Emotional Literacy: The Elephant in the Room
for Adult Learners and Programs
by Anthony Gabriel
On a sunny Monday morning in the city of New Orleans, Jessica prepares breakfast for her three children ages 5, 7, and 8. As she rushes to get them ready for school, the phone rings. It's her manager from the local fast food restaurant. She's informed that because of the slow economy he has to cut her hours from 40 to only 15 per week. Jessica is an adult learner, trying to obtain her GED by attending classes during the day while also working to support her family. The news of reduced hours weighs heavily on Jessica. She relies on her income from the fast food job to make her car payment and buy little extras for her children. Depressed, Jessica decides not to go to class and begins thinking of finding a second job.
Like Jessica in our brief scenario above, adult learners bring their emotional challenges to class and sometimes vent or act them out in negative ways or simply don't show up at all. I believe that an understanding and an active or intentional effort that focuses on emotional literacy should be a primary part of adult education curriculums. This may help keep more adult learners engaged and enable them to cope when life issues challenge their participation in adult education classes or adult learner environments.
Here in New Orleans, through a curriculum called "Emotional Literacy 101," ground breaking efforts are under way to educate a corps of facilitators and practitioners around the idea of creating an Emotional Literacy: environment, awareness, cultural sensitivity and curriculum for the adult learners they serve.
Jessica's story and many like it play out all across America, as adult learners struggle to lift themselves "without the proper boot straps" out of poverty or low literacy by increasing their educational levels. Too often, personal problems or issues impact the retention rates and success of many adult learners and programs. Emotionally, many adult learners are walking a fine line between moving forward, standing still, or just giving up. It is this emotional construct (all the factors that affect the emotions of adult learner thinking, decision making, and reactions or lack thereof) that then becomes one of the most vital elements of changing the lives and mindsets of not just adult learners, but of all learners. Simply put, emotional constructs refer to how our emotions are built within us and affect the way we act.
Monthly, I've led a group of new and veteran Literacy AmeriCorps members from Loyola University through a journey of first steps and new possibilities as we explored the elements of this thing called "Emotional Literacy" and how it relates to adult learners like Jessica and the field of adult education.
Dr. Claude Steiner (2003) in his book, Emotional Literacy ; Intelligence with a Heart says that "Being emotionally literate means that you know what emotions you and others have" (page 23). For me , I see it as a process that allows the learner as well as the instructor or facilitator an opportunity to learn about and from each other using our emotions as the vehicle.
"Anyone can become angry---that is easy. But to be angry with the
right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose
and in the right way---this is not easy"
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Dr. Daniel Goleman (1997) in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (page ix), uses the above quote to open his discussion regarding the link between emotion and intellect. This quote is one my favorites and resonates with me because it has been my experience that adult learners often enter education programs with limited tolerance and patience with themselves. Thus, when they encounter a challenging problem, subject matter they are unfamiliar with, or are asked to recall past knowledge they may have forgotten, their frustration easily turns into anger. Sometimes that anger is projected toward the instructor, their fellow classmates or themselves.
Having been involved with teaching adult education and workforce development for the past 16 years, I think I share many common or similar perspectives that are echoed in many adult learner environments. One of the constants of these environments is that many adult learners are challenged on all levels as they fight to continue going to class while at the same time trying to cope with the problems of daily life. They can become stressed, frustrated, and ultimately angry at not being able to achieve their goals. For adults like Jessica, having a curriculum that focuses on coping with emotions as they relate to life and learning can only help to strengthen her resolve to finish her classes.
As I began researching how adult education programs were using emotional discovery and understanding as part of their adult education curriculum, surprisingly, I found the best examples in the K-12 education arena. Additionally, institutional environments like prisons and other rehabilitative vehicles were also fertile ground for emotional investigation activities. However, outside these entities, I did not discover many adult education programs that specifically featured Emotional Literacy as primary parts of their curriculum or instruction. Maybe it's time that the "elephant in the room" namely, adult learner emotional coping, discovery, and awareness receive as much attention as grade-level increases in literacy or academics.
Of course, many adult education practitioners, professionals, and programs know the emotional barriers that affect learning, but may not have the resources, vision, time, or leadership to address the issue on a daily basis. Conversely, there are practitioners and programs that are unaware of the importance of emotional discovery and its impact on their adult learners.
So when I was given the opportunity to instruct a group of 20 Literacy AmeriCorps members that affect the majority of adult education programs here in the city of New Orleans, I knew I had to introduce them to the concepts of emotional literacy and how they could incorporate it into their teaching and tutoring assignments. So, I began by analyzing and researching how emotional literacy would look or operate in an adult learner environment. To do this, I knew I had to look at the types of learners that generally occupy my class and how would I develop opportunities to introduce a discussion or learning moment around the subject of emotion. I decided to use writing activities as an emotional stimulus for my learners and AmeriCorps members to build an atmosphere of community among my students, but more importantly help them see the differences and commonalities of how each of them perceives emotion.
The activity begins by separating them into teams or groups. Each group or team is given a different scenario and ending sentence involving a particular character or characters. Their assignment was to then complete the middle of the story by selecting one of the following themes of emotional triggers: fear, hate, love, excitement, and disappointment, etc. to write about. I set the ground rules of respect and honor as well as give each participant the freedom to pass at any time they feel uncomfortable in sharing their emotional views or experiences. The first layer serves as a team building mechanism and allows the groups to brainstorm in creating their stories around the given scenarios. The second layer allows groups to present their scenarios to the class and discuss what emotions occur in the story. The third layer of the activity then asks participants to reflect individually on their own lives, and then write about emotions or feelings from a particular incident or problem they've faced or are going to face.
Volunteers are then asked to read their writings to the class or the teacher or facilitator randomly selects writings and anonymously reads them to the group for discussion. This hopefully spurs a larger discussion of how other classmates or participants have dealt with the same or similar emotional challenges. It is vital that adult learners be given an opportunity to discuss or write about their emotions. For some this may be the first time anyone was interested in anything they had to say or write. For others, this may be the only time they have to reflect on their own lives without outside distractions or influences. Ultimately, writing and discussing their emotions gives voice which in turn builds a sense of empowerment as well as builds self-esteem. This exercise was just one small sample of how emotional discovery can be intentionally introduced to adult learners. Key to this process is the relationship and atmosphere learners feel that allow them to feel safe in sharing their thoughts and emotions. Some may even prefer to share their feelings in a more private way by journaling and that's okay as well. The bottom line is to get them to talk, or write about their emotions or feelings.
Many adults arrive at adult education program door steps "fractured learners." By this, I mean that at some point in their lives, they've had "to split or break" from their educational pursuits to deal with personal issues or emotional storms that prevent them from moving forward. By establishing, trusting relationships and intentional opportunities for communities of learners that see the class or learning environment as a safe haven where they can express their emotions, adult education programs can then begin to lay the ground work for a stronger and more robust adult learner engagement. This is important to fractured learners because it gives them the security of knowing that they will be welcomed back to class regardless of how many times they may stumble or what obstacles they may have to overcome or face.
Outside of her financial difficulties, learners like Jessica need the support and encouragement of an emotional literacy curriculum or environment to help them understand and find ways to cope with life challenges while at the same time continuing to reach for their dreams and goals. It is my hope that many adult education programs or adult learner environments that are not using emotional literacy curriculums begin to take a serious look at how they can purposely create emotional literacy opportunities for their learners on a daily or regular basis.
About the Author
Anthony Gabriel has been involved with literacy, adult education, and workforce development for more than 16 years. Prior to his literacy teaching background he was a classroom teacher for middle and high school students in New Orleans. As a founding planning committee member for the genesis of the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, Mr. Gabriel continues to champion the voice of adult learners through his new project focusing on developing Emotional Literacy awareness within adult learner environments. For more info you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.