Go to the Learning and Violence HomepageHome

Describing the ProblemMeasuring the ProblemConnecting Illiteracy to Violence
photo of a spiral staircase

The Problem

Describing the Problem


I used to teach a class for welfare women, 98% of whom had either been in abusive relationships and gotten out, or were still in them. The figures for the women in my class that had come from a background of childhood violence or abuse were horrifying - 100% (there were 20 women in my class).
Beth Crowther, Coordinator, ESOL project, Texas
(Quoted in Horsman, 1999/2000:1)

In literacy, the dominant discourses limit recognition of the extent of violence and the effects of violence on learning. The impact of violence is traditionally seen as separate from education, and viewed as a matter for therapeutic interventions. As a result, though many literacy workers hear repeated accounts from students of current or past violence, there are few venues to talk about these issues and how best to respond. Although little is written or spoken about the links between violence and literacy, anecdotal accounts of literacy workers suggest that frequently all, or most, students in a class have experienced sexual or physical abuse as children and many have continued to experience violence as adults.

I feel that the trajectory of violence and literacy has been a theme in many students’ lives - even if they are able to succeed and go on to university - it still affects them - mainly I have heard and experienced stories from women who are searching for means to make sense of their experience of abuse and survival in their own education - choosing certain areas for study - and then struggling with the institutional structures that may in fact mirror back the violence/disrespect/control/ or discrimination they have survived.
(Alphaplus Literacy & Violence Online Seminar, February-April, 1998)

Unless education at all levels acknowledges the violence in the lives of women and children and its impact on learning, many students will not only fail to learn, but may also experience the educational setting as a silencing place, or another site of violence, where they are controlled, diminished and shamed by institutional structures or classroom interactions. ...Read More

top of page

Introducing the Connection

VideoA short video and exercise to creatively explore the problem of violence and learning through images. Created by Amanda Rennick for the course: Women, Violence and Literacy Learning at OISE/UT Spring 2007

Watch the video:



Prior to the film the facilitator may want to engage the group with a basic brainstorming activity completed individually or in small groups.

  • All members will be given flow chart, paper, and writing utensils.
  • The first theme explored will be violence and the second learning.
  • I would direct the group to write down 'violence' in the centre of their page and stemming from this theme their thoughts and ideas.
  • Then do the same with 'learning'.

I would ask them to withhold from discussing the themes and/or the groups' thoughts until the film is finished. I would then play the multi-media presentation.

Play the Film


Once the film is complete I would want to explore, compare, contrast, individuals notions of the two themes 'violence' and 'learning' as a group referring to the brainstorming activity and the film.

  • Are the themes of violence and learning perceived as connected, and or separate? Why?
  • I would encourage the group to label types of violence
  • Some helpful prompts may be:
    • What constitutes violence?
    • How does it operate in our society?
    • How is violence silenced?
    • How does violence affect learning?
    • Which images of the film are more provoking than others?
    • How so?
    • As an audience were you able to connect effects violence has on learning?

It is during this time the facilitator would guide discussions toward:

  • Exploring and defining the various types of violence and the contexts in which they occur (systemic violence) within the 'everyday'. Such as racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and ageism.
  • Looking at common threads or definitions constituting acts deemed more or less violent.
  • Where do the injustices lie (systemic barriers) and which forms of violence are repetitively oppressive?
  • In which ways does violence affect learners?
  • What are the warning signs or identifiers that may suggest a learner is dealing with issues related to trauma?
  • Together the facilitator and the group could compile a list such as: Lack of trust, bullying or acting out, absenteeism, manipulation, overachieve or underachieve, low self-esteem, lack of eye contact, neediness, spacing out, distracted, lack of concentration, self harm, learned helplessness, depression, etc.
  • How do labels (psychiatric) and experiences of violence influence an individual's behaviour and perception of themselves?
  • How does this become a cyclical violation?
  • How may this play out in other areas of their life?
  • How do we build trust with student's who appear to have experienced a violation?
  • In what ways as educators can we acknowledge the violence experienced by our student's and implement educational strategies using a holistic learning method?
  • The facilitator may want to draw and or post the holistic triangle beginning with the peak: Practical, Thinking, Imaginal, Feeling.
  • Group members can be divided up into smaller groups and then reconvene to discuss ideas and or questions.

top of page

The Power of Denial

When educators, program designers and administrators ignore the issue of violence and its impact on learning we/they deny students the supportive environment that would allow recognition of the fact that violence negatively affects learning. Denial hinders any exploration of alternate strategies to support learning. When the issue is ignored, problems get larger – within the silence the dragon grows. The larger the problems get the more scary they seem, and the more difficult it is to participate and learn. Yet, if we turn and face our struggles – acknowledge the impacts of violence are there, then there are a myriad of ways to address them and support learning – both our own learning and the learning of others.

This children’s story powerfully reveals how determined we can be to deny reality, and to push things away that we can plainly see!

Text and Illustration from THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A DRAGON by Jack Kent

Click on the illustration above to see a large version

Text and Illustration from THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A DRAGON by Jack Kent. Used by permission of Golden Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. www.randomhouse.com.

top of page


Freedom to Read (PDF file 24k)
Violence limits the freedom to learn to read

Literacy matters (PDF file 233k)
Reveals through a case study how mainstream educational strategies tend to ignore the reality of people’s lives.

Trauma and adult learning. ERIC Digest. 2003 By Sandra Kerka

Trauma and the Adult English Language Learner. ERIC Digest.
by Janet Isserlis.

“We cannot ignore the lives of the people we teach.” (PDF file 36k)
An introduction to the issue of how violence affects learning with particular focus on domestic/gender violence – prepared for teacher educators in the U.K.

top of page