Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner.
by Isserlis, Janet
English as a second language (ESL) practitioners are familiar with adult
learners' stories of disruption, political trauma, and mental upheaval
Adkins, Sample,& Birman, 1999). Until recently, however, little attention
has been paid to personal trauma and domestic abuse. Acknowledgement of
the prevalence of violence generally, and of that experienced by those
in the adult ESL and literacy community specifically, is critical to the
development of instructional approaches that make classrooms safer and
learning more possible for adult immigrant learners.
This digest describes trauma and abuse in immigrant communities, discusses
the effects of trauma on learning, and suggests ways in which practitioners
can modify their practice to facilitate learning among victims of trauma
TRAUMA AND ABUSE IN THE IMMIGRANT COMMUNITY
"In the United States today, women and children constitute approximately
two-thirds of all legal immigrants. Immigrant women suffer a triple burden
of discrimination based on their sex, race, and immigration status. Increasing
evidence indicates that there are large numbers of immigrant women trapped
and isolated in violent relationships, afraid to turn to anyone for help"
(Family Violence Prevention Fund, 1999).
Violence against women is rooted in an abuser's need for power and control
over his victim (Horsman, 2000; Volpp & Marin, 1995). Volpp and Marin
delineate specific ways in which abusers exert power and control over immigrant
and refugee women. Such control can take the form of emotional, economic,
or sexual abuse and can include the batterer's use of coercion, intimidation,
and threats. Loss of immigration status and custody of children are threats
often used by batterers.
Minimizing violent behavior (e.g., convincing a woman that violence
is criminal only if it occurs in public, or that a man is allowed to physically
punish her because of male privilege; or blaming her for the violence because
she did not obey him) is also common among batterers both within and beyond
immigrant communities. Batterers strive to isolate their victims. For immigrant
or refugee women, this isolation is exacerbated by language and culture
differences that make finding safe options all the more daunting. While
an overwhelming majority of violence is inflicted by men against women,
violence is also perpetrated by women against men, within same-sex relationships,
Horsman (personal communication, June 2000) posits that while every
culture accepts violence to some degree, in every culture people are beginning
to realize that violence is no longer acceptable. Thinking that cultural
groups must be left alone to sort out their own differences only supports
the violators. On the other hand, imposing behaviors or beliefs upon communities
will not necessarily change attitudes or behaviors. Adult ESL practitioners
are urged to learn more about the laws concerning violence against children,
adults, and the elderly; about domestic violence assistance options in
their communities; and about culture-based approaches of dealing with the
issue of violence and learners.
EFFECTS OF TRAUMA ON LEARNING
"[Traumatic events] can overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that
give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning" (Herman, 1992,p.
33). Since language learning demands control, connection, and meaning,
adults experiencing effects of past or current trauma are particularly
challenged in learning a new language. They may be affected by symptoms
of post traumatic stress disorder, be clinically depressed, have repressed
memories of previous abuse, or display visible signs of emotional distress.
Victims of trauma may also experience concentration and memory loss (Canadian
Centre for Victims of Torture, 2000).
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
Regardless of an individual's experience with violence, torture, or
abuse, being an adult learner is intimidating for many. The following are
suggestions for making the classroom safer for all.
* Listen to learners and allow their concerns about violence to surface
in one form or another. A class in which a learner-centered approach is
used enables community to develop among the learners. It is important not
to compartmentalize violence or to frame trauma as a medical issue, but
rather to understand its many forms.
* Offer content and activities that allow learners to share as much
or as little information about themselves as they want, particularly when
they are just beginning to study together. Let learners know that while
they are invited to share information about their lives, they are not obliged
to do so (Isserlis, 1996). Validating learners' strengths is critical,
especially for adults who have received negative messages about themselves
or their learning abilities. Using learners' native languages for content
learning, activities, and discussion can help build trust and community
(Florez, 2000; Rivera, 1999).
* Allow learners to choose their own level of participation in classroom
activities. Horsman describes learners' abilities to attend to and participate
in classroom activity as "relative states of presence" (2000, p. 84). She
suggests discussing with learners what it means to be present in the class
and giving permission for them to be less than totally involved in all
class activities. One way to do this is to set up a "quiet corner" for
learners who feel unable to take part in particular classroom activities
(Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, 2000).
* Find out about community resources. While teachers do not need to
become counselors, they should be aware of appropriate services. Find out
what happens when one calls an emergency hotline-what information will
be asked for, what language assistance is available, what assurances of
confidentiality exist-so that learners will know exactly what to expect
when they call. If appropriate, create a class activity using the language
and communication skills needed to call a hotline and ask for assistance.
Knowing that many hotlines aid victims of crimes (both men and women) can
lessen some of the anxiety for female victims of domestic abuse by shifting
the focus from them to the broader community. Allow learners to pursue
the topic, if they choose, by investigating community resources and by
reading accounts of the experiences of other learners. (See, for example,
"Not by Myself", Literacy South, 1999, and "If I Were a Door", Landers,
1994.) Klaudia Rivera (personal communication, June 2000) notes that staff
at the El Barrio Popular Education Program in New York City created collaborations
with other community agencies dealing with the issue of domestic violence
by providing information about their services and offering workshops to
teach learners to become peer counselors. She adds, "For many, the abuse
began after the students enrolled in classes. Their partners could not
deal with them becoming independent through learning English. In most cases
the spouse had not been abusive in the past."
* Do not assume that all immigrant learners have experienced trauma.
Neither do teachers necessarily need to know who among their learners has
experienced abuse. However, educators should understand that certain topics
generally discussed in adult ESL classes (e.g., family and health) can
cause learner discomfort because of past and present abuse (Horsman, 2000).
For English language learners who have faced loss of one sort or another
(status, employment, family members, or homeland), being able to view the
classroom as a safe and predictable place is key to building community
among and safety for learners and practitioners. In one Massachusetts class,
students decided to meet together outside of class to form a support group
after they realized that they shared histories of abuse. They subsequently
produced a videotape and guide to document for others their experiences
and the information they gained about domestic violence (Hofer, Haddock,
Swekla, & Kocik, 1998).
Although strides have been made in raising public awareness about the
prevalence of violence in all forms and its effects upon learning, work
remains to be done in the areas of teacher education, policy, and increased
awareness among learners and practitioners in ESL programs. State plans
for adult education might support development of ancillary services for
learners attending classes for whom violence is a factor in learning. This,
coupled with teachers' understanding of the effects of trauma on learning,
should help to make the classroom a safe place and learning more possible
for adult language learners.
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