Project IDEA Corner
Workforce Literacy in a Homeless Shelter
Putting a Face on the Homeless
Maria came to class at Footprints in the Sand, the homeless shelter/transitional living center where she lives, forty-five minutes late. She was carrying her usual breakfast of a donut and a cola. Leaning against the doorway, she asked plaintively, "Miss Jane, do really have to be here?" She had just gotten her five young children off to school, gave her abusive husband money to take the bus to look for a job and had to somehow get to an appointment with her Food Stamps worker that afternoon. Maria is an intelligent woman who quit school in the seventh grade because she was pregnant. She and her family have been in and out of Footprints in the Sand four times in the past two years due to infractions of various shelter rules. Maria wants a better life for herself and her children, but she gets overwhelmed at the daily round of tasks she faces. Sometimes she retreats to her bedroom and spends the day watching TV because, "I just don't know where to start".
Facing the ChallengePeople who experience homelessness do so for a variety of reasons. Some of them have made poor life choices, some are involved with alcohol or drugs, and some are part of the system of generational poverty in which poor life skills are handed down from one generation to the next, resulting in an entire culture of people who do not know how to take advantage of the educational, cultural or employment advantages available to them. Some of the homeless are also those who may have had some education, a job and a place to live, but without a "safety net" of family or friends to help them through a difficult time, found themselves evicted from their apartment after they lost their job or had a financial crisis. The challenge for adult educators with such students is to try to match what we offer them with what they can do and with who they are. What kind of educational program works with women who are already stressed and discouraged about being homeless and who have few job skills and little education? The answer to this question came for me, in part, when I became a Project IDEA teacher in 1998.
I had been working at Footprints for about two years when I attended the first Teacher Action Research (TAR) meeting. I realized that some of what I had been doing already was project-based learning! At that meeting, I learned that identifying a problem, choosing a project, doing research to prepare for the project and coming up with a final product were the key components. Identifying a problem for us was the easy part! The women needed money. It was as simple and as difficult as that. We decided to do a craft project in which they could earn some money. The final product would be their craft and a project log in which they documented what they had done for possible use by other homeless shelters.
What happened in the course of our initial project continues to amaze both my students and myself. Largely due to the skill and dedication of our craft teacher, Esther Galindo, the first products, Christmas bears, were so well made that the demand for them exceeded our ability to supply! We sold thirty bears that first year. In January, we brainstormed about what had been the strengths and weaknesses of our initial project. The women identified lack of childcare and not enough time as problem areas. They devised a childcare co-op in which each woman worked with me to plan the day's activities for the children. We also worked hard to develop a production schedule. They divided into teams based upon individual interests and abilities, with some concentrating on sewing and some on computer production of a brochure and project log. With their second craft, Easter rabbits, they were able to produce a much more difficult-to-make craft more efficiently and made twice as much money as they had at Christmas. We had to keep track of expenses and profits, make a time line and calculate what each woman's earnings would be based on the amount of time she spent on the project.
By this time, the women seemed to see that what they were doing was significant. They worked with a professional writer for several sessions to produce text for a brochure to accompany their crafts. The learned Power Point and produced a presentation about their project to show to others in the homeless community. This year the women made and sold 93 Christmas bears and are currently producing more Easter rabbits than last year. They are also learning a spreadsheet program (and more math to go with it) so that they can transfer project data into that format. This summer they will update both the brochure and Project Log, incorporating the spreadsheet information into them.
Workforce Literacy-Learner as Worker/Citizen
Learning to use a sewing machine and workplace vocabulary and acquiring computer skills have been easy for these students, compared to the challenges of learning to work as a team, to communicate effectively and to follow through on their goals. It became clear that one of their greatest barriers to becoming successful members of the workforce was learning the soft skills it takes to keep a job, once you get one. To address some of these issues, we began to have bimonthly business meetings. I made up an agenda, using new vocabulary such as agenda, quality control, etc. We would sit at these meetings, dictionaries in hand, and often before we could discuss an agenda item, we would have to look up the definition! I had vocabulary lists for the ESL students, which covered sewing, computer, and business terms.
EFF at FootprintsWhen I did my final report for Project IDEA, I used the thirteen common activities provided in Equipped for the Future (EFF) as a framework. I was frankly amazed at how well they fit. In further evaluation, we realized that the four core knowledge and skills areas were applicable as well.
- Access: We talked about how to price our products, who would buy them, what needed to go into a brochure and Power Point presentation to help to promote our product. To answer these questions, we looked at some business plans and had discussions about what it would take to make our project into an on-going enterprise.
- Voice: When we first began in 1999, the women had no concept of the meaning of their project beyond making a little money for themselves. By the end of the second product at Easter, 2000, they were able to compose text for the brochure and Power Point presentation that put their project in terms of "the big picture", i.e. talking about the significance of it for the larger community. It is significant that the women decided to write thank-you notes to their first customers which they composed and produced on the computer. The notes were signed, "From the Ladies of Footprints in the Sand." They were identifying themselves not as homeless women or welfare moms, but as those who had produced a product people had bought -- as effective members of the community.
This year the Christmas bears went to several cities in Texas, as well as to New York, Virginia, and England. A homeless program in El Paso is now using our rabbit pattern to do a similar project The Power Point presentation has been shared at a state education meeting and at the national meeting of Women in Communication. The families at Footprints are currently working on a show for public access television in which they will share stories about their lives at Footprints and their craft business. They now believe that they can communicate in such a way that their message is understood by others.
- Independent Action: Decision making and goal setting were big parts of our project. The women had to decide how many bears or rabbits to make, to set production goals for each week, and to establish a final sales deadline. They brainstormed about more effective use of each one's individual talents, coming up with dividing into teams of craft production and computer production, based on individual skills and interest. They had to do a lot of problem solving around the issues of childcare, attendance, punctuality and how to best divide their profits! This year, we received one of nine grants given nationally by Laubach Literacy/Women in Literacy which enabled us to buy new sewing machines, computer software, child development materials and hire a part-time technology teacher. The women helped me to decide what to include on the grant application, based on what they perceived to be the needs of their enterprise and how they want it to develop in the future.
- Bridge to the Future: Two of the women have begun to make and sell bears and rabbits on their own at local flea markets. They have all gained in the area of technology, both with computers and using a sewing machine to produce their crafts. At the end of one of meetings early this year, Maria asked me a question which I could not have scripted better myself to illustrate her growth in learning. She said, "Hey, Miss Jane, you remember you told me about that school (HCDE's Irvington Learning Center) where I can go five days and week and get my GED? I think I'm ready to try that. I want to learn computers and be able to support me and my kids. I'm gonna do it!" She no longer asks, "Do I really have to be here?" She comes to class every day on time. She was the highest producer on her assembly team. And it is her skill with the graphics program which brightens both the brochure and project log. When I asked Maria if she would be willing to come with me to present their Power Point presentation to HCDE staff and students she immediately said, "Yes, just give me time to get something decent to wear.
What I Learned
The most important thing I learned was to remember to see each student as the individual they are - not as "homeless" or as a "single parent." I also learned to invite collaboration so that my students could benefit from the gifts and talents of others. I learned that it's O.K. for me as the teacher not to always be the expert. I learned, along with my students, how to make the crafts, how to set up a micro enterprise, and I sat with them in class as others taught us how to use the various computer programs.
Benefits to the Workplace
Employers are looking for people who can function as team members, communicate effectively and be reliable, responsible employees. The women grew in these skills because of the intrinsic motivation they had to see their own project succeed. They saw that if someone came late or not at all, production for that day was diminished. They learned that if they didn't communicate their ideas in a way that others could receive, they would not be heard. They learned that profit is related to production, that they had to meet the production goals they set or make less money. They learned that if they didn't cooperate in providing childcare the children would suffer and so would that days' productivity. In other words, they "learned by doing" the skills for which employers are looking. They now have some experience, some vocabulary, some knowledge of the world of work which they can take with them from the shelter out into the wider world to become self-sufficient members of society.
About the Author
Jane Huntington is a counselor/teacher for Harris County Department of Education in Houston. She has worked with the homeless for the past three years, teaching literacy classes, counseling and developing programs of family services. She also teaches an ESL I class and does BEST training. The current love of her life is her first grandson, born just two months ago.
[Author's Note: The start-up money for this project was a $1,000 "Making a Difference in the Lives of Families" award received from Practical Parent Education.]
Do YOU want to know more
about Project IDEA? If so, contact:
Barbara Baird, Project
or Rebecca Davis, Project
EFF Worker Role Map
Effective workers adapt to change and actively participate in meeting the demands of a changing workplace in a changing world.
BROAD AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY
|Do the Work
Workers use personal and organizational resources to perform their work and adapt to changing work demands.
Plan and Direct Personal
|Work With Others
Workers interact one-on-one and participate as members of a team to meet job requirements.
Work Within the Big Picture
|[Source: Page 11 of Equipped for the Future Content Standards: What Adults Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century published by the National Institute for Literacy (LINCS). For information on how to receive a copy of this publication, e-mail the Adult Literacy Clearinghouse at email@example.com|