The Three C's: Connections, Collaborations and Community
My presentation is based on the work that I was involved in while I was an ESOL teacher at a community based adult learning center in the community where I live I would like to share with you a brief overview of two projects that I was involved in with my students that exemplify different critical health issues for women. Each project reflects important perspectives on dealing with women's health issues in the classroom.
I began dealing with health issues in a different way in the classroom in 1993. Before that point I addressed health issues as reflected in many of the ESOL textbooks. Labeling, dialogues, vocabulary development that would prepare the student to go to the clinic and be a patient. Sometimes, these health curriculum units involved visits from health educators who imparted important health information to the students in English or in their first language. Many times the presentation were prescriptive: the shoulds and shouldn'ts of health behavior. Often times a one shot workshop in which health pamphlets would be passed out and tucked neatly into notebooks. The health community was coming into our classrooms- but in looking back I see that the bridge being built was very tenuous...
It is through connections and collaborations within my classroom community and the community at large that my approach changed, the content of the curriculum deepened and the power of the language work in my classes took on new dimensions.
I had the good fortune of being part of the Educational Literacy Initiative in Massachusetts in 1993. At that time, health educators were beginning to realize that the health pamphlets that they produced were written in a way that made them inaccessible to many people. Critical health information was remaining neatly packaged in tightly printed brochures on clinic shelves. This project was especially focused on concerns about breast and cervical cancer- two critical women's health issues. Although I would add here that a third critical health issue was also being addressed and that is in fact the health issue of literacy itself. In this initiative, health educators looked to the expertise of literacy educators and a collaboration between adult education teachers , their students and health educators developed. There were two goals for this project: to develop curriculum on breast and cervical for the ABE and ESOL classroom and to develop health education material on these topics for the community at a 3- 5th grade reading level.
The health education field helped put the issue on our table BUT it was up to us to figure out the best way to address it in our classrooms and our communities. Our collaboration with the health field helped us push the envelope - take a risk in our classroom to address an issue that lurked in the health communities of our students but was one that neither students nor teachers would necessarily bring to the table. A personal private issue involving very private personal parts of the female body- in fact the parts that are most often covered up and not named in ESL picture dictionaries but are vital to our adult women students medical experiences. Literacy educators connecting with health educators have an opportunity to see a whole array of critical issues for women in their communities that they might not be aware of . When we approached these topics of breast and cervical cancer- there was yet to be such a visible presence in the media of breast cancer- now there are advertisements, popular shows that address it and stories in People magazine - then breast cancer was as silent as cervical cancer remains now- even now cervical cancer is not celebrated in the media and remains silently observed behind the " appropriate" doors. ( A characteristic that I would say is shared and has been shared by many of women's health issues over history from domestic violence to depression...)
We as literacy educators are in a unique position to address these issues in the ongoing relationship and in the intimacy that is often reflected in an adult ed. ESOL class. One interesting struggle that I had with some health educators was that they thought generally that people changed their health behaviors mainly because of fear. What I argued and saw reflected in my classroom communities - is that people- especially women changed their behavior as a results of relationships. A oneshot workshop based on fear did less than an ongoing caring relationship with other students and teachers in which concerns , fears and information could be dealt with. Another reason why the literacy classroom is such a vital place for this kind of education.
In this project, there was a change in the power relationship. The experts were no longer just the health educators nor the teachers. Project participants began to look at what was going on in the adult ESL class that could be of use to the community and the health community ? What knowledge did the women learners for example have about their own community health practices and "health myths" that would benefit health educators , teachers and others in their own communities ? How could this knowledge be incorporated into the curriculum and health education materials that we had been asked to develop ?
Out of these questions we developed a curriculum in concert with students. Also one product developed from this inquiry was a photo-novel on breast self exams and mammograms written by one of my students with the assistance of myself and feedback from our class. A local clinic and nurse practitioner assisted us with the clinic aspect in the photo-novel. The material- from the particular format - the photo-novel- and language used- to the concerns expressed - reflect cultural understandings and practices around women's health that had been voiced in our classroom. Published - it has been used by other educators dealing with this issue in literacy programs. As an ESOL teacher concerned with the language development of my students the language activities involved in such a project were powerful and rich. An act of authentic literacy that educated beyond the door of the classroom...
I want to talk briefly about another project that involved a collaboration amongst students. Whereas with breast and cervical cancer it was a collaboration with the health field that pushed this issue onto our table- this next project rose out of health concerns that were shared by the women in my class. Whereas breast and cervical cancer dealt with illness and disease - this project dealt with good health addressing concerns about how to stay healthy and improve one's health with a focus on the immigrant experience. The introduction written by the student editors of this booklet states:
"When you are a new arrival in a country , you may feel strange because it is a place that you don't know very well and everything is different. This can make you feel sad and depressed. We know how that feels because it happened to us. In our booklet, we want to share our experiences and how we overcame those bad moments."
The booklet contains stories collected from other students in the center and classes that addressed this theme. The story titles reflect the variety of experiences and strategies: My Experience with Stress; My Reading Group; A Fun Way to Stay in Shape--- and one Feeling Good Learning English in which the writer states :"When I began my English class I really felt that my life changed because before that I stayed alone in my house and everyday was the same . Sometimes I felt depressed, but now I am busy and every day is different. I have been learning English . Now I feel more confident. I can go anywhere I want because I don't feel afraid and I am happy. " In this booklet a critical issue for women that surfaced was the need for connection to others, to the dominant language, to social organizations. The lack of connection clearly led to health issues in the form of stress and depression and feelings of fear. This booklet was distributed at our school and at local health clinics. It is an example of how our students' stories can name critical issues and be used to educate community members and community providers.
In conclusion the classroom can be seen as a place to address, identify and explore health issues that are critical for women. Opportunities for collaborations and connections amongst learners and teachers must be embedded in the classroom ritual and curriculum so that language and literacy flourishes. Collaborations and connections must be developed with others who provide services for women: health clinics, schools, shelters, training programs, welfare programs, libraries. These connections and collaborations can provide the classroom community and teachers with valuable information that can help shape the curriculum . At the same time the work in the classroom can be a source of valuable educational material : personal stories, educational skits and pamphlets that can be shared and used to educate the school community and the wider community at large and those who provide services in our communities. Within the classroom the teachers must be willing to take risks-- many of the most critical issues for women are the most silent--- when I approached breast and cervical cancer in my class I felt like I was going to lose students by crossing these personal boundaries, by bringing into the class issues that were hiding silently behind closed doors - instead what I found was that my women students as well as the men thanked me for making this topic part of the class experience. From my experience I have found that it is through connections and collaborations within our communities that women's issues will find their voice.
Eastern LINCS Special Collection: Health and Literacy Teaching Materials
The HEAL Project - Health Education and Adult Literacy
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