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

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Jane Addams & Hull House

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 (jacqueline.bruce@onionlake.ca) or Allan Quigley (aquigley@stfx.ca) 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 www.sarn.ca). 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




Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Little General & the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky

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 (jacqueline.bruce@onionlake.ca) or Allan Quigley (aquigley@stfx.ca) 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 www.sarn.ca). 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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Literacy Under Slavery: “To Taste the Forbidden Fruit”

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 http://www.piaac.ca/476/Pan-Canadian-Report/FAQ/index.html).

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 (jacqueline.bruce@onionlake.ca) or Allan Quigley (aquigley@stfx.ca) 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 www.sarn.ca). 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.sarn.ca.


Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Adult Literacy Education: Where Did We Come From?

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 www.sarn.ca.                                                                                                                                     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 www.sarn.ca). 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  (www.sarn.ca) 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 (bruce@onionlake.ca) or Allan Quigley (aquigley@stfx.ca) 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 www.sarn.ca). 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

Posted in Blog | Comments Off on Welcome to the Saskatchewan Action Research Network… SARN 2016-2017

“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

Posted in Blog | Comments Off on “Lessons Learned In 2015-2016” Adult Literacy/Basic Education & Transformative Learning

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

Posted in Blog, Transformative Learning | Comments Off on Pauline’s Story: From Basic Education Student to Superintendent of Education

Crystal’s story: “I hope that others will follow”

Crystal’s story is an important one in this series on transformative learning and adult literacy. Hers is the only one in the series involving home schooling. And, as she explains, her story develops out of a strongly religious upbringing. Nevertheless, here again is a story that shows us how literacy and basic education counselors and instructors can change lives and create new beginnings through transformative learning.

Thank you Karla Halcro for working with Crystal on this story and thank you Crystal… Every success in your future endeavours.

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team


Crystal’s story: “I hope that others will follow”

I was the oldest of four brothers and three sisters. I grew up on a farm in the Mennonite culture and I was home-schooled. My mother was always busy with the younger children, so she pretty much just taught me how to read and write. I was pretty much left on my own after that. At 15, I moved away from the farm and started working part time at a butcher shop.  I finished grade eight and started working full-time by the age of sixteen. In my Mennonite culture, very few people ever get their grade twelve; they mostly only go to grade ten. Women especially didn’t get their education as most were married at 18 or even younger.

I got married at 17 and quit work once I was four months pregnant. My marriage didn’t work out so now I was on my own with my son. I was shunned from my family since I chose to leave.

I worked some jobs—general labourer on a dairy farm, as a support worker for Foster Families–but I soon realized I needed an education or I would be stuck in a cycle of working a job with extra hours every day or trying to balance two jobs.

I realized I needed an education”

I can remember the day I realized this. I was about 22 and it made me decide to take some steps. So I started to do research.  I made calls to different institutes and went online.  I found out that I had to do the CTBS placement test. I found out when the next available one was to be held and attended it and completed it. I scored high enough that they placed me into grade twelve. I was happy and surprised because I had not realized that my academic skills were so high.

I met with a counsellor and chose my classes. I was wait-listed for over a year to get into Adult Basic Education and I finally got in during the 2013-2014 year. I applied for PTA [provincial training allowance] and was approved and attended the full school year (four quads).

I lived just over 80 kms from the Prince Albert Polytechnic campus so my son could stay in the same school and I commuted in every day. I also had a part-time job in my hometown so I was pretty busy. However, my mother had a manic episode halfway through, and as always, she solely trusted me. I was completely burned out balancing everything. Not even two months after I got my mother’s medication balanced, my friend passed away in a tragic quad accident. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

“I was not ‘stupid’”

Panic attacks started to come. They got so bad I thought I was dying. I was ready to quit Basic Education. However, Karla, a counselor at Polytechnic, helped me and sent me to a professional counsellor who greatly helped me.

Looking back, schoolwork for the most part wasn’t too difficult except for math. Seeing as I had skipped grades 9,10, and 11, I had missed some basics but it soon came to light that there was more to these issues. I was sent to be assessed by a psychologist and found that my brain doesn’t quite know how to deal with numbers.  So, now I knew that it was a dysfunction in my brain, and that I was not “stupid.”   She gave me a variety of tools to work with and I passed math by only two percent in 2014.

My original plan was to go into nursing but as my math levels were so low, I decided to look at alternatives. I met with Laura, a career counsellor at the Polytechnic, and we researched a variety of jobs I was interested in and matched those with aptitude tests she had me do. I decided to go for Corrections. I applied and then got in.

“I am now a different person.” Some advice for others

Writing this in March, 2016, I can say I’m currently enjoying my studies and I know that I will have a career once I am done, which I will get more pay at and can live with only one income for the first time in my life. My son won’t be wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs anymore and I will have my own place without having two jobs.

I strongly believe anyone can do anything they set their mind to if they are willing to put in the work and are willing to look for the correct help. I was the first female to have graduated in the church I grew up in and, since then, two other girls have completed their grade twelve.   I know that my success helped to inspire these girls.  I hope that others will follow in our steps!

Looking back now on the challenges I have faced, I can say I am now a different person. I have transformed from a passive person to a more confident one.  And, if I had to give some advice to those who might be starting where I started, I would say that you need to check out every aspect of your dream.  If you don’t think you will like what you are planning to do, don’t waste your time doing it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Crystal’s story: “I hope that others will follow”

Lynn’s Story: “Don’t ever give up on dreaming about a better and brighter future”

During this academic year, we have been exploring the topic of transformative learning. This topic was suggested in a readers’ survey conducted last year and, since SARN’s mission is to explore research that can help our field, this seemed a natural for 2015-2016.

We know that a great many of our learners leave literacy and basic education programs as very “different” people. We hear all the time from our learners—and practitioners too—that they are changed as a result of literacy and basic education. Many say they leave as better people with a clearer sense of self and their future. Literacy and basic education provide far more than the acquisition of academic knowledge alone.

But why? How? What can we learn from these transformative experiences? What actually brings students to sign up for and come to adult basic education? Then, what actually brings about the radical transformative changes within programs?

Back in October 2015, Dr. Patricia Cranton—a world authority on this important new area of research and theory—explained how transformational experiences may occur as a result of a single event (a “disorienting dilemma”) or through a series of events. Sometimes called “deep learning,” such a experiences will typically mean the person “sees the world in a different way, or perhaps [will] see himself or herself in a different way.”  Often for the rest of their lives.

We saw Billy’s story last November. We then saw how two young women (who chose to stay anonymous) came to BE as a result of their children. We saw the incredible story of how a “momentary death” on the operating table brought Phoenix to basic education and then, last month, how Brenda Wright became committed to working in the field as a result of working with her students in Fredericton, NB.

Now, we turn to stories from learners within our literacy and basic education classrooms.

Here now is Lynn’s story (fictitious name used).  She shares her experiences at the Saskatchewan Polytechnic campus in Prince Albert and we thank Lani Scragg, Education Counsellor at that campus, for encouraging and helping Lynn to share her inspiring story.

Thank you Lani! Thank you Lynn and every success in your new career!

What is your story? For details and a story template to help write your story, please contact Allan at aquigley@stfx.ca. or Jacqueline at jacqueline.bruce@onionlake.ca.

The SARN Team.


“Don’t ever give up on dreaming about a better and brighter future”

When I started at the Prince Albert Sask Polytechnic for the ABE 12 program in 2015, the first day was exciting and nerve-wracking.  I had low self-esteem about my learning performance.  I had quit school in grade 11 when I was pregnant and had another child two years later.   I started working in 2001 when my oldest child just turned one. I worked for 13 years. When the company I worked for closed, I decided it was time for me to return back to finish my Grade 12.

 Returning to BE and What Helped Me Succeed  

The instructors have helped me through with words of encouragement, extra assistance and after school learning.  Many, many times I had become discouraged with homework.  I had not taken the biology or chemistry pre-requisites and the course content was very demanding and difficult.  The study skills I learned helped me pass the courses.

By the fall of 2015, I had achieved results in the harder classes and started to feel more confident about my future.   The small group and more relaxed classroom setting helped to make me feel comfortable.  My fellow students helped with encouraging words and by sharing notes.

I was not sure what my future career would be and I started to investigate some options with the Saskatchewan Polytech Career Counselor in Prince Albert.  Together, we came to a decision that I would be best suited to work in Early Childhood.  I want to work in a school setting as an education assistant.

 Mapping the Future and Transitioning to a Career

The process of career counselling helped me to understand my own strengths, interests and goals better.  In the Mapping the Future workshop held by the counselling staff, I listened to Basic Education graduated students talk about their success in post-secondary training and discussed how to get into the workforce. That really helped me realize that there is no limit to learning or gaining experience.

During the end of my last quad, I realized that, through all the struggles, it is worth it.  I will be finished my program at the end of January 2016. I can gladly say, “I have completed my Grade 12.”

The Influence of my Children

My children are my inspiration and I kept on pushing myself to do the best I could.  My children are helpful at home, by doing chores.   We study together at home and help each other. This makes it easier for me to study.  They are witnessing that education is important and that they too need to complete grade 12.

Don’t Ever Give Up

Each day, each step has been another great accomplishment in my life.  Learning each day is a credit to my career goal.

Thank you to the Polytech teachers and counsellors for giving me strength in pursuing my life long goals for a better future.  When I finish upgrading, I plan to work in the city.  This summer [2016], I will be relocating my family to another community, to join my fiancé.  There, I will be starting my post-secondary training if I am accepted.

Don’t ever give up on dreaming about a better and brighter future.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Lynn’s Story: “Don’t ever give up on dreaming about a better and brighter future”

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

Turning the Page: Transformative Learning in the Classroom

Brenda Wright

Brenda Wright

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Creating a Safe Space to Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Classroom Activity That Made a Difference

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

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

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

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

Stories as Medicine 

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

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

Reflections on What I Learned 

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

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

Sources Used

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


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on “Story is Medicine”: New Brunswick Instructor Brenda Wright tells her Story