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Powerful Listening
A Practitioner Research Project
on Story and Difference in Adult Literacy


We found that some of our most important learning came when we told stories that focused on moments of discomfort. In exploring this discomfort, we were also exploring difference and how we listen or fail to listen across difference.

Space and time as learning resources

We learned that, by giving each other time and space, we could hear each other better. New insights and learning came in this feeling of spaciousness.

We learned through careful telling and listening

We noticed that some shifts happened when we told a difficult story and felt that we were heard without judgment and heard in a way that is understood to not be a final or polished telling. There was an assumption that we might come back to that story, and respect for the story and the person who has told what they could tell at that time. The story does not sum up the practitioner; it is just one attempt for them to tell about a thread of meaning found in their practice.

Examining “we” and “I” helps us learn about diversity

Through our stories we learned that at the heart of understandings about diversity is a complex dynamic between “we” and “I.”  One of us told about a time when he was discussing housing issues with a group of students.  A student turned to him and said, “don’t ever say ‘we’ when you are discussing this with us.” Discussing this in the group, we could see that using “we” with literacy students can involve “hiding” aspects of our lives, such as our privilege, educational advantages, or as in the story above, the very different material realities of different kinds of housing.  We may de-emphasize our differences with students in order to give more importance to the ways that we are similar, and this too is important.  But in some cases, as in the story above, this may feel disrespectful, the violation of a boundary.

Complexity and importance of naming difference

We explored how naming differences is both complex and important in various ways and how it also can be problematic.  People are always choosing what to tell about themselves in any given context, telling different stories, in different places/settings. 

Students certainly face this challenge of what to reveal where.  For literacy learners, often a lot is at stake in choosing which story to tell, for example, whether they are admitted to a program, and more generally, whether they are seen as “worthy” of help.  The structure of such processes as intake shapes the telling in literacy programs and other social services; being poor requires a series of tellings of stories of self, which can be a kind of accounting for oneself.

As literacy workers, we may tell a “professional” story in which we are helpful and a little distant.  Or we may tell a story of ourselves as here-to-help-you.  Given the chaos of some learners’ lives, we may be tempted to present ourselves as the “good mother” or “good father” in ways which we can’t sustain, which wear us out eventually.  We seek authenticity in teaching.  We want to be present, but don’t need to disclose more than we are comfortable with.  It is helpful to think about what we are not revealing and whether some of this “hiding” is squelching ourselves unduly and impacting on our teaching and our relationships with literacy work.  For example, what does it mean not to come out as a lesbian with a group of students? 

What we learned about power

Power is entwined with the way we view our similarities and differences.  We often look at our similarities and differences from an almost quantitative, status gauging way of viewing each other, as having less than or more than, as being inferior or superior.  Inherent in the view of others as superior is a giving away of our own power.  On the other hand, sometimes when we feel we are helping “inferiors,” we may feel better about ourselves.  This may be part of why we have gravitated to literacy work. 

Identifying what limits our ability to learn about difference

Shame may be involved in the reluctance of white people to do anti-racism work, shame that we don’t know enough and will get it wrong.  A spacious, non-judgmental approach allows room for feelings to emerge and shift, and can help us change the habit of avoiding discussions of the dynamics of power and difference.

Reflection pieces

You will find our individual reflection pieces, written at the end of the project, when you click on our photographs on the researchers page.

The report

We hope that our final report will be useful to literacy workers and others who want to explore issues of listening across difference. We hope that you will try some of our arts-based methods.

Download PDF of full report (86 pages, 12MB):
POWERFUL LISTENING A Practitioner Research Project on Story and Difference in Adult Literacy