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                               Intergenerational Literacy Sessions
                              Reflection and Evaluation by Scott Linford

         For participants in the Swearer Center‟s many student-coordinated literacy programs, the

term „literacy‟ may refer to the ability to read and write, oral fluency in English or another

language, familiarity with computers, or a wide range of other possibilities. A few Swearer

Center programs specifically identify themselves as promoters of family or community literacy;

for example, the MET Family Literacy Program and the programs working with the Olneyville

Community School. In other programs that do not explicitly identify themselves as „family

literacy‟ or „community literacy‟ programs, families and communities still crop up as important

sites of literacy. Despite the apparent importance of family and community literacy in Swearer

Center programs, though, there has been little discussion about the precise meaning of these

terms and their implications for the Swearer Center‟s work.

         To address this lack of discussion and work towards a clearer understanding of family

literacy and community literacy, Janet Isserlis (Assistant Director, Language and Literacy) and

Dilania Inoa (Assistant Director, Literacy and Schools) organized a series of discussions between

coordinators and volunteers in Swearer Center literacy programs. The group convened in three

two-hour meetings informally titled “Intergenerational Literacy Discussion Series,” held on

Saturday afternoons over the course of three months. Participants were coordinators and

volunteers from family literacy programs, adult ESOL programs, after-school youth programs,

and a creative writing program for adults with developmental disabilities. The discussion series

was well received and most participants expressed interest in continuing a similar set of

discussions in the following semester.

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        After a brief reflection from the point of view of a participant (myself), this document

presents a critical summary of discussion topics and activities covered in last semester‟s

discussion series and offers an outline for a similar discussion series next semester. In the end,

there is a short list of helpful references pertaining to the discussion series.

Participant’s Reflection

        I transferred to Brown University at the beginning of my sophomore year and

immediately began volunteering in Writers‟ Groups, a Swearer Center program that provides

weekly creative writing workshops for adults with developmental disabilities. Over the course of

that first year, I slowly began to realize what a deep well of resources the Swearer Center offered

to Brown students. When I inherited the position of coordinator of Writers‟ Groups a year later,

my level of engagement with the Swearer Center jumped up a notch, and I quickly realized that

the resources offered by the Swearer Center were as expansive as they were deep. Coordinating

a Swearer Center program provided me with the opportunity to engage in the praxis of

community work, allowing me to develop leadership and facilitation skills that I will use over a

lifetime of social justice work.

        In addition to providing the logistical and financial underpinning for my program, the

Swearer Center supported my growth as a community worker most meaningfully in three ways.

The first of these was simply working with my supervisor, Janet Isserlis. Her ever-present

support and unending dedication to her work were a constant inspiration and taught me much

about what it means to be in it for the long haul. A second level of support came from weekly

Learning Community meetings, attended by other student coordinators of language and literacy

programs. These meetings created space to support and learn from other student coordinators,

and they were invaluable in hashing out particularly troublesome challenges specific to our

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 2
programs and our learners. The third level of support came from full Swearer Center retreats.

Initially, these were long biannual meetings attended by all student and full-time staff; although

it was inspiring and refocusing to hear from the dedicated full-time staffers, in hindsight I can

see that these meetings opened doors to discussions that were not given adequate space to

develop. Last semester, the full staff retreats were reformulated into shorter monthly meetings

which I believe more successfully provided sustained interaction between Swearer staffers and

engaged student staffers with broad issues facing the Swearer Center as a whole.

        Last semester, the Intergenerational Literacy Discussion Series provided a new level of

support somewhere between the specific logistics of Learning Community and the broad issues

discussed in full staff retreats. The discussion series created space to interact meaningfully with

a new set of student staffers and volunteers and to hash out in depth an issue of particular

relevance to all of our programs. The meetings were unhurried and purely voluntary;

participants made time for them because we felt we were getting something out of them and

because they directly informed our work in the community. Conceivably, this informal

discussion series could become a model for a new level of support at the Swearer Center, in

which small groups gather a few times a semester to sustain a focused discussion on a topic of

general relevance; about strategies for evaluating our work, for example, or bringing politics into

the classroom, or dealing with racism in our programs. Discussion topics could be identified and

agreed upon by Swearer Center staffers, and meetings could proceed at a pace determined by the


        Of course, this ambitious plan is probably an impossibility given the amount of

energy the Swearer Center already pours in to supporting its student staffers. Likewise,

even “informal” meetings require careful planning and an attentive facilitator to fulfill

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 3
their potential for support. In any case, I hope that the Intergenerational Literacy

sessions will recur next semester with the same level of engagement from participants.

I hope too that the Swearer Center’s dedication to support student staffers translates

into better support for the learners and participants in our community programs.

First Workshop

        After a brief round of introductions, the first meeting commenced with a critical

examination and discussion of three different public service announcements promoting

family literacy, published by the National Center for Family Literacy. The

announcements were stark black and white images of gritty urban living spaces, with no

people present. Each image depicted a living space that was now uninhabited,

presumably implying that a family literacy program had helped the former inhabitants

move out of an unsavory environment. Analyzing these images as a group sparked a

lively discussion touching on assumptions made about learners, the purpose of literacy

programs, and the audience of such public service announcements. This opening

activity effectively used materials to stimulate discussion and set the stage to critically

evaluate representations of family literacy.

        From this initial discussion, we turned to a general overview of family and

intergenerational literacy, touching on some of the rationale and critique of family

literacy as determined by various entities such as funders, providers, and program

participants. This overview was intended to introduce participants to a broad definition

of family literacy, and also to gauge participants’ knowledge of the topic. In the ensuing

discussion, participants related this overview of family literacy to their own programs

with mixed reactions: some felt that parents would feel uncomfortable or vulnerable

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 4
studying alongside their children, or that children would be critical of their parents’

perceived illiteracy. Others talked about the role of literacy in immigrant families, for

example the role of children as translators for their parents. To put these observations

in the context of program goals, we also examined statements written by and about the

Olneyville Community School, the MET, and English for Action with regards to their

family literacy and parent involvement work. This portion of the meeting was effective

in allowing participants to share their knowledge of and immediate reactions to family

literacy. Because most participants had little prior knowledge of family literacy outside

the context of their own programs, I think a more expansive and explicit introduction to

family literacy would have been helpful here; broadly speaking, what are the rationales

of practicing family literacy and how do programs put these rationales into practice?

        To reframe the discussion from a different angle, participants next examined two

sets of materials: an introduction to the problem-posing approach to education and the

Equipped for the Future parent role maps describing important roles of parents within

the family. The materials led to discussion of specific ways to implement these

approaches within classrooms, pushing participants to think more about possibilities for

the praxis of family literacy. Problem-posing and EFF parent role maps are strong,

valuable resources that provide possibilities for implementing family literacy without

jeopardizing the values and goals of learners.

        After discussing these materials, the meeting concluded with a long series of

questions that the group deemed relevant to future conversations. Among these

questions were: how do learners respond to family literacy programs? What is their

feedback? What are some theories/rationales underlying family literacy? What are

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 5
some models of family literacy? Can we implement family literacy in current Swearer

Center programs? If so, how? Do our observations of our own programs match the

stated goals of those programs? To quell some of the angst lying beneath these

questions, Janet Isserlis reiterated that the purpose of these meetings is not necessarily

to incorporate family literacy into our programs, but rather to understand what family

literacy is, to see how our community partners define it, and to see if family literacy is

actually implemented within those sites.

        Before leaving, participants spent a few minutes writing reflections on the

meeting, raising more questions and proposing topics of future conversations. Here are

some excerpts:

  I think that “family literacy” is this very idealistic concept that has been constructed
  as a solution to multiple problems (crime, unemployment…), but since literacy is
  extremely important to communities, people who want “better jobs”, it doesn’t really
  matter whether or not programs are actually “family” oriented. The more important
  thing is to help people achieve their goals. If people have time, if the generation gap
  due to literacy needs can be “closed” or at least made smaller, the “family” bonds
  could probably be strengthened. Most people in my program almost never say
  anything about helping their kids as their goal – more that they WANT to be able to
  talk to people at work, get promoted in other job related things. Perhaps family ties,
  family integration is already assumed.

  What is family literacy? Are we talking about the idea of all family members being literate,
  or are we talking about a process of teaching/learning that involves all family members
  working together at the same time/in the same place? If we are talking about this
  collaborative process, what are the benefits of this process?

  Right now its hard to see our program (Olneyville) in the context of family literacy.
  However, there is the potential for childcare in the near future and I have been thinking about
  whether this is child care in the strict sense or whether to incorporate literacy, etc. into it. I‟m
  not sure what that would look like so I‟d be interested in hearing about different models and
  their perceived “success” or just how they were set up… I‟m also interested in hearing how
  these programs/approaches were viewed by the learners themselves.

  You brought up the idea of “community literacy” – what would this look like and how would
  it interact with family literacy? What about single adults, non-traditional families, or kids
  without family qua family? Also, it‟d be nice to talk a bit about specific examples of how

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 6
  family literacy plays out in a classroom or other learning environment. You gave a few
  illustrative examples today that provided a good way to think about what we can do with
  these ideas.

  Before this session, I had never particularly thought of the BCAP as a “family literacy
  program”. There is such a disconnect between the volunteers, teachers (of D‟Abate and Asa
  Messner), and parents that it is difficult to even consider it a community literacy program
  (despite OCS‟s name). The only similarity we have are the kids, and the problem is that they
  themselves act differently around each group of mentors, so how do we all function as a

Second Workshop

        To reestablish common ground for discussion and to fill in a few newcomers, the second

meeting commenced with a review of the first workshop. From there, participants brainstormed

towards a common understanding of what “literacy” can mean. Participants assigned a broad

meaning to the term, encompassing reading/writing, general communicative skills, association of

signs with ideas, and paralinguistic „cultural reading‟ skills. This discussion was important in

establishing a common understanding of a nebulous term, and also in opening up the possibilities

of what forms family literacy can take.

        The group then read and discussed an article reviewing several different

family/community literacy programs, detailing their history, goals, and context. The article and

ensuing discussion were valuable in providing concrete examples of family literacy, grounding

the term in existing community programs. If anything, more details (specific classroom

activities employed by these programs, for example) would be helpful here in sustaining critical

thinking about the various programs.

        Although rich and layered, this discussion began to grow somewhat scattered, so the

group refocused by allowing 15 minutes for each participant to design a family literacy activity

that could be implemented in her program. The meeting concluded with participants sharing

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 7
their activities and giving feedback to each other. This was a good way to learn more about each

other‟s programs and to think about how family literacy could actually be implemented in our


        As before, participants took a few minutes to provide written feedback on the meeting.

In general, participants enjoyed the chance to design a family literacy activity of their own and

expressed interest in more specifics at the next meeting. Here are some excerpts:

  What I found most useful today was the part where we each had to come up with an activity
  that would be “intergenerational” because that made me really think about what the goals of
  family literacy are, and to practically achieve them.
          What I would like to see next time: Specific lesson plans for activities that are
  considered intergenerational, or more detailed accounts (than the ones in the review paper) of
  family literacy programs and what themes are addressed etc. I think that will help me better
  understand family literacy and how it actually happens.

  As in the first meeting, it was great to hear everyone‟s perspectives on family literacy – the
  conversation was guided by the points that interest us and are relevant to our work.
  Designing a specific activity and sharing with the group was particularly helpful for learning
  about each other‟s programs and seeing different examples of implementation.
          For next time, I‟d be interested in thinking about why family literacy could be
  important. It just seems like a good thing generally, but what specifically are the practical
  and theoretical goals/benefits?

  I enjoyed talking about our specific programs and activities related to them that would
  incorporate family/community literacy because 1) it is helpful for us to think more deeply
  about our programs in relation to these conversations and 2) it is wonderful to hear about
  others‟ programs, experiences and challenges within an educational environment.
          In the future, I would like to explore the possibility of research in the context of
  intergenerational literacy, and more specifically, its implications in our individual programs.

  I thought overall this was very helpful. I thought that we could have done more through the
  reading a little quicker – not much. Only so that the more applicable brainstorming could
  have been expanded. I thought that we could have expanded on actual activities if we had a
  printout of family/community ed activities (found online) or a set of resources for more
  ideas. I know they are out there. Also talk about our experiences with parents good
  times/difficult times. Go around and say why we want to know more about these programs,
  what is it that worries us, etc.

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 8
Third Workshop

           The third and final meeting of the semester was held on April 29. A number of students

had indicated that they had conflicts with this time and were invited to meet with Dilania and

Janet before the end of the semester. Prior to this meeting, participants were sent the following


     In order to prepare for the session, please think, and maybe jot down some notes
     about involving parents in children's education.
             How do you think about/what are issues you see as being important in considering
     parents/caretakers' roles in their children's education?
             For those of you working with children's programs, how/might you envision
     including adults? How/would adult programs include children? Would we, at the end
     of the day, make small or bigger changes?
             Also, please have a look at; choose one -
     three sites that interest you. What resonates? Why? What's useful, not so great, or really
             We're hoping to use our learning thus far to brainstorm activities for parents
     and kids to do on their own over the summer, and also to consider final events (for
     programs that have them) that might include parents and kids together. Finally, too,
     we'd like to start thinking of concrete ideas to incorporate into our programs over the
     coming year.

To begin the discussion and review earlier conversations, the group discussed these questions

briefly, and also the quotes “We must build on the wishes of the families in order to achieve

successful family literacy programs” and “Teach a boy to read and you teach a man; teach a girl

and you teach a family.”1 However, it became clear that most participants had not thought much

about the reminder questions prior to the meeting, and had limited interest in discussing these


           Instead, each participant spent about ten minutes writing in response to the question

“Who are the participants in your programs?” Participants produced the following responses:

     MET: immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, 30-40 years old.

    L.M. Phillips, H.L. Sample, Family Literacy: Listen to What the Families Have to Say, in Portraits of Literacy
    across Families, Communities and Schools: Intersections and Tensions. Jim Anderson, Maureen Kendrick, Theresa
    Rogers, and Suzanne Smythe (eds.), 2005, Lawrence Erlbaun Associates.

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 9
  Service workers and laborers; parents and non-parents, single people, men and women
  Participants want to be able to communicate better at their jobs and in their communities, and
  want greater economical and social mobility.
  There are also people whose first language may or may not be English studying Spanish at
  the Met.

  OCS ESOL: very recent immigrants, 30-50, few women; some with not much literacy in the
  first language, some fully literate; more single people, few women.

  BVI Writers’ Groups: Adults with developmental disabilities (ages 29-52); live in sheltered
  or controlled environments. Range of mental and physical conditions, native speakers of
  English and Portuguese. Range of literacy levels and methods of communication, staff/care
  attendants support workshops but also constrain opportunities for writers‟ to use language
  and expression authentically or independently.

  OCS Kids’ Programs: Boys and girls, (mostly female volunteers from Brown); mostly
  Hispanic with some other ethnicities represented. Some are bilingual; all but one speak
  English well. Parents sign kids up so that some kids don‟t want to be there; can‟t do the
  work, or get bored. The program, Writing Club, features games, creative writing and some
  homework help.

The ensuing discussion began with networks and communities located within and across these

groups of learners, and then shifted to ways that literacy is used within those networks. The

conversation then turned to networks of communication, specifically regarding how people find

out about Swearer Center programs and thus how networks are important in recruitment.

Although the discussion grew a little scattered, this activity was very helpful in sharing more

information about each participant‟s program and in refocusing our ideas about family literacy

on the people who actually participate in our programs.

        The meeting ended with a discussion of the value and positive impact of our programs.

This concluded the sessions on a positive note and encouraged participants to continue thinking

about ongoing evaluation in our programs. Conversation turned briefly to dealing with racism

and cultural insensitivity in our programs, and possible approaches for addressing these issues

(such as the problem-posing approach). Participants then verbally discussed the

Intergenerational Literacy Discussion Series in general, making several comments: it is

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 10
important and useful for coordinators and volunteers to make time to discuss our work; in the

future, these discussion series could be opened up to other topics outside of family literacy; Janet

should feel free to step out of her role as facilitator and say what she thinks about things; and

finally, these Saturday meetings should continue next semester, perhaps on a monthly basis.

Suggested Outline for Next Semester

        Based on the positive feedback from last semester‟s participants and their expressed

desire to return to the Intergenerational Literacy Discussion Series next semester, I have prepared

a rough outline to guide next semester‟s workshops. In drafting this outline, I have tried to

incorporate the most positive aspects of last semester‟s discussions and take into account the

ideas and pace suggested by the written feedback of last semester‟s participants. The outline is

of course only a suggested plan, and the facilitators and participants should feel free to depart

from it to pursue other activities and topics as they arise. The facilitators might also consider

sharing this outline or a version of it with the participants and deciding collectively on a revised

agenda or outline.

1st Meeting: Introduction to Family Literacy
       - Goals: Introduce the purpose of these meetings to participants and establish critical
           discussion as the primary medium of these meetings. Provide a general overview of
           the history and context of family literacy
                   o Introduce the purpose and plan of the discussion series
                   o As a group, analyze and discuss family literacy public service
                       announcements using the problem-posing approach; begin thinking
                       critically about representations of family literacy
                   o Provide a general overview and history of family literacy, leading to
                       current Swearer Center family and community literacy programs
                   o Each participant takes a few minutes to talk about their program and how
                       intergenerational literacy might fit in
                   o Written feedback: What was useful in this meeting? What was not useful?
                       What would you like to do in the next meeting?

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 11
2nd Meeting: What is Family Literacy?
      - Goals: Work toward an understanding of what “family literacy” can mean, and look
          at specific programs that do family literacy work
                  o Discussion:
                            What is literacy?
                            How is literacy used within families and communities?
                  o What do “family literacy” programs look like?
                            Read about specific family literacy programs and critically discuss
                              how they conceptualize literacy and how family is a part of their
                  o Brainstorm as a group toward an understanding of what exactly “family
                      literacy” can mean
                            Eg “Family literacy is the way literacy is used within families”;
                              “Family literacy is parents and children learning together”;
                              “Family literacy is a style of teaching literacy that incorporates
                              family and makes use of different types of literacy that operate
                              within families”; etc
                  o Written feedback: What was useful in this meeting? What was not useful?
                      What would you like to do in the next meeting?

3rd Meeting: Implementing Family Literacy
      - Goals: Analyze specific examples of family literacy classroom activities, learn about
          other participants’ programs, and design a program-specific family literacy exercise
                 o As a group, participants look over a few examples of family literacy
                     classroom activities (found online somewhere? from Janet‟s personal
                     experience?) and discuss their strengths and weaknesses
                 o Each participant takes time to reflect on the following questions and then
                     share with the group
                          Who are your learners?
                          How do they use literacy?
                          How/does family or community play a part in their lives?
                 o Each participant takes some time to begin designing a family literacy
                     activity that could be used in her program. Participants then share what
                     they came up with and why, garnering suggestions and critique from other
                 o Homework: if possible, participants should implement the activity they‟ve
                 o Written feedback: What was useful in this meeting? What was not useful?
                     What would you like to do in the next meeting?

4th Meeting: Evaluating Family Literacy
       - Goals: Reflect on the family literacy activities designed in the last session, think
          critically about the purpose of family literacy generally and in our programs
          specifically, and generally conclude the discussion series
                  o Each participant reports back about the implementation of the family
                      literacy activity they designed in the previous meeting

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 12
                     o Discussion:
                            What are the potential benefits of family literacy?
                            What are its drawbacks or challenges? What concerns do you have
                               about implementing it in your program?
                            Can these concerns be addressed? Do the benefits outweigh the
                     o What is the impact of our programs? How would community participants
                       be affected if our programs disappeared?
                     o Discussion: What was useful in these meetings? What was not useful?
                       Should they continue?

        The resources below are drawn from “Intergenerational Learning”

(, an extensive list of online resources compiled by

Janet Isserlis. The resources presented here seem to me especially useful for developing the

Intergenerational Literacy Discussion Series.

   Assessment and Evaluation Strategies in Family Literacy Program Development - Adele
    Thomas and Bram Fisher, National Literacy Secretariat of Canada and the Ontario Training
    and Adjustment Board
    A comprehensive program for evaluating family literacy programs; this could be a useful
    starting point for creating action plans to evaluate family literacy activities within Swearer

   A Decade of Family Literacy: Programs, Outcomes, and the Future - Information Series
    No. 389 by Nancy Padak, Connie Sapin, and Dianna Baycich
    A good resource for presenting a general history and context of family literacy education.

   Fairfax County Family Literacy Curriculum - Designed to be used in a multi-level adult
    ESOL family literacy class; in our modules - Introductory (Self, Family and Community),
    Government (Schools and Community), Health (Medicine and Stress), and Consumerism
    (Shopping and Making a Budget)
    This site provides several specific lesson plans for family literacy activities that could be
    analyzed and critiqued by the group.

   Framework for English as a Second Language instruction in a family literacy program
    - Adult Educators from Even Start and ESL programs at Portland Community College and
    Clackamas Children's Commission worked together with Dr. Don Prickel from Oregon State
    University to create the framework, which they hope will be viewed as a "living document"

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 13
    More examples of specific lesson plans to discuss and analyze.

   Family Literacy: Annotated list of selected materials - From the National Adult Literacy
    Database (NALD) site
    A series of brief, straightforward factsheets presenting the definition and benefits of family
    literacy. This could be useful in generating discussion and definitions of family literacy,
    though meeting participants could probably produce this information on their own.

   Research Link - Family Literacy - John H. Holloway; statistics and trends about family
    A brief example of a research approach to understanding family literacy. The following
    excerpt might also be useful in discussing various conceptions of what family literacy
    programs should look like:
       “The researchers define comprehensive family literacy programs as having the following
        o Basic skills education for adult family members to help them learn skills for the
        o Early childhood education for the children to bolster the skills they will need to
          succeed in school.
        o Parent education that enables adult family members to discuss parenting practices,
          nutrition, and the importance of literacy learning for their children.
        o Time for the adults and children to participate together in literacy activities that they
            can also do at home.”

Scott Linford (Brown, 2006) coordinated the Writers’ Grousp at Blackstone Valley Industries,
and participated in the language and literacy learning community from 2004-2006.

Linford/06 – Intergenerational Literacy Sessions, page 14

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