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Research to Practice: Whole Language in ABLE -- Just Do It!

By: Karen Baker, Maplewood JVS-ABLE

Whole language in adult education. We have all heard a lot about this lately, and the people doing the talking seem to be very enthusiastic. But how do you get started? How do you make it work? There are so many questions to be answered; yet if we wait to start whole language until we get all the answers--will we ever begin? Are our students missing out because we are still questioning? I propose to you to JUST DO IT. I mean, if it worked for Nike, it should work for us. My motto as a teacher, much to my aide's dismay, is be fearless, flexible, and take no prisoners. Poor Cheri (my aide and partner in crime) has a hard time with a teacher who doesn't hesitate to change lesson plans in the middle of a lesson when things don't seem to be working. It's uncomfortable for some to work without a safety net. But as teachers, we must be willing to see when things aren't working and adjust.

Group dynamics! How's that for a topic? It encompasses so much, yet it seems it has been done to death. But without a "well" group, whole language isn't nearly as successful as it should be. So Sherie Henthorne and I at Maplewood JVS-ABLE have been exploring various aspects of group dynamics, with assistance from the OLRC, for several years.

The bottom line is: What makes a group successful? Here are some questions we decided to look at: How does a group gel? Do group members help each other? Does a group make work more difficult? Does it help retention in adult education classes? What about different level learners working in one group? Do some feel left out and others stagnant?

I had to devise group work that was geared to all levels of students. Literature seemed the logical choice. Yet the literature we used had to accommodate all levels and work for students who missed a day or didn't attend on a regular basis. I called the Ohio Literacy Resource Center.

Always eager to help, the OLRC sent a book titled Choices by George Ella Lyon and lesson plans to use at my discretion. Choices is a book of short stories written by characters who live in a small mountain community. It's a book about the choices they made in their lives. None of the stories is longer than four pages, and they are written in the characters' dialect, not in proper English (whatever that is). They are very easy to understand, yet rich in meaning. And if a student misses a day, there is a fresh story tomorrow. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Choices created many discussions and a few heated debates. It really brought our group to life.

First, let me say attendance was voluntary. We had a group of all levels. Some students were reading at a 12th grade reading level, some at a 2nd, and some not at all. We had a group of about eight at all times with a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Ages ranged from 23 to 65. Many of our students said they had never read a book in their lives, so the prospect of reading was not real attractive to them. Protest as they may, they all joined in. After all, most of us like to be where the action is.

We held group one or two times a week, for about one hour. Students sat around a table, and we each had our own book. We read each story out loud, taking turns reading. If students did not want to read, they said, "pass." Many times Cheri or I would also say "pass" in order tohelp nonreaders feel like they were not the only ones. We would stop several times during each story and discuss the characters' dilemmas and thoughts. This enabled each student to listen to the story and participate in analyzing its meaning, whether they could read or not.

I facilitated the group while Cheri took notes on student and teacher behavior, reactions, and interactions. We shared and discussed the notes at the end of the day. Boy, you sure don't realize how much stupid stuff you say until someone is writing it all down. That is a lesson in itself'! But I digress.

What we found was both exciting and exhausting. We found:

It was obvious that our students thoroughly enjoyed having group. After the first couple groups, they began asking for group daily. We often heard comments such as, "We learn better this way." Absentees would ask what happened in group, and students who knew they were going to be absent would ask us to wait until they returned to have group so they wouldn't miss it. It was funny because at first students protested about having group, but the problem quickly developed into not having enough groups. Choices quickly became a favored activity, and students would often gather the books and set up the table in order to "remind" me that we were having group that day. Many students wrote in their journals about how they learned that their opinion counted for the first time in their lives. They also said and wrote about how their self esteem was greatly improved. Physical signs were lots of laughter, smiles, and red faces from debating (you don't debate about what you don't care about).

As with all things, we had our problems. Infighting reared its ugly head. The first and biggest complaint from the group was that lower-level students were shouting out answers and opinions before it was their turn to speak, not allowing others to have a say. Soon there was hostility in the group geared toward these students. No one would confront them with the problem. They just talked about it behind their backs. Our jovial group became a lion's den. Students who normally sat together were sitting apart. Cheri and I were told how the students felt and at first watched to see if the problem would iron itself out. It did not. Hostility grew, and group grew unpleasant for students and teacher.

It was time for a group meeting. I introduced the suggestion for setting up group rules, "Most groups have rules when they meet, so why don't we make some?" Rules for groups were discussed, and students made their own group rules without pointing fingers or placing blame. This gave everyone a chance to speak, not allowing negative and angry attitudes. All the rules were agreed upon, and if someone broke them in future groups it was nicely pointed out, and the rule-breaker was quick to apologize. Soon we had our group back, and social skills were being learned by all.

We finished Choices on April 19, 1996, and the students are currently working on their own short stories about a choice they made in their life that was difficult, memorable or made a difference. The students prefer to write their stories and present their drafts to a group, sharing ideas and getting encouragement from each other. We are hoping that next year we will have a Choices book of our own to share. At the end of this article is one student's story. We, the group, thought it was beautiful.
Fall 1996

I was three years old when I arrived at The Summit County Children's home, with my mom, brothers and sister. It was a very cloudy morning. I was so happy that my mother took me with her, as with working, this didn't happen very often. My brothers and sister didn't seem so happy, as they probably knew why we were there. I myself didn't realize what was going on until my mom picked me up. She hugged me very tightly, kissed me several times and told me that she loved me very much. She put me down, said goodbye, and went out the door. I started to cry very hard. I looked around to see that my brothers and sister were also crying. Then I looked up to see this woman standing there. She started to talk to us in this very soft and low voice. She then asked us for our names, said she was happy that we would be living at the home.

Being only three, she looked very tall and slim. The way she dressed reminded me of the way my mom did. Flowered printed dress with lace at the collar, black tied oxfords. I found that day that she was in charge of the home, and her name was Miss Boetler. We were all then taken to our different departments. She personally took me to the nursery. She must have spent at least an hour talking to me.

After I was settled in, she visited me very often. After a month or two that I was there, she began to take me to her office. We would go down this long flight of stairs, to the next floor. Then down this long hall, pass the isolation ward, where we stayed if we had mumps or something. We would pass the clinic, where taken if we got hurt. Mom Woods was the nurse in charge of the clinic.

It was a long hall that finally led to her office. I would sit on her desk and play for hours, while she did her book work. But she always took time out to play and talk to me. At midmorning she would take me to the kitchen to get a snack, usually an apple or graham crackers. I was there everyday, except on weekends, as those were visiting days.

It was like this until I was almost five. So you can see why I loved her so much. I think she helped to fill the void I left.

I was now in the C Department of the home. This was for girls from four and half to twelve years of age. I wish I could remember the matron's name as she was always good to me. On this one morning, which was probably in the month of June, she took me into her office. She then told me Miss Boetler was leaving to get married. I asked the matron if I was going with them. She said, "No, you have to stay." Just another person in my life to leave me. I must have cried all day. All I could think of was myself and how lonely I would be. It was a very warm day when she came out to the playground to say goodbye. I was sitting on the wood board that surrounded the playground. She was with the man she was going to marry. Miss Boetler kept asking me to turn around and to talk to her. I couldn't; I was crying so hard, with my face in my hands, thinking only of how she was letting me down by leaving.

When I did finally turn around, she was gone. I never saw her again. What triggers this memory is when someone I love and is very close to me is leaving for some reason or another, I now never turn my back to anyone. I wish them well, tell them I love them, and I understand.

By Dorothy M. Foster
Former Ravenna, ABLE Student
1996 GED® Recipient

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