A few years ago, I was teaching workplace ESOL classes for workers at a large hospital. The classes were sponsored jointly by the hospital and the union, and classes were taught by teachers from the union's worker education program. This article describes some participatory lessons in my workplace ESOL class, where we explored work, the union, and taking action, together.
My hospital class had eight students—three women and five men, who worked in housekeeping, dietary, and transport departments. Two students were native speakers of English (from Trinidad and Barbados). All had worked at the hospital for several years except one, and all had high levels of
spoken English. All were union members.
Goals: Workers, Union, Hospital, Teacher
These workers had low-level literacy skills and were all eager to improve their reading and writing. The union and hospital wanted people to improve communication and writing skills. As the teacher,
I wanted to have an engaging, dynamic class that kept workers coming back. Most important, I wanted to create worker-centered, participatory lessons that would bring out students' work issues and concerns and help us examine them together. I wanted us to explore students' experiences and knowledge of their union, and develop lessons on union issues. I hoped class work might lead to students taking some sort of action to ad-dress issues raised in class. And I wanted to give workers lots of reading and writing practice that would help them gain confidence and skills.
During the fall cycle, I would often write up students' main points on flip chart paper as our discussions moved along. This habit kept discussions focused and helped to get everyone talking, since all the students wanted to see their comments up on the flip chart. The process also helped to democratize discussions that might otherwise be dominated by the more talkative students.
I would then type up people's comments after class and we would read them during the next class. Workers appreciated seeing their words in print, and even the lowest-level readers could read and understand their own comments. Reading back discussion content also helped us recall, re-spark, or continue discussions from previous classes.
The Theme of Work
We spent the fall cycle reading and writing about work. I used short readings as catalyst activities to explore student's interests. Students read workers' stories, described their own jobs, interviewed each other about work, and compared their departments with others. The stories students liked best came from Working Writers, collections of student writings we had compiled and published.We also read a piece from Working Writers II, "Speak Up For Your Rights"(1998) by Joan Canty. Reading this piece sparked animated discussion, and led to the participatory work described below.
Speak Up for Your Rights
In "Speak Up for Your Rights," the author describes her first job (in 1959), when she worked as a nurse's aide at a large hospital. She recalls the bad treatment she received that led her to quit six months after she started. At the end of the piece, she concludes, "I learned after my first job experience about communicating with my supervisors, asking questions about my evaluation, and many other things I needed to know about my job. I learned to be aggressive and speak up for my rights."
"Speak Up for Your Rights" sparked a lot of dialogue. Students' questions about the story led us to examine the question: "What are your rights at work?" The students seemed quite familiar with basic union procedures and members' rights. (This is not always the case, even for long-time workers.) They all had experience with supervisor problems and shared strategies for dealing with them.
Worker Rights in Massachusetts
Hoping to expand our discussion of workers' rights and the union, I posted a big version of a "Workers' Rights in Massachusetts Quiz" I had created (on flip chart paper). We read it together. The quiz followed a yes/no format we had routinely used for reading comprehension practice in the fall cycle. First, I asked students to complete the quiz thinking about rights guaranteed all workers in Massachusetts, even those in non-union jobs. People circled yes or no for each item. When everyone was done, they called out answers. Once we decided the correct answer for each item, I put a "yes" or "no" Post-It next to the item on the flip chart–sized quiz.
These workers, many of whom had worked in union jobs for years, were surprised to learn that state laws guarantee workers relatively few rights. I asked students to do the quiz again, this time answering it about their own rights as unionized workers at the hospital. I used different-colored Post-Its for our union yes/no answers, and we compared rights guaranteed under the union contract and under state law—the contract guaranteed more! People laughed and debated as we went over the answers together.
We reviewed the quiz in the next class. Then I posed more discussion questions: Why do you have these rights? How did you get these rights? How do you find out about your rights? What is a union contract? How do you find out what is in the contract? and How do you read the contract?
Workers eagerly shared opinions, experiences, and advice. Several students said that they attended union meetings regularly. Questions that surfaced during this discussion included, "Should the union tell the employee about their rights after the union meets with the supervisor?" and "Should the union representative tell you if you did something wrong?" I asked students to write about a time they had spoken up for their rights. I also asked workers if they wanted to talk more about the contract and union representatives, which they did. So I asked them to bring their union contracts to the next class.
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Practicing Specific Reading Skills Using the Union Contract
For the next class, I prepared a worksheet for exploring the contract. To complete the first part of the worksheet, students had to use the contract table of contents. For the second part, they had to look up contract articles and search for specific pieces of information; for example they had to research how many days notice supervisors must provide if they plan to change a worker's schedule. I hoped this search would reinforce what people knew, provide some practice with written text, and perhaps bring out more questions.
Students enjoyed looking through the contract and locating specific information. I posted vocabulary words from the contract worksheet and we practiced them.
Union Steward Roles
For the remainder of the class, we discussed the roles and responsibilities of union stewards. (The steward is usually the union rep that workers talk to first about issues and problems.) I had prepared discussion questions and a brief reading about steward roles to try to address students' previous questions about union stewards informing members of their rights and telling workers if they've done something wrong. Before we read, I asked workers to name what they thought union stewards should do. I wrote people's ideas on flip chart paper. Workers felt strongly that stewards should explain things to members if there is a problem, and not just meet with management alone.
After this discussion, we read a Duty of Fair Representation (DFR) paragraph I had excerpted from the union steward's handbook. The excerpt contained words that many students understood but could not sight read ("regardless," "disability," "oppose," "discord"), and we did extensive vocabulary work that absorbed us until the end of class. The DFR information helped workers clarify what stewards are supposed to do. We agreed that a union representative should come to class and talk to people about union stewards.
We spent the next four classes reading, doing grammar work, and completing review activities. We practiced have to/has to statements based on the readings. These were calm, relaxed classes, a break from our intense discussions. Students were very absorbed in reading and writing work.
Visit From a Union Representative
We invited a union representative to visit our class. During the class before his visit, we made a list of questions to ask him. During the visit, students got answers to some of their questions. They also talked with the union rep about the eve-ning housekeeping shift.
Students were concerned because this shift had no stewards, and workers didn't stand up for themselves.
With the exception of one worker, everyone in this class had worked at the hospital for years and had lots of experience, opinions, and advice for each other. For the most part, they understood how the union worked and were eager to talk about it. I see the following outcomes as successes in this class:
- Workers often clarified information and answered questions for each other.
- Everyone had a chance to voice concerns and be heard.
- Our discussions gave workers the opportunity to explain their experiences, share lessons they had learned, and suggest what other workers could do.
- Students loved reading the Working Writers pieces; they related them easily to their own experiences and opinions. Starting with these personal stories and discussing their own experiences helped people connect more to our reading of "official" texts like the union contract and steward's handbook excerpts.
- Workers appreciated the chance to read official texts as well and felt proud that they could make sense of such complex reading. But starting with texts like these might have put people off or put them to sleep.
- We took action together by inviting a union rep in to class; during that visit we were able to address union and member responsibilities and clear up some concerns workers had.
Most of all, the class afforded an opportunity for workers to discuss matters of daily importance in their lives. We were able to address union and member responsibilities and clear up some concerns workers had. Even if we never get past discussion, writing, and language, I think that the dialogue itself is valuable. When we discussed issues together, I often felt that students had a better critical understanding of them than I did. It was my job to pose problems and questions for dialogue, and to provide a structure for thinking critically and moving forward. I was not the expert, but I did my best to create a space for students' experience and expertise to come out. Then we worked on understanding the issues together.
Note: My approach to participatory education is informed by the books in the resource listing below. Both of them provide in-depth discussion and documentation of creating participatory curricula in ESOL classes and are valuable resources for teachers.
Auerbach, E. (1992). Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL literacy. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Nash, A., Cason, A. Rhum, M., McGrail, L., and Gomez-Sanford, R. (1992). Talking Shop: A Curriculum Sourcebook for Participatory Adult ESL. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Jenny Lee Utech taught ESOL for over 13 years. She also served as director for two
programs, one workplace education and one community-based. Jenny is now working for the
Massachusetts Worker Education Roundtable to develop trainings for teachers in labor-management
worker education programs. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.