.

Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team

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The Little General & the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

 The Little General & the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

Moonlight Schoolhouse

Allan and Colleague in front of the original Moonlight Schoolhouse

In 1992 I was invited to give a keynote speech at the annual meeting of Adult Literacy & Basic Educators in Lexington, Kentucky. I asked the organizers if they had ever heard of the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, which I had read about in Wanda Daukza Cook’s 1977 history of U.S. adult literacy (see References below)? They not only knew about it but, very kindly, drove me to nearby Morehead and we visited the original Little Brushy Moonlight School Museum. The schoolhouse had been moved from Rowan County to this Morehead museum site. The (rather poor) photos of the original learners that you see here are ones I took with my camera from the framed pictures hanging on the walls (better photos can be seen in Honeycutt Baldwins’s excellent book listed in the References). Little Brushy is a small country school house with worn wooden benches and a potbellied stove. It is not an exaggeration to say this little schoolhouse—the Little Brushy Schoolhouse—was the site of a movement that swept the U.S. and profoundly influenced the delivery and public perception of adult literacy throughout America and Canada (Quigley, 2006 ).  Like the Bristol School movement and the Port Royal Experiment seen earlier, here is the story of a courageous adult educator and the historic movement she created.

The Little General                                                                          

Cora Wilson Stewart

Cora Wilson Stewart

Rowan County was considered the poorest county in Kentucky in 1911. Nevertheless,  Stewart started a movement with virtually no help from sponsors, with no literacy models to draw on, and no support from her (all-male) administrative K-12 schooling colleagues.

She opened the doors of the Little Brushy school house in 1911 hoping some adults might show up to learn to read and write. She had been told by her school board colleagues that: “Elderly folks were too self-conscious and embarrassed to go to night school” (Taylor, 1973, p. 23). Despite their skepticism, she had a simple, compelling, idea. When the moon was shining bright, adults (and their children) were “signaled” to come to the empty rural schoolhouses. And they did come. She was amazed to find that a full 1,200 took up her “moonlight invitation” that first year.

As she wrote: “They came trooping over the hills and out of the hollows, some to add to the meager education received in the inadequate schools of their childhood, some to receive their first lessons in reading and writing” (cited in Honeycutt Baldwin, 2006). Stewart  described those who came as,  “Not only illiterate farmers and their illiterate wives, sons, and daughters, but also illiterate merchants or storekeepers, illiterate ministers, and illiterate lumbermen. Mothers, bent with age, came that they might learn to read letters from absent sons and daughters, and that they might learn for the first time to write them” (Cited in Honeycutt Baldwin). Far from being “too embarrassed to attend,” a total of 1,600 came to the moonlight schools during the second year as  25 counties created Moonlight Schools. But her idea did not stop at the Kentucky borders.

Alabama School room

Inside Little Brushy School House

Over the next five years, Alabama established “Adult Schools,” South Carolina created “Lay-By Schools,” “Community Schools” appeared in North Carolina, “Schools for Grown-Ups” were established in Georgia—all by 1917. The adult school model reached  north as far as Washington State and Minnesota; as well as down to New Mexico, by 1915. Meanwhile, Oklahoma began offering Normal School credit for the new volunteer and part-time Moonlight adult educators.

Impact on Canada

Canada had started adult literacy classes even earlier. The Kingston YMCA had begun classes in, “reading, spelling, writing and grammar” as early as 1859 (Ross, 1951, p. 26). Well before there was a unified Canada. These, “Were perhaps among the earliest experiments in adult education in this country” (Ross, p. 26). While one can’t draw a straight line between the Moonlight Schools and Canada’s YMCA or later Canadian landmark schools, it is apparent that the Kentucky model and public attitudes of “social uplift” associated with the Moonlight Schools were a mirror image of one another on both sides of the border. But why did she do it?

Why Did  She Dedicate Her Life To Adult Literacy?  

Two Learners & their Bible

Two Learners and their Bible

Known fondly in her family as “the Little General” (Estes, 1988, p. 115), Stewart was editor of the local newspaper, so the evening’s literacy lessons appeared regularly in the local Rowan County Messenger. She was also a school superintendent and, at one point, was principal of two schools. But why, then, turn to adult education?

By her own account, three incidents led her to adult literacy. A mother asked her for help to write to a daughter who had recently moved to Chicago. A middle-aged man “with tears in his eyes,” (Mandrell, n.d., p. 14) begged to be helped to learn to read and write so he could feel “whole.” And, an aspiring local musician asked for help so he might pursue his dreams as a musician. Years ahead of her time, Stewart also welcomed Aboriginal and African American adults into the literacy movement. The doors were open to all.

She was not a missionary. Rather, Stewart was living in the era of “Progressivism” where “social uplift” and the “Social Gospel” were admirable civic attributes. She saw a compelling need  in her community and chose to commit her life to helping adults through literacy.

But her struggles were many…

Some of Her Accomplishments; Some of Her Struggles

Rather than use the Bible as the singular classroom reader, Stewart personally wrote the widely-used Country Life Readers for rural schools. She wrote The Prisoner’s First Book—among the first materials in corrections literacy history. In 1914, she was named to the Kentucky Illiteracy Commission in 1914—a commission she herself had proposed and later became its chairperson. At the outset of World War I, it was discovered to the nation’s dismay that, “Of all men tested for the draft, 25 percent were near-illiterate, that is, unable to read a newspaper intelligently or write an intelligent letter (Daukza Cook, p.11). In fact, some men had been imprisoned for “cowardice” only to learn they could not read the posters saying there was a war. Stewart was later asked to be an advisor to the U.S. army and wrote The Soldier’s First Book so the vast numbers of WW I soldiers with low literacy might have a chance to read letters from home and write a reply. She was named Chair of the Illiteracy Commission of the National Education Association in 1919. In 1923, she was elected Chair of the World Illiteracy Commission and “presided over conferences in Edinburgh, Geneva, Toronto, San Francisco and Denver” (Taylor, p. 25). No literacy leader in North America had ever risen to this level before.  Then, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge named Stewart director of his National Illiteracy Crusade—the first national campaign in U.S. history. She was also appointed director of the new National Illiteracy Commission for the U.S.

Throughout this meteoric rise, she advocated the model she had launched at  Little Brushy school house, incredibly, just fifteen years earlier.

The Life and Death of A Forgotten Heroine

Cora Wilson Stewart’s personal life was far from easy. She gave birth to one child who died in less than a year. Her first husband was a schoolteacher and a chronic alcoholic, “who verbally and physically abused” her (Estes, p. 117). Local court records show that Cora had to flee her home on several occasions and take refuge with friends in Morehead. According to Estes: “His violence and threats grew in intensity and frequency until, in March 1910, he drew a pistol and aimed it at her, but the gun misfired. Shortly thereafter, Wilson was granted a divorce” (p. 117).

But, despite her Herculean efforts, in 1920, a bill before the Kentucky legislature for $75,000 to continue her work was defeated. Fifty-seven of the 120 all-male county superintendents in Kentucky did not give their support. Some attacked Stewart calling the Moonlight Schools  “a fad and a failure” (cited in Estes, p. 251). Others called her efforts “Quixotic” (cited in Estes, p. 251). Undaunted, she continued her work but, in December, 1958, she died in relative obscurity at age 83 in a North Carolina nursing home.

As her biographer, Yvonne Honeycutt Baldwin concluded: “Despite remarkable successes, her crusade was marginalized by professional educators whose faith in university training led then to disavow the voluntary effort and won only sporadic government backing” (p. 193, 2006).

 The Relevance Today?

Like Rev. Richardson and William Smith before her—not to mention the thousands of unsung literacy and basic educators since—we can see how the compassion and strength of a single individual can change countless lives and whole communities—if not an entire nation. We can see how our field was built by some of the most courageous educators in history—a history at least as old as K-12 system in Canada. And, we can see how spurious the myth is that adults with low literacy “won’t come forward” or “can’t learn.”

As noted in earlier blogs this year, we can also see that the issues of adult low literacy need far more than another campaign, another program, or a another promised “quick fix.”  Part-time, contract-based and volunteer adult educators teaching in rented facilities have become the norm in countless Canadian and U.S. communities. With historically high levels of inadequate literacy skills  (Quigley, 2017), we need to ask if our history of heroic sacrifice may have proven to be our field’s greatest weakness as much as our greatest strength? We need to ask if the federal government’s century-old “sporadic government backing” will ever lead to the “sunny ways” of a national literacy policy and a truly permanent infrastructure for our growing numbers of adult learners (Quigley, 2017)?

Next month we see adult citizenship, EAL, and the fight for social justice.

Next month we turn to the world of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and focus  on Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jane Addams, and the famous Hull House movement. Next month is a story of how sacrifice changed into social reform and a fight of wider public awareness.

Stay Tuned

SOURCES                                                                                                                                         Beder, H. (1991). Adult literacy education: Issues for policy and practice. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Daukza Cook, W. (1977). Adult literacy education in the United States. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Estes, F. (1988). Cora Wilson Stewart and the moonlight schools Kentucky, 1911-1920. A case study in the rhetorical uses of literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.

Honeycutt Baldwin, Y. (2006). Cora Wilson Stewart and Kentucky’s Moonlight School. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Mandrell, L. (n.d.). Eradicating illiteracy. Morehead, KY: County Chamber of Commerce.

Quigley, B.A. (2006) Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B. A.  (2017).  Will Anything Be Different in the 21st Century?  How 107 Million Adults and the Field of Adult Literacy Became so Marginalized.  PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 39-54.

Taylor, A. P. (1973). Cora Wilson Stewart: Adult education, and educational odyssey. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Morehead State University, KY.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • ­­Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium this.

Make a difference,

 Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team




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Literacy Under Slavery: “To Taste the Forbidden Fruit”

Last month we learned about our humble beginnings. We saw how the first documented adult school–the Bristol Adult School–became established in Bristol, England in 1812. We were also introduced to William Smith: “A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual,” who “relinquished three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” to rent rooms “for the reception and instruction of the illiterate poor.”

This month we cross the ocean to meet perhaps the bravest of all the heroes and heroines of this year’s blog series—Reverend William Richardson. With the civil war raging throughout the southern states, Richardson, his wife and colleagues, established a school for the freed slaves, then called “Freedmen,” in Port Royal South Carolina. This was actually an  “experiment” by Northerners to see if freed slaves were actually capable of learning (Rachal, 1986).

Here is What Happened

On November 7, 1861, the gunships of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron of the Union Army sailed into South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound all prepared for action. What they found instead were some 10,000 freed slaves; most, if not all, were illiterate. They also saw that the plantation owners, Confederate soldiers and most residents had fled.

Enslaved fugitives escaping Virginia, 1862

Enslaved fugitives escaping Virginia, 1862

How did the Blockading Squadron know  the Freedmen were illiterate? Because it was extremely dangerous for slaves to learn to read or write. Here’s a little known fact about U.S. adult education history. In 1740, South Carolina became the first state to pass a law making it illegal to teach slaves to write. In 1834, it also became illegal to teach slaves to read. Breaking these Draconian laws in South Carolina, or the even harsher “plantation laws” that spread across most southern states, had very serious consequences for both teacher and learner. If a slave was caught learning to read, punishments could include having one’s (writing) fingers chopped off, whippings, beatings, being branded with hot irons, or even being hanged (Quigley, 1997, 2006). The same could be inflicted on the teacher. Nevertheless, many slaves did learn to read and write and many chose to help them. Here is a forgotten chapter of our adult literacy history that involves acts of bravery unimaginable today (DeBoer, 1995; Rachal, 1989).

The Union Navy Changes History 

The naval commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, General Thomas Sherman (not William Tecumsah Sherman) could have simply sailed on. Instead, he decided it was an essential part of the war of liberation “to educate the freed slaves” (Stubblefield & Keane, 1994, pp. 130-131). Sherman “recommended that Washington dispatch superintendents and instructors” (pp. 130-131). This decision fostered an “experiment.” Most Southerners and many Northerners were far from convinced that freed slaves were even capable of learning (DeBoer, 1955), thus, the project to follow was the “Port Royal Experiment.” The idea of trying to teach freed slaves to read and write was not only audacious but revolutionary in itself.

The call for help was met by Rev. William T. Richardson and members of the Gideonite religion who sailed from New York City on March 3, 1862. They came under the auspices of the New York Freedmen’s Relief Organization. They were missionaries, as were so many in the history of early literacy. Interestingly, such efforts by missionaries were lauded by many Black leaders of the time. Black leader, Booker T. Washington wrote: “Whenever it is written—and I hope it will be—the part that the Yankee teachers played in the education of the Negroes immediately after the war will make one of the most thrilling parts of the history of this country” (cited in DeBoer, 1955, Preface). W.E.B. DuBois, a major intellectual Black leader in the U.S. agreed. He wrote, “the teachers came…not to keep Negroes in their place, but to raise them out of the places of defilement where slavery had sealed them” (cited in DeBoer, 1955, Preface).

To Taste the Forbidden Fruit

New school buildings rose up. Hundreds of freed slaves came forward. The women came, often carrying their children on their hip or on their backs, as they walked for miles along dusty roads (Billington, 1953; Rachal, 1986). Rev. Richardson combined “religious and teaching instruction” in the school with the ever-present Bible close at hand (Rachal, 1986, p.16). Deprived of the ability to read for generations, the Freedmen came with “an instinctive sense of literacy’s value” (Rachal, p. 16). They were drawn, as Swint (1967) states, by, “that peculiar attraction which is characteristic of all forbidden fruit” (p. 72). They saw with their own eyes that the Bible did not condemned them as an “inferior race,” as they had long been told. They learned that the civil war was in fact fought to ensure their rights as citizens. Reading was not just a skill, it was life changing.

 Penn School survived in later years

Penn School survived in later years

Richardson’s wife joined him and worked by his side. But, tragically, Richardson ultimately worked himself to death. He suffered countless illnesses due to the damp, warm climate and the unhygienic conditions that he was exposed to. According to Rachal (1986), he worked endlessly to not only build the school but was tireless in writing to his superiors in New York and the wider public, “usually . . . by candlelight by screen less windows deep into the evening” (Rachal, p. 15). He was not only documenting the staggering frustrations he faced as he pleaded for more resources from his sponsors, but he was trying to tell a highly skeptical reading audience that the Freedmen—men and women alike—learned well and quickly. As Rachal (1986) points out, “in that context, Richardson’s conclusion [on intelligence and ability] was ahead of its time” (p. 19).

As an aside, I saw microfilm copies of some of Richardson’s letters stored in the archives at Tulane University in New Orleans. I saw copies of wrinkled old pages with spots on some pages that looked to me, at least, to be either drops of dried sweat or dried tears.

The “Slaveocracy” Backlash Begins

However, during the oppressive reconstruction that followed the civil war, violence by the Southern “slaveocracy” escalated.  In 1865, Francis Cardazo, Richardson’s replacement, reported how the local Whites were filled with “hate and revenge toward the colored people.” He wrote, “one thing especially provokes them . . . that is, our schools… [They wish] to shut them up rather than see the colored people educated” (October 21, 1865, cited in Rachal, 1986). As historian W. J. Cash later wrote, lynchings that “were unthinkable when Blacks were valuable property, occurred with grisly regularity” after reconstruction began (cited in Rachal, p. 20).

The Port Royal school was ultimately replaced by the Penn School and a rather romanticized rendition is shown in this instalment. But the influence of this “experiment” was to be felt across America and by leaders of adult education for well over a century, including Jane Addams of the Settlement House movement for immigrants whom we will meet later in this series (Quigley, 1997).

So Many Forgotten Heroes

This under-researched chapter of literacy and slavery in our history was filled with heroic figures. Imagine, for instance, the bravery of Miss Wells—a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoake College—who “followed the army before peace was declared into one of the bitterest and most conservative parts of the South” (cited in DeBoer, 1995, p. 119). She opened her school in Athens, Alabama. Shortly thereafter: “The Ku Klux Klan lined up around her school, fired volleys of shot . . .through her windows on either side of the chair on which she was sitting” (cited in deBoer, p. 119). Threats continued until “the school was burned down over her head” (p. 119). The American Missionary Association urged her to come home. Instead, Miss Wells “established a brick yard, set the negroes to making bricks [emphasis added] and under her direction they built the school house which served them for many years” (cited in deBoer, p. 119).

Veiled Racism and Relevance to Today

There are many points of relevance in this story; but, at least in my view, the most salient point is how deeply ingrained racism was. And, frankly, how enduring prejudice against those with low literacy skills still is today. In our December blog, you might remember how Hobley and Mercer were quoted concerning the raging controversy over whether or not to teach the illiterate adults learners to write.  As Hobley and Mercer noted, “While Bible-reading was everywhere encouraged,” to actually allow the lower classes to learn to write” would  undoubtedly “tempt the poor to commit forgery and crime!”  We also saw Dr. Thomas Pole arguing that teaching the illiterate to read would improve the moral character of the lower classes. Moreover, England, “will not then be so dependent on the provident members of society, as they now are” (p. 19, Verner, 1967). Imagine the racism behind the Port Royal Experiment. It was not just a school; it was an “experiment” to see if freed slaves could actually learn to read and write.

Reading these stories today, it is startling to see how adults with low literacy were so despised and feared, and how the heroes of both of these stories had to struggle against the overt racism and deep public prejudices of their day. But has public prejudice against those with lower literacy totally gone away? Not in my experience (Quigley, 1997).

Hal Beder (1991) has explored this hegemony of societal prejudice against those with lower literacy in Western society. As he notes: “While it is no longer socially acceptable to publicly denigrate Blacks, Hispanics, and welfare recipients, it is acceptable to denigrate them indirectly by denigrating illiterates” (p. 140). Here in Canada, we can see how a number of marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ community, Aboriginals, and those with disabilities have slowly gained at least some voice in today’s public and policy discourse, but the estimated 107,000,000 adults with lower literacy in North America simply have not gained a voice  (Quigley, in press). We in the field of adult literacy have a unique, centuries-old, legacy of having to justify the need for our field with year-by-year program grant applications and endless efforts to see some rays of those “sunny ways” from our federal government.

As Ron Cervero has pointed out: “Learning needs should not be treated as deficiencies of the individual that can be treated and remedied. Rather, learning needs should be treated as an adult’s right to know” (Cervero, in press). Blog installments to come will indicate how we have clearly come closer to this objective though time, but we still have a long way to go.


Billington, R. A. (1953). Introduction. In R. A. Billington (Ed.), The Journal of Charlotte Forten (Rev. ed.), pp. 7-42. New York: W. W. Norton.

Cervero, R. M. (in press). Professionalization for what? Fulfilling the promise of adult and continuing education. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning.

DeBoer, C. M. (1995). His truth is marching on: African Americans who taught the freed men for the American Missionary Association, 1861-1877. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Quigley, B.A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B.A. (in press). Will Anything Be Different in the 21st Century? How 107 Million Adults and the Field of Adult Literacy Became so Marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning.

Rachal, J. R. (1986). Freedom’s crucible: William T. Richardson and the schooling of freed men. Adult Education Quarterly, 1(37), 14-22.

Stubblefield, H. W., & Keane, P. (1994). Adult education in the American experience. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swint, H. L. (1967). The Northern teacher in the South: 1862-1870. New York: Octagon  Press.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


Next Month: The Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

Next month we head to Kentucky and see how Cora Wilson Stewart (the “Little General”) established an adult school system in Rowan County, the poorest county in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century. When the moon was shining, adults were invited to come down from the hills and up from the “hollers” to learn to read and write. They sat in children’s desks in  the local school houses. The Moonlight Schools model swept the U.S.A. Stewart was invited to lead the first national “Literacy Crusade” in American history but is one more of our forgotten heroines.

Tune in next month.


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium this.


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Adult Literacy Education: Where Did We Come From?

Adult Literacy: Where Did We Come From?

Back in the 1970’s, the (then) president of Frontier College made the optimistic remark: “Adult literacy is society’s most fixable issue.” It all sounded so easy. So doable back then. However, a review of our history does not support this notion (Quigley, 1997, 2006). In fact, among the many myths we have inherited about adult literacy, this one is probably the most enduring—and most problematic—for our field.

Consider how the United States has had any number of campaigns in that 20th century promising to  “eliminate” or “fix” low literacy (Quigley, 1997). Our own history of literacy/basic education funding, especially federal funding, has been a funding roller coaster since federal funding for ABE began in Canada in 1967 (Thomas, 2001).

Meanwhile, the numbers living with lower literacy continue to rise.

The latest PIACC (Programme for the International Assessment of Competencies)  estimates indicate that there are approximately 107,000,000 adults in North America living with inadequate literacy skills (CMEC, 2012). By OECD definitions, this huge number of adults is not able to fully participate in today’s society.

So how should we be thinking about adult low literacy, including ABE and EAL (English as an Additional Language), into the 21st century?

Will anything change?

Michael Ignatieff (2007) has argued that we are living in an era of a “rights revolution.” We should hope that society might one day accept that adult literacy education is not a “fixable problem” but, simply a normal, on-going stream within lifelong learning. There is nothing “temporary” about low literacy or our field. As Ron Cervero put it: “Learning needs should not be treated as deficiencies of the individual that can be treated and remedied. Rather, learning needs should be treated as an adult’s right to know” (in press).

Maybe, just maybe, a better understanding of our long history will help us dispel this myth. Or at least help put a small dent in this largely unchallenged myth.

We have a fascinating history. A history that I have been researching for over 15 years (Quigley, 1997; 2013). If anything is to change, we need to know more about our history, our heroes and our heroines, and how we arrived at the place we find ourselves today..

Here’s our plan…

This Year’s Theme and Monthly Plan

From this December blog through to next May, the plan is to post a monthly installment discussing a hero or heroine and the literacy landmark they helped found. We expect to post our annual “Lessons learned” wind up blog to conclude the series next June. The “umbrella-term” used will be adult literacy, but it will be meant to encompass what we today refer to as basic literacy, ABE and AEL.

The Beginning of Literacy Education in Canada 

In Canada, the first documented adult literacy program with an organized curriculum in English was held at the Kingston YMCA in 1859. According to historian Murray Ross (1951), “classes in reading, spelling, and grammar” (p. 26) were held on Monday evenings. Friday evenings dedicated to “writing and arithmetic” and “Study of the Old Testament” (p. 26) was conducted on Thursdays. These classes were held well before there was a Canada as we know it today. Interestingly, this was when a public school system was being proposed by Egerton Ryerson for English Canada and Jean-Baptiste Meilleur in Québec. We will return to Canada later in this series, but the origins of adult literacy education go back much farther than 1859 and Canada.

Our Humble Beginnings

Although there is some argument that the very first adult school was started by the Methodist New Connexion Church in Nottingham, England, in 1798, (Peers, 1972), the first documented adult literacy class to make a lasting impact was started in Bristol, England in 1812. Its full name was the Institution for Instructing Adult Persons to Read the Holy Scriptures, now (mercifully), shortened to: the Bristol Adult School.

What we know about this nascent school mainly comes from a book known as Pole’s History,  published in 1814 (republished by Verner, 1967). Actually, this book is where the term “adult education” first appeared in print.

Dr. Thomas Pole

Dr. Thomas Pole

Try to imagine this... According to Dr. Pole, “During the second annual meeting of the local [Methodist] auxiliary of the Bible Society” (Martin, 1924, p. 26),  a letter was handed out explaining how the Auxiliary members had been dutifully giving out Bibles, as was the mission, when they realized that many of the poor simply could not read. Therefore: “Not being able to read, [they] were unlikely to be benefited by possession of the Bible” (Martin, p. 26).  Why give the illiterate Bibles? After some considerable discussion, it was decided there was no point in giving Bibles to the illiterate.

Now appears our first heroic figure. William Smith…and sadly there is no photo of him.

However, he was described by Pole as:

A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual . . . occupying no higher rank than that of a door-keeper to a Methodist chapel, without the slightest knowledge of what had been done in another province, [yet he] conceived the idea of instructing the adult poor to read the holy scriptures. (Hudson, 1969, p. 2, original printed 1851).

Moreover, Smith, “relinquished three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” to cover expenses (Hudson,. p. 4). Smith had the help of Stephen Prust, a local tobacco merchant and “distinguished member of the Society of Friends” (Hudson, p. 3). These two dedicated men set out to help those who wanted to attend “a school for persons advanced in years” (p. 3).

The First Two Students

On March 8, 1812, the first two adult students to enter the rented room were William Wood, age 63, and Jane Burrace, age 40. Soon eleven men and ten women followed, “with the numbers increasing every week, until the rooms were filled” (Hudson, p. 4). The numbers grew to the point that Smith had to “engage other apartments in the same neighborhood, for the reception and instruction of the illiterate poor, who were daily applying to him for admission” (p. 4). In just one year, the Bristol Adult School model spread to Bath, Ipswich, Plymouth, Salisbury, and Yarmouth (Kelly, 1962, p. 150) and, by 1813, there were 21 schools in England with 20 more added by 1815. By mid-century,  “upwards of thirty thousand of the poor in England have acquired the power of reading the New Testament by the means thus afforded” (Hudson cited in Peers, p. 12). But more important for our story, by 1816, the Bristol model had also spread to, “Ireland, New York, Philadelphia and Sierra Leone” (Kelly, p. 150; Quigley, 1997, 2013).

Helping “Our fair Isle”

Why establish these schools? Dr. Pole explains in his 1814 history (which I personally saw in the Rare Book Room of the British Library in London), reading the Scriptures was absolutely essential to English society, not only for personal salvation but because, listen to this: “Perusal of the sacred scripture and other religious books, have a tendency to moralize and Christianize the minds of men—instead of idleness, profaneness and vice—They inculcate diligence, sobriety, frugality, piety, and heavenly-mindedness” (Verner, 1967, p. 18).

You might have noticed that learners had no voice in deciding the School’s learning materials or content. Or anything. Actually, adult learners’ expressed-needs would not be part of our history until well into the late 20th century. The dominant class “Knew what they needed.” As Pole argued how adult literacy would also benefit their “Fair Isle” since: “Industry, frugality, and economy will be their possession. They will also have learned better to practice meekness, Christian Fortitude, and resignation” (Verner, 1967, p. 19). And more: “The lower classes will not then be so dependent on the provident members of society, as they now are” (p. 19).

Morality and the economy drove the earliest schools. Teaching took an essentially remedial approach and the Bible was the curriculum.

But a Controversy was Brewing…

Should the adult schools be teaching writing? This was actually one of two burning issues. The adult schools were normally held on Sundays, but Sundays..the Sabbath Day…was to be held sacred and no work was to be conducted on the Sabbath. So the question was: Is writing “work?”  As Peers put it: “While there was no objection to the reading of the Bible on the Lord’s Day, many took exception to writing as a secular occupation” (1972, p.12). As a result, writing was rarely taught in these first adult schools.

But religion was not the only reason to avoid writing in classrooms. Anyone who has read Charles Dickens’ novels will remember how the lower classes were seen as dangerous, feared people.  Why teach dangerous people to write? As Hobley and Mercer (1911) observe: “While Bible-reading was everywhere encouraged,” to allow the lower classes to learn to write just might, “tempt the poor to commit forgery and crime!” (cited in Freeman, 2007, p. 12). If, knowledge is power; assuredly, the illiterate poor should have only “acceptable knowledge.”

The Bristol Adult School movement was to evolve and created the pedagogical model for many of the British colonies and had a huge indirect impact in America as well. As we will see in later blogs…

Learning From Early History…

  • More than two centuries later, one thing is for certain. Adult literacy education is not a “new” field. It should not be seen as a “temporary fix-it shop.”  Moreover…
  • With the Bristol Adult Schools, we see the beginnings of a long legacy of volunteerism and the beginning of adult literacy being taught in rented spaces. Basic literacy and EAL classes are still being taught today in churches (church basements) and rented facilities across North America.
  • We also see the important role of what we today might today call literacy “sponsors” or “funding agencies.” Here is the start of the influential role of those groups, organizations and, later, governments, who have made the resources available for literacy programs ever since.
  • However, it is important to see the commitment of our heroic founders. To see the self-sacrifice and passionate concern of the earliest tutors and teachers for those who did not have the advantages that literacy affords.

Beginning with,  “A poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual,” and for the more than 200 years to follow, heroes and heroines of literacy have stepped forward to help total strangers who simply want to be able to read and write to a level that gives them greater life-chances.

Our field has a long, proud history.


Cervero, R. M. (In press). Professionalization for what? Fulfilling the promise of adult and continuing education. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26 (Winter, 2017).

Council of Ministers of Canada (CMEC) (2012). Programme for the international assessment of competencies: PIACC in Canada. Retrieved August 31, 2016 from

Freeman, M. (2007) The magic lantern and the cinema: Adult schools, educational settlements and secularisation in Britain, c. 1900-1950. Quaker Studies, 11 (192-203).

Hudson, J. W. (1969). The history of adult education. London: The Woburn press (Original work published 1851).

Ignatieff, M. (2007). The rights revolution. Toronto: House of Anansi.

Kelly, T. (1962). A history of adult education in Great Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Martin, C. (1924). The adult school movement. London: National Adult School Union.

Peers, R. (1972). Adult Education: A Comparative Study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Quigley, B. A. (1997). Rethinking adult education: The critical need for practice-based change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quigley, B. A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Quigley, A. (2013).  Learning from landmarks: To re-shape adult literacy policy in the Twenty-first century. In T. Nesbit, S. Brigham, N. Taber, & T. Gibb (Eds.). Building on Critical Traditions: Adult Education and Learning in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Ross, M. G. (1951). The Y.M.C.A. in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press.

Thomas, A. M. (2001). How adult literacy became of age in Canada. In M. C. Taylor (Ed.), Adult literacy now! Toronto: Culture Concepts.

Verner, C. (1967). Pole’s history of adult schools. Washington, DC: Adult Education Associates of the U.S.A. (Original work published, 1812).


Next Month: Teaching Freed Slaves in South Carolina

Next month, we head to South Carolina and see how Reverend Richardson and his wife risked their lives to help freed slaves–called the “Freedmen”– to learn to read with the civil war raging around them in South Carolina. We will also see how the Richardsons struggled to convince Northerners that African American Freedmen were even capable of learning.

Stay tuned.


  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium for doing


Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team.

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Welcome to the Saskatchewan Action Research Network… SARN 2016-2017

Welcome to the Saskatchewan Action Research Network… SARN 2016-2017

Thanks to the Ministry of the Economy (and the Ministry of Advanced Education for several years before that), our Saskatchewan Action Research Network is looking forward to another exciting year. Year thirteen, believe it or not!

Actually, we weren’t sure we would have another year… It is no secret that resources are scarce in Saskatchewan right now due to the current economy; but, happily, the Ministry of the Economy has been able to support SARN for another year. With guidance from our Advisory Board, we have some exciting—even challenging—plans for the year ahead.

But first…. If you are new to the field or unfamiliar with SARN……

Our mission is:

  1. To help build our field of basic education/literacy through action research training workshops and follow-up mentoring by training practitioners to conduct action research in their workplaces. Why take this approach? Because the straight-forward approach of action research allows our field to try better—often more current—approaches and techniques in our classrooms and tutoring situations. By experimenting with new ideas in our diverse Saskatchewan settings with a recognized applied research approach, we can learn from one another. We are sharing our evidence-based findings and building a knowledge base for the future (see the “SK practitioner Reports” link at                                                                                                                                     In short, SARN is working to build “Best Practices” to help our field and, in turn,  help our students.
  1. To build a digital repository of current research by drawing from the wider national and international field of research (see the resources link on This part of our mission allows our field to stay current with research trends, materials, and best practices, even beyond our province’s borders.
  1. To conduct a blog (this very blog) on a monthly basis focusing on a theme of interest to the field. Why add this step? Why have a blog?

Consider this, the Masters of Adult Education at the UofS closed years ago. The Adult    Education program at the UofR has not been offering classes on adult literacy/basic education. SABEA had a low registration at its annual conference this year (but all involved really hope this turns around). The annual Exchange Conference that the Saskatchewan Literacy Network (SLN) used to host has not been offered for several years (we all are hoping this turns around too). Moreover, our field has limited access to publishers’ displays, field-specific research, and new approaches to teaching and learning. So, with an economy that is slowly recovering, this leaves SARN as one of the few vehicles working to build our field; and, among other pressing goals, help our learners move into the workforce.

  1. To include the entire field of basic education 10 & 12, adult literacy, English as an Additional Language, Family Literacy, Aboriginal Literacy, Workplace Literacy, Health Literacy, etc. SARN seeks to reach as many corners of the field as possible. The fact is, many of our learners move from region to region, program to program. SARN is one of the few projects that has the potential to reach, include and assist all potential sectors and learners across our diverse field.

     So what are we planning for the coming year?  

  • A few weeks ago, Teri Thompson and Jacqueline Bruce of the SARN team conducted a presentation at the annual SABEA conference on SARN and conducted a “mini-workshop.” We are now planning a follow-up training workshop aimed at ABE/Literacy practitioners after Christmas. The challenge this year for SARN is that there is limited travel funding for the field. It will be hard to get people together for the typical group-based workshop. So, as discussed at SABEA, we are exploring ways to deliver this BE/literacy follow-up training workshop using distance education. STAY TUNED.
  • Bula Ghosh, Jacqueline Bruce and Allan Quigley of the SARN team are developing plans for another noon-hour webinar. Per our mission, this year we are reaching out to English as an Additional Language (EAL) practitioners. The anticipated topic will be, “Transitioning English as an Additional Language Students and Helping them to Succeed in the Workforce.” STAY TUNED FOR THIS TOO.

By the way, if you aren’t directly involved in EAL, there are two Webinars on the SARN website now from previous years  ( with slides and audio aimed at BE/Literacy practitioners and the workforce. Why not check them out?

  • As a follow-up to the above one-hour noon EAL webinar, SARN will be developing a second action research workshop, mainly aimed at EAL practitioners. This one may also be delivered by distance technology. AGAIN…. STAY TUNED.
  • We will continue the monthly SARN blog, focusing this year on “Heroes and Heroines of Adult Literacy and Basic Education.” This topic was discussed with our Advisory Board, and our first story will come out by the end of December.

Why this topic? Have you ever wondered, “Where did our field come from?” “Where and when did our field begin?” “Why?” “Who were the first to try to teach adults with low literacy and how?” Our long history is fascinating—largely unknown, but fascinating. We will see how much personal sacrifice has gone into creating our field and how adult literacy, and what are now calling basic education classes, were first developed. There are many reasons to be proud of our field.  Stay tuned.

Want to get involved?

  • Would you be interested in telling the story of how your program got started? Its history? How, where, and why it began? If so, contact Jacqueline Bruce ( or Allan Quigley ( for the guidelines. Why not tell the stories of our own programs?
  • Last year, we had students tell their stories of Transformative Learning (see last year’s blogs at If you have a student interested in telling their story, Jacqueline or I can send out the guidelines used last year. Budget allowing, we can offer them a small honorarium for doing this.

Who is on our board and SARN team?

Sarn organizational chart

Welcome to another exciting year with SARN.

Make a difference..

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team

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“Lessons Learned In 2015-2016” Adult Literacy/Basic Education & Transformative Learning

Would this Blog Theme be a Good Idea?

I proposed the idea of a monthly blog series on transformative learning a year ago at our spring SARN Advisory Board meeting. But, I did so with a lot of trepidation. Was it really a good idea? One of the questions at the board table was and how to invite stories from readers—including students? I had never done this type of blog series before…

Three Worries:

The only way we could structure the series was to send out an invitation to practitioners and hope they pass it to students—both current and past. Inviting them to submit their stories on transformative learning. But we had to explain what transformative learning is first… Hmmm.

Not all good ideas are doable. Although I have developed 10 listservs that reach well over a hundred literacy practitioners in various literacy and BE  programs across Saskatchewan, I have no direct way to communicate with students, or invite them to write a blog.

But there was another worry. I have been writing and posting monthly blogs for, I think,  four years now (see WWW.SARN.CA) —so around 40 blog instalments over time. Although most of the postings have ended with an invitation to “post a comment in the box below,” in four years I have had maybe five posted comments. I guess we had imagined far more dialogue through these blogs back when I started. And, frankly, there have been moments when I wondered if there were any readers out there at all?

Should we commit to a whole year of blogs that depends on stories from students and practitioners focusing on a topic most probably know little or nothing about? (I return to this worrisome point later).

Since there was no way we could know if students would receive the invitation via their instructors or counsellors, and since I had no idea if they had ever heard of SARN, let alone transformative learning, Jacqueline Bruce (of our Training Team) and I created a story “template”—a page of writing guidelines—to help anyone interested in submitting a story so they would understand what transformative learning is and assure them of anonymity.

Finally, while our board agreed there were undoubtedly hundreds of potential stories on transformative learning in literacy and basic education—stories where practitioners and learners come to see themselves and their world in a totally different way, often through a disorienting dilemma–what if we were wrong? What if this learning theory didn’t apply to our field like we thought? Like any research, we had to be prepared to have a negative outcome, but did it have to be so public?

Here’s what kept my awake at night, “What if we launched a series idea that failed because we had misread the field or failed because we could not really communicate with those we hoped were there, but might not be there…”

You see the problem?

“But Guess What?”

One year later, at our recent spring board meeting—I was delighted (okay, I was relieved) to be able to report that we had received more than enough stories.

The year has reminded me of how our field is made up of really good people who care about their learners. In fact, basic education counsellors and instructors across the Polytechnic and colleges did go to their students and they did explain what SARN was. They did encourage them to tell their stories. They did ask for the template guidelines….and I could stop holding my breath. Further, any editorial suggestions I sent were taken back to students, practitioners sat down with students and discussed the proposed changes. And, in at least two cases, they personally typed both the first and second drafts on the students’ behalf and sent me the students’ work for posting.  The authors were asked for and gave their Informed Consent, and we published their stories. And by the way, every one of the stories was not only well written, but was extremely powerful and on target.

Seven Powerful Student Stories

Stories came from seven current and former students: Billy Castel, two students who chose to be anonymous, Lynn, Phoenix, Crystal, and Pauline. And, we are able to send them an honorarium this summer having received summer mailing addresses for them from their instructors and/or counsellors.

But, with our own practitioners not coming forward with their stories, I invited Brenda Wright in New Brunswick to be a guest blogger.  Brenda is a friend, a former BE instructor, and is currently a government worker in New Brunswick. Moreover, she is one of the very few in Canada to have researched transformative learning in relation to literacy/BE. Brenda also agreed to post some of her research on our Website’s Resources link.  Check it out. And, the series began with an invited lead instalment by Dr. Patricia Cranton—our nation’s world leader in researching this important area of adult learning, Happily, she made the theory practical and easy to understand.

It was a good year all round….but please read on…

So What Did We Learn? Some Findings Instructors and Counsellors Might Benefit From:

  1. We learned that many of our students want to tell their stories. Maybe not in the midst of a classroom of their peers; maybe not with an instructor whom they don’t know very well; maybe not until they feel comfortable in their classrooms, but this small sample of blogger-students not only showed us that students want to talk about their past, what those stories tell us can make a profound difference in the choices made on how best to engage them in the classrooms.

Each learner has a past. Each has a story. And this matters. The literature and experience tells us that the more we know about our learners, the better we can shape the teaching, the counselling, and the materials/activities we choose to engage them (Read on for an application you can use on this point).

  1. The student blogs we saw have shown us some incredible struggles and some amazing, even heroic, examples of resilience. But what was really interesting was how the majority of the stories were about students’ lives prior to coming to programs. This is a valuable piece of learning. Here’s why…

Based on my own experience of over 45 years, many literacy and BE instructors, not to mention many counsellors, are just not comfortable “digging into a student’s past.”  There are lots of reasons but, cutting to the chase, maybe what we have learned this year  can you.

Basically:  “How can we learn about our students’ past in a way that is comfortable to both the student and practitioner? How can this happen in a way that not only protects privacy but maintains a sense of respectful professional “distance”?”

I can attest that, in adult education programs at the university level, adults can’t wait to tell about their lives. But, and I have been there too, most adult literacy/basic education students (not all) just don’t want to talk about their  past in a classroom–ultimately a “public setting.” Few want to share their past (and current) struggles, fears, or describe the mountains they had to climb just to come to basic education. This is all very understandable, but not very helpful when trying to retain learners by, for instance, trying to alleviate learning anxieties and trying to help them with future plans.

Here’s A Tool You Can Perhaps Use?

It just a suggestion, but maybe the attached story template that we designed can open that door in a respectful, research-based way, that might just make all the difference to a student’s life.

The attached template worked for us. And, it insists on privacy through clear “informed consent” before it can be used.  It asks students if there was a “trigger” or special event that helped them decide to attend BE? Or if some event has changed them during their classroom experience? It asks about the impact of the program on their lives. Take a look at the template. It might be adaptable and useable for you.

How would it work?

  • Maybe this form can be adapted and used as a catalyst for a student journaling project? Or a counselling session. Or even have it used as something that a student could read aloud as part of a group activity?
  • Maybe, given a student’s informed consent, and after checking with your institution…if such approval is required, some of these transformative learning stories could be used for reading content in your program.
  • Maybe you could conduct an action research project with SARN assessing the value of this tool in your counselling and teaching?

Just a tip, saying “research” in an institutional or semi-formal setting somehow puts an extra layer of formality, distance and “objectivity” onto what is otherwise a straight forward the process of sharing.

 AND, some Learnings That Might Be Helpful For Administrators and Policy-Makers

Although it was in an earlier lifetime, I worked as a BE instructor in an Alberta college and, later, at a Saskatchewan college. I also worked for several years at the Sask. Department of Advanced Education as the province’s ESL/GED administrator…even had the responsibility of ABE on top of that until we created and filled the first ABE Co-ordinator position for the government. So, I can say I have no illusions on how hard it is to get literacy and basic education “on the agenda” at the governmental decision level or board table when the post-secondary system is faced with scarce resources on one hand, pressures of competing institutional and programmatic needs on the other.

I also know how often literacy and basic education programs so often get seen as “one more ‘needy-program,’” and how it often gets folded into the same institutional mould as all other training program. Read on..

Some Observations That Might Be Helpful For You When Working With Administrators and/or Policy-Makers

When we talk about literacy and basic education, we need to talk about levels of support that are considerably higher than normative levels of student support common to most post-secondary institutions.

BUT…. Trades programs typically need large investments in special equipment and shop space. Health and medical programs often need large expenditures on laboratories and specialized equipment. Technology training programs are often extremely expensive…  But, literacy and basic education resource needs are minimal be comparison.

As one blog series reader who recently wrote me said:

[I was surprised] “how often the transformative experience happened before the students entered ABE.” Implications for policy and practice, as seen in the blog series and in literacy/BE programs every day, are that our “students need support.”

She went on to say: “If students are in ABE as a result of a transformative experience, this new education-centered lifestyle needs to be encouraged. If ABE is where they experienced transformative learning, then we need to help them figure out what their next step is, and how they can build on their momentum.”She concluded: “We [often] don’t realize the type of life situations [our students] are dealing with.”

Bottom line, the learning outcomes from these blogs for administrators and policy-maker is essentially:

  • Literacy and basic education students often need much more support than mainstream students.
  • They often need administrative and policy exceptions to institutional rules.
  • They often need more professional help and, yes, they often need more compassionate consideration than is the institutional norm.

Obviously most students have struggles—before, during and after programs. But multiple studies make it clear that the majority of adults with lower literacy skills live in—or come out of—hard poverty. And, often do so having faced so many extreme socio/economic/cultural challenges that simply walking into the classroom is a triumph in itself for many of our learners.

Here’s what I suggest… If you should have a supervisor, administrator, board member, or maybe a Deputy Minister or Minister who insists that it is all about motivation, saying, for instance: “These students need to learn how to function on the job. Or, they need to be motivated… Why all this support stuff?” )r, as a counsellor I once worked with said, “We aren’t here to spoon feed them”….  I suggest refer them to this year’s student blogs. As Pierre Bourdieu once stated: “Reality is not an absolute, it differs with the group to which we belong.” Our job of educating does not end with our students…

A Closing Comment: And Something I Learned

Remember how I wondered if anyone read this blog? Well, at the last board meeting I was able to report some statistics from our Website Manager. Guess what? Over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year, we had nearly 1,930 website users… And, of these, 791 (25.65%) were blog readers. Most were in Saskatchewan and Canada, but the website is visited word-wide. Yes, people do read this…and thank  you for hanging in for such a long, year-end, installment.

Oh, by the way, see the below box if you want to add a comment  

Hoping to (virtually) see you again in 2016-2017.

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team

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Pauline’s Story: From Basic Education Student to Superintendent of Education

Pauline’s is the last student story for this academic year. Hers is the closing chapter in our nine month series of remarkable stories on the theme of transformative learning and adult literacy & basic education.

We began early last fall with an overview of what transformative learning is by Dr. Patricia Cranton. Patricia also explained why this emerging theory of learning matters so much to adult education practice. Then, with fingers crossed, we invited students and faculty to submit their own stories and asked them to reflect on the possibility that they may have experienced transformative learning. Besides informed consent approvals, we sent them a set of descriptive guidelines to help them write their story. 

With a huge thanks to the instructors and counsellors in the colleges and Polytechnic who encouraged their learners to share their stories, we first received stories from students describing transformative incidents on how and why they chose to come to basic education.  Then, after Christmas, we received stories on the transformative impact the program had on them. We have seen how instructors, counsellors, the peer group and the very realization of  academic success changed often their view of themselves and their world.  And, significantly, most of the decisions to come to basic education and the life-changing experiences in the programs, were triggered by what Dr. Jack Mezirow and Dr. Patricia Cranton had  termed, “disorienting dilemmas”  early last fall.  We also had one story from a practitioner, Brenda Wright, who described her life changing transformative learning when she taught her first class of adult basic education.

 And now, with a special thanks to Jacqueline Bruce who encouraged her, here is Pauline Muskego’s story of how she went from an early school leaver to a superintendent of schools at Onion Lake First Nation. This success story  seems so appropriate to end off this series. The concluding June installment will focus on “Lessons Learned” from this series; but,  for now, we again thank all of the students and their instructors and counsellors who made this fascinating series possible.

We hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did and we also hope the series has shed some new light on our learners and the powerful, transformative impact our field so often has on those who participate in it with us.

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team


Pauline’s Story: From Basic Education Student to Superintendent of Education

I quit school in Grade 11.  My late father had a big influence on me back then.  He saw education in a different light.  Providing for his family was his priority.  I think education to him was a luxury, especially for women.  Women were meant to look after the home, cooking, cleaning, etc.  That was the mentality back in the day.  Life was hard.  So when I announced that I was quitting school, it wasn’t an issue.

Both my parents were hard workers.  My father was a WWII veteran who fought for this country.  My mother held labour jobs in the town of The Pas.  I went with her a lot of the time and worked alongside her.  She taught me what work ethic meant.   I was just a kid, but I will always remember how hard my mother worked to help put food on the table.  My father provided for the family as a hunter and a fisherman.  He lived off the land to provide for us.  Both my parents showed me the importance of hard work.

I later realized that one can’t get very far in in life with a limited education background. I saw that some of my friends were moving forward in their education, graduating from grade 12, going into post-secondary and getting jobs.  I think deep down I knew that education was the answer, the key.

I decided to enrol in a College program that only required a grade 10 education.  I took a six-month Clerk-Typist Course that enabled me to receive employment.  I attended school at Keewatin Community College in The Pas, Manitoba.  It is now UCN, University College of the North, I think.

After that, I worked for a year and a half at the Band Office for what was then called The Pas Indian Band, but it is now known as Opaskwayak Cree Nation.

Coming to Saskatchewan & a Husband’s Influence

When my older sister invited me to move to Saskatoon with her, I jumped at the opportunity to open my horizons.  This is where I met my future husband.  We married in 1978.  He was attending university and I worked at various jobs in the city.  I used to edit his university level papers for him. All I knew was when I read through his papers, I could spot errors.  I would correct them for him.  When he saw that I had an eye for this, I became his editor. He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. He was my big motivator to go back to school.  He was the one who encouraged me. After he finished his education degree, we moved to Onion Lake.  This is where I started my pursuit of further education.

I attended a four-month upgrading program that was to eventually lead to a diploma in Business Administration. This course was offered on Reserve in Onion Lake.

“When You Come From A Struggling Family…”

When I first started upgrading, we had to take a pre-test to see where we should begin upgrading.  I scored at the university level in reading and comprehension.  In math, my score was not so great.  I scored at a grade 5 level.  This was very accurate as this was the grade when I got sick with tonsillitis and missed a lot of school. Back in the day, a person was in the hospital for a week.  Today, you are in for 1 day. There is such a big difference between then and now.  I also missed school if I didn’t have clean clothes.  When you come from a struggling family, there are many factors that keep you away from school.   Missing school led to my not understanding math very well.

I Realized That I Wasn’t “Dumb”

It wasn’t until upgrading that I finally understood integers, decimals, fractions, etc.  After finishing upgrading, I wrote a post-test and scored around grade 10.5 in Math.  I also attained a Grade 12 standing. It was like a light bulb came on in my head.  It was then that I realized that I wasn’t “dumb.”  Previous to this, I believed that I couldn’t learn Math.  Math was the biggest stumbling block for me.  I realize now that I had learning gaps.  Once those gaps were filled, I was able to move forward in my learning.

As I had said earlier, my husband saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.  He encouraged me to apply for University, the Indian Teacher Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan.  When I received my letter of acceptance, I couldn’t believe it.  I was going to University!

I finished the four-year degree program in 3.5 years.  After teaching for 5 years as the Business Education teacher here in Onion Lake, I decided to pursue my Masters degree, which I received in 1995.  Knowing that I had the capability to take control of my own learning was transformative for me.  After attaining a B.Ed., I realized that I had the potential to receive an M.Ed.  It was not easy, but attainable.

Since then, Onion Lake Education has given me the opportunity to work as Vice Principal, Principal, and presently, Superintendent of Education.

Barriers Can Be Transformed Into Challenges

Barriers can be translated into challenges.  Challenges can also be opportunities.  Opportunities can become achievements.  When I look back, I would say that life itself can be challenging.  Having my children at an early age and realizing that I am a role model to them made me aware that what I did with my life was a way for them to see what they can do with their own lives.

Whenever I have an open door of opportunity to talk with young people about life, I take it.  Now and then, young people drop by my office and this is when I speak to them.  By being a role model for them, I can show them that they can achieve their dreams.

Pauline Muskego

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