Debra King & Theresa Wall

“Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

–    Saint Francis of Assisi

In the role of tutor in the Lifeline to Literacy class at The Alex, Debra King (pictured right) sees herself as an advocate and an ally for literacy learners. One way she tries to engage learners is by bringing quotes to class- the above quote from Saint Francis of Assisi is an example from the past month. The quotes serve a dual purpose: they act as a springboard into the lesson; and they allow Debra and Theresa Wall, The Alex’s Lifeline to Literacy Instructor, to get a glimpse into the lives of their learners through discussion of the quote. This understanding of their learners is invaluable and sets the tone for the program. Both Debra and Theresa believe that the classroom is an environment of learning exchange. Their learners bring their lives and experiences to class, and through their expertise, Debra and Theresa help to tailor courses, programs, and modules to meet the needs of the learners. Debra and Theresa are the first to say that they take away from the classroom just as much as the learners do, and that they are improving as instructors all the time because of what their learners teach them.

Lifeline to Literacy began as a Bow Valley College course for adults with literacy skills gaps. Originally offered on campus, in 2016 Bow Valley College was looking at initiatives to build stronger alliances between adult literacy programs and poverty serving organizations. Having researched the link between homelessness and low literacy rates, and the importance of making literacy opportunities available to those who need them most, Bow Valley College foundational learning staff approached The Alex to host the course.

The Alex provides thoughtful, comprehensive care to vulnerable Calgarians. With clinical and social components included in almost all their programs, The Alex tackles tough health and social issues head-on. The Alex services a community with complex health needs, often the result of issues such as poverty, trauma, homelessness, or addiction.

Both formal and informal partnerships have guided this project over the past 4 years. Clarifying roles and responsibilities and holding the adult learner in the centre. Janice Nicolay, Employment and Resource Specialist at The Alex HomeBase,  has been a committed and enthusiastic supporter of bringing Lifeline to Literacy to The Alex since before 2016. She has attended almost every session since then, increasing her knowledge about adult literacy and increasing the Lifeline to Literacy staff and volunteers knowledge about the many complex barriers that  face learners at The Alex. Christina Bassett, The Alex’s Vocational Skills Coordinator, has shared her passion, knowledge and skills with the Lifeline to Literacy program for almost three years. This program could not be a success without the commitment of both Janice and Christina who work so hard to bolster the ongoing wellness of the learners and remove barriers to return to a learning setting.

“Poverty is entrenched through poverty of opportunity. For literacy to be a tool in the fight against poverty, it needs to make opportunities available to those who need them most.” – Frontier College, national forum on Literacy and Poverty.

Debra was part of the Bow Valley College team that introduced Lifeline to Literacy to The Alex, she was the course instructor at that time. The Alex did not have anything remotely close to Lifeline to Literacy and Debra was able to show the value of the program quickly and clearly. She was able to engage and find success with learners who had been unsuccessful in other programs. She created cohesion and respect amongst the learners and was so respected that even learners who no longer participate in the program still ask about her. Debra set the format for the class and created an environment where learners could learn without realizing it. It is not uncommon for learners to be surprised with how far they have come. Compassion and respect for the learners is at the core of Debra’s approach to instruction. She has always been interested in working with marginalized learners, people who have been denied access to supportive and meaningful learning experiences in the past.  She strives to build a safe, secure, and encouraging learning environment.

When Debra decided to take a step back, it was clear the bar had been set high. The stories of learners’ successes were starting to grow, and the learner retention rate was slowly increasing. Whoever replaced Debra had to be of the same calibre, and by all accounts, Theresa (pictured right) is. Learner centered instruction is at the core of Theresa’s teaching philosophy. While Theresa may be the expert in literacy instruction, to her the learners are the experts in what they need to learn, and she sees herself as having simply been invited into their space to help guide them. She believes everyone is capable of learning- it is simply a matter of learning how to teach. When things are going well in the classroom, and learners are understanding and advancing, Theresa will continue with what she is doing. But if it is not working, rather than assuming it is a difficulty on the part of the learner, Theresa sees it has an opportunity to reflect and make changes to her instruction.

Neither Debra nor Theresa started their careers in adult foundational learning. Theresa started teaching in K-12 and after some time teaching ESL overseas, decided she wanted to continue teaching adults in Canada. It was in one of her ESL classes here that she first became aware of literacy learners. Through investigating the struggles of those learners, she discovered the world of adult literacy and has been in the field ever since. Debra began her career in the Northwest Territories teaching in an indigenous community. In partnership with a local college, she set up a program using high level materials to teach literature and drama. Her curriculum quickly changed after one student pulled her aside and asked “Miss, when are you going to teach us to read?”.

All the lessons Debra and Theresa learned on their path to The Alex have set them up to be inspirational leaders to both learners and colleagues. Despite the many reminders of how vulnerable these learners are, Debra and Theresa see more lessons of resilience, compassion, and survival. In many ways the learners are the teachers. Debra and Theresa enter the classroom with that understanding which allows them to positively influence how the class is shaped, what it feels like, and how the learners respond. They instruct with care and sensitivity in this unique environment and as a result are brimming with success stories of their learners. Whether it be reading a short novel cover to cover, applying life skills to skills learned in the classroom, successfully holding a volunteer opportunity, or getting hired for a job, the way in which Debra and Theresa speak of their learners’ success you would almost think they were speaking of their own accomplishments.

Calgary Learns is the current interim grant holder for Lifeline to Literacy and is a champion for the Vibrant Communities Calgary Enough for All 2.0 which lists adult literacy among its identified 10 Levers of Change.

Learn more about the work Calgary Learns is doing with Literacy and Poverty here.