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Powerful Listening
A Practitioner Research Project
on Story and Difference in Adult Literacy



Michele Kuhlmann is a community literacy worker and facilitates multi-level basic literacy groups for adults.  Michele has worked closely with learners at various community-based literacy programs since the 1980s. 

I experienced two quite different responses to the story research project. First my personal experience in the research group meetings and discussions. Later when we were sharing our research in workshops, I found myself looking at the experience in a very different light.

For years I have felt the need for a space to come together with other literacy practitioners to discuss the feelings we have while listening to the intimate and often traumatic experiences of learners in our programs. I was very aware that encouraging literacy learners to write from personal experience created a space where we heard very disturbing things. We were then in the position of hearing experiences that were often removed from our own present life situations.  The story research project has been a wish finally coming true for me. Our research group was very open to exploring very personal feelings and the space we shared was very respectful.  We called our time together deep listening. We needed this experience and we were very open about how we entered this time with each other, looking for what would emerge each time, and cherishing the time together. This is a very personal reaction to a research project, but I was also aware how it related to the field we work in everyday. There was this lingering feeling about how unusual our research situation was compared to the experience of keeping up with our daily life in literacy. When feelings of discomfort and difference arise in our work we are on the spot and have to choose the best response for the moment but can be left with disturbing feeling and questions that are not resolved even for years. These feelings and experiences surfaced and lived in our storytelling. I don’t mean that we “used” the stories as much as we experienced them together.

When the research group began to reach out of our group and bring our story experience to workshops at conferences, it seemed like such a different environment. I wondered how would this change the experience. I felt it would be valuable but wondered if I could be presented in the same way in a short time with people who may not even know each other. It is different. What it was, turned out to be very much needed by the workshop participants. This was very inspiring. Because we did the groups with activities and artwork, it was surprising and refreshing for people who came to the workshops. We confirmed what we thought that there is a great need for space and time to reflect on and express the experiences of community work such as literacy and in other fields too.

I am left with questions now about how what we have found can live now that the research project is being completed. We each experienced ways of relating to our own experience and seeing in new ways; that of course is priceless. Because the experience was so rich there is the feeling left that the story group is needed and should continue but how is not clear to me. Since this has been a very important experience for all of us in the research group, I hope that what comes next will evolve just like each of our times together, as we trust the process we are in with story. I suspect what is needed is an ongoing opportunity for this kind of experience for the well being of our community.