Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy (MTML) case study: Silver Linings Café

May 11th, 2021 by Tracey Mollins

Smoothing the transition to remote learning for literacy instructors

When Ontario declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pivot to remote learning happened very quickly for literacy and basic skills (LBS) practitioners. In Toronto and York Region, Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy (MTML) partnered with AlphaPlus to provide these educators with support and professional development.

In April of 2020, MTML board member Susan Lefebvre envisioned a space for adult literacy educators to meet, network and share achievements, experiences, challenges and technical knowledge. Already working with AlphaPlus to address MTML’s digital technology infrastructure needs, Susan brought her vision to AlphaPlus team member Tracey Mollins, an organizational development consultant for education and technology.

“I’m not technical, but I knew what I wanted to achieve. Tracey has expertise in specific technologies and blended learning, with many resources at her fingertips. As a former LBS instructor herself, she relates well to the audience I wanted to support,” Susan explains. “I also knew that Tracey would be able to help provide a framework for our group.”

A flexible approach to professional development

Susan suggested starting with weekly calls via Zoom and, with Tracey’s input, decided on a learning circle approach, allowing participants to set the agendas and find solutions to common challenges collaboratively. 

“Because of COVID-19, we were able to take an unusual approach to professional development,” Tracey explains. “We formed a community of practice of highly motivated people working on the same challenge: the pivot to remote learning. We gave the group a place to turn and decided to be flexible and adaptable. And we recognized that while participants could have made the pivot on their own, in the middle of significant disruption, we could make the integration of technology smoother.” 

The first “Silver Linings Café” meetings kicked off at the end of April — the name coined by Susan to acknowledge the motivation and ingenuity demonstrated by instructors as they navigated the complexities presented by the pandemic. From April 30 to June 25, 2020, MTML and AlphaPlus hosted more than 40 literacy practitioners in 12 meetups. Along the way, Tracey helped Susan to research useful technologies and provided demonstrations to help instructors learn a new feature or skill to apply in their next online class. 

Supported instructors, better remote learning experiences

At the end of the five months, Silver Linings Café participants reported reduced feelings of isolation, a shortened learning curve and increased confidence associated with digital technology for remote learning. They reported feeling empowered to help learners tackle learning barriers and noted a beneficial impact on learner engagement. Participants had also been able to help each other by sharing community support resources such as links to food donation programs, computer donation programs and the Toronto Public Library’s Wi-Fi hotspot lending program.

Susan, AlphaPlus and a team of contributors documented many of the group’s lessons, creating and publishing a suite of guides. COFA generously supported the translation of the guides. Topics include setup, in-meeting controls and whiteboards, breakout rooms, polling and building engagement to help others make the most of their Zoom meetings with adult literacy learners.

“AlphaPlus stepped up province-wide during COVID-19, and their partnership made this experience a success for the programs in our network,” says Susan. “Everybody agrees that we cannot drop the ball on technology when we go back to in-person learning. We must continue to benefit from AlphaPlus’s knowledge and leadership in blended learning, and we have to continue to think about breaching the gaps in access to technology many of our learners face.”

Would you like to connect with fellow practitioners in the adult literacy education space? We offer periodic, time-based and structured network experiences for educators with similar goals and visions for using digital technology. Learn more about current and upcoming cohorts of our educator network. If you have questions or would like to talk about joining a group, please contact Tracey Mollins,  at tmollins@alphaplus.ca