Posts Tagged ‘adult learner leadership’

Beyond Student Councils: Adult Learner Leadership

March 11, 2013

The national adult learner leadership organization, VALUE, has long said that the success of the adult literacy education field depends on adult learners. This doesn’t mean only that practitioner success is measured by adult learner gains in education progress. It also means that, as a marginalized field, the best hope for mainstream attention and increased public investment, especially in economic hard times, is a large number of well-organized adult learner leader advocates.

We know, from years of experience, that legislators on both sides of the aisle pay more attention to what adult learners say than practitioners, whose jobs they often rightly believe depend on public funding. What gets legislators’ attention is passionate and articulate adult learners, people from their Congressional or representative district, especially those who are politically active and who are registered to vote.

Student councils; student or graduate-led mentoring or learner support groups; student participation on program boards and advisory councils; student-produced projects, such as health literacy information and advocacy in their communities; and student-led public speaking events about adult literacy education are all important adult learner leadership activities, but they are not enough. Look at the devastation of adult education funding in New Jersey, New York, California, Arizona, and any number of states, not to mention states like Iowa and Colorado that have no state funding devoted to adult literacy education. This must be changed.

Recently the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education (MCAE), an organization I am proud to be a member of, began to mobilize adult learner and practitioner advocates to ask candidates for the U.S. Senator position left vacant by long-time Senator John Kerry these four questions:

U.S. Senate Candidates – Adult Basic Education Questionnaire

1. Do you believe adult basic education is a right or a privilege? Should we have a social contract for adult basic education the way we do for K-12 education?

2. Currently our state has many residents who lack access to adult basic education services either because there is no program in their area, the programs in their area have long waiting lists or there are scheduling, transportation or child care barriers. What steps would you take to correct this lack of access?

3. Efforts are underway at the state and national level to raise the quality and standards of adult basic education programs and services to be comparable with that of the K-12 system, yet the ABE system receives only a small fraction of the funding that goes to the K-12 system. What would you do to increase the resources allocated to adult basic education in order to promote the development and professionalization of the field?

4. What do you believe should be the vision and purpose for the adult basic education system, in good economic times and bad?

These are great questions. So great that New Hampshire’s Adult Education Director, Art Ellison, sent them out to adult basic education state directors and advocates across the country to consider using in their own state, and with U.S. Senators and Congress people. The greatest power to move legislators with these questions is in the hands of adult learner leaders. The challenge for practitioner- and other advocates is how best to help organize program graduates and students who are leaders, or who could become leaders, to meet with their elected officials, to ask them questions like these and to talk about the impact of adult literacy education on them, their families and communities.

For several years a collaboration of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education and an adult learner leadership group organized and led by students and graduates of adult literacy education programs, the Massachusetts Alliance for Adult Literacy, have offered adult learner leadership training. This is a volunteer activity, one that does not use public funding, and where students can choose to attend. They meet for training in the morning and then many choose to visit their state legislators’ offices in the afternoon. They are told that it is their own story, how they came to realize they needed adult literacy education services and how they and their family and community have benefited, that legislators want to hear. They are also given an adult literacy education fact sheet, and they have a clear idea of what the “ask” should be, because legislators usually want to know what they think should be done about the problem of long waiting lists for services. This is one activity, but there are others in a leadership training process.

Many adult learner leadership training models involve inviting learners to take leadership roles in their programs: participation in program decision-making, and telling their story and talking about the unmet need for adult literacy education services in community venues such as rotary club meetings, church or library forum, and other activities. One part of this process can be a large annual rally at their state legislature. We live in a democracy, and adult learners need to visit their “state house” or state legislature to appreciate that it belongs to the people of their state, including them, if they are citizens. Many students have said that visiting the state house, walking through its halls in large numbers, and talking with legislators is a profound education experience. One student, many years ago, put it this way on a trip home. He said, “In my country, if I had done what I did today, talk with my legislators, I might have been shot.”

There is a natural confluence of democracy education and helping adult learners understand how to advocate with their elected officials for what they believe is needed in their community or state.

Many states, all over the country, have been supporting adult learner leadership efforts like this for years. You’ll find this in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and in many other states. However, this may be a new idea in other states, and in some states it happens in fits and starts. This needs to be a regular, year-in and year-out activity with many hundreds of adult learners and graduates. If adult learner leadership is of interest to you, email me, including information about what adult learner leadership activities you have now in your program or state, and I’ll send you a list of contacts of people who can help you organize or give you ideas on how to improve what you do.

David J. Rosen


Reaching out to Learning Disability Children

October 18, 2012

Archie Willard is an adult learner from Iowa who learned to read when he was in his fifties. He has been a state and national leader of adult learners, and he was a founder of VALUEUSA, the national adult learner leadership organization. He has also played an important role in health literacy.  I met Archie in 1995 when we were among those chosen as U.S. National Institute for Literacy Research Fellows. Archie’s research was on adult learner leadership. I invited Archie to write a guest blog about his experiences over the years as an adult learner leader who speaks to classes of children. Note: If you would like permission to re-publish this story, please email me at djrosen& (Substitute @ for & in the email address.)

Reaching out to Learning Disability Children

Archie Willard, Adult Learner

I have come full circle in the literacy field, from a small boy trying to read in first grade to a retired Senior. Before I started school I looked forward to doing something with my life. After trying and failing at learning to read, I lost hope. I shut down inside and I didn’t want my classmates to see me fail any more so I gave up on myself. Later in my school life I tried again. I barely got through high school and two years of college. I left school without any dreams to take me into life. I went to work in a meat packing plant. I didn’t need to know how to read there; I just needed to work fast with my hands. When you are dyslexic you have a hard time finding your way in life and you live your life very differently from those who have easily learned to read.

In my fifties my wife encouraged me to enroll in an adult reading program, and after that my life changed forever. I spent over two years in the adult reading program. Before I left, I did some public speaking for the reading program. One of my talks was to some LD kids. I just told them my life story.  Afterword they stood next to me like I was someone important, and I could see in their eyes that my words had made a difference to them.

The word got out and other schools ask me to come and speak. The lady next door to us was a teacher, and she was working on her masters degree at Iowa State University. She told her instructor, Dr. Ruth Barnhart, about me and then I was asked to come to her class to talk. Dr. Barnhart liked my story so I continued talking to her classes two times a year for the next eight years.

A lot of student teachers from the class got to know me and later, when they became teachers, they would ask me to come to their schools to speak. The more I spoke the more energy I got, and this also brought healing to my life. I became very interested in why some people struggled to read and others did not. I went to a lot of LD conferences to learn more. I asked a lot of questions, and people got to know me and became interested in me. I was able to have conversations with some of the researchers. I learned from people who worked in the reading and adult literacy field. I even did some work with them. The more I learned, the more confidence I got to tell my story.

In 1989 I started to volunteer at a middle school in Eagle Grove, Iowa, to work with the LD kids two days a week. The kids felt comfortable reading to me. When I was asked to speak at a wellness day at a school in Ames, Iowa, I thought it would be nice to take the LD class and their teacher with me. I made arrangements with the two schools and it was okay. A local meteorologist, Pam Dale, was speaking at this event because she was disabled due to an accident. When I finished speaking she came over to me and invited our group of students to visit her WOI television studio. I thought, what a beautiful opportunity.

The TV studio was part of Iowa State University’s campus at that time. When we got there, only one parking space was left and the sign said “fifteen minutes parking”. This was the only parking space for many blocks. Mary Sersland, the LD teacher, said that the meter person was just leaving and probably wouldn’t be back for an hour, so I parked the van and we went in. Pam was there to meet us. She explained things and showed us around. It took a little over an hour. This was a treat for all of us. We all got into the van and just as we were leaving we could see the meter lady coming. The kids got a kick out of how close we came to getting a ticket.

One of my favorite places to talk was Cedar Falls, Iowa. There were four different classes of LD students brought together to hear me. Beforehand the teachers told me that some of the students were hyperactive and that they would have a hard time sitting still. After I was introduced, and they understood that I had been one of them, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. They had never heard an adult talk to them in this way before. It was hard for them to believe that adults had reading problems. I spoke for over thirty minutes The teachers were amazed, they told me that they had never had a group of LD students sit so quiet. This seemed to be a pattern when I went from school to school.

In a visit to the Quad Cites, a group of five Eastern Iowa cities on the Iowa–Illinois boundary, I was speaking to regular and LD students together. As I was speaking I could see this small boy looking at me intensely, and hanging on to every word I was saying. At the end, there was time for questions. When it comes to asking me questions once the kids get started they are never shy. The little boy, who may have been learning disabled, asked me questions such as “Do you like to read now?” and “Why is it that you struggled so much to learn to read?” Maybe he thought he was not hearing me right. Looking at him I could see some of myself in him. I feel it was hard for him to believe there was still hope for him to learn to read.

In the past I had taught an adult education class at the Iowa Central Community College at Fort Dodge. Understanding Learning Disabilities was a three-hour class that met once a year in the fall. The people who attended were mostly parents and teachers. Because of this class, a lot of parents would call me looking for help, advice and some understanding. What I had to say can only come from experience living life as a dyslexic. There wasn’t anything I could say to make their child’s problem go away. Sometimes I wished I had a magic wand and could make things happen. One thing I could give them, however, was encouragement. My advice, always the same, was not to give up, to keep trying and that there was hope.

A lady who I had never met in person would call me on many occasions to talk about her son’s reading problem. I gave her as much of my time and encouragement as possible, and told her she should try to find someone to work with him one-on-one outside the school, and never give up on him. About five years later I was in the hospital for some health problems. One day a strange nurse came into my room. She told me we had spoken on the phone before, and who she was. She thanked me for listening to her at a time when she needed someone to talk to. She said she needed someone to give her encouragement and advice at that time in her life. She told me her son was doing fine now in school after a lot of help and hard work. Getting this kind of news, especially in the hospital, was very uplifting. I’m sure there are many other good stories that happened that I will never know about. I still get phone calls from parents, and I try to help.

From the time I was tested for dyslexia in 1984 until now, much has happened. I have learned a lot from the children in the classes I spoke to, and I became close to them. We have cried together when things were not going well, and I have seen their faces of joy when they found some success in their lives. The good memories of going to these different schools will always be with me.

There has been a lot of good research done on learning disabilities. Good books have been written. There is better training for teachers now. More people with reading challenges have become open about their reading problems and become role models. But there are a lot more people coming out of the closet today who have not been helped – and our country is not equipped to take care of all of them. Society still does not understand our disability. This is a hidden disability and you can’t tell by looking who has it. You can’t take a pill to cure it – that’s why it is so hard to understand. But there is still hope… and our dreams still live on.