What happens when learners are exposed to the community? Could this initiate change in their choice of work and everyday life?

Inquiry Project Final Report

Michele Rajotte, Genesis Center


"The psychological /cognitive approach to development asserts that people reach more complex, integrated levels of development through active participation with their environment." (Baumgartner, 2001)


I am an ESOL educator at the Genesis Center, an adult learning center for immigrants and refugees in Providence, Rhode Island. I teach a high intermediate class for women and men who have varied levels of education in their native language. Some learners in this class are on assistance and will need to find employment when their Family Independence Plan has ended. Other learners are working in the evening, or have another form of income. This class is held five days a week from 9:00a.m.until 1:30p.m. I have been teaching here for six years, and took one year off to experience another program abroad.

This year, I was interested in taking the learners out of the classroom and introducing the community of Providence and other interesting places near to the city, and also to bring outside resources into the center. I had read about programs where the classes are held in various places of the community each day. The learners would receive a rich and wholistic form of education through this process, and I was eager to try it in a smaller fashion. In addition, during my personal experience living in a new culture and not understanding the language, I knew that learning about outside resources can be stressful and time consuming if you are on your own. At first I was focused on enhancing job prospects through their social interactions and enhanced language and cultural learning. I was curious to learn if this introduction to the community would lead to a better job/career, or at least provide more confidence and independence. "These innovative and engaging opportunities can make learning more meaningful while strengthening the critical connections between education, work, and personal development, and ultimately affirming the concept that leaning is a lifelong process" (Kolb 1984, p.4).

I use the term 'experiential' when describing the teaching style for this project. Educational philosophers have discussed "Learning that begins with experience, continues with reflection and later leads to action, which itself becomes a concrete experience for reflection" (Rogers, 1996). To follow this model of learning, I used questionnaires before the field trip to get an idea of the learners' interests in this place; and after the trip, I would also use a questionnaire to receive feedback. In addition, the event was always discussed, challenged or cheered before and after. It is a challenge to plan a field trip or speaker along with questionnaires, and then have the same students attend to complete each piece of these presentations. A teacher in an ESOL adult class soon learns that the magic word is "flexible." I found this entry in my journal on January 15: "It is difficult to expose everyone to the same experiences." The reality and responsibility of adult life require changes in daily routines of adult learners. I continued to pursue my quest with or without all class members. I discovered that this no nonsense, positive approach enhanced the atmosphere of the trip.

It was an arduous task trying to manage this calendar; at times, it seemed too chaotic to continue. The schedule seemed to level out as the year went on, but it could be that I became comfortable with the organization and traveling arrangements. There were also occasions when it seemed just as trying to go out into the real world as it was to ask the real world to come in. Genesis has always encouraged outside speakers to support, inspire and educate the learners. For example, the Minority Health Coordinator, Berta Vernon-Lee, scheduled a variety of speakers to visit each Thursday. This was a great benefit for all learners and teachers.

Throughout the year, I documented field trips and speakers using a digital video camera. I wanted others to experience our experiences, I planned on editing this film to show other adult educators the possible places to go and speakers that are available in and around Providence. I intended to tape engaging pieces of each trip or session so that others could get an idea and form their own opinions for their classes. The learners grew accustomed to the camera and after a few events, the filming went unnoticed. Editing the tape was time consuming and tedious, however, I learned that I need digital/computer training and that my old ways of tv/video editing is in the past. The video included 20 different events in and out of the school. I was unable to video every speaker and at times, was not allowed to film.

I also wanted to include volunteerism activities as real world events. Although I did not find each learner a volunteer position, the class did volunteer twice in the community and two women volunteered one day a week during the spring semester. One learner has asked to stay on throughout the summer. In the questionnaire addressing our visit to the Salvation Army, one question was: "Do you think it is important to volunteer?" A learner answered, "Yes, because it is good to help people because you never know when you will need other people." Another response was, "Yes, because in this work, God pays you."

Elsdon (1995) found that many volunteer activities have no ostensible learning objectives but do result in such outcomes as personal growth, confidence, and interpersonal skills. Although many instances of deliberate learning and change among volunteers were evident, the "single most important finding from our work is that this unpremeditated group of changes – confidence, empowerment, making constructive relationships, organizational learning, ability and willingness to shoulder responsibility—is mentioned as the first and most important one by an overwhelming majority. Elsdon's study (as cited in Kerka, 1998)

I did not assume that everyone understood the definition of community. Although the language level was high, community could have a different meaning in other cultures. Therefore we discussed the definitions of community, we named them and practiced language with varied activities centered on communities. Some of the names given by the learners' were the Genesis community, ESOL community, immigrant community, family community, church community, and Providence community, Latino community, and Haitian community.

Before setting out on our many adventures, a lesson on fear became an important aspect of community learning. I wanted the learners to know that fear is a common reason some people living in a new culture remain in their homes without experiencing that culture. "Are you stuck in the cycle of fear?" In this exercise fear begins with the threatening situation that is played out in physical symptoms leading to distorted interpretation, to avoidance, and then to increased fear. This familiar process had been experienced by all of us and we worked in small steps to work through a fear that we were aware of. I used a job interview as an example and they nodded their heads in agreement. This lesson worked well and we referred to it when someone seemed nervous about a new experience in his or her life. In addition, it prepared them to brave new field trips without trepidation.

One of the exercises describing community utilized a form of poetry. Writing the word vertically, learners used adjectives, phrases, or sentences to represent each letter, but focusing on the word 'community'. The following is a learner's example:

C-Congregation of people
O-Organization of community
M-More opportunity to volunteer
M-Minutes of Peace
U- Union of love
N-Negotiation of ideas
I-Inside your mind
T-Time to talk
Y-Your turn now
Pictures and drawings illustrated the poems. Freedom with words and illustrations allowed the learners to utilize their creativity and learn from the variety of poems.

Although the meaning of community was understood, it was interesting to see what individuals valued and shared, as everyone sees things from a slightly different perspective. An activity to reveal this diversity was taken from a civics activity and adapted. The learners in groups chose six pictures from a magazine that represented any community they had chosen. Some groups chose six pictures displaying six different communities. The pictures were taped on large sheets and descriptions were written beneath them. One example was a picture depicting a little boy holding a gun pointed at a man's head. The caption read, "I chose this photograph because we have large violence in the community." Another learner chose a photograph of a paramedic, a police officer, and a Red Cross employee, "I chose this picture because these women work hard for our community to give us good safety."

The culminating class project was simply handing individual cameras to all learners and asking them to photograph their personal community. They could choose whatever gave them a sense of what we learned and discussed throughout the classes. We talked over what they could be, exchanged ideas and information and thought about what a photograph could look like. I suggested looking at the book, "The World's Family" by Ken Heyman. Each learner observed hundreds of international portraits, analyzing and commenting to one another. They could present the finished product in a way that was comfortable; they chose posters. Their presentations were inspiring and revealed their pride and love of their communities, as we listened and shared our lives in and outside of school. Most learners planned to hang their posters in their homes.

An example of the first questionnaire concerned our trip to the local library. The questions were:

1. Do you want to visit the library? Why or why not?
2. Did you have a library in your country? Did you use the library in your country?
3. Does your family use the library in Rhode Island? How often?
4. What do you like to read?
5. Do you read the newspaper at home? In English, or your native language?

The following questions were asked the day after the trip:

1. Did you enjoy your visit to the library? Why or why not?
2. What did you learn?
3. What was the most interesting?
4. Will you take your family to the library?
5. What other places would you like to visit?

When I was preparing the questionnaires, I tried to avoid yes/no questions, I tried to make them interesting and to the point, and I always included a question about their families. The least number of questions asked was three for volunteering, and the most, eight for Rhode Island Recycling as we had had a lengthy discussion and a recycling quiz before our tour. The time needed to answer these was usually longer than I had anticipated. I would help them if they needed it and I would read the answers as they finished, sometimes leading to more discussion. Reflection was a significant part of this process and as I gained more experience, I realized that I should give them more time to write. The discussions were good, but the writing initiated more thought.

During the year, we produced two newsletters, "Genesis Community News." The learners were required to write about the events and presentations in our community. This project was beneficial to the teacher, the learners, as well as the community. It enhanced learners’ writing, organization and computer skills. Also, the learners could express themselves and see their work published.

Another question I asked often is, "Do you think this was important?" Their responses will initiate a discussion on what is important to them and will help me to choose the future field trips and speakers I will offer in the future. Also, "What other places would you like to visit?" was asked in mid-October and again in march. I felt confident that their interests would grow.

Table I

October responses:

*1. The zoo
*2. Zoo, museum, park-
other places outside of Providence
other states
*3. Zoo, museum, park, other places
4. I don't know yet e
5. Zoo, museum
March responses:

*1. The zoo
*2. Boston Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium
*3. Zoo, Central Library, Aquarium
4. Telephone Company
5. Job Search, Career Guidance
6. RI Community College

Note. *Same learners.

It is important to note that most answers are more specific in March. One learner did repeat his desire to go to the zoo, but the others chose certain places that they had learned of during the year. (The zoo is located a few miles from Genesis and is free to Providence residents the first Saturday of each month. Ironically, this is the first year I have not taken my class to the zoo in June, we ran out of time! However, I remind the class each month that they can take their children on the free Saturday, and many do.) We discussed a trip to the aquarium, but because of the price, decided no to go.

After our visit to Network Rhode Island, I asked the learners, "When we have a presentation, do you prefer to out of Genesis, or do you prefer to have the presenters come here?" I was surprised at the responses: four out of eight said that they prefer that presenters at Genesis, three preferred to go out and one enjoyed both. I assumed they would have preferred to experience a new environment, however, I have learned not to assume anything.

As I had mentioned above, the challenge of the questionnaires was to collect them before and after the trips or speakers. Sometimes learners were absent, or they would promise to hand them in "later." Next year, I will have an established place where learners will be responsible for taking, completing the questionnaires, and returning them.

Videotaping allowed me to relive the experiences and to make new observations from closely watching and listening. I miss interesting dialogue while I am filming and find that I uncover details that provide meaningful discoveries. It was exciting to view the film in May; I was unaware of how much film I had used. The ongoing dialogue regarding community evolved and expanded as time went on. I will also use this film for the new class in September. They will get a sense of what the possibilities are and I can get feedback and their expectations.

The last week of classes, I asked the learners to form pairs and list each place they had visited, and to also include the presenters that had come to Genesis. The first pair wrote their list on large white poster board and the next pair followed, but only added what was not written by the first, and so on. The class listed twenty-eight items. The pairs changed into groups of three to discuss which seven were the most important for them; they did not have to rank them.

Table II

Group 1

Pequot Museum
Nonviolence Training
Recycling Center
Borders Books
Jackie Robinson Exhibit
International Institute
Museum of Work & Culture
Group 2

Pequot Museum
Nonviolence Training
Jackie Robinson Exhibit
RI Community College
Depression Presentation
Natural History Museum/Planetariume
Rhode Island Blood Center
Group 3

Pequot Museum
Nonviolence Training
RI State House
RI Community College
Museum of Work & Culture
Salvation Army
Depression Presentation
Group 4

Pequot Museum
Nonviolence Training
Rhode Island Blood Center
Natural History/ Planetarium
Recycling Center
RI Community College
RI State House

All four groups chose the three day Nonviolence Training and the Pequot Museum trip. Three groups chose RI Community College Adult Education Day. In two groups were Museum of Work & Culture; RI State House; Jackie Robinson Exhibit; Recycling Center; Natural History/ Planetarium; and Depression. Separate groups voted for the following: Borders Books; International Institute Meeting; and Salvation Army Volunteering.

The next task was to choose the top three and rank them:

Table III

Group 1

Nonviolence Training
Borders Books
RI Community College
Group 2

Nonviolence Training
RI Community College
Pequot Museum
Group 3

Nonviolence Training
Pequot Museum
RI Community College

Group 4

Pequot Museum
Nonviolence Training
Rhode Island Blood Center

I must agree with their first choice of the Nonviolence Training as the most important presentation. This three day pilot program offered our class the history of nonviolence: principles, steps, and definitions of Kingian philosophy, nonviolent solutions. Pequot Museum teaches the Native American history of our community and is an extraordinary creation. Two had chosen Adult Ed Day at CCRI; a day filled with information exchanges and new ideas. I questioned my method of group choices; maybe I should have had individual choose the last three. Nevertheless, they happily agreed with each other.

In the end, the learners revealed an inner strength and confidence. Our class community at Genesis became stronger, a "beloved community", a term used by Dr. Martin Luther King. They were also exposed to new jobs, and are more comfortable with their language skills when asking informational questions in the real world. After our RI State House visit, they recognized that they have the ability to create change. This constant exposure to the real world has prepared them to be on their own without fear taking over, and I believe it has provided a sense of belonging.


Field Trips:

The Providence Public Library
Rhode Island School of Design
The Roger Williams Greenhouse
South Providence Ministries – Volunteering at Christmas, separating toys
Salvation Army –Volunteering before Thanksgiving, making food baskets
Natural History Museum and
Cormack Planetarium

Holiday Fair -- Planned and organized by the class - successful
RI Resource Recycling Center
Borders Books
University of Rhode Island Multicultural Art Exhibit/ Providence Campus (Also a chance to ask informational questions concerning classes)
Network Rhode Island – Employment information and job skills
Providence Fire Department Presentation
SER Jobs for Progress
Providence Free Clinic
Depression Presentation
State Treasurer Paul Tavares – Unclaimed Property
State House Tour
Community College of Rhode Island – Adult Education Day
Blood Drive and a visit to the Rhode Island Blood Bank
Foxwoods Casino
Slater Mill Theater
Museum of Work and Culture
Pequot Museum
Southside Community Land Trust (planting and utilizing our small hot box)
Citizen's Bank - Human Resources employee discussed important aspects of job
Interviews (two learners are working in the bank full-time at present)
Fleet Bank employees practiced interview skills with learners
Christmas in April – volunteering at Genesis, painting and planting
Kingian Nonviolence Training
Jackie Robinson Exhibit - Bryant College; (and, for more on Jackie Robinson: http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/jackie_robinson/jackie_robinson.html
Adult Ed Day at the State House - Civics Education
International Institute Learner Exchange


References

Baumgartner, L. M. (2001). Four adult development theories and their implications for practice. Focus on Basics, 5B.

Day, Nancy (2000). Are you stuck in the Cycle of Fear? Markham, Ontario, Canada O.T. Reg.

Four Voices. (1987). [Film]. (Available from The MacArthur Library, Skylight Pictures, Inc.)

John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings. (1964). Random House Inc.

Kerka, Sandra (1998). Volunteering and adult learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 202)

Heyman, Ken (1983) The World’s Family. New York: A Pound Press Book G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Smith, Mark K. (2001). David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning. Informal Education [On-line]. Available:http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm


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