"Making Your Voice Heard"

Sarah Gleason and Michelle Montoya

The main intention of our inquiry project, "Making Your Voice Heard," was to build an adult education curriculum to develop students' awareness of and participation in legislative matters, using Adult Education Day on May 22 as a focus. On this point we felt successful. However, because this process of building awareness was much slower than we had anticipated, a secondary outcome, creating a guide for use by other adult education students, proved unrealistic. We feel we learned a good deal from the experience, however, and hope other practitioners will benefit from our project.

" Making Your Voice Heard" was carried out with the Evening Program at Dorcas Place. This co-ed class, with 2 men and 7 women, is on a pre-GED level.

We offer here a summary of our ten class sessions:

#1 We introduced our plan to focus classwork around Adult Education Day. Using a simplified version of a fact sheet prepared by the Adult Literacy Council, "The Need for Adult Education in Rhode Island", we posed the question, "Why is so little money spent on programs for adults?" Working in small groups, students generated a list of questions for further investigation. (See Appendix I.) They then shared their questions with the whole class. For the next class, we asked students to think about the questions they felt were most important.

#2 After a brief summary of the last session, students returned to their small groups and chose the three questions they wanted to explore further. After sharing these questions with the whole class, we brainstormed ways we could find out the answers. One suggestion given by a student was that we spread the word about Adult Education Day to our community and elected officials. We passed out a flier about Adult Education Day. One student described last year's celebration, and we reviewed plans for this year's, including the participation of Miss America (Tara Dawn Holland).

#3 We introduced more statistics about adult education in Rhode Island and compared them to the annual cost of funding a Dorcas Place student. The class was shocked to learn the state average spent per adult education student is $460, compared to the $2,000 that Dorcas Place spends on a student. Conversation then turned to what made Dorcas Place so successful, and what was lacking in other settings that the students knew. Following the discussion, we watched the O'Leary Capital Report which detailed funding issues and the importance of adult education.

#4 Because Sarah had recently received training by the Right Question Project (RQP), we decided to introduce the class to this questioning/decision-making process. We supplied two groups with a hypothetical community problem supplied by the RQP. Each group generated questions for those in control of these hypothetical situations. These questions then led to a discussion of open-ended and closed (yes/no) questions and the value of each.

To practice these new questioning skills, we then returned to a variation of the question presented to the class in Session #1: "What keeps 97% of Rhode Island adults without a high school degree from attending adult education programs?" We expected the students' questions to focus more on the funding aspect; instead, we were surprised that their questions focused almost entirely about personal obstacles to education and negative characteristics of other adult education programs. (See Appendix II.)

# 5 Michelle presented a lesson on "How political decisions are made," focusing on the levels of government and what their functions are, and on the use of the Board of Canvassers to identify one's individual representatives. Michelle then introduced a copy of Expressions, a literary magazine by adult education students, dedicated to generating a letter-writing campaign about the importance of adult education. There was a lot of discussion around what the specific legislation and points meant, and about letter writing as a good way to get elected officals' attention. Students began writing their own letters about the need for more funding for adult education.

#6 Students completed letters to legislators. (See Appendix III.) We discussed that another way to reach elected officials would be to phone them using the list of numbers supplied by the Adult Literacy Council. There was a lot of fear about calling, so we decided it would be easier to write out a some points we'd want to be sure to mention. We began as a class to brainstorm a script for us to use when calling legislators. Students identified important things to include in a phone conversation, and also suggested extending an invitation to visit our class for a better look at an adult education setting. We then conducted mock phone conversations.

#7 We revisited the phone script and worked to refine it. We briefly discussed solutions to possible scenarios such as answering machines, someone else taking the call, etc.. Michelle and Sarah both modeled the process with actual phone calls. Students then made phone calls, with many actually reaching legislators. Senator Kells was reached and agreed to visit Dorcas Place the following week. After break we discussed agenda for adult education day, and how we would like to participate.

#8 State House visit. We went on a tour of the State House which included the Public Information Center. Here the students explored the uses of the computer and were excited to find that by typing their address, they were able to get a full biography (and in some cases even a picture!) of their legislators. For many students, it was the first time they had ever been inside of the State House.

#9 Adult Education Day! Since many of the Evening Class participants work during the day, the class chose to attend the afternoon Senate session where Tara Dawn Holland addressed the audience about the importance of supporting legislation for Adult Education. It was a chance for students to see their Senators at work, and in some cases, to meet them.

#10 We had a short de-briefing session about their experience with the project. We discussed positive and negative responses. The class was generally divided about whether or not they felt they had the power to influence state government. Many people received responses back from the letters they had written. The class also gave Sarah some personal input to a letter she wrote to the Providence Journal.


Conclusion

Students learned a lot about how state government works and their place in the process. This is valuable for future opportunities for participation. We feel, however, that when this is done in the future, it would be wise to allow more time for a closer examination of government. More time would allow students a greater opportunity to apply the skills that they are learning to issues of concern to them. Adult Education Day may be one of those areas of concern, but we hope through our project that students have gained the tools necessary to speak up in government as they want to.


In activities leading up to Adult Education Day, students took part in the political process by

learning about the need for more state funding for adult education

learning about the functions of the different levels of government

touring the State House and visitingits Public Information Center

identifying and contacting their legislators by phone and letter


What keeps 97% of RI adults without a high school degree from attending adult education programs?

They are embarrassed

They think it's too late

They have kids

They may have addictions (drugs and alcohol)

Work

They are ignorant--they think they don't need it

They are scared It's hard to get transportation

They don't know where to go

They have no self-esteem

No motivation/laziness

Some programs are down hard core--unfriendly, rule oriented, not working with you, not meeting individual needs

There are waiting lists at the good programs

Not enough programs and not enough money being spent on adult education