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One of the most interesting sessions that I attended at yesterday’s Rewrite Creative ESOL conference was the presentation and workshop put on by English for Action.

I’d previously heard of the organisation through my volunteer work with NATECLA (the National Association for the Teaching of English and Community Languages to Adults), so I knew a little bit about the organisation and its mission and ethos.

EFA is a London-based educational charity that focuses on a participatory approach to ESOL teaching, taking action with students, and is unashamedly political in how they articulate and disseminate what they do. They’re very inspired by Paulo Freire’s views of pedagogy, going against the idea of a ‘banking’ model of education where students are viewed as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, activities are set up whereby the students participate in things together and build a class community.

‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’

Paulo Freire

Dermot Bryers and Cait Crosse from EFA talked to us about what they do with ESOL students at the charity, which involves running free ESOL classes for adults, sometimes in coordination with partner organisations, which, as well as aiming to improve their students level of language, focuses on taking action with the students. This could be relatively small-scale to challenging stereotypes of speakers of other languages in schools right up to discussing the issues about raising bilingual children and trying to find solutions to problems that might arise in this context.

Participatory ESOL means that the students take ownership of their learning and say what English it is that they want to investigate. Instead of following the ‘banking’ model mentioned above, space is given for the students to invest themselves into the learning space, sharing as much or as little about themselves as they feel comfortable, but always towards the end of creating this class community.

Dermot and Cait demonstrated a couple of activities that they use in their EFA classes: groups of… and identity pizza.

Groups of…

This activity was of the ilk that gets students up and on their feet, mingling, talking to as many of their classmates as possible. It’s very focused and allows the students to reveal as much or as little about themselves as they want to. The basic procedure is that the facilitator calls out a category, for example ‘shoes’, and then the students have to organise themselves into groups based on that category. In the demonstration that we took part in, this lead to groups of boot-wearers, those with brown shoes, and a group people toting non-descript plimsole-y sporty shoes. Other categories included ‘languages’ and ‘hobbies’. This was really revealing as students would be able to identify with others students thinking ‘oh, I don’t have anything in common with him’. Above all, it is non-threatening, which is so important when building a sense of community in the language classroom. As the activity goes on, students would suggest categories themselves.

Identity pizza

Again, this is an open activity that invites the students to share information about themselves by drawing simple pictures in a pizza shape (a big circle on a piece of paper), with each drawing forming one ‘slice’ of the pizza. Importantly, here there would not be a demonstration given by the facilitator, as this might lead the students to simply copy what they see. However, the facilitator would definitely sit down at the same time as the students to create their own identity pizza.

Here is my pizza:

Pizza slices of my life

Pizza slices of my life

One participant suggested that this could be a fantastic ice-breaker at the beginning of a course, where the students had to guess what they images meant to the facilitator.

Once the students have all drawn their own identity pizza, they would then mingle, asking and answering any questions that they come up with.

Obviously this is just a fraction of what EFA does

but it definitely made for an interesting, practical session that gave me ideas that I coud use with my own learners.