Film screening with Radical Education Forum

Friday 27th November, 7.30pm. Join the Radical Education Forum and Babel’s Blessing – Radical Language School for a screening of

Cuba, 1961. 250,000 volunteer teachers teach 700,000 illiterate adults to read and write in one year. Over half of the teachers – and students – were women. This film explores this controversial experience through the eyes of the women teachers, and how it changed their sense of themselves.

– followed by discussion and drinks –
– a fundraiser for Common House –

Bat Mitzvah class – a student’s experience

So here I am, all whacked and weary. Why, you ask? Well, I became Jewish by choice through the Reform Judaism movement few years ago. However, I cannot miss the opportunity to have a bar mitzvah, so I will have to be a boy again!

When a boy comes of age at 13 years old, the Jewish tradition recognizes him to have the same rights as a full-grown man (some have beards), and he becomes a “bar mitzvah” i.e. the son of the commandment. I want to experience how important a bar mitzvah is in the Jewish religion. It is a profoundly significant milestone in a person’s life. It calls out for a big celebration.

This is a great chance to learn to read from the Torah and reinterpret how a reading from the Torah relates to today’s society. Recently I enjoyed learning about different kinds of kippots, the concept of sukkot, and discovering the feminine version of the divine presence ‘Shechina’ which was new and refreshing.

I was thrilled and delighted to be a part of such a central event of people who want to learn about Jewish life. It’s tough to think of an event more joyous than a bar mitzvah.

Jewish adulthood comes with a lot of responsibilities. I was content to have fulfilled the responsibilities set on my shoulders with coherence and proficiency, so I was told. I’m looking forward to the bar mitzvah success in all my endeavors.

Kenneth, Bat Mitzvah class student

Lives in transit and the precarious classroom: updates from another ESOL class

I teach in an initial accommodation centre in South London. Asylum seekers who are destitute qualify for state-provided accommodation for the duration of their legal proceedings. The so-called ‘dispersal centres’ where they are usually accommodated have a network of services around them. However, before being sent there, they are first placed in an initial accommodation centre, while their request for support is examined. In theory they are supposed to stay in initial accommodation (I.A.) for about two weeks, but many end up staying much longer than two weeks. Pregnant women (who for a few lessons constituted the bulk of our students) are allowed to stay for four weeks each side of the birth. Torture victims can also ask to stay longer. One of our students has been there for two months and a half and has no idea of why they haven’t moved him yet. Residents’ lives are dictated by an obscure bureaucracy that determines when they are to leave.

Most of the people staying here are families with young children, but the only provision they receive is some medical assistance. As it is the first step towards building a new life in the UK, many of the residents of the I.A. are extremely eager to improve their English, but they have no way to do so apart from our weekly class. The I.A.s are managed by private contractors (Serco, G4S and Clearel) that have little interest or incentive to provide anything beyond the legal minimum agreed in their tender. In 2014 the House of Commons ordered an investigation into the management of I.A.s after having received many complaints. Indeed, our I.A. is not a great place to live in. There are mice in nearly every room, living side by side babies and kids. There is no space for children to play: all available space is used for bedrooms and toilets. Oh, the toilets. Let’s just say hygiene doesn’t seem to be a priority for whoever is managing the accommodation centre. Another of the residents’ main complaints is the canteen: when practicing likes and dislikes about food, our students soon started telling us”I like pasta, but not pasta at the I.A.”, “I like rice, but not the one at the I.A.”, and so on.

Indeed, we are very lucky to even have a room to teach in: the private contractors managing I.A.s are known to oppose the use of rooms for any non-mandatory services. And what room we have – labelled ‘staff rest room’, it was soon turned into the medical room. One afternoon a week, when the medical team is not on duty, we battle our way against hoards of mattresses and piles and boxes of clothes in order to turn the room into a suitable teaching space. We run two classes at different levels at the same time, and also need to entertain the kids who decide to join us, all in a room that could really only fit ten people. There aren’t enough chairs, and we borrow some from a religious centre / cafè next door – but still at times we don’t have enough.

I don’t have a feel-good ending. When I ask myself whether the commute and the struggle against the mattresses and the unsuitable room and the ever-present feeling of not doing a good enough job are worth it, I’m not sure of the answer. Yes, our students are always enthusiastic; yes, their feedback forms are always very positive about the lesson (though not about the room) – but they are so eager to learn that they might be enthusiastic even if we just gave them books and told them to go read them at the mice. I decided to teach this class because I have taught several ‘normal’ English classes in the past – normal meaning in this case having the same group of students for the entire term – and I wanted a challenge. Moreover, migrants’ daily life is made increasingly precarious across Fortress Europe: I hoped this experience would teach me valuable lessons on how to operate in temporary and transitory contexts. For now, however, we definitely haven’t found the magic formula; we’ve mostly learnt what doesn’t work that well. Try again, fail again, fail better?


Post scriptum: I wrote this while going to my lesson. When I arrived, the religious centre / cafè informed me that they are not going to give us the chairs any longer. I panicked and nearly gave up on teaching there. But, surprisingly, the classes went incredibly well, with a brilliant Afghan girl who learnt to read and write the latin alphabet in a flash and an articulate young Syrian man who offered us many insightful reflections. My worksheets on the Grunwick strike were a success, and having less chairs thus smaller classes was not that bad either. One thing is for sure – no two lessons are the same.

Mical, ESOL teacher

Daunting responsibilities and brilliant toddlers: half-term update from an ESOL class

Before starting our ESOL classes for Babel’s Blessing, my co-teacher and I were both terrified. I had only had one previous English teaching job (under very different circumstances) and my co-teacher came from a youth work background, so our interest and experience were very much theoretical and tangential. Training delivered by English For Action went a long way towards allaying my doubts, but in turn brought up new concerns: what to do with a mixed-level group; how to balance planning and critical pedagogy; how on earth would we assess students in the first place, and what would happen if we couldn’t understand each other at all?

The classes are held at Praxis, a community organisation based in Bethnal Green which offers advice and supports to migrants in London. Their staff do their best to make us and our students feel at home, including providing us all with tea and biscuits during our break and reimbursing students’ travel costs. The initial assessment and first class were nonetheless daunting: it is obviously extremely difficult to plan for the unknown. We needn’t have worried too much once we got to know our students.
Our students have come from across the world into London, are of differing ages (including one honorary toddler!) and different walks of life. We are admittedly a rather gender-imbalanced group, with a single male student who somehow manages to hold his own in a class of increasingly strong female voices. They are an extremely friendly and mutually supportive group, which has done wonders to reassure our confidence as teachers. At the beginning of each class we start with a check-in: the most commonly spoken word is ‘happy’, by some distance.
We try and provide an encouraging environment, focusing on functional communication and practical skills. The most important focus is making our lessons genuinely student-centred: they have chosen the topic of each class and we try to let them drive discussion as much as possible. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile a radical approach with their learning goals, but we have come to learn that for them our classes represent somewhat of an escape from often very tough lives, and perhaps that sensitivity is the most important learning curve.
I don’t want to put too much of a gloss on what is still a demanding and difficult job. Lessons almost never go to plan, we still wonder if anyone is actually learning anything, and the night before classes is often filled with anxiety and stress. Not to mention, this week’s class saw the addition of eight new students, which will undoubtedly stretch us to our limit. There are, nevertheless, occasional moments of clarity that can be reassuring to behold: when a shy student sustains a ten-minute conversation, the flash of intercultural understanding two weeks ago when discussing a gay Jewish wedding, the spontaneous laughter during today’s brainstorm about jobs when our toddler piped up with “mum!” while we were listing professions. Seems like I’m learning a lot too.
Maheema, ESOL teacher