LGBT+ issues and ESOL

6 Feb


At EFA we hold a monthly learning circle to explore a specific theme, allowing us to share knowledge and ideas, and think of creative ways to explore a variety of themes in our day-to-day practice.

A recent theme we looked at was LGBT+ issues and ESOL. In the run up to the session, we read a chapter from the recently published book Brokering Britain, Educating Citizens: Exploring ESOL and Citizenship (edited by Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell). The chapter was entitled ‘Queering ESOL: sexual citizenship in ESOL classrooms which provided us with an overview of work that has been done in this area, including the Queering ESOL seminar series that ran from 2013-2015 which allowed for an exploration of the cultural politics of LGBTQI+ issues in the ESOL classroom (resources created as part of this series can be accessed here).

Dr Melanie Cooke (who co-wrote that chapter) then led the learning circle, encouraging us to reflect on our own experiences of LGBT+ issues in relation to ESOL. Some of the reflections included:

  • concern that conversation is often heteronormative and, therefore, silencing of other sexualities
  • students sometimes take the lead on challenging classmates’ homophobia
  • the culture created in the classroom through a variety of means including class ‘agreements’ that emphasise respect is important
  • contradictions in cases of generalised homophobia yet acceptance of LGBT+ individuals the students in question know personally
  • ESOL students include people from the LGBT+ community; teachers reflected on the (known) identities of students in their classes (this included students seeking asylum based on sexuality) and their experiences

As can be observed, the ESOL classroom can be a reflection of the homophobia and transphobia that exist in society as a whole, as well as the resistance that appears alongside them.

In conjunction with the activity above, we also thought of any challenges, fears and uncertainties that came to mind. Some of these included:

  • some confusion around using LGBT+ inclusive language has previously occurred in class
  • challenging homophobic comments can be taxing on the teacher (including if the teacher identifies as LGBT+ themself)
  • difficult power dynamics when teachers keep their identities (that they would be happy to share otherwise) private
  • concern about Islamophobic assumptions made about Muslim students in particular
  • difficulties experienced when conservative religious views (from a variety of religious contexts) appear in the classroom and how that can be countered
  • how much can a teacher share their opinion while trying to maintain a highly participatory space?
  • how do we ensure a safer space in the classroom?
  • concern that teachers lack sufficient knowledge and language to explore LGBT+ issues

Following these discussions, we thought of actions we can take to make our classes more LGBT+ inclusive and supportive of LGBT+ rights:

  • embedding LGBT+ examples into materials/stories
  • case studies – positive/everyday representations of LGBT+ people
  • lesson about stereotypes
  • using a topical news story about LGBT+ issues
  • take a cultural reference, eg: LGBT+ characters from TV shows
  • have a lesson to set ground rules which cover respect
  • return to class ground rules if needed
  • contact other groups with experience/ideas
  • deliberately use sexuality as an example of discrimination in class
  • avoid unconsciously censoring LGBT+ issues
  • make the stance of the organisation clear
  • explore the word discrimination or equality in depth
  • safe space: created when people see the teacher standing up for rights of LGBT+ people
  • signpost to other organisations
  • seeing what opinions people have, rather than avoiding LGBT+ issues
  • looking at LGBT+ and gendered language in class

Green Month 2020

29 Jan

English for Action and Tower Hamlets Idea Stores are holding a Green Month between 3rd February and 13th of March. Starts next week!

The aim of this is to enhance learners’ knowledge of recycling, climate change and pollution and bring ESOL students’ voices into conversations about the climate crisis and allow them to be involved in the effort to mitigate it.

Here is a folder full of teaching resources we’ve made. We have a hashtag #GreenWeek2020 and it would be great if you could use it to post any classwork you do on the topic on social media. You could also encourage your learners to post themselves. The more we post, the more our learner’s voices will be heard!

For London folks: In the last week (9th-13th March) there will be workshops, talks and actions. These will be taking place across Tower Hamlets Idea Stores and some of them will be open to other ESOL students. We’ll share a programme once it’s been finalised. Watch this space!

General Election 2019

14 Nov

At EFA we’ve been looking at the general election in many of our classes. We’ve been thinking about how best to explore the topic in class and create space for vital conversations to take place. We’re also interested in looking at the issues we care about and want to see take centre-stage during the election campaign. Many of these are issues we explore on a regular basis, such as ESOL provision, the NHS, housing, workers’ rights. In many ways starting the topic was a natural follow on in some classes as a result of this.

EFA students and teachers are also currently organising voter registration events as part of Promote the Migrant Vote to make sure everyone who is able to vote can. We’re holding events at several of our host venues and inviting ESOL students and people from migrant and BAME backgrounds to drop by to register to vote. EFA students are taking the lead on starting conversations about the importance of voting in their local areas, as is the case with two of our classes in Shadwell. In a conversation about this, one student said: ‘every vote makes a difference’. We noticed through these conversations that many students didn’t know they could vote; this was particularly the case for Commonwealth citizens.

We encourage other ESOL teachers to create space in their classes for conversations around the general election. For the 2017, we were part of a team at Action for ESOL who put together resources and lesson plans that teachers could use. These have now been updated for the 2019 election and can be accessed here.

The EFA team has also put together additional resources to supplement this:

General political education/information about the electoral system – includes speaking, reading, and vocabulary matching activity

Role play to encourage others to register to vote

Listening text with worksheet – how to vote, questions

Promote the Migrant Vote social media campaign template – language used to talk about the importance of voting

There are paper forms that can be used to register to vote. The easy-read version makes for good ESOL class material for E1 learners:

Feel free to comment with more suggestions!

Shout of Silence: ESOL Students Organise an Employment Rights Workshop and Photography Exhibition

17 Apr

ESOL students in Southwark have been discussing the topic of work for several weeks. During these conversations it emerged that this is a charged topic with many students having experienced difficulties in the workplace.

Analysing these work-related issues identified by students through participatory tools, such as word flowers, problem trees and theatre games, led the classes to take two actions: the first has been to organise an employment workshop to equip students with a better understanding of their rights. The second has been to share students’ experiences at work with a wider audience that may be unaware of the precarious working conditions in certain industries, such as cleaning.

For the first action, students drafted questions about employment law, and in partnership with Advising Communities we organised a day of activities through which these questions about rights, health and safety, discrimination, contracts and wages were addressed. We were also joined on the day by representatives from IWGB trade union who spoke about the importance of organising in the workplace.



Photo credits: Rocío Lira

With regard to the second action, students agreed that photography would be an effective vehicle for expressing the reality of their working conditions. Over the course of several lessons we analysed a range of photographs and their messages. The students then proceeded to take pictures of their own. These pictures capture the isolation, low wages, the mundane equipment that passes unnoticed, the early morning bus rides and the occupational hazards that are a part of everyday life for many of our students.

The photography:

The stories ranged from being underpaid to long commutes to work, from being overworked to unreasonable shift patterns.



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This project was developed by English for Action students and teachers in ESOL classes in Southwark. It’s an exploration of how photography can be used to talk about the topic of work as part of a participatory approach to language-learning. This has given the students a new medium to talk about their experiences and express them visually. The photography series highlights stories that are often invisible.




Hosted by Electric Elephant Cafe in Elephant and Castle, students presented their photographs at a launch during which they welcomed the public and shared testimonies.

The exhibition will be there until early May so drop by and have a look.

Citizens UK Election Assemblies

2 May

“This is not a hustings”, explained Sarfraz Jeraj Lambeth Citizens leaders from the stage of a vast King’s College lecture theatre, “this is an assembly”.

Last week English for action participated in two Citizens UK council elections on the same night with 32 of our students, teachers, volunteers and trustees split between the two events in Southwark and Lambeth.

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So what’s an assembly and how are they different to hustings? According to to Sarfraz, this event was an assembly because the candidates have been invited by the people to answer questions on their (our!) terms. In a hustings, the candidates have pre-prepared speeches and canvass for votes. Last week the candidates were asked to respond to specific demands that had emerged from months of listening and planning. They were given strict time-limits that were enforced diligently and when they failed to respond to the demand they were expertly pinned by one of the community leaders affected by the issue in question.

Both assemblies were full of theatre and emotion. People gave personal testimonies of their experience of injustice, from a young teacher desperate to rent a place of his own to a parent opposing the scourge of educational inequality that leaves working class children far less likely to achieve their goals than a kid with rich parents. The candidates were visibly moved by these testimonies and agreed to more than we expected.

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English for Action contributed three of these testiomonies and we are really proud of Adela, Jandira and Adriana for bringing ESOL to life in front of hundreds of people and the next Council leaders.

Adela, who has been an EFA teacher/organiser:

“Hi, my name is Adela – I am an ESOL teacher for English for Action and we are a member of Southwark Citizens. My journey to where I am now was not easy. When I came to England 8 years ago I didn’t speak much English and not being able to pay for English classes prevented me for almost a year from attending any classes. I started working as a cleaner and found myself in a situation where I was treated in ways that I had never imagined – people were purposefully making their houses dirty to see whether I would clean them – I had never experienced such mistrust from people. These experiences had a profound effect on the way I perceive myself and have affected me til now – I felt like a lesser human. I wasn’t able to re-act to what was happening to me because I didn’t have the language. I wasn’t able to stand up for myself and express my feelings. Later on when I started working in a pub the mistreatment continued the customers and the staff would tell me to go back to Eastern Europe– this experience was absolutely shocking for me I always perceived myself as European and I didn’t understand this divide between countries and again I was not able to say anything back to them because of the lack of language. You’re experiencing something unfair and wrong but you can’t say anything – it is like being a prisoner.

This is an experience that stays with me now – I am not as confident as I would have been had this not happened. This is just one story – there are millions of people going through similar experiences of feeling disempowered, not valued and not able to contribute in the way they would like to.”

And Adriana, our student-turned-volunteer:

“It’s so hard to do things here if you don’t know the language. You feel like lost you need help all the time to do simple things. So with ESOL I can feel confident to do things. I know I make mistakes but I can see my English growing. It’s so hard but with the support I can feel better to do what I want. It is helping me to find a job and feel a part of the society.”

And Jandira, who attends our classes at Sacred Heart and Henry Cavendish Primary schools.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Jandira and I’m from Angola and I am a student from EFA. When I came to England my English was bad, like really bad even though I took English classes back home. ESOL has given me the confidence to speak openly without fear. Before I would listen and not say a word and people find it rude they took it the wrong way. ESOL is important to me because I need and because for a greater education we need a base and for people of other language ESOL is the base like the foundation of a building. Our English classes is not just about learning English it’s about learning how to respect one another to learn different cultures and the most important to build good relationships, to share our opinions and respect each one of them. Nelson Mandela once said: education is a powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. We don’t want to change the world at least not now. We want you to change our world by supporting ESOL. Before I finish I would like to share with you one of my favourite quote by Albert Pike. ‘What we do for ourselves dies with us, What we do for others and for the world remains and is immortal’.”

So what did the candidates agree to? Here are the main agreements:


1 – First four Syrian refugee families to be rehoused in the borough by the end of the year and 20 by 2020

2- Sign the Peckham Citizens Charter for the Aylesham Centre so that it benefits local people and does not change the character of the town centre

3 – Work with Citizens to challenge the Home Office fees of £1012 for citizenship for children

4- Employ an ESOL officer to promote and coordinate ESOL provision/services.

5- Task this new officer to work with us to create an ESOL strategy for the borough.


1 – A further 28 refugee families to be resettled in the borough

2 – Create and resource an ESOL strategy for the borough

3 – Work with Citizens to challenge the Home Office fees of £1012 for citizenship for children

4 – Help build Lambeth’s first community land trust (27 homes) in Streatham

5 – Work with us to create a Lambeth Social Mobility and Access to University Strategy within 6 months of the election

Tomorrow (May 3rd) is the day of the elections and we will find out who will control Lambeth and Southwark Councils. Then the hard work really begins as we work to turn the agreements we have secured into action.


ESOL at City Hall

26 Sep

Over 100 ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students and teachers participated in an outdoor teach-out to celebrate the European Day of Languages today. The teach out took place at City Hall because we want to work with the Mayor of London and his team to make ESOL central to his plans for adult education and integration in the capital.


Students from English For Action classes across London were joined by allies from Hackney Learning Trust, City Lit, Lewisham College, CARAS, Haringey Citizens, Southwark Citizens, Share Action and Action for ESOL. There were people from all corners of the world (as well as London) and at least 15 languages spoken among us.

The teach-out was planned by EFA students Jenny and Jandira, Jenny’s daughter Alejandra and their teachers, Jess, Dermot, Anne and Amira. Jandira, originally from Angola, told the gathering about the vital importance of supporting people to learn English: “ESOL is the base, like the foundations of a building”. Next year she hopes to go to university – something that would not have been possible without ESOL.


The students all wrote personal messages to the Mayor which they assembled into a banner that said #LoveESOL.

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At the same time Jenny collected signatures from everyone at the event underneath a message asking Mayor Sadiq Khan to work with us to promote ESOL in London.


Some of the students organised an impromptu march to the entrance of City Hall.


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Jenny, Alejandra and Jandira went inside to deliver our message to the Mayor, who couldn’t be there to collect it personally. Next time………


Jenny, originally from Bolivia explained why so many people had come out to City Hall today:

“The ability to speak English is fundamental to participating to life in the UK and many of us need free ESOL classes because we don’t have the means to fund private lessons, so ESOL is the route to living a full dignified life here, allowing us to contribute to life in this city.”

We need to Talk about Grenfell

16 Jun

ESOL is a community, like may others across the country, deeply affected by the Grenfell fire. Many of our students and teachers at English for Action are terrified and heartbroken in equal measure. Nasrine Malik of the Guardian writes that the victims were overwhelmingly migrants, from all parts of the world. Many of them were ESOL students. Our own students in Tower blocks in Tower Hamlets reported being able to see Grenfell burning in the distance. Others couldn’t help but picture themselves and their families when they saw the footage and heard the horrific accounts in the news. One of our students used to live in Grenfell and spent Wednesday scouring the streets for her friend, who still lives there.

How can ESOL teachers support our students and support each other at this time? And how can we channel some of the anger and thirst for change so that some justice can be done?

How can teachers support one another?

At EFA we have a staff Whatsapp Group, which has proved a really effective way to support one another, share experiences and lesson ideas. Sometimes we simply report little things that have happened in our classes, things that have been emotionally difficult or uplifting too of course, and sometimes we ask for help and ideas. It is more accessible than an email group or Facebook group and there are fewer barriers to participation.

Many of our teachers also belong to the ESOL campaign group Action for ESOL, which is another place teachers can share ideas and ask for support. ESOL teachers around the country will be dealing with students’ shock and grief and dealing with their own. We can ask each other for help and what has been effective in classes.


How can you deal with these feelings in class?

ESOL classes are really important spaces where people can talk to others about shared concerns and support each other. They are communities in their own right. It is very natural that people will want to talk about what is on their mind. This week that is likely to be Grenfell.

One way to approach it is to ask the class if they saw the horrible news this week/last week. The teacher can then gauge whether people would like to talk or not. It could be a good idea to put people into small groups so they are less exposed. The instruction could be “share some of your feelings in your group. Ask your classmates, “how are you?”.

Then you could board some of these feelings (angry, sad, overwhelmed, devastated, scared, tearful) and tell the group how your feel. Perhaps say you have lots of questions.

Students will probably have lots of questions too and could be good to put students into pairs to write down questions on sticky notes (if they have not developed the literacy skills to do this, they can create them orally and you can scribe them, walking around from pair to pair).

Questions could include:

“why did it happen?”

“who lived there?”

“how many people died?”

“how can we help?”

“what is the council doing?”

“who is responsible?”

When the students have created a lot of questions, you can cluster them as a whole class.  Clusters might have two, three, four or more questions. You can add a title, like “Causes”, “Responses”, “The Future” etc.

The question ‘who is responsible’? is a really important one. You could ask students who the key players are in the Grenfell fire. Students could use their smart phones to get information. Some ideas:

– Kensington Council
– Teresa May/David Cameron
– Housing Minister (Gavin Barwell)
– Minister for Local Government and communities (Eric Pickles and now Savid Sajid Javid)
– Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (managing the block for the council)
– Rydon (contractor who did the £10m refurb)
– Boris Johnson and now Sadiq Khan
Students could write a sentence or two about who each person or body is and why they are responsible. They could rank who they believe to me more responsible.
Here is an article in the Guardian about the complex web of companies involved.


It’s really important people know who is responsible for safety of their own houses. ESOL students are overwhelmingly renters and it can be really unclear who is responsible for their housing. Some people don’t know who their landlord is and the system of sub-contraction and housing associations managing council owned-properties is obfuscating (some would argue, deliberately so). Students, could check with their classmates, search on the internet or after class, check with their neighbours and housemates if they are not sure. We checked the website of Tower Hamlets Homes who manage the housing blocks of some of our students in Bow. There is already a statement about Grenfell up on their site:

There is a contact us page and next week students will prepare some questions they have for Tower Hamlets Homes and send them in during the lesson.

Possible questions:

When was the last risk assessment?

Can we have a fire safety check?

What company supplied the fire doors?


How can students take action to improve housing?

EFA have been involved in housing activism for years now. It is consistently one of the biggest priorities for our students (and teachers). In 2015 we organised a housing and ESOL day to explore how housing activists and ESOL teachers and students could work together for housing justice. We have worked really closely with Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and had some big successes winning improved conditions for many of our students thanks to their support and relentless energy.

Here are some of the ideas our students, teachers and activist friends have had that we can do  to improve housing conditions:

  • Learn about our rights
  • Organise meetings with housemates and neighbours to share concerns and make plans
  • build local housing action groups
  • Stop evictions
  • visit the housing department of the council
  • accompany people to meetings with landlords and councils
  • demonstrate  inside the council
  • occupy buildings
  • Call the council/housing association/landlord to follow up emails
  • Tweet the councils/housing association to publicly shame them into fulfilling their promises or take action

You can ask your class “what action can we take to make our housing safe?” Or, “what action can we take to improve housing conditions”? It’s nice to focus on things we can do and not only things that other people can do, like government or landlords. Not to say that we need to make our own improvements but that action planning can focus on what can we do to force those responsible to act? Ask students to discuss who will do the action, why and when.

One idea that works well is to cut out symbols of action on paper or card and distribute several to students in small groups. One one side they write the action and on the other side why? who? when?

eg. Hold a community meeting to collect questions we have for our housing association

why? We need to get organised

who? Roberta and Aisha with help from neighbours

When? Before the end of June

Please share your ideas and resources with us at English for Action. Please share groups and actions that you are involved in. If Grenfell teaches us anything it is that we cannot trust the government, local authorities and private companies to look after us. We need to organise, learn and take action together to keep ourselves safe and to bring housing justice for all.




In Solidarity with Manchester

23 May
Discussing traumatic events such as terrorist attacks is always very difficult. As it’s the day after the tragic events in Manchester, EFA teachers went to class prepared for this and this is one example of how it was addressed in the classroom. This example is from one of our Entry 2/3 classes in Battersea:

As part of our class routine, we spend the first 10-15 minutes checking in with each other, which is also an opportunity for us to practise narrative tenses. I made sure that, as the teacher, I did not bring up the news from Manchester and allowed it to come up naturally in discussion, which it did. As soon as one participant started talking about it, others joined in using language to describe how the events have made them feel. Some participants hadn’t heard the news, so those who had were encouraged to fill us all in. We did this in a structured manner, trying to include contributions from as many participants as possible, while writing key words on the board such as ‘bomb’, ‘pop singer’ and ‘injuries’ (which were recycled later). Following this, I asked if participants had heard about how the community responded to the attacks, ‘people opening their doors to those affected’ and ’emergency services helping’ were some of the responses.
It was evident that we wanted to elaborate further and we agreed to do this while acknowledging the difficulties and sensitivity of the topic. We also believed that it’s important that, as members of the community, we find ways to talk about this. We used the Problem Tree tool to do this. We agreed to name the problem ‘terrorism’. The tree, drawn on flipchart paper, was divided as follows to help us dissect the problem:
The branches of the tree: effects of terrorism (how this makes us feel, how we respond as a community, what the material effects are)
The roots: the root causes of the problem
The fruit: action and how we can tackle the problem
We then placed sticky notes on the different parts as we discussed the issues.
Most of the discussion revolved around emotions: ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘worried’ were examples. This also included concern for children where one participant talked about the ’emotional effect on children’. There was also acknowledgment of the hard work of emergency services. Some participants shared very personal experiences from living in different countries where they’ve experienced terrorism first-hand.
Emergent vocabulary included ‘unity’, ‘precautions’ and ‘witnesses’.
This was the most difficult part of the discussion, however, we decided to try our best to discuss as many possible causes as possible. These ranged from ‘we don’t know’ to ‘unemployment’, from ‘wars’ to ‘radicalisation’. It was also an opportunity to discuss the likely backlash against certain communities.
The discussion revolved around the roles of parenting, educators, security, and availability of community services for young people. Many of us felt that the lack of spaces for young people to socialise and engage in activities in the local community needs to be addressed, so does unemployment. Improving narratives in the media, tackling violence in cartoons and spending more time with people and less time on technology were also suggestions. Crucially, as a classroom predominantly made up of mothers of young children, the focus was on the role parents can play to tackle the problem and a lot of speaking resulted from this.
We concluded on a note of solidarity with those affected by the attacks, where we collectively decided to postpone our class picnic that we were due to have as a show of solidarity.
Amira Elwakil

#1DayWithoutUs by Adela Belecova

20 Feb

Today, my colleagues students from English for Action and I are taking part in ‘1 Day Without Us’. This is a nationwide day of action and celebration, aimed at drawing attention to the contribution that migrants make to Britain. We see it as a celebration of the array and diversity of cultures that exist on this planet.


“I am participating in #1DayWithoutUs because I don’t think it’s good to prioritise one group of people over another”

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Protected: 1 day without us

13 Feb

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