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A long walk to freedom for the adult learner

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The best programme and teacher can’t help you if you are not present, in body and mind. 


Students who learn to read and write are those who have the will to make the time and effort; an ingredient of success in any endeavour. In the final part of Against the Odds, Paula Lucie Smith looks at a particularly difficult hurdle for many literacy students. 



Hurdle: Time, energy and a mind not overwhelmed with worry


The jobs available to the non-literate often mean they must work long hours over which they have no control. Time spent at class is time when they could be earning a few dollars. Only when you can think beyond the next meal can you think about education, so for the really poor the dollar has to come first.


The grip of poverty does not often loosen over time. This, added to the responsibilities of adulthood, can stretch out attendance at Alta over a decade. 


So while Alta follows the academic calendar with a start in September and end in July, once you have enrolled at Alta, you will not be turned away. Some students leave to pick fruit in Canada for six months or work in catering so miss from Christmas to Carnival, but we welcome them back, maybe advising that they go for extra practice at an Alta Reading Circle. 


Adult learners have many demands on their time, so time spent in a literacy class must be relevant, must impact on their everyday lives, must empower them. Brazilian educational theorist Paolo Freire in his groundbreaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed, proposed education as the practice of freedom rather than the practice of domination. This kind of literacy instruction transforms the student from object to subject in his world. 


Friere is godfather to the learner-centred approach of adult literacy with its emphasis on engaging student interest and using material relevant to the student’s life. The aim is to equip students not only to function independently in their society, but to transform their worlds. Literacy combined with critical thinking skills has the power to transform lives. Freires’ emphasis on respect and nurturing of the spirit is obvious in an adult class where maybe it is not as evident in a room full of children or teens—though of course, respect there is just as important. 


As I got to know my students, I was amazed that they could smile, laugh, be thankful and kind to others when the world had been far from kind to them. One Port-of-Spain student in her middle years when faced with an ultimatum from the children’s father that she leave Alta class or leave him, chose to leave him. She told the tutor that he was keeping her down, and Alta was taking her up. While Freire was a proponent of dialogue-driven education rather than set curricula, Alta tries, and I think mostly succeeds, in marrying the two. 


We draw on students’ experience and start them thinking about this, e.g. is beating a child the best way to mould behaviour? And so, Alta was a life skills programme long before the current buzz about life skills in adult education. 


• Against the Odds by Paula Lucie-Smith was first published in 20 Years of Alta magazine, 2012.


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