Focus on Basics Volume 6, Issue B: -isms

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We know that welfare recipients, the working poor, people of color, and immigrants are disproportionately represented in adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). We also know that the majority of adults enrolled in literacy programs are women. Thus, as Deborah D’Amico writes on page 27, ABE/ESOL serve primarily those whose access to opportunity and power is restricted due to class, race, and gender.

How does adult basic education “do” in tackling issues such as class, race, gender, and all the other categories that can differentiate people from the majority in society, which, for want of a better word, we have called here “isms”? We could not find much research to report on, but as the articles about practice in this issue demonstrate, we have a long way to go. Many of the traditional biases built into US society are perpetuated rather than challenged in ABE programs and classrooms. At the same time, many programs and people are attempting to change this. YES!, the YMCA literacy program featured in our cover story, for example, has spent the last eight years transforming itself into an antiracist program. Margery Freeman and Lou Johnson write about the reasons for, the challenges of, and theories behind the transformation of this New Orleans program.

Multicultural education is education that challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society, writes researcher Allison Cumming-McCann in the article that begins on page 9. She presents a curriculum-based model of multicultural education that ranges from a “heroes and holidays” approach to one encompassing wider social transformation. See where your program falls along the continuum she describes.

Staff development that is intentional and thoughtful about supporting teachers in examining their own identities and how those identities influence teaching philosophies and practices is one key to unlocking issues of race, class, and gender. So writes North Carolina-based adult basic education teacher and staff development provider Jereann King. She reflects on her 30 years in adult literacy and suggests directions for the field in tackling “isms” (page 15).

Writing from Oklahoma, ESOL teacher KayTee Niquette explains how she enabled conservative Muslim women to participate freely in her class (page 13). In their article on page 23, Rick Kappra and Maria Rosales Uribe, ESOL teachers in San Francisco, admit to themselves, to each other, and to us how hard it is to recognize and address biases you did not think you had. Staff developer Cassie Drennon, too, felt the sting of self-recognition when she realized that she was ignoring the power relationships inherent in her training activities. In researching that issue for her doctoral dissertation, she found that naming the issues is a necessary first step. Turn to page 20 for a framework that we all can use to do this.

We hope that the articles assembled here provide you with ideas that challenge your thinking and resources that enable you to start the transformation of your corner of the ABE/ESOL world: away from “isms” and toward an inclusive, truly multicultural approach. World Education, 2003.

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