It has long been our aim to run a summer school to counter the effects of the long summer break. Anyone who has ever been in language teaching over the academic year will notice the slide when students come back having spoken their own language for the best part of 3 months. If you are living alone, reliant on your own culture for friendship and support, it’s even harder...
And one of the well-documented impacts of the COVID lockdown was lack of energy felt by so many people, whatever their background. To motivate yourself to study or work in the face of such uncertainty became increasingly difficult for many of us.
Which is why we felt the best way to re-engage our young people with their language journey, to consolidate their learning already achieved or, for those who arrived just before lockdown and had yet to start any kind of formal study, to jumpstart their English so they might hit the ground running in September, was to bring them back into the classroom.
The issue was we didn’t have a classroom. And the social distance guidelines of mixed household groups indoors would absolutely not facilitate us finding one.
Thank goodness then, for the Human Hive. Not only did they have a classroom to lend us (an inflatable dome which has travelled Europe providing classes for displaced people in France, Italy, the Balkans and Greece) but they also have Hive Learning, an adaptive education approach tailored for emergencies which focuses on learning through activity. We have worked with Darren on other projects and one conversation was enough to underline the fact that it was not only possible to activate our Summer Hive School idea but also important.
Teaching people in displacement requires particular thought. Unlike the language classrooms of universities, the students do not necessarily come with a background of formal education. An understanding of required behaviours and skills of studying, usually learned through time spent in school, are not always present. First language literacy cannot be assumed. Different life experiences will affect what sort of language has been learned, and how the person themselves feels about it. Native tongues can be remarkably unfamiliar even to those with a grasp of different modern languages, and cultural familiarity is often a long way off. And you must always be conscious of what else is present; life histories, personal struggles, uncertain living situations can all impact on anyone’s ability to focus and learn.
To us though, this is the best sort of language classroom in the world; the unpredictability of difference can be a joy; and results and achievements can leave you happily surprised. The problem we see time and time in again in formal education environments is not that they expect too much of these young people, but that they expect too little.
We did wonder about how it would work in what, effectively, was a tent in the middle of a field. But going with the Human Hive approach of activity based learning, we soon found the actual building of the classroom every morning brought about its own wealth of communication, teamwork and leadership skills - the pumping of inner tubes, hammering of pegs (we never once remembered the mallet and had to improvise every time, with surprising ideas, including a passing old man’s walking stick, and a builder’s boot).
With only ten days to use (and this was of course tailored to cost effectiveness), we devised a programme that would cover the main grammatical points for the general levels assigned by the colleges, but would be based around cultural literacy - relevant information for life in the UK, progression into education or employment, and space for questions and debate. In the afternoons, we planned different activities to take communication away from the camp chairs and clipboards, and sometimes with external activity providers too.
At times, it felt chaotic. Some days the heat was so intense, everyone was too tired to do more than clasp their water bottles. Other days, we had gales which blew away our cardboard whiteboards and threatened to take the classroom too. Then there was rain, which came in at a wicked angle to soak everyone no matter where they sat, and a thunderstorm, which startled everyone with the bangs and triggered memories of past experience.
But the joy of language learning is that there is never an opportunity not to learn. Claps of thunder led to discussions about different words for sounds. The heat brought about a list of words to do with exhaustion, and the importance of knowing the difference between knackered and naked. Running for cover into the multi-storey provided excellent light opportunities for our visiting photographers Charlie and Austin, and gave us the chance to follow on from our morning readings on identity.
People in the park took an interest too. Some watched from a distance; others came to say hello. A couple of passing police officers stopped for a chat, and amazed the group with their amiability, creating space for a more positive conversation about policing in the UK, which is always useful. Catch 22 led an art session on self-introductions, and a garage band session on beats.
We have now packed up the classroom for the final time, and though we did at times miss the convenience of the web-connected whiteboard, and chairs which didn’t suddenly split in two, we found that there is actually much that can be learned even if you only have a field to learn in.
We are so grateful to everyone who donated to our crowdfunding campaign which enabled our Summer Hive School to happen. To Darren and Kate at the Human Hive for the classroom and all the encouragement. To the Virtual School, key workers and social workers for supporting young people to come, and to Elmbridge CAN for stepping in and ensuring the transport for one young person to be able to attend. To Catch 22, Charlie and Austin for running activities for us. And to our co-teacher Aga who joined forces with us once more to teach with her unfailing attention to detail, gentle persuasiveness and unflappability in the face of all surprises. It was a joy to be back in the classroom with you.
However, as ever, the real kudos goes to the participants themselves, who turned up every day and nearly always on time; who laughed when they had to chase lesson sheets across the park; who completed their homework and didn’t complain too much about the final test; who set up and set down, fetched and carried every day without fail, and who maintained a collective attitude of such upbeat positivity, even when grappling with the third conditional.
Thank you, everyone.