EL CIVICS: Making the case for Just-in-Time Teaching
by Heide Spruck Wrigley

New Money for ESOL

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education made over 30 million dollars in funding available for a new area of adult ESOL, called "English Literacy and Civics" or "EL Civics" in short. 6.9 million of these funds were awarded by the Department of Ed to twelve programs selected through a competitive bid process. The remainder of the monies (25.5 million) will be shared by thirty-one states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The focus of the EL Civics program is to find new (and effective ways) to combine the teaching of ESOL and civics. These new developments have created both excitement about new possibilities and controversy over the allocations.

please note: For 2001, $70 million is being awarded to support state EL/Civics programs, with each state receiving a minimum of $60,000 in new funding for EL/Civics. For more information, please see NCLE notes, Volume 10, Number 1, Summer 2001, page 2.

Definitions of Civic Participation and Citizenship

As a new program that uses a competitive grant process to fund projects, EL Civics falls slightly outside the existing frameworks for adult ESOL. The federal RFP, for example, called for innovation and encouraged applicants to think about new ways to help learners be active participants in their communities and develop the kinds of knowledge, skills, and strategies they need to navigate the world around them and make their voice heard. It also encouraged the teaching of applied skills (in the form of life skills) and English literacy (which in the definitions set by the federal government encompasses verbal communication skills along with problem solving).

What Do We Mean When We Say EL Civics?

For the most part, citizenship education as part of ESOL has been defined either as "preparation for the INS exam", or "civic participation" writ large. Combining the two concepts into one curriculum has often been problematic, largely because students who are focused on obtaining U.S. citizenship often have a single goal: to complete the process, get sworn in and get on with their lives. As a rule, they want to spend every available minute mastering the skills needed to understand the process and survive the exam. As a result, issues of civic participation are often seen by both teachers and students as lying outside the domain of "citizenship education" if such education is primarily linked to naturalization.

Standard models for "Civic Participation" on the other hand have had limitations as well. Conventionally defined, civic participation has focused on participating in the electoral process (voter registration; becoming informed on the issues; understanding the steps involved in casting a vote, and working to get out the vote). In adult literacy classes, much of the emphasis has been on civic participation linked to processes such as attending council meetings, signing petitions, advocating for more funding or joining protests at city hall. While civic participation of this kind represent a worthwhile goal for any resident, the idea of regular participation in public forums is not necessarily an idea that gets our students excited, particularly if their goal for coming to classes has been to learn English. Overwhelmed by the demands of daily living and the strains inherent in acculturation, many adult ESOL students have been content to stay removed from political affairs and to let the rest of he community to take care of itself. In addition, many refugees and immigrants have experienced oppressive systems and have learned to distrust the political process. Others feel that in order to make a difference and take on the powers that be, they will need to understand how systems work in the U.S. a task that seems overwhelming for newcomers and for those still struggling with English.

For many of these learners, civic participation is a worthwhile notion, admirable in others, but not necessarily something that gets them out of bed in the morning, given conflicting demands on their time and the need to deal with more pressing issues such as unreliable child care, unsympathetic case workers, difficult bosses, and cars that won't start.

What Matters to Learners?

Yet, most of us have seen students who, initially at least, have been fairly uninterested in social and political topics, get excited when issues emerge that touch them deeply or wshen concerns arise that throw their lives off balance (such as someone being asked to testify in court against a neighbor). We all have heard stories of students losing their jobs suddenly (as did thousands of employees when Levy Strauss closed its doors in El Paso) or of being forced to leave their homes because of rent increases or evictions. We all know learners who had to go to court over traffic violations or who have become victims of crimes in the street or in their homes. When these incidents happen, groups of learners who previously professed little interest in political activity all of a sudden become galvanized, asking pertinent questions, questioning the system and wanting to know how to protest injustices and protect themselves against harm. In many classrooms, these incidents become "teachable moments", the opportunity to introduce new ideas and invite learners to explore further into new directions.

These are the times when a great many things that never appeared in the official curriculum are discovered and learned and when sophisticated term that, on the surface, are far above the proficiency of the students are acquired. This is when connections appear between the personal and the political. With a skilled teacher who acts as a facilitator, students often take these personal issues and work with each other toward finding ways to answer the questions they have and brainstorm ideas for addressing the problem at hand While letters or in-person protests have sometimes resulted from these discussions, at other times the results have been less ambitious but nevertheless worthwhile: Students have taken the opportunity to discuss and investigate, to understand their rights, and to explore ways to fight back and make their voices heard. In the end, there has been the opportunity to link life in the community with the learning that occurs inside.

What Are We to Do?

But how should we prepare teachers and students to take advantage of these critical incidents? Novice teachers focused on teaching the materials in the curriculum (or in the textbook) often donıt recognize "teachable moments" (when I observe classes, I often want to jump up and shout "here's one! Go with it!"). Or else, they donıt quite give students sufficient opportunity to share information about their lives outside of the classroom. Similarly, students who have not had the opportunity to express an opinion or challenge authority are not likely to jump into the fray and run with an idea without a great deal of support and encouragement. If we are to build interest in civic participation and help learners develop both and understanding of issues and strategies of defending themselves, a new kind of approach to curriculum will be needed.

What might such am approach entail? I envision a model that provides teachers and learners with the tools and resources needed to address issues as they arise ­ letıs call it JITT (just in time teaching). In this model, rather than teaching students all the steps involved in civic participation or providing them with reams of information on the political process, we teach civic information on an "as needed" basis. This means, we must provide teachers with ideas for structuring a class in such a way that it invites the sharing of information (simply beginning each day with 10 minutes of "so whatıs new?" and taking notes on what students have to say, is a good start.) It also might mean collecting materials from other agencies that provide background knowledge on "how systems work and how to navigate them", systems such as health care, education, social services, housing. I'm not thinking of the standard life skills unit where doctors are always friendly, landlords amenable, and police somehow absent. These units provide little information that is real to students (largely because the situations presented are not linked to the underlying legal or socio-political issues). I am wishing for a curriculum approach that lays out a process for investigating how local systems work and what our rights and responsibilities are (both in general and within particular domains). I also envision teaching materials that can act as catalysts, or code (in Freirean terms) for discussion and a jumping off point for language development. I am thinking of lots of examples of situations collected from students and others that present "sticky situations". These might include the nuisances that all of us need to deal with whether we are proficient in English or just getting there: the landlord promised to fix the sink that wonıt drain but so far he is nowhere it sight; our driverıs license has expired and we haven't had time to go to the DMV; a child comes home from school crying every day for a week because the other wonıt play with her; the doctor does not have a translator; and trash that is supposed to get picked up isn't.

For literate students, these critical incidents can be presented in the form of simple stories or a mini-dialogues. They can act as a "code" in the Freirean sense that invites learners to ask questions, talk about what is happening (and why), and share similar experiences. Visual materials can help bring critical issues to life ­ a compelling picture (of a homeless child for example) is a powerful way of telling a story; as are video-clips of stressful situations (a visit to the emergency room) or of situations of high interest to learners (a swearing-in ceremony for citizenship, for example). Music has long been a catalyst for exploring both language and topics of interest, and I've often used"Deportees" as a jumping off point for a discussion on immigrants and the working life. The curriculum can easily extended beyond the initial discussions of the problems represented in these codes. Guest speakers from local service agencies can be invited as guest speakers to discuss the resources available to help immigrants deal with issues in their lives. Student inquiry maps and learner action research projects are a natural outgrowth of this model.

As EL Civics takes hold as an idea whose time has come, it will be important for us to work with our students to find out more about the issues that matter to them. Once we have learned to let learner concerns surface and to listen closely to what students have to say, we can start introducing background knowledge as needed and provide opportunities for exploring strategies for action. As students see the possibility to defend themselves, fight for their rights, or advocate for the rights of others, they are more likely to show interest in civic participation on a larger scale. But unless we link our classrooms to issues that affect our students directly, helping them see the need for civic involvement may be a hard sell. Let's do it the easy way.

Heide Spruck Wrigley is the senior researcher for language, literacy, and learning for Aguirre International. As part of the Coalition for Limited English Speaking Elderly (CLESE), a program funded through the federal program, she is helping a number of CBOs to develop learner-centered curriculum around EL Civics, including the production of a video on "sticky situations." For more information on this project, go to http://www.eslliteracy.com. LR/RI thanks Dr. Wrigley for sharing this article, an earlier version of which appeared in TESOL's Adult Education Interest Section newsletter.

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august 21, 2001