I’m writing this blog post on the last night (weather permitting) of a brief sojourn on the North Devonshire coast, where I’ve been staying with Mark Andrews. Mark is the mind behind this blog, a lovely collection of thoughts about how to be in the classroom, and although he doesn’t blog there regularly any more, it’s certainly worth a look at (I would especially recommend this one).
Mark works here in Barnstaple at SOL – Sharing One Language – a really unique language school, where the lessons and teaching are very much rooted in the experience of being here, rather than spending a couple of weeks advancing through New New New Cutting Edge (or whatever other course book is du jour). The students are encouraged to get out in the local community and talk to the people who live here – an authentic opportunity to use the language they may have been studying for 7 years or so, but never have a chance to practice in their own countries. They also visit a number of the really unique and picturesque locations along the coast. A far cry from day trips to Madame Tussauds here.
I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to stay with Mark and his family for the past few days, which I have truly appreciated. I’ve got to see a bit of this particular part of the world (although we did *almost* blow away at Hartland Quay, before having a nice pint and Cornish pasty) and to see SOL in action, being able to witness the last day of the course for a group of Czech students. This morning I sat in on the lesson Mark was teaching, a fairly smart although slightly reticent group of Czech teens. They talked about the previous night’s events (the most damaging storm to hit the UK’s shores since ’87), and I even played the role of a Czech journalist interviewing one young lady about what had happened following the storm.
There is, I think, a huge difference between this and the norm for a lot of language students who visit the UK on summer schools and for stays at other times during the year. Often they visit London, or one of the other big or culturally important cities, and they do typically touristy things alongside their language course. They go to the aforementioned waxwork museum, take photos around Westminster, etc. etc. I’ve no doubt they probably have a great time, since they may only have this one opportunity to visit these places. However, when this is compared to what happens at SOL – they stop off at an ice cream van and quiz the chap who works there about the ice cream making business in North Devon, they pet and stroke donkeys (even getting a teachable/learnable moment for free when Eeyore decides it’s time for the toilet); the local and the interesting is interwoven into a course that helps the students to really practice and extend their skills in using English. As the people who run SOL say, the language course here is not just a couple of weeks, but is an experience that will stay with these students for a long time.
I was lucky enough to see Mark talking a bit about what happens at SOL at the recent IATEFL Hungary conference in Budapest, and am so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to come to Barnstaple and see first hand what it’s all about. I hope that I’ll have the chance to see more about it at other conferences (fingers crossed for Mark’s proposal for Harrogate) and perhaps to return to this corner of Devon in the future to visit SOL again in the future.