The Impacts of Violence on Women's Learning - August 15 - 23, 2006



Women and Literacy Discussion List Guest Facilitator- Mev Miller

The Impacts of Violence on Women's Learning

Women and Literacy listserv members voiced a desire to read common reading materials and discuss them. From August 15 - August 23, 2006, Mev Miller (mev at litwomen.org) graciously volunteered to facilitate this first online reading discussion. Mev Miller is the director and founder of WE LEARN (Women Expanding: Literacy Education Action Resource Network). A long time feminist activist, Mev has years of experience in facilitating reading-discussion circles on a variety of women's issues. Her experience also includes facilitating Women Leading Through Reading Reading-Discussion Circles with women in both ABE and ESOL learning settings. More information about WE LEARN can be found at www.litwomen.org/welearn.html.

Thanks to Ryan Hall, a graduate student at Georgia State University, the following represents a compilation of the various topics discussed by listserv members while Mev Miller facilitated the discussion. Although the official discussion ended August 23, several listserv members posted additional questions and comments relevant to this topic. Those posts are also included in this compilation. Most of the postings were copied and pasted verbatim, with a few words edited here and there to facilitate reading. For complete postings, along with author information, go to the Women and Literacy Archives and look at postings between August 15, 2006 and September 14, 2006.

The focus of this discussion was on the impact of violence on women's learning. The topics in this discussion stemmed from the following articles by Jenny Horsman:

Horsman, J. (March 2006). Moving beyond "stupid": Taking account of the impact of violence on women's learning. International Journal of Educational Development, 26, 2, 177- 188.

Horsman, J. (1999). Chapter 5: Learning in the context of trauma: The challenge of setting goals
(From Too Scared to Learn: Women, Violence, and Education). Mahwah, New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Horsman, J. (2004). "But is it education?" The challenge of effective learning for survivors of trauma. Women's Studies Quarterly, 32, 1 & 2, 130-146.
(available from WE LEARN: http://www.litwomen.org/Research/horsman_wsq.pdf)

The Existence of Violence

1A. I agree with Jenny that violence is pervasive in our society, but I'm not sure about systematic. For me, violence is about power...having power over others and expressing that in ways that make people feel powerless. When the power is exerted through the use of physical force, harassment or intimidation, it makes other people feel that they can't act independent of the person who has power over them. Here are some examples of violence in education:

  1. Teachers who tell students that they are in a "weedout course" and that only one out of four students will survive the course (very common in math classes).
  2. Teachers who make all the rules in class and do not encourage questions by making fun of students who ask questions.

1B. Systematic is one of those word places that can become difficult. Jenny uses the word systemic, which has somewhat different implications. We might understand it this way -- systematic might look like the abuser who creates emotional and physical changes in increments over time that places more and more control over the abused. Systemic refers to harder to recognize places where violence exists in systems of power (e.g., slavery, colonialism, genocide, war, but also social systems like welfare, racism, some ways in which the legal system works, and, yes, even education).

1C. From all my reading, I come up with two observations:

  1. A significant percentage of men have the potential to abuse girls (and boys, too, but girls more so). The numbers are buried somewhere in my papers. The numbers were put together by a guy who runs a center that specializes in gathering info about pederasts and pedophiles. There is another group of violent men (mostly men) for whom the abuse is not sexual. So, there are two types.
  2. Knowledge of what constitutes as domestic violence, and what the consequences are legally, both enlightens women and puts the brakes on men's behavior

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2. Violence as "The Other"

2A. Those of us who have not endured violence in our lives sometimes think of people who have endured violence as "the other." We are often confronted with realizing this when we hear our friends/colleagues talk about violence in their lives, and suddenly, "the other" is not "the other" any longer. Many say that this is one of the things that perpetuates the frequency of violence: that, as a society, we simply do not really acknowledge how pervasive, common, and frequent it is.

2B. ...medicalizing the experience of trauma and violence adds another layer of perception about those who survive trauma - another way of distancing ourselves from them - making them "other" than us. It was asked, "How should we deal with the issues of violence and trauma without adding another category of 'the other' to our classroom?" But, as Jenny has helped many of us understand, the reality is that we, too, are affected by violence. I came to understand this for myself in a different way a long time ago when I realized that there have been many times when my ability to become intimate with women as friends or lovers was threatened, denied, or even destroyed by the emotional and physical harm inflicted in those women's lives by past and present male abusers. I can only explain this as grief and sadness in terms of the profound loss this brings to women's power and to the creativity and power that our lives can bring. That grief has since turned to rage and anger and now to activism and compassion -- a circle of emotion I continue to experience in various and simultaneous cycles! I don't mean to sound self-serving, but understanding how violence is pervasive has helped me to identify the myriad of ways violence functions in my life--in ways I don't always claim--as well as how it affects my relationships with other women and my ability to trust and respect other people in general.

2C. In our program, we assume that all people victims of trauma and violence. This also relates to the article about normality/abnormality. I met Jenny many years ago in a WIL conference. I wanted to address the issue of trauma, but I still had the mindset that trauma was the issue of "the other". After reading Jenny's work, and also talking with her, Jane Hugo from Laubach, and others, I was able to understand that I was medicalizing the problem. Trauma was an issue of the "sick other" and we--teachers/program staff--were there to help by providing a solution/intervention/cure. From Jenny and others I understood that trauma is our issue and we are all victims of it.

2D. By applying the feminist approach to all learners, I believe that we can avoid "locking ourselves" into a mindset and keep learning about people in general. But, I do maintain that we must have the strength to keep ourselves from creating "the other" or labeling and look at the ways we treat victims by remaining "fluid" in our approaches to learning and trends...stay in touch with our students on an individual basis. Empowerment and self-sufficiency must still play major roles in literacy training for any individual.

2E.

"I do want to learn as much as possible about diverse world views. However, if that is all I do, I risk locking myself and 'the other' into cultural stereotypes. Culture and identity are fluid, changing over time and with each individual and situation" (from http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Swearer_Center/Literacy_Resources/well…).

However, if abuse/trauma is the issue of focusing on learning/communicating, etc., the number of women that have been abused crosses all stereotypes, but it did bring to my mind of how we, as women, keep ourselves in a "victim" state of being. We can change how we experience trauma victims, albeit ourselves, our co-workers, or our students. Additionally, more and more victims are being identified and stigmatized by locking into "the other" cultural stereotype by prejudice and bias against people. It also makes me think of a woman I met from Tampa at a Proliteracy Regional meeting. This woman worked only with refugees. I was shocked, not just by any abuse issues, but the cultural differences in cleanliness and other differences.

2F. I wonder what would happen if we think of all of this as a continuum and, therefore, realize that we have all been survivors of some kind of abuse and have all perpetrated some kind of abuse. For example, many of us as children have been "picked on" and have done our share of "picking on" others- what would happen if we stopped thinking of survivors and perps as "the other" and realize that some of that resides in each one of us? Would we be diluting the importance and impact of severe abuse, or would it be a step in starting to talk about abuse in the open? Would it help create a safe classroom for our learners, or would it have an opposite effect?

2G. I think we have to be very careful how much we generalize our own experience with violence. While I think that acknowledging the fact that we have all suffered some type of violence and even inflicted some type of violence on others may shed some light on how common violence is in our society, how we are all susceptible to it, and how survivors and perps. really aren't the "other," we must be very careful how we transfer our own experiences to those of our learners. We must not forget that violence takes on many forms and that what we have experienced may not compare to what our learners have experienced or continue to experience. Or, that the way we were able to deal with the violence in our lives is something that our learners should be able to do. Limiting the definition of violence and trauma is a risk we take when looking at ourselves as the survivor and/or perp. In this case, it might very well dilute the importance and impact of severe abuse on learning.

2H. If, statistically, we presume that most have been abused or have abused others, as a child or an adult, then we can understand that we are all humans with limitations. Then, "the other" doesn't really exist. If there is such a person who has never experienced trauma, that would be an isolated case. Not to over simplify, but I believe that training for the educator is a must in order to identify, objectively, the abuse factor. Maybe, we should consider ourselves "others" who have had therapy and insights to our own issues, but to bring it out in open discussion is victimization to those not able to cope with their issues at the time.

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3. Considering the Perpetrators of Violence

3A. A topic that we talk about even less, and I think "other" even more, is the perpetrator of violence. If we ourselves have not perpetrated violence, we often think of "perps" as the "other." But, are "perps" really as much the "other" as we often make them seem to be? This is something that I often wonder about. For example, we often hear that torturers are known as loving family members. We hear that people are shocked to find out that their friend is a secret serial murderer. People are shocked to hear that a beloved teacher has been sexually abusing her students. We tend to forget that whole communities are involved in atrocities that occurred in the Holocaust, in Bosnia, in Darfur, etc., etc. I could go on and on.

The NPR commentator today talked about how ordinary people are involved in many world atrocities. We talk on this listserv about the need to realize that amongst us are individuals who have been abused and are being abused. Do we also need to talk about the fact that amongst us are individuals who have been and/or are currently perpetrators of abuse? For example, we talk about the need to be careful when we read aloud passages that involve abuse because it may be triggering for some of our learners who are survivors. Well, what about the perpetrators who are teachers or learners? Do we need to think about them and the impact reading aloud passages have on them? I wonder what would happen if we acknowledged that in our classrooms, our research meetings, our corporate meetings, etc., etc. we probably have both survivors and perpetrators. Would that change the way we teach, the way we interact?

3B. I believe that we do "other" the perps of violence, or at least of certain types of violence, and I think we do so because we just don't want to or can't allow the thoughts that violent people are actually closer to us than we think. The truth is, though, that there are many perps of violence, and they do attend the classes we teach, the meetings we have at work, our places of worship, and the gatherings we have at our house. Some even live with us. To consider all the places one shares with perps of violence is, to say the least, disturbing. Who wants to believe that their friend, colleague, student, professor, minister, or even relative is connected in any way to violent behavior? No one, of course, which is why people are so surprised to find out things like their minister sexually abuses members of the congregation, or their friends beat their children, or that their neighbor murdered or tortured someone, etc.

I think, though, too that, just as we "other" survivors of violence less when we realize we know survivors, we would "other" perps less, too, if we realized that we knew one. I think this is true because, when we find out we know a perp, we would almost instantly ask why- why did this person--a person I consider to be such a nice person, a good friend, etc.--do such a horrible thing? Usually, there is an explanation for the violence that makes us understand why, even if we can never excuse what was done (because I'm not saying violence of any sort should ever be excused). And, usually, perps of violence have either been or are still also victims of violence.

Knowing that they exist is not the hard part for me- it's the question of interaction that gets me. This is what I have come up with after having to teach classes that I was pretty certain had at least one perp in them. I could be oversimplifying this, but I think that we do need to consider that, not only do we encounter victims and survivors of violence regularly, but that some of them are also perps of violence. Should we act any differently knowing that there are more perps of violence in the spaces we occupy? I guess that depends on your beliefs about the way we should treat people in general. If you are a person who believes that you must mask your opinions and beliefs about certain things so that you don't offend certain people, then maybe you do need to make some changes. If you are a person who strives to be respectful and considerate of all people no matter who you are around, however, then I think considering that people are different in many different aspects and for many different reasons may be enough...because you're just going to be nice to everyone anyway. I think the same goes for teaching- we must strive to be respectful, considerate, and sensitive to the fact that the content we teach and the activities we ask students to do will have a different effect on each of them depending on their personal situation. If you are able to do that, then you will also be able to tell when a student is having difficulty with what you are asking him/her to do- at least in most cases.

3C. I wonder how many of us are perps of violence, too. We may be, in our efforts to teach and to create spaces for the students, creating spaces that perpetuate violence, too. One thing that I usually talk about with teachers is the fact that many teachers raise their voices or slam things once in a while. They may not realize this, but a victim of violence will find this very unsettling. In fact, most teachers never discuss domestic violence in teachers prep courses. So, in a way, they are creating or perpetuating violent spaces w/o being aware.

Also, what is the extent to which we perpetuate violence by "othering" (abnormalizing) certain groups? For example, do we use texts that only represent heterosexual relationships? Do we use texts, stories, or movies that show happy families, happy endings and stories (a la Cosby show)? Do the literature and movies, TV shows, etc. always portray nice, comfortable dwellings, people driving nice cars, etc.? While teachers may not be conscious of this, they are creating environments that may abnormalize or "other" the lifestyles of many of our students. Also, are we moody, cynical, sarcastic, quick to judge, etc. Many of these acts can be threatening and perpetuate violence. So, to what extent are we unconscious perpetuators of violence?

I have, in the past, responded, cynically, sarcastically, with hostility, judgmentally, etc in this and other listservs. In fact, I think that they might have a file about me. In a sense, I am a virtual perp of violence. While this may be amusing to some, I have talked to many people who are intimidated by this medium.

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4. Physiological Impacts of Violence

4A. ...there is another dimension, and that is when abuse changes the person biochemically; that's a big jump. Because we are used to thinking of "variables" (through social science lingo), we are used to thinking in terms of "add-ons," and the core-self remaining the same. In extreme abuse the person, what we might think of as "core self," is changed.

4B. Concerning the biochemical component of abuse, physiology tells us that nerve cells that fire together, wire together. If you practice something over and over again, or experience something over and over again, a connection of nerve cells is built up; the cells have a long-term relationship. Long-term cell relationships build cells to form a nerve identity. This neuron "net" is rewired on a daily basis. Break down the long-term cell relationship by interrupting the thought process, and the neuron net is rewired. Interrupt a thought process and it produces a chemical effect or reaction that is different than the chemical effect or reaction of the long-term cell relationship or nerve identity. In essence, nerve cells that don't fire together, don't wire together.

If you get angry on a daily basis, that anger neuro net has a long-term cell relationship with all other neuro nets. If one experiences abuse on a daily basis, that experience forms a long-term cell relationship, a net. Emotions reinforce chemically the long-term cell relationship, the cellular long-term memory. If we bombard the same cell with the same attitude and the same chemistry over and over, when the cell divides and produces a sister cell, that sister cell will have more receptor sites for those particular emotional chemicals and fewer receptors for vitamins, minerals, food exchange or release of toxins and waste. Hence one aspect of the "stress syndrome." Rewiring the brain in this sense means to literally reconnect the neurons in the net. Change the mind, change one's choices. These chemical changes are from the inside out. This is one aspect of the human drama each of us deals with in abusive situations.

4C. ... so, by practicing positive thinking, releasing the painful memories, reducing stress and taking care of ourselves, e.g. proper nutrition, exercise, etc. etc. = fine-tuning??
Why does this sound too easy? Yes, I think I get it, and I guess that's where we are right now in the context of the discussion and in our own lives. Don't most of you think that by providing basic needs and support as a way to break down the long-term process and to promote learning is somewhat up to the provider of the instruction to give the learner environment a "safe" place that is free of abuse and discussion regarding such? That's what I think, anyway. I do believe that keeping ourselves healthy is key; however, if a trauma victim is "obsessing" and unable to release themselves from the "biochemical component of abuse" then that is what 'other' professionals and / or services provide, and we can make these known and update our resources by providing a network of community services - as ESL teachers or volunteers, we really may not know how deep the pain is that we are dealing with- are we equipped to step into deeper waters?

Maybe by our own example as mentors throughout the learning process, our students will try to increase their own well-being, learning, living, overcoming barriers added on by abuse issues, and succeeding to overcome victimization, or at least vicariously begin to "get it" and change their lives for the better.

4D. ...bio-chemical explanations often elicit simplistic explanations for complicated processes. It would seem logical that methods employed to reverse negative experiences embedded in our body chemistry would take as many years to reverse as there were years of the experience, absent a traumatic interruption of the neuro net such as brain injury or outside chemical intervention. The best we can do, I think, is to provide a safe space for all our students, not knowing to what degree they may or may not have been abused. "The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self" (written by Alice Miller) speaks of abuse in a more global sense than physical, sexual or mental abuse and may be of interest to the members of this list.

4E. ...there are changes that can't be rewired: the startle reflex is one of them, and there are some others. The person has to learn to live with the changes.

4F. It is possible for me to say about my hospitalized friend, "Oh, he is low on serotonin." That is not going to get me anywhere. How come he got low on serotonin? How does this manifest in his behavior? What triggered this? This is where talk therapy comes in; the chemicals can't do it all. The doc can listen to what is said, which will contain indications of the medical problem. In the classroom, I think writing is close to this. Also, working with others can create a good environment.

4G. I am not a fan of outside chemical intervention in bodily chemical processes that develop as a result of stress; although, that is an option of individual choice. The biochemical/physiological component of having been abused is only one piece of information. To be aware of physiological processes involved helps me know that what has been wired by repetition can be unwired, and is a powerful indicator that I can take charge of that aspect of my life. How we got wired is the single most important key to unlocking the neuro net, opening the way to changes big or small. Any therapeutic environment, and I believe our classrooms can be supportive to students and thereby therapeutic, has the potential of helping a person on his/her way. I also believe that we must know our limits as teachers and not run trips on ourselves about being everything to our students: friend, social worker, counselor, and mentor.

4H. I read the local papers very closely re the priestly abuse of young boys. I wanted to see whether men had the same behavioral and neurological reactions as women--it seems so: repression, drug/alcohol problems, emotional pain, PTSD. They are the same if the newspapers are accurate. ALSO--the wife of one abused man talked about her husband curling up into a fetal position in the bed when all this came to the surface in his own life. That also has resonance in women's experience.

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5. The Classroom

5A. In reference to …how we teachers should view the impact of violence on our students' learning, I think of universal design (e.g. curbs that are curved so folks in wheelchairs can gain mobility, which is also useful for skateboarders, people pushing prams and shopping baskets), and I think that careful treatment of everyone also benefits those for whom violence may or may not be a particular issue.

5B. In reference to … how often the impact of violence is discussed in professional development settings--For the past several years, since becoming familiar with Jenny's work, I've included explicit reference to possibilities of violence in a range of professional development settings--as facilitator and participant--hoping to making the possibilities of people's having experienced violence visible. By this I mean not asking people to disclose histories of trauma, but to indicate that the chances are high that one or some of us in any group will have experienced some sort of trauma and that our behavior towards and interaction with one another should take that into account in being respectful, and in being aware of who has / doesn't have power in a particular moment. In other words, don't take all the air time, try to listen actively, respond constructively, etc.

I talk about "school safety" and privilege - how, in grade school, I'd always raise my hand to answer questions and how I couldn't imagine why other kids weren't doing the same (it took me a long time to understand that many kids were made to feel stupid and afraid and so wouldn't risk offering an answer that might cause more ridicule).

As I came to see the connections between this largely unearned school privilege I had (I just did well at school), I also slowly began to see the connections between fear of failure, ridicule, harm in classrooms and those fears experienced by survivors/victims of violence or trauma. The long and short of it is that, for me, the possibilities that anyone (teachers, learners, people on the street) have had experiences of violence shapes the way I try to interact with them all the time. I'm not "nicer" to folks who I think have had experiences of violence, but I try to be respectful of all knowing that it's always possible that someone will be in a place where they can't be present to learning or react in a way that she/he/I hadn't anticipated.

5C. Jenny's work suggests that violence and trauma have an impact on our ability to learn or to stay present in the learning situation. We probably do not need to know the details of each individual's situation, and Jenny suggests that we can reliably assume that many (if not most) learners will have experienced some form of violence. But part of the difficulty for those is trauma can be the preservation of silence, invisibility, or shame. I would venture to say that as women we have learned that much in our life experience has historically been silenced and it's only through discussion and the realization that "we're not the only one" that we gain a sense of relief and the beginning of being able to make change. How do we balance visibility and acknowledgment with good boundaries or learning environments?

5D. ...I also wonder about the effects of victimization. Feminism warns us not to "blame the victim." Sometimes I fear that, while we are making safer spaces, we might also be reinforcing women's self-perception of being a victim, or unconsciously moving into patronizing or "deficiency" models of teaching. How do we diffuse women's sense of self as victim? How do we move beyond the debilitating effects of victimization? How do we en-courage women to identify, embrace, and use their power? I think these are questions to consider as we think about developing empowering learning environments.

5E. I think that the systematic planning, including lesson plans relative to the local community and making connections with the community, to inform, support, and include or integrate the learner is what makes a program great.

...the UMCM non-profit literacy workers used many methods of teaching based on the learning needs and created sub-groups within their program. But, the most important difference between a government funded and affiliated group in literacy training was the caring and mutual respect that developed over time. For example, this particular community was primarily Mexican heritage and, for fun, the program held a Cinco de Mayo celebration. Parents, grandparents, and friends in the community were invited and had the kids plan a program prior to the potluck dinner . The program was given in English and then repeated in the Spanish dialect of the group. Respect and community involvement is the key.

...this close relationship with the community identity, developed by UMCM workers, led to an investigation and break in a refugee/child exploitation ring in Tampa, FL, which was carefully handled by the authorities, but the tip wouldn't have come out in a program, like Worknet Pinellas or any other program, in which a level of trust may not exist. Literacy workers build communities, and can make a direct influence of reporting violence, promoting self-sufficiency, and understanding of American citizenship. Our learners are not outsiders. If we can help them know how they can belong to a non-violent society and the worth of that there is power in literate/educated groups that can send their children to college, have their own businesses, or have grandmothers read to their children in English or Spanish - just a few examples of what occurs when there is mutual respect and trust in our literacy programs.

5F. ...education within the context of program, family, and community. By maintaining a holistic approach, much can be gained by the learners, as well as family and community. Sometimes it becomes too easy to "silo" the pieces or make sure things stay within the boundaries of compartments. I would say that power systems (patriarchy for example) function because they insist that certain things stay in certain boxes and remain isolated from each other. Women who experience trauma and violence are isolated in many ways. I wonder sometimes about the distinctions we make between maintaining "good boundaries" as compared to making sure that certain information, people, or functions stay within their separate boxes in order to prevent awareness or to maintain control. Jenny's work offers s some ways to recognize violence and to address ways to make learning environments possible places of success for learners (and teachers). While we might think it's easy to "offer choices," Jenny outlines some important considerations for ways to make that happen -- through control, connection, and meaning.

5G. ...we create spaces in our programs were there are opportunities for those who want to and are ready to share and seek help, w/o anyone being forced to share if they don't want to. The spaces are many. Creative writing is one of those spaces. Opportunities for students collaborating in projects and sharing is another space. Many opportunities for students to dialogue with program staff with privacy is another space. Students' knowledge that there are support programs readily available is another space. There is also the opportunity for the program staff to share with each other and with students, and many of us have relied on each other to get over crises. However, a strong asset for us is the awareness that there are resources available for the students and ourselves. When someone reaches out seeking help, we need to be able to access interventions, if necessary, that go beyond peer support. So, we have contacts with all the local services that provide services for victims of trauma. This knowledge creates a safety network for us. If we reach out and seek help, there will be something available.

5H. I had a very dear friend who once told me, "you can't save the world, but you can still be involved and help people by steering them in the right direction." ...directing women in the right direction is a way to keep boundaries, which is so important as workers can suffer burn-out and learners can give up so easily and it breaks your heart... network, be informed, and focus on learning...

5I. Perhaps "saving the world" is subjective in that it is usually defined by the person who is taking on that task. When we're the outsider looking at someone who so desperately needs to be "saved," it's easy to forget that the choices we can offer may not be ones they can choose. Sometimes, choosing one of the options is too hard or too dangerous. Perhaps it's watching as students continue to struggle in their violent environment that causes much of the teacher burnout. I think that it is important to remember that some, maybe many, students can't be "saved" if for no other reason than it is just too hard for them to make those choices. I wonder if this concept may be even more difficult to understand for those of us who have seen and/or experienced trauma and been able to escape, or maybe just harder to deal with because it makes us feel guilty that we were able to do what many of them can't.

5J. I am often struck by how when we talk in our classrooms about survivors of abuse (especially sexual abuse), we often use female pronouns and when we talk about perpetrators of abuse, we use male pronouns. I wonder how this impacts our learners who have different experiences and how they may additionally feel as the "other" as a result of this. For example, what about our male learners who have been sexually abused as children? Or, our female learners who have been sexually abused by their mothers, lesbian lovers who are attacked by their lesbian partners, etc., etc.? Perhaps one of the reasons why we often talk about females as survivors of abuse and males as perpetrators of abuse is because statistically that is most often the case. However, I wonder if it occurs more often than we realize, but people who can speak to these experiences are too ashamed, intimidated, etc. to speak up? I also wonder if it goes against our cultural mores to think about women as being perpetrators of abuse, and so we shy away from it. I know of a female learner who struggled because her teacher mentioned abuse in the classroom. At first, she was really happy to hear the word said out loud in a classroom setting. But then it became clear to her that the teacher was only talking about male to female abuse. The teacher only mentioned it for a few minutes, but the student zoned out for the rest of the class because she felt like her experience had been invalidated. It was hard for her to go back to class after that, but she did, and persevered to get her GED. I think that we need to be very careful when we mention/talk about abuse in the classroom. Use of pronouns is one of the issues that I think is important to think about.

5K. I think it's good to question the use of the pronouns we use when talking about abuse. While I certainly don't want to deny anyone's experience, I do think it's important to acknowledge that most violence is committed by men and that, in the case of domestic violence, most victims are women. So, for me, the question becomes how to be factually accurate about who does what to whom most of the time without denying that there are exceptions to that which are just as heinous as the "norm."

It seems like saying something like, "While most domestic violence is committed by men against women, there are exceptions to that, and violence doesn't follow the same pattern every time. Some women and girls are hurt by men; some are hurt by women. Men and boys, too, can be hurt by both men and women" might be useful. Then, a discussion could be had about resources available, how resources might vary depending on what kind of violence one has experience, how the emotional weight of the experience changes depending on the dynamics of the relationship involved (between lovers, between parent/child, between strangers), and the similarities and differences between different kinds of violence.

I think it's really important not to ignore the ways in which men, as a class of people in our society, have power over women, as a class of people, and how that distinction contributes to women's experiences of male violence. While some individual men may be under threats of violence, all women are living with the threat of violence from men because they are women.

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6. Tips for Teachers

6A. Jenny talks about how the current discourse surrounding violence and its impact on learning creates a "self-evident divide between violence and education" (p. 179) and goes on to say that creating new ways to discuss it "...can open possibilities for more effective practices" (p. 179). I think she's correct, and I also agree that there needs to be a new discourse so that there can be new ways to perceive what is and what does occur in the lives of our students, as well as how what happens to them outside the classroom affects what they are able to do inside the classroom.

6B. One problem is that we don't know what is actually going on in people's minds. For example, I learned when I came back from vacation that a friend had hospitalized himself against depression/suicide. I visited him yesterday. He seems like himself...but less so. What is happening in his head? I have no idea. I knew he was in big trouble last July--insomnia that went on and on. Last year, I thought that he and his wife needed a vacation because they both seemed exhausted. It turns out that my friend in the hospital had problems in the past; this suggests that a careful history of the student be taken. I also learned when I came back from vacation that a member of my congregation had died of pancreatic cancer. She was often abusive on the phone, had changed her behavior lately- she was reaching out. I expect that was her knowledge of impending death. What I am trying to say is that there is a big leap between symptoms (even if we can recognize them) and knowledge of how an individual actually feels and what their behavior means. Ideally, teachers should have built up through their own teaching experience enough knowledge to at least start asking questions. Knowing what is happening in the head, even in a textbook way, is useful up to a point, certainly, and I am all for it.

6C. Being able to read people's minds would solve a lot of issues (at least in the classroom), but we don't know what is actually going on in people's minds, which is precisely why we should never assume anything about anyone...ever. Even if we know something is going on with someone, we probably don't know everything that is going on with that person; therefore, we can't predict that person's thoughts, feelings, or reactions to what is going on. I think teachers should always ask questions and look for all the possible explanations for their students' behaviors instead of making assumptions. I also think that this is something that should be emphasized in teacher prep programs so that even new teachers will know to ask why before drawing any conclusions or making any assumptions about their students.

6D. I do believe that creating a safe and comfortable learning environment is the key to draw out people who want to change, whether they are survivors or perps or know of someone who was severely abused. I think that building trust is the way to serve our learners best with information that they may need to heal. Learning will come once the student gains focus and motivation to learn. If the learner needs referrals to support groups or services that can truly help them through the trauma, maintain an up-to-date brochure tree or discuss services available in an inclusive way. Positive messages, inviting programs with mutual respect, appropriate learning materials, and a warm, safe environment are really the basic necessities to induce a collaborative learning environment from what I've seen.

6E. I think that creating a safe space does not have to mean that issues of violence are "dealt with" through discussion, but that for all of us, we work and think better when obstacles to safety and trust are removed.

6F. The simple fact that "you" are not alone, I believe, is a good start for the literacy worker and student. And, remember to follow through, or if you feel the need to be personally involved, contact the social organizations you trust, support them and share information. This has worked for me, and I am a victim of trauma, but I don't believe that literacy learning is the place to share this kind of information. A look that says, "I understand," and "you can do this" and "I know how you can work on bettering your life" is a way to keep boundaries...

6G. I do not share my own experiences of violence if others don't seem receptive-it's pointless. I look and sound solidly middle-class, so my language and appearance work against my being believed. Then, if I AM believed, people are shocked. Also, most conversations simply don't lend themselves to this kind of discussion. What I do share is INSIGHTS I have garnered through therapy, and that works fine, they slip into the conversation quite easily.

6H. I feel that classroom discussions of abuse can be sensitively framed by the instructor with an introduction about the pervasiveness of the problem. In addition to validating someone's personal experience, which may or may not be the same as the majority, I think it's helpful for students to understand that instances of abuse can extend beyond boundaries like sex, race, class or culture.

6I. In reference to … how we can get students to participate in class activities that require them to speak or make choices about their own learning and how we can help students to trust their own knowledge--We need to give students choices about how much or how little to say. We need to give each other permission to "pass" if a question is something we don't wish to answer. In ESOL classes, for example, I tell students that if you don't want to talk about what you did last night (say, we're working on the past tense), you can just tell anything you've done in the last week, so long as you use the past tense (this gives folks space to participate fully in the exercise but to not have to reveal something that they don¹t want to ). I think of it as lateral choices we can make so that we can participate, or not, without losing energy over worrying about what to tell or what not to tell (something Jenny also describes well in her work).

6J. After working with students for many years, we have tried different things that people have written about and suggested. I believe that one of the best strategies is to help the students write and publish their work. I mentioned before that we have published students' work in a collection called Memorias del Silencio http://bordersenses.com/memorias. The collection, poetry and prose, is about the experiences of immigrants coming to the US. While they all deal with trauma, it is not trauma in the traditional sense of domestic abuse. However, it is indeed trauma. Writing and publishing is a powerful tool for our students, majority women, to feel empowered and to earn a sense of control.

Writing and publishing works in multiple ways. First, it fulfills the academic requirement that teachers and students are trying to achieve. Second, it offers students a vehicle for release in a way that they control. Third, it gives them a voice. Fourth, it gives them a tremendous self-esteem. Fifth, it gives them a sense of pride among their family members (especially their children), their peers and the community. Children look at their parents with admiration and respect when they see them as published authors. Children seek their parents' academic support. Children put more effort in school. Of course, the sort of writing that I am talking about is not the typical composition assignment with the typical writing prompt. Yet, it does lead to good academic writing. I am talking about creative writing where the students have control of their texts.

6K. I know that publishing student writing works for all the reasons given--I'm working now on publishing a collection of writing done by women in a transition house program. I'm reminded of the video "Tell Me Something I Can't Forget" that documents the power of personal writing in a setting where the aim is writing, not therapy.

6L. Here are examples of ways to overcome violence in education:

  1. Have students work in groups.
  2. Tell students that the choice to pass or not is their choice. The teacher expects everyone to pass if they do the work. If they have problems they should talk with teacher.
  3. I'm current running a summer program for incoming freshies...Last night, my students and I participated in a 3-hr team building and communications called, "Adventures in Reality". The processes helped us get to know each other, begin building team, learning what good communication skills are...After a week of being together in interactive workshops and fieldtrips, next Thursday we'll get together again and see how far we've come and where we are going.
    We are building a learning community and I'm pretty excited. I wonder if some of these activities can be built into "literacy work."

6M. I took a short course in martial arts this summer--kind of a refresher course. Everyone in class treats each other respectfully-- it starts with the teacher and everyone is required to follow suit. This means:

  1. Holding the door for others senior to you in belt markings,
  2. Standing and bowing when others enter the room--the person who enters also has to bow
  3. Saying goodnight when we leave, hello when you arrive.
  4. Taking responsibility for keeping the rooms and plants in order--vacuuming, putting away, watering.
  5. Thanking a teacher when the teacher corrects you.
  6. For me this translates into ALWAYS stopping at crosswalks for pedestrians. So, respect is very important. It is impossible to overestimate the calming effects of these routines. Rules and respect can protect against violence.

6N. Two tips for working with abused students:

  1. Find out what the student wants to achieve in her life, what role she sees occupying, where she's living, people around her, kind of job, and so on.
  2. Then find out how much this will cost to achieve, so the student can put a number of her dreams.

6O. I remember doing one exercise with students at their school--it used collage and pictures from magazines, which focused on the concrete. I made a collage for myself, thinking I was being helpful to the students, maybe I was, let's hope, but I STILL REMEMBER the collage I made for myself, so this is a very important exercise.

6P. Best for [victims and perpetrators]: Introduce list of behaviors that equal domestic violence--a surprise to both sides, I bet. Then make lessons of the applicable laws, talk about shelters, restraining orders, and all that stuff. I think these facts will relieve the victims and put the real or potential perps on notice.


A big thank you to Mev for facilitating this conversation, to Jenny for sharing her work and making it accessible, to all the subscribers who posted messages on this topic, and to all the subscribers who took the time to read and think about the messages.

Daphne Greenberg

Women and Literacy List Facilitator

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