Reflecting on the Links Between Literacy Practices and Community
Judy Hofer & Pat Larson
The Literacy Project:Ware Adult Education Center
North Quabbin Adult Education Center
Learning to work collaboratively
with shared visions and goals is at the heart of people building
better futures for themselves and their communities. Adult learning
centers can foster the skills, awareness, knowledge, and experiences
of working together effectively. Through group classes, management
committees, potlucks, and community activities, learners may have
the opportunity to problem solve, offer their opinions, make decisions,
advocate, and listen to others of different backgrounds. As individuals
experience being listeners and being heard, they become more willing
and able to advocate on their own behalf outside the four walls
of the classroom, be it with spouses, landlords, employers, teachers,
neighbors, or politicians.
Many assessment tools used in literacy programs, even those which
educators call alternative, usually focus on how to assess where
students are in terms of their goals. Checklists and portfolios
aim to give feedback to students and teachers about how students
reading, writing, and numeracy skills have improved. While we have
found these helpful, both of us have recognized that these accomplishments
are not what make us feel passionately about our work.
We get our energy for continuing as practitioners in the field
when we see Mary take the initiative to make coffee for everyone
when just months before she was so shut down that she did not speak
unless a teacher directly asked her a question. She began huddled
within herself; now she gives us a hard time for not writing in
our own journals. Or we look at Fred who started our program saying
nervously that he hoped he could get a private tutor; now he participates
on the long range planning committee. And Diane responds that the
most valuable thing she learned from the other students in our creative
writing class is that its our differences that make
it exciting and our similarities that make it safe.
Or we might take some excerpts from Annettes essay. It has
virtually nothing to do with how much better her writing is. Rather
it has everything to do with what she has learned about herself
There are two kinds of people. The ones that go out and
read and write. Have the ability to handle anything that comes their
way. Not afraid to do it. They have the confidence they need.
There are also people that stay back in a closet. That
cant come out or are afraid to. But sometimes we see a little
light in the dark. We are looking for more light. When we do we
find it very interesting. We found out that we too have a very good
mind and feelings about things.
I found out there are many intelligent people in the dark
closet after all. Have the same confidence. We need to come out
of that dark closet. The light we see feels so good. We
need more of it. Its like being blind and you can see.
We lack indicators to measure this type of growth. In fact, these
measures of an awareness that working class people also create knowledge,
of increased confidence, feeling greater control over ones
life, participating in groups and taking on leadership roles are
actually trivialized because we measure our students progress
in terms of narrowly-defined goals. Many participants in adult education
come to us feeling they are failures, and that we the experts will
fill up their empty minds with what they need. We want to set forth
right from the start that people coming to an adult education program
must take an active role in their own learning, and that working
within a group will enhance that process.
COMING TOGETHER AS A GROUP
Very few of our participants have experienced being part of a group
that shared a sense of purpose. In rural, dying mill towns of Massachusetts,
with virtually no public transportation, few jobs, no community
centers, and limited access to social services, getting a GED and
improving reading and writing skills barely scratch the surface
of what is needed for people to get out of poverty and exercise
more control over their lives.
What is desperately needed is to provide participants with the opportunities,
knowledge and skills to work together cooperatively, imaginatively,
with critical analyses and tools for problem-solving. Recognition
of the value of this type of group building is growing in the business
world, with quality circles, leadership development, and the valuing
of being a team player. Yet where does it enter adult
learning centers? And even if these goals are explicit in our mission,
how do we articulate these to participants, influence their own
goals for themselves, assess progress in these areas, and move forward
to then bring the larger community into the classroom and the classroom
out to the larger community?
As we work with Component 3, we are attempting to develop language
to look back and not only assess individual progress
but also to assess what people do as a group/community part
of the continuum of literacy development for a community. This is
one reason why it seems important to discuss how to assess not only
what people do as individuals but also with groups.
Creating Tools to Measure Community, Too
Although literacy practices and community development may be difficult
to measure in the traditional sense of assessment and testing, there
may be indicators which show how an adult education center views
community development and collaborative group efforts. The way we
began this reflection was to frame the discussion in terms of such
general questions as:
1. How can we develop alternative assessment tools which look beyond
the deficit model of what should an individual be doing
differently to one which looks at a persons place in their
community, whether the classroom, the adult education center, their
family, their neighborhood, or their town?
2. How do we assess improvement and change as a continuous process
not only for the individual but for the community of individuals?
3. How does a program establish a strong link between the community,
its program, and the participants in a program?
4. How does a program meet participants personal goals while
considering the needs of a community? How can we assess the value
of both of these coming together so that a program achieves more
of its goals more often and more efficiently? (Stein)
5. How do we assess if there is movement or change on a continuum
in terms of community development by people participating in programs
and by the program? (Stein)
6. How do we assess peoples movement from individual goals
to group goals and collective activity? What has to happen to allow
for such movement?
7. How do we bridge looking at how individuals function in a group
and develop along a continuum to the idea of community development
and collective action?
8. In order to assess community development, how do we define leadership
9. How do we assess collective activity of a group with the group
rather than just assessment with individuals?
10. How do we develop a language of assessment which takes into
account the development of community and collaborative efforts at
adult education centers which also speaks to the needs of funders?
Answering all the above questions is beyond the scope of this discussion
paper. And some of the possible answers may be found only through
what Janet Isserlis describes as the interactive, dynamic,
dialogic roles of both teachers and learners in the on-going
assessment of daily classroom activities and other center and community
activities (Adventures in Assessment, Vol. 2).
In the Framework for Assessing Program Quality compiled by Sondra
Stein for the Association for Community-Based Education, Stein points
out a growing need to assess the ways we work in groups in terms
of problem-solving. Team problem-solving is growing in a number
of jobs to replace the model of workers being individual cogs in
a wheel. Thus, participants in adult education programs may need
and want experiences in team efforts. Stein says, Instead
of looking solely at learners and trying to figure out what they
need to do differently if we are unhappy with program results, we
should also look at the conditions and processes that lead to those
results and try to figure out what the program needs to do differently.
By experiencing and participating in groups, people may come together
around group projects such as community forums and other activities.
For example, Tawny, who came to The Literacy Project at the end
of 1990 and earned her GED in a few months, returned to the Center
in October, 1991 to begin volunteering as a tutor. Recently Tawny
said that when she first came to the Center she only wanted to work
alone and focus on getting her GED. Now look at me. I am helping
organize workshops, coordinating a newsletter for the Center, and
getting the local selectperson to come to some of our NEXT STEPS
Other community projects such as organizing SHARE (a food buying
program), publishing a community magazine, and starting a legal
literacy program all grew out of discussions and dialogue which
began in the classroom. The seed for the Legal Literacy and Advocacy
Project which grew out of several different discussions during a
nine month period, according to one of the advocates: Somebodys
welfare was cut off an elderly student. There was no explanation.
Welfare just said, Thats it. It was illegal, but
she wasnt aware that it was. We decided to go about helping
After six months of asking questions and talking with Legal Service
lawyers, two people started a legal literacy and advocacy project
for people in the community. The group of four people who developed
this project learned about keeping records and about dealing with
various agencies. They also kept a journal of their activities through
which they talked to each other about their experiences. One participant
said she learned how carrying out a community project using teamwork
is very different from the factory work she has experienced.
The stops and starts for such community projects illustrate that
progress is not always linear, and that it takes time. For many
people it may be recursive and cyclical with movement in and out
of the private and public realms (Fingeret). For example, as we
see Donna begin to speak in a group at the Center and break through
the silence on an individual level, we also see the discussions
in her class move toward community issues such as lack of jobs and
lack of public transportation. In time, Donna wrote a letter to
the local newspaper about the need for public transportation. At
first it appeared that this was an isolated writing activity. But
months later when nothing happened, Donna talked about the issue
in a group again and began writing letters to public officials.
She eventually organized a group meeting with the person directing
the regional transit authority. Thus, there is movement and change
both on the individual level and the collective level as a group
comes together to speak out in the larger community. All this takes
For now, our challenge as educators and facilitators is to negotiate
linking literacy practices to community development so that students
and staff can benefit from a common sense of purpose.
Discussions with participants at the North Quabbin
Adult Education Center Tawny Biegen, Mike Fernet, JoAnn Gonzalez,
Donna Fernet and others.
Fingeret, Hanna Arlene and Danin, Susan Tuck (1991).
They Really Put a Hurtin on My Brain: Learning
in Literacy Volunteers of New York City. Durham, N.C.: Literacy
Isserlis, Janet (1992). What You See: Ongoing Assessment
in the ESL/Literacy Classroom. In Loren McGrail , Ed., Adventures
in Assessment: Learner-Centered Approaches to Assessment and Evaluation
in Adult Literacy, Volume 2. Boston, MA: System for Adult Basic
Education Support (SABES).
Stein, Sondra (1993). Framework for Assessing Program
Quality. Washington, D.C.: Association for Community Based Education
Evaluation and Training Project.
Ware Adult Education Center
End of Cycle Evaluation for Writing Group
WHAT: This assessment tool is used to assess the individuals
progress in group participation, learning from others n groups,
and the mechanics and process of writing as well as to provide
the teacher with feedback for the class.
HOW: At the end of the three-month writing group, each participant
filled out this assessment form in our last class. First I
read through the entire evaluation to clarify and answer questions.
To respond to question #1, as a group, we brainstormed the
qualities we felt were most important to us an a whole. From
that list, indivdiuals chose their own qualities to reflect
upon furher. After completing the form, we shared our responses
with each other.
WHY: We used this form to assess ourselves, provide each other
with feedback, and make recommendations for future groups.
WHEN: This is to be used as a summative assessment at the
POPULATION: This tool is used in a mixed group with very beginning
writers and others who are going on to community colleges.
1. List four qualities that you think are particularly important
to participating in a group class.
2. Do you feel you have improved in these areas since being
in this class?
3. What did you learn from the other students in the class?
4. Assess yourself in the following areas:
Mechanics of Writing -- Improvement:
all | Somewhat | Quite a bit | A lot
4. Organization: main idea, paragrphs, sentences
Writing Process -------
at all | Somewhat | Quite a bit | A lot
1. Ability to write creatively
2. Writing becomes a part of my life
3. Writring helps me understand myself better
4. Carily of writing
5. Can express what I want to say in writing
6. Willingness to share writing
7. Enjoyment of writing
8. Fluidity of writing
5. What other areas do you feel youve improved in? Expand
on these and the above checklist.
6. Fill out the following paragraph:
Next time Im in a class or group like this, I hope
7. What was your favorite part(s) of this class? Or what
do you think was best about this class?
8. Fill out this paragraph, beginning:
Judy, the next time you offer this course, you should
9. Please describe this course as if you were talking to
a friend. Would you tell him/her to take it? Why or why not?
10. Any other comments, suggestions, thoughts?
11. Are you continuing into the next cycle? If yes, what
would you like to see happen?
Top of page
This article was published in Adventures
in Assessment, Volume 5 (October 1993), SABES/World Education,
Boston, MA, Copyright 1993.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.