JMU Faculty Share Adult Literacy Strategies with Colleagues in Iraq

From: Public Affairs

As the citizens of Iraq move forward on a path to self-reliance, a group of JMU faculty can point to their collaboration with professional colleagues in Baghdad as one example of helping to improve the future of people in the war-torn country through education.






Years of fighting have interrupted the educational pursuits of a whole generation of Iraqi people. Literacy rates have plummeted since the 1980s when nearly 90 percent of the country’s population was literate. United Nations literacy estimates for 2008 report the country’s adult literacy rate at 78 percent.

Faculty from throughout JMU pulled together to design a faculty development seminar for 35 higher-education colleagues from the University of Baghdad, Al-Mustansiriyah University and the Ministry of Education. Delivered via videoconferencing with Arabic and English translation, the goal of the monthlong program was to acquaint the Iraqi university professors with adult literacy research and practices to equip them to train instructors who will operate 60 new literacy centers in Iraq.

Planning for the seminar began in October 2009 when Army Lt. Col. Melanie McClure, a reservist, principal of Enterprise Elementary School in Woodbridge and 1984 graduate of JMU, contacted Nick Swayne, coordinator for external relations in JMU’s College of Education, about the feasibility of working with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq to develop the seminar. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, PRTs bring together civilian experts to complement the work of military professionals to accelerate the transition to Iraqi self-reliance.

After months of hammering out details, with McClure meeting with officials in Iraq and JMU faculty and administrators determining who could meet the objectives of the program – understanding of student-centered methods of teaching and learning, characteristics of adult learners and adult literacy, specific methods for adult literacy and assessment of adult literacy outcomes – the seminar launched in mid-May.

Dr. Laura Desportes, department head and associate professor of exceptional education at JMU, led the seminar, drawing on her doctoral research on the cognitive consequences of literacy development and with adult literacy at Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center.

“The Iraqi faculty were very skeptical because they have been promised things before and people hadn’t delivered,” Desportes said. “The only people who made out were the NGOs, as far as they were concerned. So they did a lot of testing me, which was interesting. One man liked to bring up names of developmental theorists in literacy. That was fine because I knew their research. By the end of the first week, I was ‘in’ because they saw me as a credible colleague and that was really, really helpful.”

Desportes, Israa Alhassani, who teaches Arabic at JMU, Bahar Mikael and Gulala Ismael pored over materials Desportes assembled to adjust for not just word-for-word translations but meanings of educational concepts. “We had amazing translators on our end and same there,” Desportes said. Dr. Karim Altaii, a professor of integrated science and technology at JMU who is affiliated with the Iraqi American Higher Education Foundation, explained cultural differences to make the seminar run more smoothly.

Desportes modeled the student-centered approach as she led the seminar, collecting information on her learners – who they were, their backgrounds and what they wanted to gain from the seminar. As a group they worked through statements of “that won’t work in Iraq” by discussing and negotiating content. “I gave them the choice,” Desportes explained. “I said, ‘I am prepared that we can talk about learning disabilities or not as you choose.’ A great discussion ensued.”

Like any good teacher, Desportes had to adjust to meet the needs of her learners, who were participating in the seminar at the end of their regular workday, meeting from 3 to 6:30 p.m. (8-11:30 a.m. Eastern time). When considering real-life examples for the professors to share with the education center teachers they would train, the professors would sometimes stop discussion with statements of “We don’t have that, we don’t have that.” So when examples like phone books didn’t resonate, Desportes and her colleagues turned to ration cards and signs in public places as appropriate examples.

While preparing for the seminar was time intensive, Desportes found herself deeply impressed with the participants’ commitment to the program and to helping adult learners. “The most poignant thing, and what really got me committed to this, was a faculty member there saying, ‘we’ve been cut off from our colleagues for 25 years. We have no professional community outside of our own institutions and we know that our methods are very much outdated.’ And I thought about that. What would that be like to work in a professional community where you have no contact outside of your own insular group? As a researcher and a teacher, I couldn’t imagine any more impoverished landscape than that.”

Despite some sound difficulties early in the seminar and intermittent power outages, Desportes describes the seminar as “everything I wanted it to be. There was a lot of give and take. By the end, we got so we would banter and joke because we knew personalities.”

She and her colleagues were able to engage in honest conversation about how challenging, but critical, the adoption of student-centered learning will be. “They’ve lost one generation, but you can lose the next generation when you have people who don’t value education and don’t value reading.”

Aug. 31, 2010