A course in newspaper reading – a key to better integration

A newspaper reading project at Odense County Library has given Arab, Somali and Asian Women an appetite for reading Danish newspapers and taking a keener interest in Danish society as a whole.

Social isolation and insufficient knowledge about how society works – these are two serious obstacles when trying to integrate ethnic minorities in society.

This is why Odense County Library in autumn 2004 arranged a fifteen week course for ethnic minority women in reading the newspaper: ‘Reading the newspaper – TOGETHER’.

The course suggests how the library can extend its service in relation to ethnic minority groups. The librarian should not only act as a consultant, but also as adviser and initiator, example and role model, instructor and psychologist, reading instructor and language pedagogue.

Isolated women with fear of contact
Odense County Library is already very experienced when it comes to library service to ethnic minority groups and has developed several new concepts to this end. For example cultural bridgebuilding, learning centre and streetwalking.

19 refugee and immigrant women aged between 25 and 50 years participated in the course in newspaper reading. They have all been living in Denmark for over 10 years, none have any formal training and all of them live isolated lives in society apart from sporadic contact with doctors, teachers, pedagogues, caseworkers and perhaps Danish neighbours. They all took part in a multi-cultural, EU-funded project during the period August 2003-December 2004, which was supposed to qualify them for the labour market.

The point of the course was to give the women greater insight in Danish society, and thereby a greater opportunity for making independent decisions and participating as active fellow citizens in Danish social life. Partly by providing them with new knowledge through reading the papers together and discussing individual articles, and partly by letting them test their new knowledge on experts from various social institutions and in this way help them overcome their fear of contact with Danish authorities.

Open dialogue – but only in Danish
The women met 2-3 mornings a week for 3-4 hours at Odense County Library. They would usually start by having a quick look through the daily paper by themselves. Along the way they would pause, read the headlines aloud and wait for questions or comments. The most ‘popular’ headline would be adopted for further joint examination, going on for five to 30 minutes according to how much interest the subject evoked. The course offered an open dialogue that everyone could take part in. Only Danish was spoken: There was no systematic language tuition, but words and sentences were explained in Danish until everybody understood them. Tricky words in the articles did get translated in order for everyone to be able to understand the essence of the text in question.

Most of the women got very involved in the discussions – moved by their curiosity and interest in each others’ opinions, they conducted lengthy conversations in Danish, and many found the discussions the most interesting part of the course.

The women created their own agenda
The course instructor did not try to influence the women over the choice of articles. The women were not taught how to decode the detailed messages of the articles or to discuss its arguments systematically, and the articles were not used as a pedagogical shortcut to teaching any definite content.

The women’s own needs, experiences and interests were the basis for introducing them to the conventions of newspaper reading and the newspaper as cultural medium:

Reading the paper is both a source of essential information about society, and a symbol of being part of the community of informed and enlightened citizens. The purpose of newspaper reading was therefore first and foremost to show the women how to read the newspaper in a Danish cultural context, how one finds and assimilates important information and how to work on and examine one’s own experiences, attitudes and opinions.

Together the women also decided to focus on certain subjects which they wanted to know more about. For example illness, hygiene and health, family conditions in Denmark and in their own countries, the rights of the individual and ethnic minority women’s life situation in Denmark.

“Make sure you can dance with your project!”
The women had no preconceived ideas of what they wanted from the course, what kind of information they needed and how their course would be organised. That they became very aware of their needs, and that their needs became the imperative factor in the information mediation, was therefore the most important task for the library staff.

In order to make sure that the women would be able to bring their influence to bear on the course, the library chose to use the learning strategy The operative workshop, which enabled the library staff to ‘dance with their project’, i.e. change direction according to the needs of the participants, as the workshop model encourages flexibility and development in the mediation and learning process.

That proved to be an excellent strategy. The women embraced the course and became active the moment they discovered that people listened to them and that their wishes were taken seriously when discussing focus subjects, lecturers and visits to institutions. And even if they were linguistically weak, they were able to formulate their needs: Everyone helped each other getting a word in and explaining what they felt.

The operative workshop is further based on the role model principle where the course instructor shows how to do things, whereupon the participants repeat this together using the group as an exploratorium where everyone learns from each other and with each other – thus building up their competencies.

Visits by experts and study trips
The new knowledge was tested along the way and extended via lectures by experts and study trips which were meant to break down the women’s fear of contact with authorities and make them more familiar and confident with hospitals, careers advisers, birth control clinics etc. Several lectures and visits also encouraged the women to seek more information on their own accord.

The evaluation showed that generally speaking the women were very happy with the course, and one group of women continued after the course finished with their own reading club at the library which still goes on. All, or most of the women have continued to read the papers regularly because “they are not all about boring political discussions about the terrible things foreigners do – there are also many interesting things about Danish society and about health and such like”, as one woman put it.

- It seems to show that a project like ‘Reading the newspaper – TOGETHER’ can be a tool for involving ethnic minorities actively in lifelong learning processes. But a fifteen week course is not really long enough to give participants without a sound educational background a more profound insight in how Danish society works. Ideally, the course should be longer or happen in several stages, concludes the evaluator of the project, Hans Elbeshausen, Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen.

Reading the newspaper – TOGETHER has received funding from the Danish National Library Authority’s campaign ‘The library – a gateway to Danish society’. The aim of the campaign is to develop target group-related service, information and learning concepts for ethnic minority groups.

Behind the project were librarians Bente Weisbjerg and Anne-Mette Nielsen and assistant Joan Poulsen.

Reading the newspaper – TOGETHER has been working with the following subjects:

  • Newspaper articles
  • The importance of globalisation in relation to unskilled workers in Odense
  • Terror action in Beslam
  • Sickness and healthy diet
  • Salmonella debate
  • Fine-toothed combs and lice shampoo
  • Patient’s rights, guidance and associations
  • Funen and municipal reform
  • Psychological terror towards bailiffs
  • Violence against girls and boys
  • Sonja’s murderer: I blacked out
  • No picture on new Dankort
  • Brigitte Bardot reaches 70.

Lectures:

  • Education for the young and help with homework
  • Losing weight
  • The importance of the newspaper in Denmark
  • Introduction to visit to Odense University Hospital (maternity ward and patient library).

Visits to:

  • Odense University Hospital
  • Birth control clinic Odense Municipality
  • Language café
  • Social and Health Care College educator
  • The Library – introduction