Defining the Other?

panel discussion held at the International Conference on Women and Literacy, Atlanta, January, 1999

Jenny Horsman, Deanne Bradley, Nancy Cooper, Arlene Wells, Janet Isserlis

Papers from all panelists are forthcoming; for the time being, those papers included are linked to the panelists names above

objective(s) / purpose of program

The panelists proposed to engage participants in a thoughtful discussion of the ways in which race, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation and ability overtly and covertly affect the access women have to educational opportunities and their freedom to learn and to function beyond the classroom. Literacy practitioners approach their work from a range of political and pedagogical stances, which intersect with their own race, class, gender, ability. We want to make those stances visible and to problematize them. We also wanted to identify constraints beyond our control (funding mandates, policy, lack of resources) which hinder our ability to meet learners' needs. Our awareness of the possibilities for interplay of all these factors for ourselves, our learners and our colleagues/co-workers is critical to the way we facilitate the development of community and strengthen women's learning opportunities. Literacy workers must understand our power not only to assist learners, but also the power we carry to silence and to impede learning. Our hope was for this discussion to lead to recommendations about how to maximize our capacity to address the diverse strengths and needs of women learning in our programs and to strategies for influencing policy and research priorities, making them more responsive to issues of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, culture, and ability.

content /methods of presenting content

Moderator Jenny Horsman presented an overview of the issues to be discussed; each panelist then addressed a specific area from her own practice. Panelists spoke from their own experiences and learning related to confronting explicit and implicit racism, ablism and classism, dealing with teachers and administrators for whom teaching is equated with moving through a tightly prescribed sequence of mandated outcomes, addressing issues of domestic violence and welfare reform, segreation and sheltering of Deaf women, and providing a culture based curriculum that doesn't turn culture into something that other people have.

data/information sources or evidence

Our discussion emerged from the shared processes of writing and disseminating (through workshops) the curriculum, Making Connections: Literacy and EAL from a Feminist Perspective. Our separate situations as teachers, consultants, students and program administrators also provide the contexts from which we attempt to make sense of those issues in women's education. We will propose specific strategies to assist participants in learning to ask themselves crucial questions which need to be asked in any and all learning contexts so that others can learn from the mistakes we have made and from which we have learned.


By engaging participants in discussion with panelists, (and through accompanying handouts), we hope they will leave with productive means of challenging themselves and making their practice consistent with the aims of a feminist, learner centered pedagogy that lowers barriers to learning for women, and explicitly addresses issues of power within and beyond the classroom. 

Major focus of proposal: Practice

Our major focus is practice, but we see our work having direct implications for research and policy

Topic area of proposal: ____Welfare Reform ____Domestic Violence ____Health ___Ethnicity ____Other (please specify): Our work spills into all the areas listed here; the word ethnicity isn't particularly a comfortable one for us. We want to look at inclusion and exclusion in an intentional manner, in order to assist ourselves and other practitioners in being better able to address women;s strengths and needs in literacy classrooms and in communities beyond schools and learning centres.

Janet Isserlis

1990 Rany Suon, a young Cambodian mother of two comes to visit me at my apartment. I've just bought a computer and I invite her and her children to write something, to try it out. The kids lose interest; we play in another room. A little later, Rany hands me something she's written about her husband, his gambling and the worry it causes her. Thinking of my colleagues who publish student writing and the strength of the piece, I ask her if I could share it with them. She asks me not to.

1993 Anita, a learner in a literacy program outside Vancouver, with assistance from a teacher, writes a letter to her mother, expressing her hurt and rage at events that transpired during her childhood. My colleague stresses how important this writing is for the student. I listen, blank as milk, saying nothing.

That same year I see a film at the school, a drama depicting scenes of domestic violence in a middle class home. I think it doesn't represent what really happens. Who are these white people anyway?

1996 I read Jenny Horsman's writing on violence and literacy. I start to listen to colleagues talk about learning and self-esteem. What does that mean, self-esteem? I've no time for it, really.

1998 I'm going through files, looking for a transcript, and find Anita's letter. I think about Rany and the constant low grade time-released fear with which she lived. I think about the power in Anita's writing. I think of how many years IÕve taught with my eyes closed, how I relegated problems to Other People's Cultures, to the way things are, to someone else's business and I wonder if I'll ever learn enough to actually help a learner in the way she best needs to be helped. If I can do more than say I validate her experience; if I can get beyond my own way of seeing into understanding all the joys and difficulties that shape the lives of women with children, with husbands or partners, who are single, American, First Nations, southAsian, Deaf, disabled, married, white, black, Latina, immigrants, refugees from all over the world; all those others. If I can understand the strength behind the words women speak and learn to read and write.

Education workers are in privileged positions as people who use their ability to read and use language to assist others who want to develop that ability themselves. In so doing, if we're fortunate, we become parts of communities of women who've lived lives of exceptional courage, of ordinary boredom, of the not so unusual to-ing and fro-ing of being a woman in the latter part of the 20th century. Nancy speaks eloquently of the fact that culture is not only something that other people have. Lisa Delpit writes with startling clarity of the at once simple and infinitely complex issue of how difficult it is to listen with all our senses to the needs and means of learning of other people's children when she describes the clashes of learning and teaching across race. How clear and yet utterly not simple are her words for teachers around the importance of listening, learning about how people live and make sense of their world before trying to actually 'teach' anything. Wendy Luttrell writes, too, of women and learning in some depth. All of this work throws into question the issue of who has power, whose voice is heard and how learning transpires across this country and around the world.

I'm here, though, to speak from my own experience. I've no doubt borrowed, internalized, and I hope, learned from the words and actions of others. Although not my only teachers, women in Canada have been among the most forceful. Learning, while joyful and important, is painful, too. It occurs in one way when I find discordance between what I think I know and some new fact, idea, picture presented to me that challenges the security with which I know everything else.

Learning about my own racism began when someone made me uncomfortable about a remark made by a colleague in a teachers' lounge. This friend was, and is, in possession of sufficient love, anger and energy to compel me to do something with my discomfort; to begin to understand simply and forcefully how racism works. I can get on the bus, go shopping, get through customs. I can pass, I'm white. She can't. She isn't. That simple fact has nothing and everything to do with the way my words and actions, and the thoughts that underlie them have shaped my own responses to students and colleagues whose colour, class, marital status, formal education or ability haven't been the same as mine. A bisexual colleague called me out for raising a discussion about homophobia in a class without realizing that sooner or later she would be expected to take it up as well. And maybe she wasn't ready to. When I talked about my male partner and what we did over the weekend, what could she talk about? How insidious and invisible are the ways in which certain lives becomes normalized or not in the work that we do. If we engage in adult education as I believe we must - ready to listen with all our senses and most especially to listen before we speak -- we must come to understand that people make sense of their worlds in different ways. Difference isn't something only other people have. It is the collective sum of all our learning and being, of lived experience and ways of making meaning.

When we finished writing Making Connections, I was glad to have contributed to something I saw as explicitly addressing racism, homophobia and oppression, at least in some small way. Two years later a small group of strong women challenged us as writers for the absence of people of colour in the curriculum and its own normalizing of certain power imbalances. The voices that weren't heard were conspicuous in their absence; their silence was deafening. I was ready to hear what the women had to say, to learn from them without needing to be defensive, without experiencing guilt for the oppression of all people ever. I found myself responding to the critiques of the curriculum with interest, and with regret, because we hadn't known then what we were learning now, two years later, once women of colour had taken the work to their communities and found out where it wasn't helpful.

Making Connections has much to contribute to women's work with literacy. It is incomplete, though, as are many literacy materials in one way or another. Matierals should be but one means through which we look at ways of listening to learners to see what they know, how they know it and how we can assist them in expanding this knowing into areas where they want to go. In ways that they need to do so.

For some students, this means learning a new language and culture - that of schools and authority, accountability and tests. For others it means learning that speaking out is within reach. A right, not a privilege. Or being able to read a newspaper, a letter from home, or leave a note for a roommate. For all of us it has to mean having our own power become visible and our means of using that power become tempered by a constant awareness of those who do not have it, or do not share it equally. I've silenced colleagues and learners by making assumptions, by disappearing difference for the sake of 'equality' and have ultimately done learners a great disservice by assuming that I know what they need without asking.

How do I change this in my practice in the classroom, and in my work now as an administrator? I begin with the knowledge that my own understanding of how people learn is necessarily incomplete, but that there are questions I must pose, which must shape my work. Who are the women in this classroom/in this meeting/ on this committee/at this conference? What do they know and how have they come to know it? What can I learn about them before presuming to tell them what I have to say, what I believe to be important? How can I do the simple but incredibly complex work of listening respectfully, considering, agreeing, disagreeing in ways that enable us to move our work along?

I need to be mindful of the fact that in some communities, a medicine wheel is a framework for learning and knowing the world; in others Roseann is a role model; that some women choose to have children and others do not, that both 'exotic' and ordinary understandings underlie and influence the way people come to learning, live their lives. Deanne does things in a certain way in her practice; I may make different choices in mine. What I hope we have in common is our understanding of the need to listen closely to what it is learners are telling us, to be mindful of the fact that my world view and way of learning is likely not the same as that of someone else but that we can and must find ways to jointly construct meaning that assists learners in accomplishing what they want to do. Further, we need to look after one another as colleagues and workers. We can not speak for one another or make decisions affecting one anothers' lives without everyone's participation.

There are two recommendations I would put before you. The first is that in our ongoing work with teacher education we need to move beyond methodology per se and acknowledge that we're not merely talking about what learning styles or intelligences (in Gardner's sense) learners possess. I'm talking about building habits of mind that compel us to consider what barriers and strengths we all bring to our work (as learners, practitioners, administrators) and to utilize our knowledge of the nuts and bolts - skills and practices of reading and writing - to inform a critical approach to a learner-centered pedagogy, especially in the light of external constraints, such as welfare reform, mandated learning outcomes and an erratic employment market.

Specifically - problem posing, assuming there is no one correct response, as means of getting into content, and language experience, bridiging into writing from other perspectives, which may use language differently are the two main means through which I propose we begin this work. Open-ended materials inevitably lead to more specific (re)sources. Language experience writing is a means towards this work. [and...]

note: a revised version of this paper will appear at tesol.99.

Resources - print

Arnold, Rick, Bev Burke, Carl James, Darcy Martin, Barb Thomas. (1991). Educating for a Change. Toronto: Between the Lines and the Doris Marshall Institute for Education and Action.

Auerbach, Elsa. (1992). Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult Esl Literacy. Washington, DC: ERIC:CAL/Delta

Ayers, William, Jean Ann Hunt and Therese Quinn, (Eds.) (199 ) Teaching for Social Justice. New York: The New Press

Delpit, Lisa. (1995) Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Graveline, Frye Jean. (1998). Circleworks: Transforming Eurocentric Consciousness. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Heller, Caroline, (1997). Until We Are Strong Together Women Writers in the Tenderloin . New York, Teachers College Press.

Horsman, Jennifer. (1990). Something in my mind besides the everyday: Women and Literacy. Toronto: Womens Press.

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Luttrell, Wendy. (1997). School-smart and Mother wise: Working-class Women's Identity and Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Nash, Andrea, Ann Cason, Madeline Rhum, Loren McGrail, and Rosario Gomez-Sanford (1992) Talking Shop: A Curriculum Sourcebook for Participatory Adult ESL. ERIC:CAL/Delta.

Resources - online


Foster, Michelle. African Americans, an ethnic study on some of the cultural traits of African Americans along with a case study

The Journal of Ordinary Thought - Writing from adult writing groups in Chicago

Press Gang Publishers - Vancouver-based feminist publishers

'Race' and 'ethnicity' in adult education: issues of power and diversity - Bujor Avari, Manchester Metropolitan University Helen MF Jones, University of Huddersfield Danny Mashengele, University of Sheffield Kirit Patel, Middlesex University

Race Traitor - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity 

Deanne Bradley is bilingual. She is Deaf, uses American Sign Language and is fluent in English. She has been a literacy instructor for the past six years in Toronto. During those six years she advocated for the Deaf and Deaf/Blind communities and for the larger literacy community as well. She is also an advocate for women's issues and rights. Deanne is on the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women's Literacy Board. She is also a workshop facilitator of the text Making Connections, and has produced a video describing the text for the Deaf and Deaf/Blind communities.

Nancy Cooper is a First Nations adult educator. She is from the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation in southern Ontario. Nancy has worked extensively in the Toronto First Nations community for the past seven years. As an educator she feels it is very important to make the connections between literacy, racism, classism and self-determination. Nancy currently works at AlphaPlus Centre in Toronto as a field consultant to First Nations communities throughout Ontario.

Jenny Horsman is a community educator/researcher with a feminist perspective, based in Toronto. She carries out research, writing, curriculum development, training and facilitation projects in literacy and workplace training, and has written numerous articles on literacy as well as the book: Something in My Mind Besides the Everyday: Women and Literacy. Recent writing and current research interests centre around the impact of trauma on literacy learning and the implications for literacy programming. "But I'm Not a Therapist" Trauma and Literacy (working title) will appear in 1999. She is particularly interested in strengthening links between adult literacy theory and practice.

Janet Isserlis has worked with adult language and literacy learners since 1980 as classroom facilitator, researcher, program evaluator and curriculum developer. She has worked in the US and in Canada, and since 1997 has been project director of Literacy Resources/RI, Rhode Island's state literacy resources centre. She is a co-author and workshop facilitator of the text Making Connections: Literacy and EAL from a Feminist Perspective, and has also published articles about community, gender and literacy, action research and alternative assessment.

Arlene Wells is a feminist adult educator. She co-founded Bridges, a program for women survivors of abuse in Victoria, British Columbia, and wrote 'Building Bridges' as a guide for setting up programs modelled on Bridges. Her recent research report, 'Making Connections Across Cultures: Critical Reflections on a Feminist Adult Education Resource', explores how a set of curriculum materials deals with feminist issues for learners and teachers excluded from, and marginalized by, the dominant culture. Arlene sees education as a powerful process for social change; she has been engaged in that process with learners from diverse backgrounds for 17 years.

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