Libby has been volunteering as a teacher for Action Language since 2008 and increasingly specialises in Beginners’ classes, which she loves. Action Language provides free English courses in Newcastle and Sunderland city centre to refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants who would otherwise be unable to access mainstream classes in a supportive environment.

Libby has written this wonderful blog post for us to conjure up a picture of her classes so other people can get a sense of the atmosphere and how it works.

NB: This blog post was written before the Covid pandemic since when many classes are delivered over Zoom or in smaller groups.

Welcome! Come into our classroom on a winter morning – it’s warm in here, the urn is on for tea and coffee, the date and lesson topic are up on the screen.

It’s 9 o’clock and we’re nearly ready for business – the class starts at 9:30 and it’s for Beginners so we have lots of assistant teachers to relay the lesson topic to individuals. I’m the teacher so I’m here first, but they’re already arriving, windswept and red-nosed, peeling off coats – at least teachers have money for bus fares and weatherproof clothing.

Alien squiggles

Maria is the first student in, a tiny granny from Central America – we taught her children last year. Hugs all round. This is the huggiest job I’ve ever done! If someone hugs me in the street I assume it’s a student under the wrappings and hug back. So far it hasn’t been a pickpocket or serial killer!

Next Habtom from Eritrea, who speaks Tigrinya and a little French – “Bonjour! Il fait froid!”, then a noisy, solid group of Sudanese men, still full of joy at being here, thrilled at the opportunity to get the education they couldn’t get at home.

We are wiser, we’ve seen it before – after a few weeks they’ll realise that you don’t just sit there and absorb knowledge like a plant taking in water, you have to make an effort to remember, especially the alien squiggles linked to sounds that we call the alphabet. Now, however, it’s all good.

Breakfasting on biscuits

“Coffee now, my teacher?” “Sure, have coffee now. It’s cold out there.” Having no money, they have all walked, one hour they say. Not just coffee. There’s a big red biscuit tin, blessedly full of chocolate digestives! What better breakfast than a stack of five biscuits and a strong sweet coffee (or what worse breakfast from the dental point of view!).

They would be less keen if it was a custard creams day – we’ve noticed those crumbling gently down the levels of the tin until one resourceful teacher recycles the crumbs as fridge cookies!
The Kurdish students drift in next, similarly in need of hot drinks. Respectfully the younger men follow a known soldier with an admired reputation – “He military” – now struggling harder than most with the English squiggles.

More sophisticated Iranians, wearing crosses to show they’ve converted to Christianity; more Eritreans, an energetic lone Syrian – “I gonna learn very quick English!” – and students from Libya and Chad who greet the Sudanese in Arabic.

J is for Jobs

It says “Jobs” on the screen and “January” is in the date. By now the assistant teachers are each seated with their clusters of students and we explain that our letter and sound today is “J”. What do we know beginning with J? Jug of milk. Good. Job. Good. Jan…. jan…. janny … January. Good. Giraffe. Not exactly.
Bring up labelled picture on screen of popular and easily identifiable animal, and admit to the treachery of English spelling!

Copy the words, trace the letter shapes. Not easy. Imagine you’re doing the equivalent in Arabic or Tigrinya! It wouldn’t look very elegant..

Then the teachers talk about jobs they’ve had, with mimes and pictures – nurses, cleaners, waitresses, housewives. What about you students? Turns out we have soldiers, farmers, drivers, mothers, a shepherd, a teacher, a barber, a shop worker.

How do we find out? Among the languages there is often common or similar vocabulary, and people with translation facilities on their phones help their neighbours. Also, there is energetic miming to indicate driving and haircutting, and enough bleating and baa-ing and meheh-ing to conjure up a flock of sheep!
So we can say and write the answer to “What’s your job?”

Problem solving

Break approaches and a late student appears: “Good morning my teacher!” “Oh, good afternoon, Reza!” “I think morning, my teacher.” “Well, you’re a bit late. Like one hour…” “No is afternoon, my teacher is joking!” “Yes, good word everybody – Joking!” We add it to our pages.

Break is great for chatting in all the languages of Babel, for demolishing the remaining biscuits and someone’s home made rock buns, and bringing up problems for teachers to solve – or pass to the Drop-In staff whose help and recreation session follows:

“Got letter, can you read me?”
“Got appointment hospital. Where is?”
“My house no water.”

And for the arrival of completely new students, who have taken hours to find us.

“Hello, what’s your name?”
“She name Fatima. Wife.”
“Hello, Fatima. Come in. What country?”
“ China? America? Sudan?”
“She country Libya.”
“Okay, come sit with Huda, she knows Arabic. Coffee? Cold hands! Welcome to our class!”

Join Action Language as a volunteer!

Would you like to volunteer for Action Language? It’s a fantastic way to get classroom experience as a Teaching Assistant, or for ex-teachers to keep their hand in.

Email [email protected] to find out more…