I’m home again, writing this from Mudgee NSW but with Canada still very much in mind as I reflect on the similarities and differences of the two countries. Although I missed the last month of campaigning I was back in time to cast my vote in Saturday’s federal election and watch the long night, that’s stretching to a long week with results still undecided. Going to Canada I’d been very interested in the impact of their new Trudeau government on vocational education. Actually, like Australia, most of Canada’s education funding comes from the provinces (i.e. is state based), though Aboriginal Education is funded federally. However, there was a positive air amongst educators because of Trudeau, which we’re unlikely to feel in Australia, whatever way our election results go.
In Australia it’s NAIDOC (originally National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) week and on Tuesday, in the midst of a downpour, I went to the Council offices to join in an Aboriginal flag raising ceremony. The rain was so heavy the flag raising was cancelled and instead we gathered in a meeting room to see a short video, create artwork together, based on the 2016 theme of Songlines, and share morning tea. It was a small gathering but not a bad turnout for such a wet day.
During the final part of my study tour, at the northern hemisphere’s summer equinox on 21 June, it was Canada’s National Aboriginal Day and I joined some local festivities in Kamloops. The park was full of friendly locals and I enjoyed a few conversations, one with a woman called Flora who was selling home crafted jewellery but who was also a support teacher for Aboriginal students at the local high school. This year, 97 percent of the Aboriginal high school students enrolled in year 12 across the entire high school district had graduated Year 12. Now that’s Closing the Gap, even though Flora explains that not all these graduates are eligible to go to university.
Flora introduced me to one of her students, Shannara, one of the just graduated year 12 students, and about to head north for a holiday job. In turn I met Shannara’s parents, Tanya and Pat, and we conversed a while about Aboriginal issues in our respective countries.
Tanya was raised in Kamloops but, like Sally Morgan (author of My Place), didn’t learn of her Aboriginal ancestry till she was older. Tanya is pleased that her daughter has had the chance to learn about her Aboriginal culture within the school system and with the support of people like Flora.
Tomorrow, in Australia’s Central West, I’ll be joining in as NAIDOC celebrations continue at Wellington showgrounds, where TAFE will be promoting a new, local course designed for Aboriginal peoples to gain skills while they learn about their culture and Wiradjuri language.
Incidentally, this year’s NAIDOC poster was created by Mudgee born Wiradjuri artist, Lani Balzan.
Kamloops Street School is a school with a difference – it’s located in a shopping centre! This was the last of my arranged visits to educational facilities in BC, Canada, and was one of the most innovative methods of delivering Adult Basic Education that I was privileged to see.
The Street School operates from a shop space in a large shopping centre that occupies perhaps twice the space of Dubbo’s Orana Mall. I made my way past half a dozen shops and pushed open the frosted plate glass door, entering straight into the classroom space. Several students sat at round tables, bent over books. They paid my arrival little attention, obviously used to people coming and going, but Fiona Clare, my local Decoda contact and community literacy facilitator, was looking out for me, and introduced me to the two key Street School staff. Peter and Tonia have different roles but share the vision and commitment that make this second chance learning environment such a success.
Street School is a drop in, self-paced, learning space that targets marginalized adults and street people. It began from Peter teaching in a gaol and later operated out of a church basement for nine years, before moving into the shopping centre. Peter has been involved from the start and runs the teaching program while Tonia is a social worker who’s been with Street School since 2007 and provides the school’s outreach arm. Together they provide the continuity and vision of this remarkable school.
The mission statement of Street School reads: ” To provide opportunities for meaningful learning by supporting students within the classroom and in the community.” Community and person-centred support is the main point of difference with other providers; of the educational providers I contacted in Canada, Street School were the only ones to provide a social worker.
Tonia is actually employed by another community organisation to work at the school and the funding for her social work position comes from both government and community fundraising. Some funding requires an annual application, some is on a three year cycle. Although Tonia’s funding is not guaranteed, fortunately “they love what we’re doing”.
Street School runs year round, mostly five days a week, with a reduced program in summer. There’s an evening class once a week. Some students come for the whole day, others drop in for 15 minutes or an hour or two. There’s a rolling intake with people on probation etc. having immediate registration. Attendance records are kept and Tonia will make contact with people who haven’t shown up for a few weeks. Over the year two hundred people might attend; there’s often 30 students attending per day and up to 45 people have crowded in at once.
Four teachers work at Street school as well as half a dozen volunteers who work one to one with learners as mentors and tutors to “simply provide support” for an hour per week. The volunteers have minimal training though most are retired school teachers and some have counselling backgrounds.
There’s almost no technology in this school. Peter points to one computer in the back room and explains that although there’s a place for technology and online learning it’s not for people with lower levels and high needs. It’s the human factor that such learners need and technology tends to be a barrier.
The human factor is well catered for, literally, with continental breakfasts provided every day and a hot lunch twice a week. The food is not just a nice touch but, as Peter explains, it’s “integral to the program”. It costs $6,000 to $8,000 per annum to run the food program, with a local food bank providing bread, fruit, vegetables and other non-perishable items. Tonia used to cook the hot lunches – soups, casseroles, lasagne – but now there’s a paid cook.
Everyone sits and eats together. More than providing nourishment, this helps build a community of learners.
The strength of connection can continue long after graduation and students have been known to drop in five years after graduating to get a bit of help. Peter and Tonia describe one student’s journey: the student had been in correctional facilities since the age of eight or nine, began Street School in the gaol and continued when they moved to the church basement. He’d been on ‘income assistance’ but after graduating found work, became a union steward, bought a house in Calgary and invited them to attend his wedding and, later, the baptisms of his two young boys.
Peter tells me that about 30 percent of the Street School students are Aboriginal, compared with about 8 percent for Kamloops as a whole. Statistics for Canada overall are that just over four percent of the total population are Aboriginal. Also, like Australia, they have a disproportionate rate of incarceration, with Aboriginal people making up over 20 percent of the Canadian prison population (in Australia the rate is even higher at 26 percent). The school tries to provide culturally respectful content though Peter considers the school’s focus to be more strongly “person-centred” than specifically Aboriginal.
Street School is part of School District No. 73, which comprises all elementary and secondary schools in the Kamloops region. All students live within an hour’s drive of the School. School district No. 73 also runs KOOL school, an online distance option similar to that I described for Navigate, at North Island Distance School in my Parallels post of 2 June. KOOL also offers an adult graduation pathway, although Peter remarked that students tend to come to Street School after attempting KOOL and dropping out of the online learning environment.
The day I visit Street School is Canada’s National Aboriginal Day and afterwards I join some festivities in a local park. In casual conversation I mention having visited Street School and am told that an 84 year old has just graduated from high school there and there’s been a story in the local newspaper. Later I find a podcast of her story too. While the student’s age can be noted in celebration of life-long learning, it’s her story of wanting to graduate high school her whole life, and the barriers that prevented it, that really speak to me. Early in life, family circumstances and cultural background led her to leave school early to help at home. Later, raising her own family and working with her husband precluded study. Afterwards, distance and lack of transport were also barriers but finally, after moving to Kamloops, Street School enabled her to achieve her life-long desire.
The city of Kamloops reminds me of a hilly and larger version of Dubbo, with forestry, mining and agriculture underpinning the town’s economy. Thompson Rivers University brings education into the mix, and TRU-OL (Thompson Rivers University Open Learning section) distributes it widely. However, when I went to visit to find out about their online delivery of Adult Basic Education (ABE) it wasn’t quite as I’d expected, for a couple of reasons.
First, my email arrangements hadn’t progressed to a definite person or time but as the campus was only a short walk from my accommodation, I decided to walk over. To be honest, we could expect the majority of Open Learning students to live afar or be working and hence complete their applications on the web and never need to visit the campus. But still, imagine the following experience from the point of view of a potential ABE student who chooses to make arrangements face to face.
It’s easy walking onto the campus and large maps make it reasonably easy to find the building that houses TRU-OL’s Open Learning Centre. A sign says it’s located on the 4th floor, so I take the lift up and walk into a reception area. There’s no receptionist, not even a reception desk. Instead, a sign, typed on A4 paper and sitting on a small circular table, directs enquiring students to go into an adjacent interview cubicle and pick up a phone; someone will answer.
I couldn’t help but think how an ABE applicant might find it easier to leave instead.
However, on picking up the phone it didn’t take long to see a real person, who explaained my email contact was away on a conference and who was also was kind enough explain how TRU-OL’s system works for ABE learners seeking, for example, high school graduation courses.
And here was my second surprise, because the website prominently promotes ABE courses but Hillary said they’re actually not delivering them much at present.
The reason for reduced delivery of ABE is the same as I’ve reported in other posts, a change in provincial government funding means enrolments to upgrade are no longer automatically covered, so people are tending not to enrol.
I was shown the short list of ABE courses TRU-OL currently offers and then the wider range offered by KOOL (Kamloops Open Online Learning), the distance learning arm of the local school district. It sounds like ABE applicants are likely to be encouraged towards school-based delivery.
Students enrolled with TRU-OL, for any study discipline, gain access to an Open Learning Faculty Member (OLFM). TRU-OL currently has between 200 to 300 OLFMs available to help support the students’ distance learning journey.
“Who makes the first contact?” I ask.
“The student”, comes the slightly perplexed reply, as if that’s natural.
Except it isn’t natural to most Foundation / ABE students.
TRU-OL has been slowly amalgamating with Thompson Rivers University over the past eight years and the processed is not yet complete. This means that TRU-OL works with two different educational learning platforms, Blackboard Collaborate (original platform) and moving to Moodle, expecting the transition to be complete next year.
Most online courses have print versions available, to ‘Print on Demand’, and mailing paper versions of courses is the default position for band width problems.
For online students who can access the campus, Thompson Rivers University offers Math and Writing Centres in another building on the campus. These are staffed by volunteers. I tried to drop in but the Writing Centre was closed, whether too late in the day or too late in the term I wasn’t sure, and no hours were advertised on the door.
Overall, this seemed a fairly standard way of delivering on-line training. My next, and last visit to a Canadian educational facility, was far different and innovative – though not on-line. Read about it in my next post.
If I needed help with literacy and lived in BC, Canada, I’d like to be in Tracy’s class. Tracy Riley, whose official title reads ‘Adult Academic and Career Preparation’, teaches a Fundamental (Year 9 equivalent) English class at Salmon Arm, a medium sized campus of Okanagan College.
Her classroom is a welcoming space with circular tables instead of desks, a bookcase of dictionaries in a corner, and notice boards and posters. But clearly Tracy herself is the classroom’s chief asset, displaying warmth and belief in her students’ ability to develop their skills.
Classes run four days a week, with Fundamental English in the morning and Fundamental Maths in the afternoons. Students attend a computer lab once a week. Some students attend only one of these subjects. There are other teachers who teach intermediate (Year 10 equivalent) and advanced classes (equivalent to TAFE’s Tertiary Preparation Course) in other rooms.
A key ingredient of Tracy’s classes is the way she incorporates shared reading using class sets of novels (purchased through the library) that are pitched at an appropriate reading level.
“Reading is power”, Tracy says, because of it’s similarity to oral story telling.
With a new class Tracy starts with short poetry readings and other small texts. After a few weeks she brings out a range of books and asks students to vote, using sticky notes, for their top four. By this means, students gain investment in the reading process.
Tracy reads aloud while students follow in their own books. They can take the novel home to re-read and practice but Tracy asks them to “please don’t read ahead!” It’s the discussion and questions around the stories that make the shared reading so powerful. Students develop the valuable reading skills of questioning, inference and connection of information. Next year the College is sharing in a local writers Festival so guest writers will also visit the College.
A typical morning of Foundational English starts with lots of conversation, games, free writing, maybe a spelling or grammar point, then novel studies which are the bulk of the session. Class starts 8:30am and they take a fifteen minute break at 9:30am. Tracy uses the reading session as an incentive to return , by stopping her reading at a juicy spot and resuming after the break. The reading is followed with worksheets and students also respond in writing to their own reading. One of the related portfolio tasks has been to create a novel cover.
One novel highly recommended by Tracy is The Stalker by Canadian author Gail Anderson-Dargatz, which includes themes including indigenous culture, cultural appropriation and a love triangle! Another favourite author is Canadian Aboriginal author Richard Wagamese who also features on a number of YouTube clips.
In this class up to 90 percent might be indigenous though at present around 30 percent of her students are Aboriginal. The class has a rolling intake, but Tracy tries to time new commencements to fit in with a new novel, so that students don’t feel left out or without understanding. There are the usual issues with this cohort – foster care, addictions, mental health. There’s a cap of fourteen students and Tracy teaches skills more than content.
It’s more difficult to provide a teacher-led class for maths as everyone is at different levels, has different aims and works with different booklets. Tracy and other teachers have provided cohesion by setting aside short times once a week to lead a group session around a maths activity. Tracy makes sure students know that it’s optional to join in. It generally starts with few actively participating learners; others continue with their booklets, but active participants increase as weeks go on. One example activity is making origami boxes, that are filled with sweets and the volume calculated. Passive learning also occurs , with Tracy giving an example of someone who always ignored the session and sat at the back of the room but once, when Tracy missed a session, he piped up and asked what had happened and made sure she was going to present an activity next time.
Tracy showed me a comprehensive book for teachers that contained a wide range of maths activities that was collated for the college using innovation funds. The funds also allowed them to acquire a boxful of ‘manipulatives’ – concrete maths resources including money, Cuisenaire rods, dice, measuring tape.
Few of Tracy’s students are likely to complete Year 12, to leave her class they need to be operating at Year 10 level to enter the Intermediate class, and their aim is generally to gain employment. Because of the students’ low literacy levels, there’s a cap of 14 students in the class, last year she had 11 students and eight gained their certificates while three were extended to keep developing skills.
We talked about how systems are changing and how, about two years, ago the government took away free tuition, though most of Tracy’s students are eligible for an Adult Upgrading Grant (AUG) that covers fees, transport, child care and other expenses. The College presently offers an internal bursary to cover tuition fees for students up to Year 10, who are ineligible for AUG. There’s a detailed application for the AUG, so the College needs to assist most students and has put on an additional staff member for this purpose.
I ask about the College’s general approach to online delivery, and learn that some delivery, especially in the Business area, is provided using a Moodle platform, but this is more for the benefit of students who miss classes rather than fully online or distance delivery. In fact, the College is promoted with the offer of face to face classes being a “point of difference” from other providers.
Learners are supported in other courses through the College’s ‘Success Centre’, though many connect through Tracy who links them with volunteer tutors. Once again, volunteers are “the backbone” for student support, and there’s a pool of around 30 with about 15 long-term volunteers. An issue is finding tutors who are young, male, able to help with maths etc.
Tracy also answers a puzzle I’ve had, ever since I was told about extremely high Year 12 graduation rates for a small town. As is happening in Australia, there’s increasing interest in students completing 12 years of schooling so graduating Year 12 doesn’t necessarily mean academic Year 12 and levels of English and Numeracy may still be very low. In her pre-assessment, a students might say “I passed Grade 12 Communications” but may actually be operating at a Grade 3 level, as Communications 12 is an extremely modified course.
The Banff Centre has hosted the Canadian Rockies Great Teachers Seminar for the past 31 years and is an amazing place in its own right. It’s well known by many Canadians. The voice and drama teacher attending the Great Teachers seminar had spent the best part of a year there on a scholarship in her youth; and a retired teacher I visited north of Kamloops, BC, recalled she’d gone there four summers in a row as a child learning ballet.
The place has a modern feel but a long history.
The Banff Centre had its origins in 1933 with the University of Alberta and a single drama course. It grew with continued focus on the Arts and the present site, above the town of Banff, was acquired in 1948. This allowed expansion into conferences and management, alongside the Centre’s ongoing educational role. While I was there they rebranded to become Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
I learnt about some of the Arts programs and facilities from Jim Olver, who took us on tour.
We started at the ceramics centre where there are 17 kilns, most of them electric. A group of students had been working for weeks creating pieces and building a huge wood kiln that was fired while our seminar was on. I re-visited on our last day and the 48 hour firing, which required constant attention, had finished but the kiln was still cooling. This also takes two days, so I was unable to view the results.
The Phillip Glass Gallery was changing its exhibition so we went on and outside to something I thought was even more exciting – a butterfly garden! At first glance, you might be excused for thinking it a weed patch but its actually a curated work of art. It began with 30 butterfly-specific species of plants that have expanded by natural (wind-blown and bird delivered?) means to now include 120 species.
Our next stop felt special as we went backstage in the theatre building. All streams of theatre arts are taught at Banff Centre and often programs culminate in performances. We visited the costume shop where students were cutting and fitting in consultation with their teachers. The millinery section fascinated me, not only for the finished hats but also from seeing the shelves full of wooden blocks used to create them. When I worked in the Cook islands I used to watch the Manihikian women make their woven rito (especially prepared young coconut leaves) hats on wooden blocks, without realising this was part of standard millinery practice.
In the theatre we saw the moveable orchestra pit in the theatre, which had two of the Banff Centre’s 107 pianos – most of them are grand! Later we visited the piano workshop, where soundboards are made, bass strings wound with copper wire, and other repairs and rebuilds carried out.
The back of the theatre stage had 51 different pulley rods to hold all the lights, curtains and other items.
The tidiness of the set-building workshop was impressive; I thought some of our TAFE construction students would enjoy seeing this array of tools.
Everything about the Banff Centre feels creative, from the artworks lining the theatre corridor to the doors backstage.
As we head back to our base, we pass a lot of small cabins that remind me of the cubby houses our TAFE construction students sometimes build. These huts were made by students too, then moved here to the Banff Centre and soundproofed to provide individual practise rooms for music students.
Something that’s made my seminar time here extra good has been the way all one’s needs are catered for, leaving time to focus on communicating and learning. The accomodation is comfortable and the daily international smorgesbord meals splendid, as are the mountain views from the 4th floor dining room.
But overall, what lessons can the Banff Centre provide for us as we consider support for foundation learners in NSW, Australia? I would say two things. First, at a time when education in creative arts in NSW is squeezed and generally displaced by programs emphasising more direct work and trade skills, it’s heartening to see the Centre’s vibrant art scene and longstanding commitment to the Arts. Human life won’t flourish without creativity. Second, a lot of education is happening at the Banff Centre and it’s not in traditional pen and paper, books and computer ways. It’s happening through discussions and teamwork, collaborative projects and questioning minds, physical creation and practise, culminations of real life performance and exhibition. Many of our foundation learners who are dyslexic or have other barriers to learning would no doubt enjoy and get more out of learning in a place like this than in a traditional classroom or computer based learning environment.
I’m going on retreat – heading up the mountain to lock myself away for days on a quest for meaning. Only this is a retreat with a difference as it’s full of communication with others, and the food is better than any retreating monk would ever find I’m sure.
I’ve crossed the provincial border into Alberta and come to Banff, known by many Australian travelers, especially those with work permits as my niece can attest. I’m told that in the winter half the population of this ski town is Australian, but for now there seems more of an international mix. However, I’m not here as a tourist or for work, but to join in the Canadian Rockies Great Teachers Seminar, hosted by McEwan University.
The intent of the Great Teachers Seminars is to provide the opportunity for teachers to reflect on their practice and to learn from each other. It’s based on a democratic model with focus on developing excellence in teaching, not on institutional or bureaucratic demands.
This is the 31st Great Teachers Seminar in the Canadian Rockies and Judy Koch has been involved for the past 30 years, always following the same model that was developed in 1969 by David B. Gottshall from the College of DuPage, Illinois. You can follow the links to read more about the history of the Great Teachers Seminar movement, and Gottshall’s own description of its spirit and intent, but suffice to say its based on process, there are no key speakers, and it contains some key elements, summarised in the following short poem that I wrote during the seminar:
Great Teacher Seminar
With humility we come
To the mountain
On our quest to learn –
Not from a master but from ourselves –
What makes a great teacher?
Simple yet rigid structure
Bounds each day
Form follows function
Less is more.
We explore ideas
Then’ll get up to be blessed
By food and conversation.
Judy likens it to starting with an empty bowl, which by the end of our four days together, is full to overflowing with the knowledge and ideas shared by all participants. My photo at the top of this post symbolizes that, with the framework of a woven canoe set within the courtyard of the circular building where we met and stayed.
Our seminar consisted of 36 participants, five facilitators, one administrator and Judy as director. Most participants were from Alberta, a few were from Wyoming in the United States, three were from China and of course there was one Australian! As expected, this was an excellent networking opportunity as all participants teach in post-secondary contexts in colleges and universities. There was plenty of time for informal conversations walking to the dining room, over meals or between sessions, as well as the seminar discussions.
As participants, we were given minimal information as the seminar began and I sensed that some people wanted more of a ‘program’ with set times and topics. Instead, we were told at the end of each session about the agenda for the next. Mostly this was along the lines of “7am Eat. 9am Meet. Bring nothing (except yourselves)”.
Prior to the seminar, we’d been asked to bring one page summaries of an instructional innovation we’ve made and of an instructional challenge we presently face. These formed the basis of the seminar content, though these were shared orally within discussion groups, not via the written papers. In turn, one of us would summarise our innovation or challenge, and each of the other six or seven people in the group would respond; sometimes with a comment, other times a suggestion. This was a powerful way to get ideas and support for our specific issues as well as to share ideas.
Common themes that emerged from the innovation and challenge papers were investigated and discussed further in later sessions.
From session to session we often found the furniture in different configurations – to suit whatever activity or form the facilitators had decided upon. Form follows function. A simple reminder of a teaching device that’s easily overlooked in the TAFE environment of shared rooms and little time.
There was a mini library too, with our favourite and most inspiring books about teaching placed on display to browse during the seminar. I’ll be purchasing a few, and will share some in a future post.
This was a low key seminar in an oral tradition. Even so, there were opportunities to discuss effective use of technology and online learning. I took a quick survey of participants and found that approximately 44 percent have delivered programs online, 39 percent thought that high quality online delivery of Adult Basic Education (ABE) was possible, but only 33 percent liked the idea of delivering ABE this way. I got a number of apps and ideas for online delivery, which I’m still investigating and will report in a future post.
One of the best aspects of the Great Teachers seminar was how our diversity of teaching areas contributed to the intent of investigating what makes a great teacher. There were two other Foundation teachers, a few nurses, some biologists, two maths teachers, an electro-engineering teacher, a voice and theatre teacher, a sociologist and more, plus university programmers including a Cree programmer from University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills (‘Blue Quills’), an Indigenous non-profit educational institution that’s located in a past residential school that began as a community college and became a university last year. The collective knowledge was significant and I can see how every seminar would be unique, based as it is on the experience and knowledge of the people who attend.
So did we find the Great Teacher?
In Search of the Great Teacher
We stand and speak aloud
Naming our own great teachers
Homage calls their spirits forth –
All those who demonstrated
Who made us work so hard and encouraged us
And, most of all, who went
Beyond themselves for us
And how, in doing so,
Led us to do so too.
Reaching deep into ourselves
We find the heart
Of the Great Teacher
I make a big jump from coast to interior with two flights – fly out of Haida Gwaii back to Vancouver airport, a five hour wait, then on to Kamloops in the BC interior where it’s suddenly 33C and only the start of summer. This is also the first time I’ll be driving on my own in Canada. Muttering reminders to ‘keep to the right’ and glad I paid extra for a GPS in the hire car, I carefully make my way across town to my motel accommodation.
Next morning finds me heading east on the Trans Canada Highway, following the South Thompson River River through the hills to Salmon Arm, then looping south towards the bottom of Arrow Lake. This detour gets me off the highway and gives me the chance to extend my conversations beyond my pre-planned meetings and into smaller centres. The drive takes me through the bread-basket of Canada, corn farms line the highway to Salmon Arm and fresh hay is being cut in the paddocks on the road south.
In this part of my trip I meet with a couple of local literacy coordinators and gain a better understanding of the BC literacy scene.
My contact in Salmon Arm is Darcy Calkins, Literacy Outreach Coordinator for the Literacy Alliance of the Shuswap Society (LASS), that covers the whole Shuswap school district – extending from Chase across to Sicamous and down to Armstrong. Her scope is whole of community, although much of her delivery focus is on family literacy with parents and young children.
Darcy also arranges programs for Seniors, where the focus is on mastering digital technology and learners usually bring their own device whether laptop, I-Pad or cellphone. Local Seniors Centres partner to provide premises, a paid local coordinator is possible with the help of government funding from Decoda and other fundraising, and individual learners are matched with volunteer tutors who have appropriate skills and knowledge e.g. one person may want to learn to use a mobile phone while someone else wants to master Photoshop. The pair meets for an hour a week for duration of the program, with learning focused on what the learner specifically wants. A typical program runs for six to eight weeks. Overall, each program is able to service 15 learners, three at a time, five times a day. Programs run twice a week during the day. As you might imagine, the biggest challenge is in sourcing enough volunteer tutors to meet the demand.
This is an effective program that produces a lot of positive feedback. The learners keep coming because they like meeting one on one and having the continuity of the same tutor throughout their program. The learning focuses on their specific needs around technology, and it’s free for them to access the program. At the end there’s always a celebration.
Later the same day I also speak with Wendy Aasen, coordinator of the Junction Literacy Centre in Vernon, which is a welcoming place featuring an edible garden in the front yard.
The Junction Literacy Centre, operated by the Literacy and Youth Initiatives Society of the North Okanagan, works with community partners to identify and fill gaps in literacy services. Another arm of the Society operates Teen Junction, a Youth Centre for 13 to 18 year olds, in the same premises.
Again, the main volunteer program is based around computing and technology for adults, operating from the local Seniors’ Centre. The program addresses the issue of social isolation and sometimes student and tutor pairs maintain friendships after formal tutoring ends. A Saturday morning program was in such demand they had to turn people away.
The Society’s work and Literacy Junction have been operating for decades and they have hundreds of volunteers. Wendy’s been in her role for about 15 years and can tell me confidently that:
At the end of the day the face to face, real person is what people are looking for… Even in schools, it’s one on one, that’s where we get the gains.
I ask Wendy about literacy work with First Nations people but, although there’s definitely literacy needs, there’s little engagement, perhaps for reasons of culture or attitude but also because even Aboriginal children from the local schools can’t access Teen Junction programs as they have to bus back to their reserves.
There are similarities in the structure of the above regional community literacy organisations in that they are both community driven, have paid coordinators and sometimes other paid staff, but rely heavily on volunteers who are trained for up to around 20 hours and are then matched with a student, whom they then work with one to one for a couple of hours a week. Most of the volunteers are retirees and a focus of the training is teaching the volunteers to be accepting of the many barriers the students face and how sometimes this can mean students don’t show up at their arranged times and so on.
Finding and keeping enough volunteers to meet demand is one challenge; finding sufficient ongoing funding is another. Decoda Literacy Solutions, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, provide significant funding that comes from the government and is based on school districts. Other funds come from gaming grants – Darcy said they received $41,000 this way last year.
But Wendy’s team leads the way for local fundraising, with an annual Spelling Bee that’s run for years and has just raised $30,000 on a single night! The Spelling Bee is run quiz-style with entry for each table costing $1,000. Local businesses are happy to sponsor this by sending along a team of employees. At a later stop I met a member of the ‘Okanagan College Eggheads’, who’d won the Bee for four consecutive years but got pipped at the post by the Queen Beez in a 2016 tie-breaker. Nevertheless, he was proud to display his prize pen from a past year.
Meeting such dedicated community literacy coordinators reminded me of Adult Learning Support, the community literacy organisation that I volunteered with and later worked for, in Nelson, New Zealand, prior to moving to Mudgee. It operates under the umbrella of Literacy Aotearoa, one of the leading literacy organisations in New Zealand.
Community literacy organisations could help fill the gap that I’ve noticed in New South Wales, where the emphasis is so much on accredited courses and work outcomes that literacy needs can easily get put into ‘too hard’ and ‘no time’ baskets.
The volunteer literacy tutors may have minimal training but they bring at least two other vital benefits to the table. First is the one to one learning opportunity, which allows for customization to meet specific learner needs, and second is the opportunity to develop strong relationships to support students’ learning. It’s well known that human relationship is at the heart of most literacy learning.
In the present NSW TAFE environment, the only way an adult learner is likely to have access to one to one learning is if a specific learning disability applies. Even one to one tutorial support for Aboriginal learners through the Aboriginal Education and Training Unit (AETU) is no longer possible. Funding cuts have done away with these services.
In fact, it’s so hard for me to believe that NSW has so little commitment to adult literacy, in that we don’t have (or barely have) volunteer literacy organisations, that I email the past president of the NSW Adult Literacy and Numeracy Council to check, but alas it’s true, there’s very little community literacy happening in NSW.
One exception is the Smith Family Home Tutor Scheme for AMEP (Australian Migrant Education Program) students, which is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. Volunteer tutors have been matched with English Language learners since 2003 under this program, though its only come to Mudgee and the Central West this year.
Other literacy support is provided through the libraries, though a web search implies this service is small and mainly aimed at children. More happens interstate – Tasmania has a bigger library literacy program, called LINC, and Western Australia has a community scheme called Read Write Now.
As I reflect on my Canada meetings and the variety of programs, colleges and other organisations that I’ve encountered, it becomes obvious that almost every one of the BC programs have been underpinned with volunteer tutors. The University of Vancouver Island used them and I’ve read that the early child care course on Haida Gwaii was run with the support of volunteers.
Why doesn’t NSW make more use of literacy volunteers? Presumably it’s because tutors who’ve only been trained 15 or 20 hours are not in the same league as professional teachers and perhaps there’s union opposition. However, if volunteers supplement the service provided by teachers and provide the support that literacy learners need, and if the community ethos changes to value literacy more, then I’ll welcome volunteers with open arms.
In closing, it’s worth mentioning that Decoda Literacy Solutions doesn’t only supply funding, they also provide tutor training, and also produce and distribute a wide range of resources. I once found this sensitive animated resource for students who have suffered violence on the web, and saw that Decoda BC was a partner in its creation.
Another good resource from Decoda is The Westcoast Reader, which contains selected and re-written newspaper articles that are graded for readers of different levels.
This is how Decoda describes themselves:
Decoda Literacy Solutions is the only province-wide literacy organization in British Columbia. Providing resources, training and funds, Decoda supports community-based literacy programs and initiatives in over 400 communities across BC. Decoda supports children and families, youth, adults, Aboriginal and immigrant communities in an effort to build strong individuals, strong families and strong communities. As a non-profit organization, Decoda relies on the generosity of individual donors, corporate partners and government to fund literacy work.
Finally, here is a link to a Decoda publication that provides a good summary of adult learning and using volunteers and partnerships to support literacy development.