Field Trip: Literal Change in Ontario's detention centres

July 19, 2018 by Mandy Bayrami

Just a few short years ago, literacy teachers Robyn Keystone and Martha Jodhan founded Canadian not-for-profit Literal Change to bring literacy support to inmates in two of Ontario's maximum security detention centres. Today we chat with Robyn Keystone about the role of Literal Change in these marginalized groups, community response, and the greater social impact of their work. 


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All Lit Up: Tell us a little bit about Literal Change. What do you do as an organization? How did you get your start?

Literal Change: Literal Change is a Canadian not-for-profit that offers remedial literacy support to those living in vulnerable and marginalized communities. We currently operate out of the Toronto East Detention Centre and the Toronto South Detention Centre, and in September 2018, we will be working with at-risk youth in the Jane/Finch community. We work with three different types of learners: individuals with low-literacy levels, GED and high school diploma hopefuls, and English as a Second Language learners. Our approach to literacy is multi-sensory and individualized. Our focus is all about creating a positive learning environment for individuals who have had negative educational experiences.

Martha and myself have been teaching in the literacy field for over five years. We run our own learning centre in the west end of Toronto where we work with kids and adults who struggle with low-literacy levels and learning differences. About two years ago, we realized that we had a very specific skill that was in demand but unavailable to people in various communities. We wanted to be able to offer our services to individuals living in these communities through a social entrepreneurial business structure; this is when we founded Literal Change.


ALU: What's the correlation you've seen between crime and low literacy? How do programs like Literal Change help turn those around?

LC: Low-literacy levels result in reduced educational outcomes, lower employment rates, and poverty. Poverty and trying to maintain one’s economic stability are two of the root causes of criminal activity, making the correlation between low-literacy levels and incarceration easy to identify.

We are living in a society that is overwhelmingly dominated by print and text. This reality, coupled with the ever-changing, Canadian job market, requires individuals to commit to life-long learning and professional development. Continuing education requires foundational literacy skills and a positive attitude towards various learning environments. We want our students to leave the classroom with more confidence and a more positive outlook on their future. There are so many social emotional benefits when individuals feel supported, and Literal Change is dedicated to building its students up by making them the centre of their own learning experience.


ALU: According to your website, "65% of people entering correctional facilities have less than a grade 8 education or level of literacy skills." What has the response been like from this group? 

LC: We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from our students inside the facilities. We’re constantly being asked, “why didn’t I learn this in school?” or “why wasn’t I taught like this growing up?”. We’ve helped individuals read and write sentences for the first time in their lives, and we’ve worked with others to get their high school diplomas or pass the GED exam.

A lot of our incarcerated students struggle with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, learning differences, and mental health issues. The one-to-one approach that we use helps our students process information using multiple senses: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, and tactile. If there is a weakness in one area, the student is able to use their remaining senses to compensate for the deficit. We also tailor our lessons to meet the needs of each learner, and this focused attention makes the student feel important and supported. More often than not, our students come to class prepared and enthusiastic about the lessons. It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’ve been able to create such an amazing learning experience for people caught in such unfavourable circumstances.


ALU: Have you come up against motivational roadblocks when working with students? How do you deal with them?

LC: In jail, there are various roadblocks that our students go through on a daily basis. We often come across students who are really stressed out from their cases, have not spoken to their family members in a while, or some who are unable to get access to some resources in the facilities...the list is endless.

As teachers, we've had to make adjustments to motivate our students when they are feeling down. Sometimes we may start our sessions in light conversation, talking about topics that they're interested in. I had one student who loved cooking. In the beginning of our session, we talked about his favourite recipes that he liked to cook. He even wrote down a recipe for me to try at home! I had another student who loved making coats. We spent a long time talking about what furs he used and how he made them. In an instant, he felt really comfortable and was ready to start the session. We've been finding that this approach helps our students detach themselves from their current situations and enter into a safe space where they can focus on the positives. This helps them become motivated to start working again.


ALU: Can you tell us about an extra special experience you had working with a student?

LC: An extra special experience I had happened this week, actually. When you're working one on one with a student, you're able to see the changes in their work and confidence. This student in particular said that the program was really helping him with his spelling. It was a major concern for him in the beginning. After only a few sessions, he said that his spelling had improved. It's the best feeling when we hear these things! It's the best because we want them to feel confident enough to go for their academic / employment goals, and we know that this is a small step in the right direction.


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Thanks to Robyn at Literal Change for answering our questions and shedding some light on literacy support in marginalized communities. For more ALU Field Trips, click here.


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