Adult Literacy Rural Trust

Most weekdays, in a converted Port Waikato garage, there are three people working to bring adult literacy services to rural people. There’s the organisation’s manager, Jo Poland, Christine Ramsey the Community Coordinator and Jasmine Piacun, one-time learner and now the Volunteer Support Coordinator. Down in Wanaka the fourth member of the team, Kristi Cabot works from her home office as the Student Coach Coordinator.

From 2000-2006 Jo Poland was the Principal Coordinator of the Auckland Adult Literacy Centre and for part of that time she was one of Literacy Aotearoa’s national tutor trainers. She has a BA in Education, Psychology and Computer Science and a graduate diploma in Language Teaching to Adults.

In 2011 she was living in Port Waikato and was approached by a woman who wanted to learn to read. Not, Jo thought a local problem, but a nationwide issue which needed a nationwide effort to address it. With the help of an advisory group, Peter Bright, Jenny Butler and Pat Hanning, that is exactly what Jo Poland and the other founding trustees, Vijay Satyanand and Richard Winch, set out to do.

To start with Jo worked with other volunteers. Then in 2013 the Trust was able to employ its first Community Coordinator. The newest member of the team, Jasmine, came on board in August last year.

Since 2015 the trust has had funding from a number of organisations including Foundation North, Trust Waikato, Sky City Trust, COGs, Lottery Grants, and various other trusts – enough to support the four part-time workers who, of course, often work full time – and sometimes without pay.

Together Jo and the trustees have worked out a way of using the internet and mobile phones to deliver literacy services, always making use of any changes in technology and always being responsive to what suits their learners. At the same time they have been exploring ways of bringing learners together and supporting young adults with literacy issues.

The rule from the outset has always been to refer people to existing services provided by REAPs or Literacy Aotearoa – if they are accessible. “There’s nothing better,” says Jo, “than face-to-face learning.”

In the first year, when Jo was still working alone from her kitchen table, they had about 18 learners. Today they have around 120.

Forty-five percent of their learners are Pakeha, 45 percent Māori and 10 percent Pasifika. There’s about 50:50 male/female split.

The Adult Literacy Rural Trust has developed their own approach to tutor training, reaching learners and delivering literacy services. The process has been one of trying something and if doesn’t work moving to another possibility. The service is always evolving.

Literacy coaches

The first challenge was to find people who were willing to act as tutors. Jo’s experience in mainstream literacy provision made her very aware of the commitment needed by people wanting to be adult literacy tutors. The NZQA course is Level 5 and takes 12 weeks fulltime, or over a year part-time, to complete. Many people wanting to volunteer are not willing to take on such intensive study – they just want to help. To attract people to the service the trust decided on a simpler approach: they would have literacy coaches, trained in helping people learn to read and write and willing to provide this support for 30 minutes a day for 3-5 days a week. The trust would provide a simpler, more basic training, giving coaches the kind of skills that parent helpers at school would have. There would be good support for the coaches, with resources, mentoring and access to people skilled in different kinds of learning disability.

Like everything the trust does, the coach training is cloud-based. They use Hipchat (including a Coach Coffee room), Google Classroom, videos, Skype, and other online programmes. Currently Jo is looking at using Sway – a programme that will help the training become more interactive. There is an assessment at the end of the training.

Hipchat, the trust’s instant messaging system enables a coach to ask for information or support and receive an immediate response.

Currently the trust has about 60 coaches from all over Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as one working from Thailand and another in Scotland.

Working with learners

When they started Jo phoned a number or organisations including WINZ, Community Corrections, libraries, CABS, churches, community centres and farming organisations to let them know about the service. How to achieve this dauntingly time-consuming task nationally was happily resolved when a PTE, NZMA, agreed to have their students make marketing calls on behalf of the trust. It’s been a win-win situation. Christine, a former call centre manager, spends time at NZMA giving support and feedback when the calls are being made. The NZMA students regularly call organisations nation-wide. The word is getting out.

Teaching has been another changing process too.

“The idea at the beginning,” says Jo, “was to use Skype and video conferencing. But of course we found out that most students don’t have a computer in the house, let alone the internet. What nearly everybody in the country has, even the poorest, is a mobile phone so that’s what the student uses. We found that we can use Skype credits, which allows the coaches to make calls to mobiles and landlines and send text messages. We have five or six Skype accounts and apply different accounts to different coaches. So far it has worked out without a timetable. A lot of coaches also use their own free minutes.”

“Fundamentally,” says Jo, “the coaching itself is the same process used by face-to-face tutors at other literacy centres.”

While this one-to-one process produces excellent results, the trust has always been on the lookout for ways to bring learners together, so they set out to facilitate the establishment of community literacy hubs in places like libraries and churches, which usually have computers. To date the idea has not taken off because, Jo says, there is a lot of shame associated with low literacy and in rural areas there is not the anonymity that there is in urban areas. One local group has got off the ground, not for literacy classes, but for computing skills. With a donation from Microsoft, the trust has been able to support an ex-student to bring a group of students together to learn basic IT skills.

While workforce tuition is offered on the trust’s website, so far they have not focused on marketing this service and just one employer, Fonterra in the Waikato, has asked for support. So the trust provided a tutor who ran a training programme during a downtime at the plant.

The latest programme provided by the trust is a pilot catch-up literacy camp for Year 11 teenagers.

To assess the need Jo and Christine visited nearly all of the rural schools in the Waikato, across to the Coromandel and the first week of what will be a three week pilot programme ran in the school holidays in April this year.

From Jo’s point of view it was a qualified success: “We were disappointed in the extent to which the boy’s literacy improved, but we know that the kids went away with enormously improved learning skills and self-confidence and that they had a ball. One teacher told me that we had given three boys the best week in their lives! And as one of our camp tutors, a veteran teacher, pointed out, you can’t get a lot of teaching done until you build trust and confidence. However we will be doing things a little differently in the follow-up camps.”

So in just six years the Adult Literacy Rural Trust has indeed found a solution to what was a nation-wide problem – access to adult literacy services for rural people. Jo, her team and the trustees have already achieved considerable success, providing literacy support for about 200 rural people. With new cloud-based programmes becoming available all the time they have increasingly good tools to provide the service – and their reflective practice continues to provide a pathway for future development.

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Winter Newsletter 2018.