I met the women who were going to be attending the Literacy and Numeracy (LITNUM) Class on January 18 at the Gabriela building in the Sitio Veterans community. The women all hailed from Barangay Sitio Veterans and Barangay Bagong Silangan. They are grassroots women from urban poor communities who had been teenage mothers, and now have school-age to teenage children of their own. They were all members of SAMAKANA / Gabriela, and as such all acquainted with one another.
Our first meeting began with them formally surveying me from a distance, proceeded with storytelling and tears, and ended with much excitement and the promise of weekly meetings for enjoyable learning. A revelation of a personal sadness I had been carrying in my heart at that time led to an outpour of stories from everyone – a gift I did not expect, one I am so grateful for. At that, they began to be a little less reserved and a little more informal.
I learned that they had all been able to study, and the grade levels they reached before they stopped attending school ranged from the third grade to third year high school. They all informed me that they could read, but did not have much practice and may have forgotten.
They were surprised at my inquiry about what they would like to study. At first there had been some insistence on me knowing best, being the teacher; with a little gentle coaxing they revealed that they were interested in learning how to read, write and spell in Filipino and English. They were also very much interested in mathematics, since this was a daily need, they shared. After a little while more, they ventured that they would like to concentrate on English – how they had often found themselves in situations where they vaguely to moderately understood what had been expressed in English but could not respond in kind, and how they dreamed of being able to answer an inquiry in English because they could and because they wanted to. After venturing such, there was that shyness again, and the question, “Is it okay?” I smiled and told them we will work on all those things together.
They also revealed that they were interested in learning about forms and how to fill them out. I realized that as simple a thing as filling out forms was an impediment for them, and the inability to carry out such tasks that we take for granted bar them from accessing services they are entitled to. This became a weekly ritual for us: dissecting, understanding, and answering forms for barangay, hospital and social services, among others.
During our first meeting, I noted the following things:
- They had an extremely feudal regard for me, the teacher and almighty wielder of power and knowledge. I asked them repeatedly to call me by my first name and they simply could not take it, and apologetically and laughingly refused to do it. I also invited them to sit in a circle with me away from the table, but they all insisted quite gently that as a teacher I should face them and be separate from them. I gave in to that request on that day.
- They all had a very low sense of self-worth as literate and productive individuals. While they told stories about themselves, they always made sure to punctuate their sentences with remarks such as “dahil wala akong pinag-aralan” or “wala akong alam masyado”. While they seemed to value themselves as members of an organized group, they belittled themselves in these ways as individuals;
- Some of their stories showed an inconsistency in their principles vs. their practice of their views on “kababaihan”. While they spoke of some of their activities as women who are part of an organized group, they also spoke of their oppressions as individuals and members of families, wives and mothers, which they felt at that time that they were powerless to battle or overcome.
- They expressed that they wanted to tell their stories, perhaps not all at once, but they said that the class would give them a chance to talk about things.
- Their stories and their comments on their plights suggested that their personal happiness was not part of the equation.
We agreed to meet every Friday from 1:00PM to 4:00PM, with the possibility of extending up to 5:00PM given the need.
Hence, I planned for our next meeting. I brought materials for the lesson on “Pagbasag sa Kultura ng Katahimikan at Pagkikimi”, an activity where the learners were to draw their community on manila paper and then tell stories about them. I also prepared an activity where they would make books with illustrations or a timeline about their own lives. I prepared math worksheets on the different operations, with differing levels of difficulty. I also prepared a word game and a number of forms for us to tackle. I discuss all these because I wanted to be prepared with a repertoire of activities because it was our first meeting and I wanted to be sure that I had activities to offer which they would enjoy.
This meeting set the tone for all others, because in the course of the lesson, where they answered one form, drew their communities on manila paper and illustrated their lifestories and presented all these to the class, I was able to formulate the major objectives to incorporate the academic lessons, and these were:
- To slowly build the learners’ confidence in themselves as individuals of academic worth and as women or worth;
- To allow them the leeway to discover their emergent needs and actual needs and wants in light of their declared needs with regard to what they want to learn;
- Ø To ease them into each topic with the assurance that they have the ability to understand these and accomplish the tasks;
- To negotiate English homework with them based on what situational reality in their lives they would like us to focus on (our first homework had been for them to think of five English words that described them);
- To constantly and repeatedly communicate to them through actions and regard that it is alright to learn a little later than others.
I thus termed this period, in my mind, the “quarter of healing”. Their desired academic learning was going to occur, but within the context of a larger, more urgent priority of these objectives. The achievement of these will facilitate all kinds of learning to be faced in the future. These would make or break their desire learning. They have already begun to look to me for reassurance in their self-deprecation, for affirmation in their mistakes. I determined that at this point, it was not really of much consequence WHAT we studied. What was of prime importance was HOW we manage the learning experience together, HOW I regard them, WHAT they interpret my regard to be, and HOW they recreate themselves in their interpretation of this regard.
To my mind, it was of extreme importance that they continue, and they would if the learning continued to be relevant, fun, and non-threatening. They already perceived with some surprise that a lack of knowledge and the commission of mistakes are not penalized. Even as the things they needed and wanted to learn are important, they for now these would have to serve as instruments to their learning to value themselves as women, as worthy social beings. Hopefully later on, they will also come to view themselves as existing also for themselves and not just for others, and as individuals who deserve to be happy.
With each session we spent together, I took advantage of our long sessions together to walk them through the processes, to model thinking for problem-solving, to pat their backs and nurse their feelings. Thus began our work together – the LITNUM women continuing to work on the activities I had planned, and I continuing the project of unconditional positive regard, making drops in their buckets which hopefully one day will overflow with positivity for themselves. By that time, changes in them may not be readily discernible but their demeanor and zeal for bettering themselves will prove otherwise.