The Lasting Value of the Voter Engagement Strategy for Election Day and Beyond

We have a guest blogger on the Microdemocracy Blog. Nathalie Alegre immigrated from Peru with her family when she was 17 years old. After attending community college in Miami, she transferred to Yale University and in 2008 received a B.A. in Environmental Studies and is currently engaged in environmental organizing in New Haven, CT.

She’s been interviewing some of the great people around the country who have integrated the teaching of the RQI Strategy into their on-going work. Their stories are inspiring and they motivate us even more to make the RQI Strategy available to as many people as possible in these difficult times.

The first stories come from an interview with Earldine Tolbert, an adult educator in Philadelphia who learned to teach the RQI strategy last year. She provides great evidence of the value of using any opportunity – including a voter engagement initiative – to build skills to help people learn to how to help themselves, even when facing very difficult challenges. I had a chance to observe Earldine and her colleagues in Philadelphia and was struck both by the dedication and thoughtfulness they bring to the work, but also how they are so deeply trusted and appreciated by their adult learners who have not, previously, had very positive experiences in a teaching and learning environment.

A Powerful New Tool for a Dedicated Experienced Teacher

by Nathalie Alegre

Earldine Tolbert is an adult literacy instructor and Workforce Development (WELL) Program Specialist at Temple University’s Center for Social Policy and Community Development. Initially a volunteer tutor, Earldine was struck by the high numbers of low-literacy adults who lack a high school diploma in her native Philadelphia. After undergoing instructor training, Earldine started teaching and realized she had found her niche: “This type of work is more than just getting a pay check, you have to have a passion for doing it.”

The WELL Program assists disadvantaged adults by providing education that helps them overcome illiteracy and prepares them to enter the workplace. To achieve this, Earldine and her colleagues make sure to integrate real-life, on-the-job connections to all aspects of their curriculum. For example, Earldine uses standard wrench sizing to illustrate how to reduce mathematical fractions and links following directions on a reading comprehension worksheet to following an employer’s directions.

Students in Earldine’s classrooms come from widely diverse backgrounds and have varied reasons for seeking accreditation: there are people that due to life circumstances have to drop out of high school or older adults with decades of experience in the same job who want to move-up from their current positions, switch careers or retain employment. Whatever the case, “everybody comes into the classroom with some kind of expertise, some knowledge. These are people that have raised children, bought homes, secured jobs but that, for the most part, lack formal education.” Earldine describes it as a “Swiss Cheese” type of knowledge: people are clever in their own way of doing things, but there are many gaps and holes in their learning. Earldine strives to piggyback on her students’ existing knowledge by meeting them where they are, making them realize they already know a lot, and building from their strengths. However, she feels that the most important thing she does is teaching her students how to learn and how to use information to succeed at work and in life: “What I’m trying to do in a very short amount of time is to open my students’ heads up, show them how to pull information from different sources and have them interpret and apply that information to whatever they need to.”

That’s why when Earldine went through an RQI workshop, she instantly realized the huge impact the question formulation strategy would have on her adult literacy students. The RQI Strategy provides a simple, easy to replicate framework for teaching people how to identify what they need to know and how to formulate a good question that gets them the answers they need. “I am a person who asks questions, but I never thought of a formal process for getting people into that asking-the-right-question mode. I came to [the RQI workshop] as another professional development session but I was so impressed about how simple it was and how it hit home.” Earldine easily adapted the RQI workshop and made it an essential part of her program’s Learning 2 Learn component. During Learning 2 Learn sessions, instructors and students together assess obstacles and challenges that may arise in the course of the class. They talk about time management, learning styles, and problem-solving such trouble as What happens when the babysitter doesn’t show up? or How do I deal with the city-wide transportation strike?

Earldine and her students had a great time learning how to brainstorm questions with RQI’s Clothing Director exercise, one in which people pretend they have to elect the person that will be in charge of their personal wardrobe every morning. RQI designed the exercise to make visible that people who don’t see themselves as sophisticated thinkers, actually are able to use a very complex process, digest a lot of information and do an analysis based on facts and feelings to come to a decision.

She described what happened when the students participated in the exercise: “People were very excited! Everybody thought about the decisions they had to make to get dressed that day. I was amazed at how different people could use this brainstorming technique and basically come up with the same things.” In fact, students not only got to practice the kind of highly sophisticated thinking that is required to come up with good questions, but they felt empowered in the realization that many of them were asking similar questions. Then, they made the connection to the idea that they should pay attention to decisions that elected officials make that affect them: “People don’t even realize they have the right to ask questions of people who make such big decisions about their daily life.”

Earldine’s students thought hard about how to use the process effectively. One woman said she would use the RQI strategy with her child’s doctor. Her boy has asthma and the doctor wants to give him a new drug that the mother is not yet ready to okay. She wants to go back and ask more questions before they move forward with the treatment. Another student suggested he could use RQI to prepare for a job interview. He wants to figure out what kinds of questions he will be asked, and what to ask potential employers about his future working conditions. Other students suggested they use the RQI strategy to find out exactly why they need to learn the materials WELL instructors present to them. That is fine by Earldine: “I always tell my students they can’t just accept what people tell them, they have to always ask questions”. But to ask good questions is not a skill most people have. That’s why the RQI strategy complements Earldine’s teaching philosophy perfectly: the RQI technique teaches people how to focus on key decisions that affect them and gives people the ability to formulate their own questions about those decisions and about other concerns. And it works! One of Earldine’s students, Dominique, actually avoided an illegal eviction attempt by using the skills she learned at the RQI workshop. More about that at a later time…