on the screen - paper presented at TESOL 2000Vancouver, 15 March, 2000

Nancy Fritz : 1/ march / 2000

Images of water from this week

a student describes his family crossing the Mekong River tied together with rope - This in response to the question "Can you swim?" another student tells her teacher her "boyfriend"tried to drown her

Our students have so much in their heads -- How can they go on? 7 months pregnant by a man who raped her - sitting in Math class trying to understand fractions.

Maria - her husband wants to kill himself - but she still comes to class Kompheak - sent away from her parents at age 11 - mother starved to death in Cambodia.

Nancy's writing resonates with many of us; experiences we've been told about by adult refugee and immigrant learners, by adult learners who have experienced abuse in one form or another. This writing emerged from a session that Brett Simmons, an art therapist working with a group of practitioners in Rhode Island, facilitated. Brett helped us work with visual images in a way that was not threatening, that enabled us to reflect upon our own reactions to trauma and learning -- or not. In short, she modelling a reflection process for us as practitioners that could also be replicated as part of a larger language learning process with learners.

On the Screen, the project through which Brett, Nancy and others have come together to examine the effects of trauma on learning, is a one year fellowship project sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy with support from the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. This paper was given, in modified form, at TESOL 2000, Vancouver, March 15/2000.

Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning [p.33] Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman


my purpose today is to work with you to:
- identify/question our assumptions about violence
- challenge ideas that form and reinforce the status quo regarding violence
- explore : our roles as agents of change - what we can do, can and hope to achieve; how to best
inform and assist ourselves and our learners around issues of violence - present an overview of my work
- invite you to share ideas and envision steps/next steps.

On the Screen came about as a result of work to which I was exposed 6 years ago when collaborating with curriculum developers/literacy workers through a project of the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW). Jenny Horsman's work, particularly, on violence and learning, catalysed for me process of dim recognition -- I had heard those stories -- and evolved into one of explicit naming -- this is what it looks like when people are not present to learning and these might be reasons why they are unable to attend to the work we're trying to do in class; why some learners are unable to hear and participate and be fully part of a learning community, at best; or at the least, in less conducive settings, to be able to follow discussions, complete assignments, keep up with the work.

On the Screen came about because of the large numbers of adults in adult education contexts who have experienced abuse or trauma in one form or another and for whom learning poses serious challenges.

My work with adult ESOL learners had prepared me in some way to understand that trauma is a real part of everyday life for many adult immigrants and refugees, but I lacked the frame to step back and look at larger issues. The Refugee Mental Health project in the mid 80Õs gave me some idea that post traumatic stress was a contributing factor to people's difficulties in acclimating to the resettlement country and to participating in ESOL/literacy classes. I lacked, however, a keen grasp of what living with present abuse, past trauma or some combination of the two really meant. In large part it seemed self evident to me that if learners were able to trust the communities we tried to build in our classrooms, some of that sharing of pain would organically occur and barriers to learning would be lowered. We'd help one another, we'd listen, we'd understand. I came to realize a couple of things: one, that I've been unusually privileged in that I've been able to teach in relatively small groups, and have had relatively stable groups of learners within those classes - two of several conditions necessary for the development of community in a learning context. The second realization is that trauma is not only an issue for "others" - for learners, for refugees, for immigrants. It is something that affects us all. While many adult learners are victims of trauma, not all trauma victims/survivors are adult learners.

In 1997, shortly after I began working as project director of the RI LRC, a colleague contacted me to see what, if anything, we might be able to do to pull practitioners together to work on women's issues in literacy. For the next two years we met in a small group, a sharing/discussion group, of about 8 women (although the call for participation had been "for those educators interested in discussing women's issues in literacy" -- we'd never not invited men). I also continued to be connected to the work of CCLOW, participating as a workshop facilitator to field test Making Connections, the curriculum we'd developed. Jenny Horsman continued her research, and as I read her findings and participated in an online discussion about her work it became increasingly urgent to me to consider and begin our own explorations of her work south of the border.

I hesitated to take on workshops with teachers, fearing I would do more harm than good in opening the discussion about violence and learning without some sort of counselling, without 'real' resources behind me. We did manage to sponsor a workshop for area teachers facilitated by a staff member of our local shelter late in 1988. 16 people attended. Jenny came to Providence to facilitate a workshop last spring for which 30 people had registered; in the event a massive snow storm meant that 10 showed up. Clearly there was -- and is -- interest - those practitioners to whom I'd spoken who'd thought "violence has nothing to do with me," were at least open to understanding that there were things they could learn that would help them make their classrooms safer places. Jenny's online document, "But I'm not a therapist" resonated for many of us. This fellowship has come about from a need to explore more fully what it means to understand how trauma impacts upon learning while also recognizing that not only are we not therapists, but that many of us bring our own histories of trauma and abuse to this work. It has come about because classrooms need to be made safer for everyone and because adult literacy and ESOL workers need support in doing their work and acknowledgement of the stresses and difficultires as well as the moments of joy and clarity involved in that work. It's about lowering barriers to learning, to presence. It's about not "going away and healing" and then getting on with learning. It's about explicit acknoweldgement of the fact that learners and practitioners have much to learn through interaction with community collaborators -- domestic violence workers, health and mental health care providers and others with whom adult learners interact in communities. It's about helping those other providers, too, have a sense of the ways in which language and literacy impact upon people's ability to access and utilize available services in their communities. I'm hoping it's about cross-border work and about community development and about social change.

So what does it look like?

In September of last year, I posted a call for participation in the project to the RI adult education community. I asked people to commit to monthly meetings, some full day workshops and the development of some sort of inquiry project within their own contexts. Participants would be paid a stipend for their work, have conference fees paid and books / needed resource materials bought by the fellowship. We meet in our large group, to talk about our practice, we meet in smaller optional meetings with a trauma counsellor hired through the fellowship in order to ask questions, check our hunches, try to learn about appropriate responses, about what trauma might look like, about how we can safely help without oursleves taking on the role of counselors, rescuers or therapists.

We're meeting with and talking to Richard Hoffman, author of Half the House, a memoir detailing his own abuse as a child at the hands of a trusted adult.

Jenny is coming back to facilitate workshops with both our small group as well as with a larger group from the community to help us with our work. I'm tutoring a young woman in prison because the educator there has chosen not to participate in the project and I'm determined to at least make the needs - and strengths - of women in corrections education visible in whatever final report I submit.
We're communicating through a listserv, archived on a shadow site, as well as disseminating resources through meeting with other programs not participating in the project, and through a website devoted entirely to resources informing our work.

I'm reading constantly.

In the event, our hour and half workshop went for two hours -- and this solely to allow everyone in the circle to speak. They spoke to the prompt that Priscilla provided, a question about what they need to do the work they do t deal with issues of trauma in their practice. Their answers in some cases directly addressed the question Priscilla put forward. In other instances the opportunity to speak safely in a room of women -- even though many of us were strangers to one another -- modelled a powerful way in which listening and speaking in and of themselves can work to help people focus, be present, be part of a larger group.

I had an opportunity to speak with Priscilla and Jenny Horsman about a group that Jenny is now facilitating, exploring in practice the findings and analysis she brought to her research; incorporating spiritual, physical and emotional elements into her work with learners.

At a workshop in Chicago last week I saw nods of recognition when Monica Rios, a student of Anson Green (who has the other half of this fellowship) described her own and her friends obstacles to changing abusive relationships in their own lives. Teachers to whom I've spoken in programs in Rhode Island voice the same concerns. What can we do?

There are days when I wonder what good any of this work will do. A practitioner in Chicago thanked me for remembering to acknowledge abuse within same sex couples. I had, however, neglected to explicitly mention the additional risk that women with disabilities face. I don't know that I was able to adequately address the ways that systemic violence is done by racism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, sexism and other forms of institutional oppression -- all of which do violence to us in myriad ways and which must be named and addressed.

I am not here to provide a DV 101 workshop, per se. Having framed this work, having not asked for a workshop format because when I submitted this proposal I wasn't sure that the fellowship would have been funded and if not, how well I would be able to facilitate an entire workshop -- I'd thought I'd share my work and synthesize that of others. The good news is that the fellowship came through. The challenge, though, remains -- how can we see this work as I feel we must -- as part of a larger process of social change? Judith Herman speaks to the ways in which survivors of trauma seek control, connection and meaning; in many ways language gives access to those very things. Finding the wherewithal to learn language in order to then use it to make meaning, to interact with others, is already some of what we try to help people do. How do we do this work ourselves? How do we express our outrage at the way violence in all its forms has been normalized around the world?

Part of the synthesis towards which I'm working, and part of the discussion and active work I hope we can now open up, has to do with assumptions about violence -- who is/isn't affected by it, how or if we talk about violence in classes, what it means to be a victim or a perpetrator of violence, how we unwittingly, perhaps, are complicit in perpetuating forms of systemic violence.

[definition] Any institutionalized practice or procedure that adversely impacts on disadvantaged individuals or groups by burdening them psychologically, mentally, culturally, spiritually, economically, or physically. It includes practices and procedures that prevent students from learning, thus harming them. This may take the form of conventional policies and practies that foster a climate of violence, or policies and practices that appear to be neutral but result in discriminatory effects. J. Ross-Epp, AM Watkinson [97] Systermic Violence in Education: Promise Broken NY:SUNY Press.

[Gramsci's notions of "common sense" (something seems OK, seems normal because it is so 'common and universally accepted' - eg racism, poverty, homelessness) - which (I think) has the effect of rendering invisible various forms of oppression.]

There is a danger of knowing/asking "who" (is a victim)- rather than learning ways to make classes safer for everyone. Making our classrooms safe is of paramount importance. Creating safe spaces for us to discuss impacts of trauma so that we find balances between those who need to disclose and those who can not bear to witness disclosures find the safety they each need. This is difficult, toxic work. It has to have some hope, some joy, some moments where small changes outweigh despair. Safety itself is an invisible privilege for teachers, as is power -- we seldom (if ever) know what it feels like to be unsafe or without power in our own classrooms; we might have experienced a certain lack of power or feeling of competence in difficult staff meetings, or at conferences when our questions aren't responded to very respectfully -- but for many of us with education, class and white skin privilege this very concept of safety is one that needs examination.

To try to make this a bit more concrete, I want to share notes from a meeting with staff of a large educational and social service provider for new Americans in Providence's south side. We met to discuss staff's initial concerns about and understandings of the effects of trauma on learning. Trauma can be very broadly defined and encompassing. Many adult ESOL learners and practitioners have encountered trauma of a political and/or personal/domestic nature. All of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lifetimes - the loss of a loved one, surviving a serious accident, experiences of violence, etc. While trauma affects different people differently, access to support and healing systems also is significant in thinking about how people are more or less able to be 'present' (attentive) to learning. These notes point to their thinking, might resonate and open ours and finally lead to strategies and activities for classrooms and communities.

Teachers expressed a desire to assist learners, but a need to know what to do. ("I want to help, but I don't know how."

There is a need for:
raised staff awareness, across educational and social service divisions, about the prevalence and impacts of trauma on adults

legal definitions - what does or doesn't constitute legal parameters of domestic abuse? What legal rights are available to someone whose immigration status is reliant upon an abusive spouse? (can a woman lose her status, for example, if she leaves her husband or lose financial resources and/or opportunities to gain a green card?)

information about consequences of violence - legal, emotional, affective, in terms of learning.

ways to recognize impacts of trauma on learners [dissociation, erratic attendance, 'all or nothing' approach to learning, taking on new challenges, easy discouragement, silence, fear]

What resources are available to learners/clients and staff? What educational resources are available for integration into classroom (and case?) work?

perception - Certain cultures propagate a tacit acceptance of machismo and the behaviors associated with being a man in those cultures. 'Small acts' of violence, the perception that they're not as serious as 'big' ones; multigenerational households

Domestic violence is common in Mexico/Latin countries. It's hard to tell what's going on; men have power. How can I tell them (my students) that they have a right to protection, that being hurt by their husbands/partners isn't legal. Without education, people think it's ok. OR nobody understands them. It's private, it's in my house - no one can help/ no one can interfere; 'common sense'/invisible nature of the issue. It stays within the four walls. No thought of government protection within many [immigrant/ refugee] homes -- it's a 'normal' part of my life. These attitudes only intensify feelings of isolation on the part of the person experiencing abuse at the hands of a partner/family member.

Shaming is often culturally imposed. It's shameful to talk about being a victim of abuse. It's a problem that people don't like to talk about, it's a cultural problem. Try to avoid, shame of being judged. Mostly it happens at home, nobody knows, it's a taboo. Finding out ways to identify people when it's obvious that some sort of abuse is interfering with learning. I don't know how to help. How to present general information about domestic violence resources in a mixed-gender class?

We need to raise awareness around domestic violence. Case counselor and teaching staff need to learn about resources and connect with learners/clients and other service providers. What are the boundaries? What can/can't teachers do to help learners? We need to make conscious decisions as teachers - how far do we want to go.What are appropriate boundaries?

What to do once dv (domestic violence) has been identified? Other factors, causes? societal/families -- what contributes to the prevalence of dv? Can we frame discussions in our classes around violence generally, and create safe places where learners may or may not wish to disclose their own experiences of violence? Can we post information about resources in visible places in our learning centre and make this information available to students who may then utilize these resources when they're ready? Are the available services accessible to adults who do not speak English? Are they culturally congruent? Are they accessible by public transportation?

A large percentage of people who are seeking services/help around dv issues are also in need of access to adult education; transitioning out of relationships - there isn't a lot of support for people transitioning into new processes (learning to live independently, working, finding child care, life changes, etc.).

We need a speaker to tell students about laws, definitions, restraining orders, what happens once one enters the system, what's the process. What constitutes violence, what happens to one's risking one's immigration status? Where do women go to speak /to get help in Spanish?

What to do? Next steps? The group agreed wants access to information about dv for itself as a staff first, in order to learn what information to then pass along to students/clients.

- Opening up one way or another for students posing themes, to see what they know about violence, generally, or dv, specifically - what to do once that happens and someone discloses?

- Tie to existing minority health work/community wellness

- Educational staff should meet with social service staff to see what interest they have in exploring inservice help around dv. It's possible that social service folks have some awareness, knowledge experience and/or community contacts already. Staff needs to consider how they - separately and collectively - do or don't want to take on dv or violence generally within classes.

POLICY - attendance and other policy issues need to be taken up within the agency; e.g. zero tolerance for violence onsite; flexible attendance policies for 'family issues', etc.

How to not revictimize?

back to on the screen