Us, not them; we, not they

Janet Isserlis


1984 1990 1992 1993 1995 1996 1998

Education workers generally, and ESOL facilitators particularly, are in privileged positions as people who use their abilities to read and use language to assist others who want to develop those abilities 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 coming and going that constitutes being a woman in the latter part of the 20th century. Nancy Cooper, a First Nations adult educator in Ontario, speaks eloquently to 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. Her work and that of many others throw into question the issue of who has power, whose voice is heard and how learning transpires across this continent and around the world. And how this power is doubly jeopardized when language itself is not available to women as a tool.

In reflecting on my own experience, I've borrowed, internalized, and I hope, learned from the words and actions of others. 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, image presented to me that challenges the security with which I think 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. how xenophobia 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, first language/culture or ability are not 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 I, along with a group of Canadian women, finished writing Making Connections, a curriculum for literacy and language learning from a feminist perspective, I thought I had contributed to something I saw as explicitly addressing oppression -- racism, xenophobia, homophobia -- 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 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 language and literacy. It is incomplete, though, as are many materials in one way or another. Materials 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 they need to do so.

For some students, this means learning a new language and culture - that of schools and authority, accountability and tests. Or being able to read a newspaper, a letter from home, or leaving a note for a roommate. For others it means learning that speaking out is within reach. A right, not a privilege. One for which, at least for the time being, in some countries, a person is not threatened with bodily harm, or the loss of family, home or employment. 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. For some learners, Elsa points out, that power can be used to invoke the right to remain silent - to choose not to respond to invasive or inappropriately posed questions; to refuse to speak when privacy is violated. 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 who they are and what they need without asking. Or by asking the wrong question in the wrong way at the wrong time.

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/ 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. Religion and family are touchstones for some, and differently so for others. 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.

We're meeting in a city full of contrasts and contradictions. Who are the people pouring the water, making the beds, answering phones and carrying bags? How do we interact with them as consumers, as customers, as the people they serve? How patient are we now when we're waiting for a sandwich?

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 or teachers 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 language learning and teaching - to inform a critical approach to teaching and learning, especially in the light of external constraints, such as welfare reform, mandated learning outcomes and an erratic employment market. We need to connect, too, with colleagues who work with our learners in other contexts - in the areas of welfare, violence, health, and housing, for example.

Within our classes, we can specifically consider the approaches we use, look to problem posing as a model, assuming that there is no one right answer, as means of getting into content, and language experience, bridging from learners' own words into writing generated from other people and other perspectives, writing which may use language differently. Open-ended materials inevitably lead to locating and utilizing more specific (re)sources. Working with and from learners' places of strength and addressing areas of need by embedding skills work into meaningful content is not a new idea at all. Let's get on with it, more carefully, more intentionally. Let's begin by listening. and as Elsa very wisely suggests, by listening between the lines. 

implicit guidelines/suggestions // explicit points with thanks to Elsa Auerbach

We need to consider be critical/aware of problematize:

making assumptions about other people's realities

making generalizations based on one's own experience, realities, perceptions

being open to criticism/making space for others to tell you what you're missing, what you've misheard/stated/gotten wrong

normalizing certain realities at the expense of others

imposing one model on different situations/needs

working from strengths

We need to:

question, learn, listen, investigate (Elsa: 'listening between the lines')

consider alternative ways of knowing

practice humility

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 Traitor - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity

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