Diary of a Creative English Trainer: Day 9
A Question of Balance, Bed Bugs and Bengali
(For those who are of the ‘Baby Boomer’ era, you may remember a rock group called The Moody Blues? Hence the reference to one of their most successful albums during the early ‘70s! For those who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about – apologies! Humour me, please!)
This has been a week full of questions, both from students and from Hubs/trainers and the like! So in this edition, I’m going to try to address a number of these.
Yesterday, Jess McFarling (Development Officer at FaithAction) and I popped up to the Creative English Hub at the Oasis Centre in Luton. This is an amazing place, where people are welcomed into a ‘home-like’ environment: it looks like a corner shop in a residential area and has been adapted to support the local community. Lead by the visionary Gill Boyd, the team there have developed two Creative English classes and, together with Sarah, Barbara and Liz, we chatted through a range of queries that had arisen. I’m covering some of them here, as I feel sure that they are not the only ones working with Creative English classes who have encountered these, and wanted to share our thoughts with other groups, too.
They have been operating an innovate idea to support regular attendance: they have asked their students to pay a £10 deposit for a programme of 12 sessions. As soon as their students have completed the required 10 sessions, they take them through the questions for the Learner Questionnaire and then return the deposit. So far, they have had extraordinary levels of attendance (far better than mine, in my two classes, I might add!)
One question that Gill raised was, “Can you lead a group if you are already an ESOL tutor?” The simple answer is, “Yes, you can”! When we rolled out the initial training, we were keen to say that you don’t need to be a trained ESOL tutor or linguist to facilitate Creative English. So we may have been rather too zealous in our explanation, to the extent that others, like Gill, felt they were disqualified. Please forgive us for this! Let me reassure you – whatever your qualifications, you can facilitate Creative English! In actual fact, the further away from ESOL teaching you are, the better. You will not have a ‘default mode’ that takes you to standard teaching practices. I find I continually need to rein in my ‘default mode’, whereas Sarah and Barbara in Luton were having lots of fun helping people to deal with queries in pharmacies without the hindrance of added ‘grammar’ items!
As a trained ESOL teacher, I am aware of the balance between delivering via the Creative English methods and my ‘default mode’. Remember, the Creative English method is supposed to include some moments of more formal learning, but often this is done through writing up words or specific vocabulary or sentence structure in a game – If you have a group who like to write things down, encourage them to bring a notepad and to feel free to write things up that people can copy down. However, if you don’t have strong written English yourself, you can still facilitate effectively, and the empathy and solidarity you may have with your learners can be a real strength. Volunteer Maureen (from Sierra Leone), for example, did an awesome job of facilitating some Creative English sessions. Copying the way the facilitator taught by writing key words and phrases on the board didn’t work very well for her, as her spelling was a bit too “creative”(!) and she was insecure about the grammar. However, when she focussed on the drama and other practical activities, the sessions were brilliant and warmly received by the students, who made significant progress in her care. It was a real strength that she could empathise with the learners’ difficulties in learning English. This is about being free to be who you are in the sessions and knowing people will improve in their confidence to speak English regardless, if they are having fun and practising spontaneous spoken English through the drama. All volunteer tutors will bring something different and equally wonderful to how they facilitate the sessions. If you are an ESOL teacher, you don’t need to be afraid to bring your wonderful expertise for grammar into the room, but at the same time you don’t have to be put off if you aren’t! Bobby and Anne, our other trainers, find people rarely ask them questions about formal grammar as their sessions emphasise that element less!
Gill’s team quizzed us in detail about this: “How much time do you give to reading and writing, to referring to technical words (such as noun/verb) and to other grammar issues and should you give them homework”? By now, I expect many of you will have encountered this dilemma – your students feel that they are only learning when they operating in the comfort zone of what they think ‘learning’ should look like. And plenty of them will have only experienced ‘traditional’ teaching methods.
This is a cultural thing! In our experience, learners who are not literate in their first language prefer the Creative English way of learning English, as it focusses on what they need to communicate verbally without the barriers of reading and writing. Feedback this week from the leader of a Somali Women’s Group who participated in a session said this was so much better than a traditional ESOL class because there was no reading and writing in the session.
In my classes, I try to include both elements in greater or lesser amounts. I do not shy away from technical words – often my students come with Masters-level degrees and I would not wish to patronise them with childish simplifications. My student, Poppy, in Ilford asks me each week for homework – and usually I have some to give her! And she goes away with a big smile and does it, too! On the other hand, I always want to cover the stories from ‘The Street’, and give time to improvisation and role play so that language can flow naturally and (eventually) without the hindrance of embarrassment. Last week, in the scenario of celebrating ‘Peter’s’ birthday in the restaurant, the gentleman decided he did not want the steak (as directed in the session plan!) so we had a great laugh listening to him insisting that what he really wanted was pakora!
It is great when learners start to shape the story themselves. You don’t have to stick slavishly to the details of the session plan – just remember the changes your group have made! In session 6, Keisha is a cleaner but the group wanted her to be a journalist at a national newspaper, so that’s what happened – she still had a horrible boss, as required in the storyline, but the group had much more fun with a situation of their choosing!
We discussed the issues around having low-level students in the group. The Oasis team talked about the difficulty in working through the session materials with this type of student, as they felt that their students were not really understanding what was going on. They recalled one of my previous blogs, where I talked about using volunteers and students alike to ‘multi-interpret’ (Multiple languages being used across the room to aid comprehension, if I can coin a new word!) We have found that we actively encourage explanations and discussions in community languages, because everyone feels encouraged and supported that way. For example, this morning my volunteer was busy using Urdu to help with the meaning of ‘terrace/detached/semi-detached/bungalow/block of flats! My two students with very weak English would not have coped had I simply tried just in English, but my volunteer ably enhanced the session (she even managed to help our Bengali student, whose Urdu is limited!). We have found that this does not stop people learning, but gives value to their own languages and helps make the interpreters feel useful. So, please feel free to recruit a wider ability range, so that everyone is supported. If you recall from earlier blogs, my volunteer is actually one of my students, but when she came, she thought she was not good enough to go to a real ESOL class. The Creative English class has boosted her confidence amazingly.
If you are operating a Creative English Hub, you might now be aware that you are eligible for the first round of grant applications from the Creative English Innovation and Sustainability Fund. Jess was sharing information about this with the Luton Hub, who had just begun to consider the opportunity. The aim of this funding is to enable the creation of projects to deliver basic spoken English training in line with the overall aims and values of the Creative English Programme while expanding its reach through different means. The good news is that in the first funding round, all Creative English Hubs will be prioritised; additionally, if you are successful in this round, you will have more time to put your project into practice than later awards.
If you would like to build on your experience and passion of English language provision by developing new courses and/or resources to increase its impact in the community sphere, through a more personal approach, do get in touch with Jess McFarling at FaithAction (email: [email protected] or Tel: 0845 094 6350).
Back in Newham this morning my students were in small groups telling each other about their homes. I joined a group, only to find that one lady was asking about bed bugs! She said, ”Why do they keep coming back?” Coincidently, my parents had had this problem last summer and I was able to explain the life cycle of the bed bug by means of little scribbles on the board (you cannot kill the eggs, only the live babies and adults!) I explained about useful sprays that you can buy to continue treating the problem. She sat listening intently! The flexibility of Creative English means that you have time to cover all these very real problems, without the pressure of ensuring exam material is being dealt with.
If these notes have raised any questions with you, then please do get in touch with any of our team – you can find us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/FaithAction-Creative-English/726398574077398?fref=ts) or use any of the contact details on our FaithAction webpage. We are here to help!