Diversity

#NATECLA Day 2, vol 2: Democracy & Britishness 

My apologies. It’s been a little over a week and I’ve been sitting on this post that whole time. But bear with me – I hope it’s worth the wait.

It is probably unnecessary to report back on the NATECLA AGM, which, I have to admit, I have only ever attended once before, and that because the lovely people at the Ruth Hayman Trust were going to say thank you for raising money for them (which I strongly urge you to do as well,  because as far as I know they are the only charity that do the kind of work they do to support migrants in the UK). I have to also admit that I can’t decide if I find the whole business of proposing, seconding and voting on motions to be either charmingly democratic, or just a teensy bit archaic. Sorry: I think I am a bit of a dictator at heart, and if I did apply to be co-chair of NATECLA, I worry that I would probably turn out to be a bit like Chancellor Palpatine. Mild gags aside, what really struck me was how much influence NATECLA has gathered in recent years against a backdrop not only of funding cuts to ESOL but also of a worryingly convincing anti-immigrant discourse both politically and socially.

However, business duly done and it was time for what can only be called the graveyard shift at a conference. Almost inevitably things tend to thin out at this time of day as people head home a little early, and all the exhibitors have packed away and gone. I’ll admit that I’ve done this before, but for this one I stayed, because the final workshop I attended was on a theme which intrigues me and I was interested to see what was being said. The session was on “brokering Britain” and the notion of ESOL teachers as “mediators of Britishness.”

It was less of an input, and more of a discussion, starting with an introduction to a book on the theme that Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell (with others) were working on, and to which we were contributing, sort of , some of the final chapter. Certainly, the discussion is one which has appeared in this blog before: the responsibility and function of an ESOL teacher as more than just a language teacher, but also as brokers of the dominant social and cultural context in which English occurs in the UK. It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with as a direct “duty”, for example under the Prevent programme, and yet despite this, something which I’ve engaged with in the sense of encouraging active citizenship. This distinction was one which was raised at the beginning of the session: between getting students to engage with democratic processes and to be pro-active in their communities, social activism, tempered with the discomfort of ESOL teaching as a tool of the state, of teaching language as a “social proxy”, perpetrators of the notion that language is a measure of ones loyalty: you cannot be British if you can’t speak English. In that sense at least we are both gatekeepers and prison wardens: “I judge that your language is not yet to standard, therefore you are not ready for the appropriate exam.” This, coupled with the unrealistic learning expectations of students, which I wrote about recently, can taint the relationship between student and teacher.

In our group the discussion hinged around the nature of the texts we bring into class. As a frequent user of authentic texts, it certainly got me thinking about the political edge which we bring to the ESOL class perhaps subconsciously: my sources of choice are newspapers of the left and the centre left (Guardian & Independent), and occasionally to the better quality end of the right wing broadsheets (the Telegraph) or (nominally) politically neutral sources like the BBC. Certainly the choices I make are texts which reflect my own political stance, which was another question we discussed.

One of these discussions that has stuck with me was around the extent to which we admit our own political views in class. I am usually fairly open about my politics in class, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer, along the lines of: “You are welcome to disagree, but…”. That said, I don’t start with my stance or allow it to dominate, at least not consciously, but students are often curious and will ask. An honest question deserves, I think, an honest answer: I’m not a politician garnering votes. And anyway, I’m open, even didactic in my opinion of less contentious issues than Brexit or General Elections. I once based the text analysis in a reading lesson on the way that the writer referred to the participants in a car accident in a way that dehumanises people in favour of the car (“a pedestrian was hit by a VW Golf” rather than the less deft but more accurate “a person was hit by another person in a car.”) The choice of text and theme was linked very closely to an aspect of personal politics, as it were, as well as being an interesting exercise in textual referencing and critical reading. Certainly I would hope that it would encourage the students to start to read about a more personal context more critically, in the way that migration to the UK is reported.

There was more to the discussion than that, of course – the notion of being an outsider to the whole citizenship question, for example, not just as a student but also from the perspective of a teacher who was born elsewhere. I wonder as well if we are brokers of not only Britishness, but also of belonging – agents not of integration and conformity, but rather brokers of our communities. I know that I sometimes feel “outside” the communities that perhaps my own students work and live within: I have yet to work in the city I live in, for example, which grants a sense of distance from the towns and communities I work in – I rarely, if ever, see my learners outside of the working week, and my knowledge of the social geography of their communities is deeply limited. I build on this distance, with comments like “Platform 8 [where I catch my train home]” is my usual answer to “What is your favourite place in the town?”

Needless to say, of course, the notion of the dreaded British Values was raised, but this really cemented that distinction between the view of citizenship as an officially sanctioned status, rather than the more liberal stance – while few, if any, would criticise the Values, per se, there is always that question of whether they are specifically “British” and whether they supersede any other sets of values you may care to mention, not to mention the key question, really, of whether we are just teachers of a language, or whether we are much more than that. I personally would say that we are much more than just language teachers, but that the Britishness we “teach” should rarely be explicit, if at all. Active, progressive, social interactivity and engagement, yes, but preaching whitewashed, nostalgic and officially sanctioned Britishness? No.

 

 

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Groups, Needs & Personality: I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that

I’m currently teaching two Entry 1 classes. They both attend three days a week, are broadly similar in terms of nationality mix, gender and indeed language learning needs: both groups have members who are working above Entry 1 in some respects, working towards various different qualifications and one or two members with comparatively limited literacy. In each group there are students with similar social and economic backgrounds and situations: parents, recent arrivals, former refugees, workers, and so on. You jammy git, you may be thinking, easy scheme of work planning!

And in terms of scheme and course content, you’d be right. There’s a degree of overlap, especially as one group started a week or so after the other, and the focus of the lessons is broadly similar, and from an external perspective it’s pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, this is the trouble with the cold computational model of course planning common in FE: identify required input, deliver required input, assess required input, input successful: there is much much more to it than that.

In reality, the two groups are deeply, profoundly different, and I’ll tell you now, it’s nothing to do with the students’ individual learning needs and motivations, and it is everything to do with personality. Personality, to paraphrase Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, goes a long way in the ESOL classroom. It influences all sorts of things. Group H, as I will call them, has many many extrovert, confident personalities, while Group D (and why not D?) has confident people, for sure, but far fewer extrovert personalities. Group H has a core of students who have been studying together for a year already, Group D is newly formed this academic year. In group H this core acts as a kind of glue, even when spread out around the room according to learning needs, they still interact well with each other. The core also gives a sense of cohesion for the other students to connect to. At the moment this is lacking with group D, but you can see it beginning to form amongst the students – the terms and conditions of group interactions, and the settings of the friendships and relationships being established. It’s interesting to observe, and the only disappointing thing is the way it will change when both courses finishes in January.

Personality, while perhaps not a fixed concept, is something which is hard to consciously change, and depends on a range of innate and learned factors. Certainly it is beyond the abilities and, arguably, the remit of the ESOL teacher to change personality, linguistic relativity notwithstanding. But the individual personality mix in a group has an impact on a number of things. Take, for example, the types of activities you choose, and their relative effectiveness: in my tentative micro-study of these two classes, group H responds well and confidently to free flowing, dogme-influenced lesson activities, group D is more tentative, and responds better to slightly tighter control over pace and activity, preferring a more “traditional” structure. That’s not say that group D can’t or won’t respond, but that they are, perhaps, developing their confidence as learners, and need at times greater guidance. And that’s absolutely fine. No single technique or activity, no strategy, no policy, works for all students all the time: I’ve spent years criticising the imposition of SMART target setting based pretty much entirely on that notion. But at least on activities, methods and resources my professional judgement is trusted enough that I have freedom to adapt things to those students. It’s not just activities, but also the nature of feedback: group D have, so far, responded really well to guided feedback: where I’ve suggested changes to writing, for example, they have a go and make the changes without prompting, experimenting as they go. Group H, despite their apparent confidence, generally prefer a lot more guidance, and like to have a longer explanation before making changes, although, and again, this is because of the god intoersonal relationships they have, there is a lot more natural peer teaching going on: stronger students will support weaker without being asked by the teacher.

I’ve blogged before, I think, about the essential falseness of the classroom setting: the language of the classroom has its own authenticity separate from the “real” English of the outside world, and any attempts to integrate this realism are undermined by this disconnected classroom microcosm. It’s impossible in a language classroom to ever fully replicate the complexity of genuine interaction, and neither should this be the aim of the language lesson. Indeed, we should perhaps be looking not at developing authentic language but rather the authentic ability to cope with the unknown, to handle the unexpected and the complex. This “separate universe” view applies to personality too. When students come to class they assume a status, a role in class that is different from their role in their “real” lives: not necessarily introvert to extrovert, but perhaps a discovery of added confidence when they realise that they are by far the strongest student in the class, or a deference borne out of a realisation that despite their verbal fluency and confidence, they need significant support for even the simplest writing task. Perhaps some students, when they arrive, see that they have the chance now to change where they were, and consciously decide, for a few hours each week at least, to have a go at being a slightly different person.

All of which makes for interesting teaching, and is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that this job is as interesting as it is. It’s a constant challenging creative process, making that present simple lesson work for that group of students, or re-modelling the lesson on the fly because the activities are just not engaging the students (and again, that’s not just about stretch and challenge). Indeed, it’s the days when you repeat a lesson and it goes more or less exactly as it did the last time that you get almost this sense of disappointment, a feeling, almost, that you have in some way let the students down. Without this variety, teaching could so easily become as tedious a job as working on a packing line, just with added stress.

Because we have to

It’s that induction time again, meaning icebreakers, getting to know you activities, tours of college, diagnostic assessments, various cross college missives that need to be translated from edu-managementese into something that your entry 1 ESOL students can understand (any document with the word “inclusive” in it is likely to be anything but). This latter includes various policy statements: IT usage policy, behaviour standards, equality and diversity, and, of course, British Values.

I know I’ve blogged before about this topic, and my apologies for any repetition: but to summarise, basically, the notion of British Values comes from the Prevent strategy, a somewhat politically suspect attempt to cut off extremism and its consequences at the root. Of course Prevent by its very nature is unlikely to ever prove conclusively that it’s working: there is no way at all of knowing that a person identified under the Prevent strategy as being at risk would have gone on to become a terrorist, for example, because either the strategy worked and they didn’t, or the strategy didn’t work and they did. Or perhaps an individual wasn’t identified, was briefly drawn into something but then realised what they were doing and decided not to. Seriously, has nobody seen Minority Report?

Anyway, the fabled British Values are: democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and those of no faith, and individual liberty/freedom of speech. Said values are to be not only promoted but “exemplified” (tricky that one, as I fairly regularly break one or two laws). There are also issues with the “British” bit: it’s a word and a concept I find increasingly repellent, particularly with the post-Brexit rise in racially motivated attacks, and the claim that any of these values are peculiarly British, or that they should have precedence over any other general values, is frankly bizarre. So what if the French have the (admittedly euphonious) liberte, fraternite, egalite or the Americans “liberty, equality and self government”? Lucky them. These are all spurious nationalistic claims on a bunch of relatively accepted western values. They’re also so broad as to be pretty meaningless, not to mention totalitarian in their impetus (“to be a citizen, these are things you MUST believe…”)But that’s not the point.

No, what I’m really thinking about is how, given this kind of dislike, at best apathy towards the whole thing, these things are ever going to be effectively embedded into teaching practice. For something like this to really work, you’ve really got to believe in it. I believe, for example, in the notion of equality and the legal framework around the equality act, and that the 9 protected characteristics should absolutely be protected by law. I believe that embedding English and maths into teaching and learning is a good thing, and developing those skills in FE is important. So it’s easy to get behind these things: I’ll berate students for random sexism or racism, or I’ll try and explain “square kilometre” to an entry 1 ESOL student. But whenever I try to embed British Values, and refer to them explicitly (so that students can duly parrot them back to OFSTED at the appropriate time), I’m doing so with my fingers crossed behind my back. I just don’t believe. 

Belief is important. Teacher belief in an interventions worth or effectiveness (or not) is a powerful thing, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if it could even function as a kind of placebo to render ineffective practices effective. By the same measure, if you don’t believe that something is of value, then you are never going to convincingly put it across, regardless of how effective or valuable it is. So this is the challenge faced by promoting British Values. Unlike similarly top down initiatives like health and safety, safeguarding, and equality and diversity, British Values is starkly political in its origins and its purpose, and therefore is a much harder buy in: and if a teacher can’t buy in, then how can their students?

Another part of the problem, especially for me, is that I can’t help but want there to be a “proper” language learning aim. Teaching British Values, and to a lesser extent equality and diversity, is really just going to be a lesson on vocabulary, or reading, or speaking. Any British Values stuff is going to be a subordinate consideration: a happy accident. Students will read for gist and detail, focus on vocabulary in the text, develop speaking and listening skills, participate in a discussion. In the process, they might also learn about British Values, but that bit probably won’t go on my internal lesson plan. 

I guess, ultimately, this is about ownership. To what extent do teachers feel that they own British Values, and have had a say in developing them? Not a lot, I suspect. Like my official citizenship status, they are nominally “British” but I don’t recall anyone asking me about this. British values, more than anything else, are a top down imposition, and for that reason, more than anything else, I wonder whether they will ever move from “doing it because we have to” to “doing it because I believe it’s important”. 

The Inevitable Brexit Post

As I started this post I was standing at my local leisure centre watching my son’s gymnastics class. We were in Leeds, and judging by the voices around me, I am surrounded by people from at least three continents. This includes, of course, a significant proportion of people from  what I can (for now) call the rest of the EU. It’s always been a nice, friendly place, the leisure centre, even while the worst excesses of the nasty Leave campaign were playing out, and happily it still is. People standing around united by the fact that they are just parents chatting, drinking overpriced machine coffee, and waiting while little Callum/Magdalena/Julianna/Jasvinder practice balancing on beams, jumping, vaulting and the rest. The only real division is between those who see it as a bit of fun, and those who take it far, far too seriously. At the end, when one of the children gets to be “star gymnast of the week” everyone claps and smiles, regardless. For me, it’s Britain at its best: diverse people concentrating on the experiences that make us the same. I don’t want this sort of thing to end, and I’m worried now that it will. 

Given my general political and professional leanings, it’s safe to say that my mind on Brexit was made up from the outset: remain. The job of the Leave campaign was to try and convince someone like me that they were right and I was wrong, but nothing they said ever rang quite true (turns out I was right on that front), not to mention based on too much guesswork. What was clear, however, was that it was largely based in abstract, fear-based nationalism. I’ve said before, I don’t really care for that kind of thing, and, as with religion, I find the negative, divisive impact of notions of national identity far outweigh any benefits. 

And the Leave campaign was about nationalism. The campaign played on fears of immigration that are stoked by the nastier ends of the UK media. It’s easy to blame the media, and while I lay plenty of blame at their door, let’s not forget that they are only peddling their stance based on what they think will sell papers: and a diet of Princess Diana conspiracy theories, cures for cancer, and skewed headlines on immigration based on cherry picked data does, apparently, sell. There is, as the referendum showed, a big market for prejudice. This fear of immigration is most easily exploited in those places where direct experience of it is rare, or where local socio-economic difficulties leave individuals looking for a scapegoat. And sadly, the family with the funny name and foreign accent is a much easier target than a complex financial system exploited by the wealthy. 

Richard Dawkins argues in The God Delusion that moderate religious belief essentially gives a mandate to extremism, because when it comes down to it, the moderate and the extremist believe in the same basic concepts. This means that the moderate individual cannot fully condemn every aspect of the extremist’s behaviour. Something similar applies here. The votes of what is probably a moderately nationalistic (flags out for football and the Queen) but ill-informed and worried majority have now granted a mandate to the nastier xenophobia and racism of the far right. The British Leave voters have essentially said “it’s ok to be racist”. I heard first hand of a friend being told to “fuck off back home” despite the fact that they were born in the UK and is of southern Asian origin. It wasn’t the first story I heard: it seems racists were pretty much saying it from a few hours after the results came in, having been given the blessing of the British populace.

The campaign was built on fear of immigration, on the demonisation of immigration. There was the tacky and vicious appending of Iraq and Syria onto a map of countries wishing to be part of the EU, for example, not to mention UKIP’s awful, terrible poster


“No, no,” I can imagine them saying, “Not at all. We were voting against the undemocratic processes of the EU.” This is also a ridiculous argument. For one, however things pan out, our lives will be affected by the EU, and we now have absolutely zero input into what happens there. What makes this even more ridiculous is that the upper houses of our parliament is entirely unelected, not to mention unrepresentatively dominated by rich white men, a proportion of whom are there purely because they are leaders of an organisation representing a minority religious viewpoint. I’m not saying that any of these people do a bad job, mind, but they are unelected. Oh, and did I mention the small fact we are a monarchy? So we really have little claim to be protesting about democracy, particularly as the next Prime Minister of the UK will be taking office without having been elected to it. 

And it’s not just about my job either. Brexit is going to take years to work through, and in that time people will still continue to arrive in the UK and need ESOL. In fact, the biggest challenge for ESOL now is how much it will get squeezed as the government looks to save money in the face of the inevitable recession brought about by Brexit. Nothing to do with there being fewer immigrants, thanks, because even if migration from the EU stopped completely, people will still keep coming from the rest of the world. So potential ESOL students and the whole debate about language education will continue. 

I voted remain because I liked being in the EU. Because it is flawed (what government isn’t?) but you can’t fix it if you’re not in it. Because I didn’t believe in the Brexit campaign. Because I thought we did have a future in a united Europe. Because I thought it would benefit my children. Because I don’t trust a single soul in the Houses of Parliament anyway. Because I think EU membership did benefit this country, in terms of stability, diversity, economy, and in terms of society.  We are far poorer without the EU, I think, and in many ways I have lost faith in this country, and the people who live here: not because the referendum showed that people are worried and badly-informed, or too easily influenced by a nasty popular press, but because they thought that they could endorse prejudice and racism as the answer to their problems. This is not my country any  more, I just live here.

***

(Normal service will resume next post, but for the time being I just needed to work through something.)

Diversity

Let me start at the end of the lesson. Two students made statements about the whole class. “We are all human,” said one. “We are friends,” said a second. These statements were made honestly, openly and with much general approval by the rest of the class, and it made for a lovely end to the half term. 

It was diversity week at college, you see, and my colleague, with whom I share this class, suggested that rather than Valentines’ Day as I had originally thought (something vague around poems, I dunno), I might like to do something around diversity, following on from his own lesson where students taught each other something in their own languages. Now, I have to admit, the whole equality and diversity thing very often leaves me cold. It’s all so nice, and worthy and generally bloody righteous that a part of me wants to dislike it, just in principle. I can’t, of course, because a: I’m not allowed to, and b: it would be like kicking a kitten: easy to do and unnecessarily cruel. However, mostly, I can’t because c: E&D is important. No, really, it is. It’s so important, in fact, that it needs to stop being the preserve of managers in fear of OFSTED, and be something which we can embrace. I must admit, mind you, that I’m wary (and weary) of too much “let’s talk about Eid/Diwali/Hanukkah/Christmas” type celebration of diversity. I can find a lesson resource for an ESOL class on pretty much any given festival or tradition or whatever, no problem. It’s the work of half an hour to devise an activity to get students reading or listening to a text about suffragettes, equal pay, transgender issues and so on. I just don’t do it all the time: because it’s not what students are always interested in listening to/reading about all the time (someone out there will no doubt now be shouting “well, they bloody well should be!”)  and because righteousness and worthiness is often quite dull (cue a further barrage of criticism). 

Anyway, I wanted to do something to celebrate diversity, and it occurred to me that the biggest single source of diversity in the classroom is, of course, the students. In this case, it was a diverse group of students from Poland, The Gambia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Algeria, Pakistan and more, ages ranging from 25 to 60, from at least three different religious backgrounds, and a roughly even spread of genders and social backgrounds. So I cribbed an idea from what was probably a used in one of those dreadfully delivered corporate diversity training events and decided that this would be the main speaking focus of the lesson. The task, essentially, was to draw up a list of statements describing the things that you and a partner have in common and which things are different. 

I worked back from here. What language would they need to do this? They are an Entry 1 group, roughly elementary in level, so I figured that present simple in basic SVO sentences was a safe bet as something they should be vaguely familiar with. In terms of new(er) language, I opted for the use of both and neither as well as using but: e.g. We are both parents. Neither of us live in Leeds. A has two children but B has three children. I also that it would be good to have a base of vocabulary to build on, things like family, interests, daily routines, and so on. 
Ok, so how to go about this? First up the vocab: the students worked in four groups, each of which had a large sheet of flip chart paper. They had to brainstorm vocabulary to do with their topic: daily routine, family and friends, free time and interests, and places you go. I have to  admit the last was a bit iffy, but I was feeling a bit stuck for ideas at this point. After five minutes or so brainstorming I passed the paper round for the next group to add and error correct, and then repeated this as a carousel until the paper had made its way back to the originating group. This gave us a big stock of vocab to work with, if needed. 

Then the grammar: the students worked in pairs to compete a list of what they knew about me and the other teacher in the class. This was then put up on the board, and sorted into matching pairs: for example: S has 2 children. Z has three children. S works at College, Z works at College, and so on. Then we elicited the form: how can I put these together. A few students suggested “and” for the two positive sentences, so I reminded them of the focus of the lesson. In this case, I think  sharing the target language with the students at the beginning paid off: they quickly realised what they needed to do and managed to fit it in quickly with some accuracy. The perfect moment arrived when one student said “You are married” which provided both a chuckle for the group. This in itself was a stimulus for the student in question to reevaluate her language output and rephrase it herself as “You are both married.” The fact that neither I nor the other teacher live in the town where the class takes place provided the stimulus for “neither” and our differing numbers of children finished the set.Before long we were busy eliciting sentences for each of the similarities and differences: first in pairs written on mini whiteboards, then held up for the whole class to check together and compare before writing up on the board. 

All of this laid the ground for the speaking task which followed: A3 sheets of paper were folded in half and each half of the pair wrote their names at the top. Then the similarities and differences were discussed and written down, with some lovely moments. The whole group plenary at the end of the lesson was a chance to find out some universals, or at least some general commonalities and surprises, which led to the final statements “We are all human. We are all friends.” 

Thinking back then, to my previous post about specific outcomes, would they have made a difference? There was a definite aim to the lesson, a clear language focus (both, neither and but) and a skills focus (speaking). If I had expressed these as measurable outcomes in the form of “be able to form X number of sentences using both” and so on, I’m not convinced this would have made a difference. Assessment occurred at several times during the lesson: during the eliciting of the sentences, for example, and while students were working together to prepare their sentences, but having a set number of utterances/sentences wouldn’t have told me or the students much at all. The focus was enough without the trite measurability. 

What did we achieve in this lesson, then? We achieved a sense of cohesion and community in the class, language was developed. There was that buzz of people discovering that they could communicate with each other, learn from and about each other, and doing so. There was a satisfaction of being able to do a new thing (neither) and being confidently able to use language previously learned. There was the pleasure gained from learning, for all of us, that in the hyperdiverse social reality captured in the microcosm of an ESOL classroom, there are many things which make us all the same.