On the Screen : violence, women, literacy and learning 

- abridged version of the Fellowship proposal sent to NIFL; a copy of the full proposal is available upon request

- quarterly reports appear at the bottom of this page

I wrote this proposal to provide adult literacy workers and learners opportunities to link research and practice in a year long study of the prevalence and effects of violence in the lives of adult learners and educators. I aim to bridge gaps in understandings between adult education and human services providers and to build leadership amongst adult educators and learners in recognizing and building effective strategies to address education-related needs and strengths of survivors and victims of violence. I further aim to place the effects of trauma on learning "on the screen" of those who do the work of adult literacy learning and teaching so that trauma itself as a barrier to learning can be addressed in meaningful ways leading to improved learning opportunities for women.

The Women's Center of RI reported 4,973 domestic violence cases heard in district court in 1995. 1,336 sexual assaults were reported, 771 women sought residency in shelters for some period of time and over 11,000 individuals sought services ranging from support groups to advocacy that year. One-third of Rhode Island's 1,056 homeless children) were assisted at domestic violence shelters and 570 people reported seeking shelter in 1997-98 because of domestic violence. The numbers suggest that domestic violence, sexual assault and trauma are not uncommon in RI, a state with an estimated population of 988,480. While disproportionately represented among the ranks of those reporting abuse, poor and/or unemployed women, and those receiving public assistance are not alone in their status as victims/survivors of violence. Although shelter and domestic violence statistics are problematic in their assessment of economic status as a determinant of incidences of domestic violence, many who work in public policy and community based organizations dealing with domestic violence confirm that women of all economic strata are likely to have suffered some form of violence in their lives. These findings are borne out by disclosures made by learners and by educators participating in monthly discussion groups and drive the questions posed here: What can we learn about trauma and violence that will enable us to find strategies needed to assist educators and learners in lowering the barriers to learning and teaching caused by violence in our lives? How can we best help women who have faced such trauma, and for whom it is a recurrent obstacle to learning, to succeed in the classroom and in reaching their learning goals? 


Nearly two decades of teaching, teacher education, curriculum development, program design and evaluation, ongoing research in the US and in Canada, have convinced me that in order to be able to learn, adults must feel safe in their learning environments, that those who teach them must be fully aware of the reasons adult learners come to formal learning contexts, and of those factors impeding or assisting them in meeting their learning goals.

Adult educators have long been aware of a number of factors affecting adult learning. Prior educational experiences, work history, immigration and first language literacy are widely acknowledged as elements working as barriers or supports to adults learning English language literacy in adult basic education (ABE), secondary (ASE) and/or English as second/other language (ESOL) contexts. Connections between trauma and learning, however, have been less clear in ABE and ASE settings. The Refugee Mental Health project (in which I participated as a refugee ESOL program teacher and coordinator) identified those connections in terms of symptoms of post traumatic stress noted by many teachers of refugees, who felt overwhelmed by learners' accounts of death and devastation in their countries of origin and/or while subsequently fleeing their countries.

Many ESOL practitioners acknowledge the need for sensitivity to potentially "loaded" topics which might be difficult for refugee and immigrant learners to discuss in class; this sensitivity is explicitly addressed in the teacher education and methodology literature . However, for educators working within ABE/ASE, this process has been more gradual in its development and is far from complete.

Just as the Refugee Mental Health project cautioned teachers that they were not counselors, the next decade saw the emergence of Jennifer Horsman's work, aptly titled "But I'm Not a Therapist," in which she pushes the boundaries further in taking on issues of trauma and violence affecting both Canadian-born women and immigrants to that country. Dr. Horsman recognizes that violence against women impedes learning and teaching in serious ways, but her work has yet to be taken up more broadly in ways that encompass the realities of both learners and providers of adult education and moves beyond recognition of the issue into adaptation of viable strategies for educators, social service workers and others interacting with learners to support learning for those enrolled in programs.

All of us doing educational work need a better understanding of how the realities of learners' difficulties and successes outside of class affect learning and how we can assist adults in becoming more fully present to, and engaged in the learning process. This project looks at strengthening knowledge bases for both learners and practitioners not only about what family and other forms of violence are, but also how they impact on learning and strives to build viable and lasting connections between these providers and education workers throughout RI in a sustainable and replicable model that can evolve beyond the year of the proposed project. Adult education policy increasingly acknowledges the need for access to on-site counseling and/or appropriate referrals to ancillary support for learners; this project will increase the visibility of need and the development of resources to assist adult victims and survivors of trauma in reaching their educational goals.

Domestic violence workers acknowledge that literacy is an issue for many who utilize their services, but, because most of this work occurs during periods of crises, feel unable to find ways to connect to women whose longer term goals - creating new circumstances in which to live their lives once they've left abusive relationships - cannot be addressed within the constraints of the work which women's shelters are typically funded to do. Education is becoming a stronger element of many shelters' community outreach work as they explore ways of making connections to adult learning and literacy so that workers make appropriate referrals for women and can, themselves, gain a sense of how literacy work might be carried out within shelters. Battell and Nonesuch, recognizing the multiple forms of isolation felt by women experiencing trauma and having limited literacy ability, developed a set of reading materials to be distributed to women in transitional housing. Their work sets an important precedent for others working to bridge the gaps between service provided in educational settings and the potential for learning through, within and beyond transitional shelters.

Since September of 1997 a group of women working in RI adult education programs have met monthly to identify and address issues focusing on women and learning in discussion sessions I coordinate, facilitate and publicize through LR/RI. Violence against women emerges repeatedly as a discussion topic during these sessions. Among our core group of colleagues, more than one educator has disclosed being a survivor of domestic violence and/or childhood abuse. Our understandings of the prevalence of abuse in its varied forms among our own group, as well as incidents of violence disclosed by learners, have led us to focus upon finding ways of assisting one another in dealing with issues of trauma in the classroom, and in our own lives (giving one another support and finding the means to cope with disclosures of violence made by learners and colleagues) so that barriers to learning related to experiences of trauma can be understood, addressed and reduced. 

Moving toward action

Clearly, there is interest in the topic of trauma in RI. The women in our group look to this project to enable them and others in the community to move beyond our work of identifying the problem and considering short term solutions towards a more systemic approach to understanding how trauma affects ourselves and our learners in order to build on Horsman's research and improve practice, and to build real and enduring supports in programs and communities. Developing institutional connections is a process that needs to occur over time. I have started the groundwork as have others in the RI literacy community, in ad hoc fashion, but this work needs strengthening institutionally and systemically. Institutional support is needed in the form of time and other resources to enable us to strengthen connections - through reciprocal attendance at one conferences, monthly meetings (described in program design) and ongoing efforts to secure funding and engagement from the community. Three representatives of domestic violence centers (one urban, one rural and one statewide), and one from the State Department of Health's Violence Prevention Program have committed to participating in the meetings proposed below and are also committed to working to institutionalize connections between educational and domestic violence agencies and systems. 

Project design

Participation in this project will assist practitioners in:

lowering affective barriers to learning; opening communicative channels for learners and practitioners, reducing the sense of isolation that can accompany experiences of trauma;

increasing potential for learners to take on leadership roles in promoting support groups and

participating in events sponsored through domestic violence providers.

I will develop a curriculum guide, designed to enable teachers to more capably assist learners for whom violence/trauma is or has been an issue and to place the notion of thinking about violence/its effects on learning on the screen for educators as they develop curriculum, lesson plans and classroom approaches. The guide will include a compilation of resources, notes and reflections from practitioners, analysis of classroom approaches and materials, responses from domestic violence workers and the project consultant, (whose project evaluation report will also be excerpted) and a set of policy recommendations -- tangible products to be distributed to programs and policy makers.

Practitioners and domestic violence workers will meet monthly to participate in an ongoing inquiry process encompassing study circles, discussions about the effects of violence on learning, and possibilities for and strategies to engender both classroom-based and systemic change. In September, 1999, I will issue a call to elicit participation from ten RI adult education practitioners with whom I will work (utilizing the expertise of violence workers and my own abilities as a teacher educator) throughout the project to help shape questions and strategies which will enable them to improve learning for victims/survivors of abuse and to find coping strategies themselves either as victims/ survivors and/or as teachers of such.

In November I will hold the first workshop with Women's Center of RI staff, providing selected readings, an overview of existing resources and the prevalence of violence in RI, strategies for working with victims/survivors in the classroom and possible directions for participant inquiry and action. Following the workshop, participants will form research questions and begin locating additional resources. Participants will meet as a whole group in monthly sessions facilitated by myself and others from the domestic violence network, and will be in contact with me and with one another between meetings by phone, in small group meetings and through a listserv established for the project. Learners will be invited to join the group for some of its meetings after practitioners have established their particular foci, and will be key informants to much of our work (as described below).

Between October and June, 2000, violence workers will teach us about trauma. Literacy learners and practitioners will assist violence worers in learning how literacy relates to trauma work. Email, journals and other reporting vehicles will be used to document the work. A web site will be established to share ongoing progress and to enable participants to reflect on the work, which will entail development and selection of culturally competent and educationally relevant materials to be used with learners, analysis of the materials' usefulness and ongoing access to and feedback from practitioners and violence professionals throughout the project. Jennifer Horsman will offer a workshop for participants (and others to whom open invitations will be issued) in the late fall of 1999, will maintain contact with me and provide ongoing feedback as part of her summative evaluation of the project.

¥ Materials are already available through LR/RI, but the time and guidance needed to read, discuss, analyze and reflect upon these resources is hard to find. Supporting practitioners' work with these materials, with domestic violence workers, with me, and with one another will enable them to enhance learning opportunities for both survivors/victims and non-victims alike by helping them to find ways to make classrooms safer places where barriers to learning are diminished. Dissemination will occur through postings to the web site and to NIFL's women and literacy listserv, presentations at conferences, local sharing, and a final workshop (open to all) at which findings will be presented.

Learners will be invited to come forward to inform the work of examining trauma within this project. As survivors, victims and/or friends of those who have suffered violence, these learners have important knowledge about, and can be seen as people who know and understand the issue. Because of the sensitive nature of the process, invitations to learners to participate will develop over the course of the project, once practitioners have begun their work. Borrowing from Hofer, whose learners determined their own need for and interest in forming a support group to deal with violence, a learner network will be developed so that our learning about classroom practice and strategies for assisting victims/survivors benefits from learners' input and feedback. Scholarships will be provided to 5 learners to attend RI's annual conference on domestic violence, along with the project participants, and stipends will be paid to learners for their participation in the project. I will share findings with and invite input from VALUE representatives locally and nationally throughout the project. 

First quarterly report to the National Institute for Literacy: October - December, 1999

Second quarterly report to the National Institute for Literacy: January - March, 2000

Third quarterly report to the National Institute for Literacy: April - June, 2000

Fourth quarterly report to the National Institute for Literacy: July - September, 2000

Final report draft , in pdf form; (available, upon request in word.)

resources for on the screen

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