In 2016 we ran a programme called Fresh Tracks that aimed to give career direction and life skills to young men. We are grateful for the funding provided by The Tindall Foundation and the Nelson Bays Community Foundation, and this post is adopted from Cameron’s presentation to the Tindall Foundation on the programme.
We all need critical literacy to get ahead in life
When you think of literacy, you probably think of the three R’s? Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.
The three R’s are certainly a starting point. But literacy encompasses so much more. Literacy also includes speaking, listening and critical thinking.
What we try to do at Adult Learning Support is to help people to express themselves appropriately in different situations. We want our learners to know how and when to act. To see and grab opportunities for improving the lives of themselves and their families.
Critical literacy means interpreting information in whatever media it comes in and responding in an appropriate way.
In today’s complex society, that means reading signs, menus and Facebook posts. It means deciphering a Google search result, writing an email, understanding a mortgage form and so much more.
People who lack critical literacy struggle to understand the world around them and to behave appropriately. Reading, writing and maths skills are the cornerstones, but they are also just the beginning.
Why might literacy help people readjusting to life after imprisonment?
Our belief in critical literacy is grounded in research. The research shows strong links between critical literacy and many socio-economic factors. Here are two of the more important:
- Research shows a high link between illiteracy and crime. People who cannot understand the words, symbols and messages around them are much more likely to fall into unhelpful patterns of behaviour.
- Low literacy also links to unemployment. People with low literacy skills are less likely to find lasting employment, leading them towards alternative ways of funding the costs of living.
Te Hurihanga: our first experience in supporting people out of prison
Our understanding of the importance of critical literacy encouraged us to test the impact of literacy-based programmes for high-risk, high-needs people.
Te Hurihanga (The Turning Point) was a 160 hour part-time programme that we ran in conjunction with Corrections for 4 years. It took a small group of young males and attempted to teach life skills and literacy.
‘As a tutor I could detach from their offending history completely and focus on getting them, as a cohort of students, closer to their learning goals, or closer to being able to set clear learning goals. I feel that every student who entered the course left with a higher sense of self-worth, and a few numeracy and literacy skills to boot.’
Rebecca Hunter, Te Hurihanga tutor 2014.
After four years, the funding for Te Hurihanga ran out. So we started to look for ways to continue the kaupapa (purpose and vision).
We are a well-connected community organisation, because we all love coffee. We went out to our colleagues and friends to gauge the demand. What came back was an overwhelming “Yes please”. We found that the opportunities for young people who drop out of school consist mainly of ‘transition to work’ schemes.
Fresh Tracks: Sneaking life skills into an adventure course
With Fresh Tracks, we don’t shy away from the fact that the young men we’re serving want money, cars and girls.
The hook for us is that they need skills and good habits to score what they want.
We embrace the fact that young men are testosterone-filled creatures who need to run around and burn off energy. They need thrills and they need to have fun. These boys won’t come to us to get better at paperwork.
We want them to have fun in a healthy way. So the course includes adventure activities and exercise, not just critical literacy. Life skills are the broccoli that we sneak in with the KFC.
We were lucky enough to receive part-funding from the Tindall Foundation and the Nelson Bays Community Foundation. The adventure and activities are expensive, but they are essential as they make the programme attractive.
What does critical literacy look like for these guys?
It’s turning up regularly, in a suitable condition to participate. It’s dealing with your life issues – Periodic Detention, your girlfriend, finding a home, eating real food, dealing with Work and Income, identifying the skills that you have and getting the confidence to look for work.
It’s about making good decisions. It’s about controlling their impulses.
What good can we do in 10 weeks?
Ten weeks is not long, not at all. Despite this, we saw some encouraging outcomes.
Here are one of the boy’s self-identified goals. Others included a change of attitude, getting back their driver licence, passing a drug test, getting a job. All basic and good goals.
The challenges we saw
And these are the challenges we encountered.
- Alcohol and other drug issues
- Negative attitude to authority
- Low concentration span
- Outlook – low expectations / horizons
- Lack of personal integrity
- Intense negative peer pressure
- Challenges getting to the course (due to logistics and attitudes).
None of these challenges are new territory for our organisation. What was novel for us was the frequency and number of these challenges that would arise at any one time.
We are an organisation of tutors, not social workers. These challenges really impacted on the course. We spent a lot of time chasing people who said they were going to turn up and didn’t. We spent a lot of time keeping the conversation positive and keeping the students on task. We spent a lot of time solving problems rather than teaching.
Not so different in the end
We learned that works for them is to be affirmed, not judged. These guys are no better or worse than any other people: they just have very different life experiences and levels of education and expectation.
They are really talented – just in different ways. (One can literally make your car disappear in 60 seconds.)
So a successful result looks like further study with us or somewhere else, it looks like a job or structure in their lives around the job hunt, it looks like healthy relationships. It looks like achieving those goals that they themselves set in week one.
And how did we do?
Four out of seven starters completed the course. This is significant, given the challenges these guys were facing in their lives.
What of the three non-completers? None left without substantial effort on our behalf to get them to continue. They dropped out due to more pressing issues in their lives, which included substance abuse issues.
All the completers made progress on their goals. Three of them gave the course 4 out of 5 in terms of assistance towards achieving goals and one gave it 5 out of 5.
Two out of the four completers have found work, and one has completed work experience. Moreover, the two who are still looking for work are work-ready.
All four graduates left with 3 credits and a unit standard under their belt. Unit standards aren’t what the course is about, but they are a really good addition.
Finally, they all reported in their exit surveys that they had a good time and that the course was worth their time. We believe this is significant, given their pre-existing attitudes to authority.
We also noticed that they appeared physically better from the better nutrition they were getting while on the course, and that their horizons had lifted with a corresponding lift in attitude.
Now it’s over, and we are asking: have we got it in us to do it again? The more important question might be: what else is out there for this demographic?
We will need to reconsider Fresh Tracks’ future depending on whether we can find another suitable tutor and the required funding.
Support our work
We couldn’t achieve these kinds of results without the support and generosity of funders like The Tindall Foundation and the Nelson Bays Community Foundation. If you’re interested in supporting our work, get in touch for a coffee and let’s chat.