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How to Start an Adult Literacy Collaboration?

Want to share an interesting exchange from a colleague in Washington state with a great idea:

My name is Debbie Moore. I am an ABE teacher at a community college in Washington.  I am hoping you can give me some feedback regarding adult literacy. I am interested in possibly starting a coalition and need some direction. Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on what makes an adult literacy program successful. Whatever feedback you can give me, I would greatly appreciate it.

Wow, short questions with long answers! I’ll try to be brief. I’m excited you’re looking to start a coalition in Washington. And thanks for your work in adult literacy. Is this idea something the community college is looking to support/sponsor or this more of an individual idea you want to pursue? Literacy Powerline also has a great list of specific steps you can take in the coalition development process online at:

I have become very practical and my measures of success for adult literacy are therefore very concrete: Have we increased the number of students served, retained, and/or reaching their goals? Do programs have the resources they need like books, tests, personnel, and program oversight? Are community members aware of local literacy issues/programs and have concrete ways to take action (enroll, volunteer, donate, lobby)? Are there barriers to student success that can be overcome (transportation, child care, testing fees)? Are there resources that programs are not taking full advantage of to improve or grow?

Obviously, it’s very difficult to measure & improve all of this at once, so to decide which outcomes to focus on, my approach to any collaborative process follows the Appreciative Inquiry 4D cycle:

1) Discover: Define your group. Gather information about what literacy-related programs, services & resource centers are available to your group to map out your potential partners. If possible, get a representative from the prospective programs & those who can support them in one place (a meeting, complete survey, etc.) to share what they do and what they can offer for others. If you think a resource exists to fill a stated need, plug people into it before starting something new. Creating a networking directory or other representation of services & contacts is an excellent goal for this stage.

2) Dream: Gather input from potential benefactors (students, administrators, instructors, education leaders, etc) of the coalition to dream about what values and goals they share in common and what an ideal coalition might look like to support them. Encourage lots of brainstorming and big ideas here. I find in person meetings to work best, though you have to provide some incentives and/or supports for participation to include all levels (especially students & leaders) or you have to go directly to sites/individuals to solicit feedback. The culmination of this stage is to create a rallying point, like a name, mission statement, symbol, slogan, prayer, etc.

3) Design: From this input, collect some concrete strategies about how to implement your idea. Have all levels of stakeholders vote on which strategies they have the most energy behind. Once you have a set of priorities, then research how you might realistically implement these ideas and once again find out which specific plans your stakeholders are most interested in receiving/supporting. It’s okay for most of your big ideas to fall by the wayside if you end up focusing on the ideas that have the most traction and community support. This phase ends with assigned responsibilities and timelines.

4) Destiny: Go out and do it! If you have $ and/or staff time to carry out the ideas, run with it. Have one person responsible to watch the assigned responsibilities & timelines and offer the nudge and support to help the action plans succeed. If you don’t have funding or staff, you start again to Discover how your community will support this process–or make sure to include that in the discussion from the beginning. If you reach your timelines and assigned responsibilities have been completed (or modified but action is still being taken), then you know you’re on your way to a successful coalition!

The great thing about the 4D process is that it’s an ongoing cycle that can have different objectives each time, so once people are comfortable with the process you can continue using it to evaluate and grow your program. Let me know if this was at all helpful.

Thank you very much with your literacy description. I found it to be thought provoking and very specific. Love the 4D approach. This is an individual idea that hopefully my college will support. I would like to try and have a plan that I can get the backing from my college. I’m very green when it comes to looking outside the students needs. I’ve never needed possible outside support.

Maybe you can help me wrap my head around this because I feel like I’m running in circles. I’ve always assumed that adult literacy, student support, was providing students with academic support in basic academics, GED and in ESL. Training volunteers, supporting faculty, use of necessary texts is an essential part of the program. To my understanding that is only one part of the piece of adult literacy. Right? The second part would be outside support. How do I get outside support? What groups do I target? Can one person run both pieces of this program?

As you can see, I’m lost. I can’t thank you enough for taking time out to give me your feedback. Every bit of info. sets me in the right direction. Thank you!

I’m honored you asked! I love finding out what other folks are doing and thinking about in literacy. I think your heart is in the right place when it comes to thinking about the students’ needs first. Even when thinking about outside support, you have to think about it in concrete terms of what the real impact to the student is going to be.  With that in mind, I think of outside support in several categories:

Colleagues: networking and sharing resources across programs is one of the simplest activities to promote and yet often gets overlooked. Our local literacy coalition provides free professional development workshops that always include some time for participants to get to know each other and share ideas, plus a volunteer commitee is working on building a virtual network so that instructors can connect online:

In-kind supporters: these are usually individuals or mission-based groups who provide substantive support like volunteering time, bringing snacks or coffee, donating supplies or books, and may even make small financial contributions for specific items. Sounds like you already view this as part of providing student support services, and building these relationships is very organic…these folks have some connection with the reality in the classroom & increasing communication with them grows naturally.  One example is asking volunteer tutors to have a school supply drive at their house of worship.

Community partnerships: these are organizations who can benefit from mutual referrals like literacy resource centers, job training programs, employers, perhaps even specialists like eye doctors, lawyers, social workers, or psychologists depending on your students’ needs. Building relationships with these folks is less individual & more organizational. You might want to decide your group strategy first so you can reach out in a systematic way to develop organizational relationships like perhaps contract work, presentations, or other structured, regular activity. Ideally, both organizations are helping each other meet their goals. Often you can solidify these types of “shared services” with varied levels of formality, up to signing Memorandums of Understanding. An example of this type of partnership might even be internal, since you’re in the community college–other departments that are geared towards non-traditional students can present about program offerings beyond the GED/ESL and you can help their students struggling with literacy-related questions.

Funders: the magic mystery. There are as many funding streams as there are potential community partners, which again means you have to be strategic. If you’re just starting a project, the market for funding pilots is very different than operational support. Basically, make some rich friends! Just kidding. The real trick with funders is that most of the time they have already set their funding priorities, and your job as the coalition or program is to identify what the payoff is for their investment. In a sense, you start to create “funder services” to communicate the impact of your “student services” because frequently the folks making funding decisions aren’t going to know your experience on the ground. I call it “literacy literacy”: educating others about literacy. This means telling stories, providing research data, and also estimating the costs & impact of your proposal based on previous evidence (helps to have some models of other successful programs to build on). If you’re hoping the community college can support this, then maybe you won’t have to worry about this, but it helps to run your program or classroom with the knowledge of what the development office needs to continue keeping your program financially viable. You can check out some free webinars on fundraising at the Foundation Center (plus, May is Funding for Education month!):

Can one person run both student services and outside support? Depends on the size of the coalition you want to create and how broad of the literacy spectrum you want to include. I know a ton of programs where the head instructor is also the executive director, volunteer trainer, and all of that rolled into one. Then again, many organizations get big enough to hire development staff, program directors, and volunteer coordinators to organize these three types of outside support. As a consultant, my job is to design and help implement programs, which can include both student services and outside support. But long term I’m neither providing direct instruction to the students nor managing the grants and long term relationships with funders. I’m the “bridge person” who helps the folks on the ground communicate with the outside world, and ultimately that’s part of what a coalition will do as well.

The question for you, now, is: What role do you see yourself playing in the unfolding of this story? Many times, the entrepreneur who starts a company is not the one who should manage its longevity. Is this something you plant and let it grows for someone else to manage? Is this something you need help to get jump started, but you know the direction you want to drive it? Or is this your dream house you’ve wanted to build & live for many years to come? It’s not just a question of “how”…it’s also a question of “who”: the answer will help you decide how best to sketch a job description for the person/people will lead this process in the short & long term.

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Mustard Seed Training is a team of faith-based artisans creating materials for praying with children. Our ministry is to share the love of God and neighbor.

Our group was founded in 2018 by CGS catechist and woodworker Meagen Farrell. Meagen is an author, trainer, and PhD student in the fields of adult basic education and educational technology (that’s the “Training” part!).

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