Are we still talking about gender differences in ABE?

These are notes for an address given by Kate Nonesuch in 1998 to ABE instructors who work for School Board programs in British Columbia, Canada.

Kate Nonesuchis literacy co-ordinator and instructor at Malaspina University-College, Cowichan Campus, Duncan, BC. She is the editor of Making Connections (Toronto: CCLOW, 1996), co-author of a series of science books for basic readers and inventor of the Never-Fail Writing Method.

I am a white, middle class feminist; I have been doing anti-racism work for several years; I have been teaching ABE for 16 years (fundamentals and intermediate and upper levels English and math.)

I am going to talk today about the characteristics of a teaching practice that deals with gender issues. Then I'm going to talk about some of the specific barriers that impede women ABE students, and about how gender issues affect us as instructors.

When I started teaching ABE I started thinking and talking about gender issues. And I'm still talking about them -- not because I want to but because I have to. At first I just noticed things that didn't seem right, and I'll get to some of those things today -- barriers against women, violence, cultural norms, unsuitable curriculum and so on. Then I railed against them, as I had protested sexism in Canadian society generally.

Gradually, however, I began to see that as an instructor I had some power to change things in my classroom; as an instructor with some influence on administrators, I had some power to influence programming decisions. And I began to ask myself the question, "How does a feminist teach?" "What kind of relationships among learners, instructors, and tutors springs from a feminist politic?" The answers have taken different shapes at different times over the years. Their shapes below owe much to the thinking I was doing when I wrote "What is a feminist curriculum?" for Making Connections: Literacy and EAL from a Feminist Perspective.

We put women at the centre

We ask ourselves from the beginning, "What ways of learning and instruction have we found to be most useful when working with women ABE students?" We know that many of the same principles and methods are also successful when we work with men.

When we think about curriculum we ask, "What issues are important to women?" When we make programming decisions, we ask, "How would this proposal affect women's lives?"

Furthermore, "women's issues" are not just for women. We don't bring them up only in women's classes. Some men want to understand women's issues and to learn how best to support women where they choose to do so. For example, courses for women in trades and technology often prepare women to deal with sexism on the job; it is equally vital for men to learn how the traditional workplace discriminates against women and how a woman might feel to find herself part of a very small minority on the job. Men may also want to learn how to deal with men who hassle women at work and how to make the workplace a welcoming one for women.

We are concerned with issues of diversity

We want to include voices, experiences and values of all women, whether or not they would define themselves as feminist; we need to take into consideration the cultures and backgrounds of our students and give them a place in the classroom.

We are concerned with issues of power

Who has power, and how do they maintain it? Who has an opportunity for self-determination, and who is defined by those in power? The answers to these questions are not simple and involve race, culture, sexual orientation and ability as well as gender. They often raise problems of divided loyalties as we consider the various groups we belong to, some of which have more power than others.

Many men have similar issues around power, identity and control, especially men who are not white, middle class, heterosexual and well-educated. In our classrooms we need to make space for people to consider such issues.

We make space for women's experience

We do not assume that the generic "he" includes all of us. When we are reading an essay or story about Joe's first day on the job, we try to have another story about Janet's first day. We talk about the differences in their experiences.

We make sure we say it out loud because it acknowledges women's real place in the power imbalance. Very likely, someone in the class will be in that situation. If we don't say it, we conspire to silence her.

We are concerned with emotions

We know that students come back to school with many emotions. Did they fail in school before and are afraid to fail again? Are they angry that they have to do upgrading because the education they got in their country of origin is not recognized here? We need to take into account the emotional needs of learners, validation of what they already know, safety, increased self esteem and so on. In a feminist classroom, emotions are front and centre, acknowledged and analyzed. The acknowledgement and analysis of emotions, in western culture, have been the province of women; in institutions of learning, where for centuries women were banned, emotions were also banned. We put them back into the classroom and say they are important.

Many men and some women may be reluctant to take part in activities which focus on the emotional aspects of learning and resist their inclusion in the classroom; they may say that such activities are not "real" school. If a program were "man-centered," we might dispense with or disguise exercises that, for instance, ask learners to remember what it was like to fail in school. We say women are used to doing the emotional work in our society, it is important work and we will recognize it. In order to do good academic work, women need to have their feelings acknowledged, and their needs for physical and emotional safety met. Women's need to deal with their emotions should be given priority over some men's need to deny their feelings.

Of course, there are men in our classes who are ready and willing to take on emotional work, especially men who belong to Alcoholics Anonymous, or who have been in a treatment program for drug addiction. I once saw a student come away from a group of learners exchanging stories about what illiteracy had done to their lives. He was a tall, strong man, wearing a muscle shirt, upper body covered in tattoos, eyes red and teary, and reaching for his cigarettes. "Man," he said to a group of us sitting outside, "That crying really takes it out of you." When we focus on emotions, we value their work and experience in their healing process, and enlist them as allies in our efforts to make the classroom a safe place for the whole person.

We try to tell the truth when the truth is hidden

The truth is hidden in many of the texts we use. We invite learners to notice that some groups of people are not in the history books, then to suggest some reasons for the omission. We invent assignments that ask them to supply the omission, and finally to go out into their communities to share their new knowledge. However, it is not just in the past that women are hidden; and many other groups -- people of colour, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians -- are left out of many of the texts we use. In noticing all these different groups, we begin to forge alliances between them - or at least foster recognition of shared experiences of exclusion.

We try to tell the truth when the truth is difficult

Many of our students suffered pain and violence, both emotional and physical, in their school lives. Since this early pain may well affect learning in adulthood, making it part of the curriculum may enable some learners to move on to a more fruitful learning experience at this time.

We encourage women to speak in their own voices

In our classroom discussions and assignments, we encourage women to state their opinions, recognize the truth about their lives, what is good in them and what is not so good; we encourage women to talk to each other about their experiences, to see similarities in spite of differences, to make alliances and to work for change at a personal and/or a political level.

What a feminist practice is not!

Finally, we do not tell women what to think, how to live or what to do. We do not tell them they must change, or in what direction to move. Instead, we invite women to look at their lives and at the lives of others, to make connections between them and to think about issues of invisibility and power.

We do not tell women that everything is all right. We do not encourage women to change themselves in order to fit in better or to lie to themselves in order to feel better. We don't try to change the women; we try to change the system.

A feminist practice is not static!

With that as a general framework, let us turn to look at some of the barriers women face.

The program Active resistance from family and friends -- kids don't want to see mom doing homework; family doesn't want to take one extra chores; violence often increases.

As programmers we have to keep these things in mind. If we say we put the students' needs first in programming, we must make sure that women students' needs are considered equally with men.


When we talk about gender issues anywhere today, we have to talk about violence. A few years ago I took part in a national study on women-positive literacy work. Instructors and administrators from 12 centres, both urban and rural, from Duncan to Rabbit Falls Newfoundland, to Arviat, Northwest Territories took part. After a year of planning and carrying out woman-positive activities in their programs, all of us put violence high on the list of issues that faced women students. We said that dealing with violence was key to making it possible for women to come to programs and succeed in them. We didn't mean that until there was no violence, women couldn't get an education; we meant that ABE programs have to recognize that violence is a constant threat to women in their programs, and that dealing with violence may be interfering with women's participation and progress.

You can fill in your own story here, about a learner who couldn't continue in a program because she was too scared to come, or too bruised to come, or too demoralized to come. However, it is not only learners who are intimidated and constrained by violence or the threat of it. As a woman, I am constrained personally by the violence or the threat of violence in my classes. It happens often in smaller ways, but one day it was huge!

A few years ago, we (two instructors) conceived of a plan to split our literacy classes according to sex. There would be a woman-only class, and perforce a class that would be mostly men and whatever women were not interested in the woman-only class. We thought the plan would be woman-positive, and answer many of the women's needs to have a place to voice their concerns and focus on their experiences at work, at school and at home.

We put our plan before a meeting of learners to see what they thought of it. Several men were adamant that the plan should not be carried out. They said it was natural for women and men to be together, that you didn't come to school to talk about feelings, you just came to do your work and get your grades, and so on. Two of them spoke so frequently and so vehemently that they silenced everyone, including me. I could not get any women in the group to express an opinion, and the other men were also very quiet. The meeting ended with a secret ballot on the question, and the vote was overwhelmingly against the proposal.

I was stunned; I hated those men yelling at me about what was "natural" and I felt powerless to make them stop. (I did try--none of the chairing and facilitating skills I had worked.) I felt guilty for submitting the women in the class to another episode where somebody was yelling at them about what they should do, and I felt stupid because I hadn't anticipated the men's reaction and found some other way to broach the subject with the learners.

Here I'd ask you to think about a woman you know who is coping with violence. How do you support her? What actions or words or silence of yours support her abuser?

When white people talk about men beating up their wives, the subject of cultural acceptance often comes up. We say, "It's so hard to deal with students who come from India or Pakistan, for example, because that kind of violence is accepted in that culture;" I think we are maknig a mistake here. Violence against women is acceptable in white, mainstream Canadian culture. Think of the Montreal Massacre; think of those two boys who murdered the woman and girls in their school in Arkansas; think of the women who have been killed over the past couple of years in Canada by their exes. Mostly white skinned women. Mostly white skinned men. I have talked about the ones who got killed because they are the ones that get the headlines. They make news, but not because they involve battering. Women getting beaten up by their partners is not news. They make the news because they are murders. Murder is news because nobody says murder is okay.

Think about cases you read about women being raped and beaten by somebody who breaks into their apartment, or ambushes them on a dark street. They make news, but not because women are being raped and beaten. The news is that a stranger did it. If a husband, boyfriend or father does it, there is no news.

Violence against women is acceptable in mainstream Canadian culture. Look at pornography, the movies, TV advertising. What is not acceptable in Canadian culture is to talk about violence against women, or to let on you know it is happening. We can hide it because we live in isolated nuclear families. In cultures where there is an extended family, especially when several related adults share a home, it is impossible to hide. The cultural difference is in the acknowledgement of the violence that occurs, not in the acceptance of it.

An immigrant women who is the victim of violence may be cut off from her familiar sources of help. We need to do the same kind of educational work we do to teach people how the system works in other areas, such as medical care or employment insurance. To do this, we have to break our own taboos about talking about violence against women.

Men are clearly also at risk of violence from other men. Men of colour and First Nations men are the targets of violence, and gay men run the risk of being beaten up for no reason except that they exist and make handy targets.

This is not the place to discuss the causes and cures of societal violence, or to propose solutions for it, if I had any to propose. However, violence and the effects of violence come into our classrooms. I do have some suggestions for working with students who are survivors or victims of violence and for taking care of yourself in the process.

In our book Making Connections, we decided to warn teachers about the content of some readings and suggested activities if they were likely to trigger memories of past violence or sexual abuse. We used a drawing of an exploding heart to mark the dangerous passages. This warning was important. Sometimes while working with students you find yourself in the middle of an emotional storm that you didn't foresee. Something that you read or did or said brings up a students' memories or current situation. Suddenly you have tears or shouting or chairs crashing over, and someone running out of the classroom in tears. I like my classroom to be a little more predictable, so I plan how I will deal with the material and with emotions that arise from it.

I have found Jenny Horsman's chapter "Responding to Disclosures of Abuse in Women's Lives" from Making Connections invaluable. Here, in outline, are the steps she offers to make dealing with disclosures easier to manage and more fruitful for both instructor and learners.

When a learner discloses present or past violence and abuse:

Validate her experience.

Help her find help.

Offer her what support you can.

Look after yourself?

In preparation for dealing with disclosures, ask yourself, "What do I need to be able to offer help to my students around issues of violence and safety?" How can you get what you need?

Students will disclose, no matter what you teach them or how "cool" the subject matter is. If you are a good teacher; if you allow them to take the risks required to learn, if you respect them and show it, they will disclose to you. 

How gender issues affect us personally: Who teaches ABE?

In many ways, ABE is a mirror of the k-12 system: at the lower levels, instructors are mainly women; both men and women teach at the upper levels. There is more emphasis on "nurturing" at the lower levels, especially fundamentals; the stress is on process, confidence building, learning to take part in group activities, get along well in the classroom. At upper levels the stress is on content, usually content that has to be moved through at a fast pace; exit standards are critical.

There is more status attached to upper levels. I see this when I talk about my own experience; mostly people know me as a fundamentals teacher. When I want a little more leverage in a situation, I make sure people know that I teach grade 11 algebra as well as basic arithmetic. At a meeting of English teachers from all four of our campuses, I referred to my never-fail writing method. As I began to talk about using it with grade 12 classes, the interest sharpened; eyes that had been glazed over suddenly looked at me and my methods with new respect.

What effect does this have on us and our students? When they come back at lower levels they see a devaluation of themselves; they know they are really starting "at the bottom."

Sometimes students don't want to take classes from women teachers. They behave in ways that let us know that. It may be because they come from cultures where women are not teachers, or they went to school in Canada, dropped out early so that most of their teachers were women; the resentments and anger carried over from those experiences gets dumped on us.

Sometimes they make sexual advances, which may be genuine or simply a way of demeaning the teacher.

What happens when you speak about gender issues in ABE?

Dealing with gender issues in ABE means talking about them. The answers to "How does a feminist teach?" involve your being explicit about gender issues; coping with violence involves your talking about violence and being prepared to listen to others' experiences. The more you work to encourage change, the more repercussions there may be. If you are a seasoned worker for change, you will already know that you can expect resistance or backlash, as well as more positive effects.

If you have never worked with learners using material that encourages them to think about their lives and to make changes in them, you might want to reflect on the following ideas as you are getting started. When you invite people to bring all of themselves to their literacy work and when together you make the class a place of safety and risk-taking, you can expect learners, both women and men, to come to you with issues from their past that they have never dealt with.

People make changes in their lives in their own ways and at their own paces; they will be at different points of readiness for thinking about change and making change. They will do only what they are ready to do.

Resistance curriculum will come from many sources. It will come from learners themselves, especially from men who do not see themselves reflected as they might expect. When you begin to use material that asks students to reflect on their lives, on issues of power, to bring their hearts as well as their heads to the work, many will resist. Clearly, you cannot force learners to use such material, or to respond in a way that they are not used to doing at school. They will not be forced, and there would be no point to trying to force them. However, do not be fooled by the loudest protesters into thinking that everyone does not like the material you are using. If you offer the material in such a way that those who want to participate can, and offer alternate activities to others, you will not have to deal with so much resistance directed against you and you may find that gradually the size of the group working on these activities grows.

Resistance will also come from administrators and other instructors or tutors. This will vary in type and strength, but will always be less if you are working with learners who have chosen to work with you on this curriculum. Make the learners your allies. Find some other allies as well, a mentor, a counsellor who works with the learners in your class, a librarian who will help the learners with research and get to know your program.

You will almost surely find resistance coming from within yourself. You may hear voices saying, "It's not real literacy work," "I can't measure what they are learning," "I'll get into a lot of trouble for rocking the boat," "It's too hard to figure out how to adapt these ideas to my situation, and the repercussions are huge if I do it wrong," and so on. Don't beat yourself up. Some times and places are more fruitful than others. Work with the learners and with your other allies. Start slowly and watch what happens.

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