Sharing Lives, Sharing Languages: Peer Education for Language Acquisition

So I was tidying up my blog and found this post that I wrote shortly after I completed my secondment as Peer Education Project Manager at the Scottish Refugee Council way back in 2017. I guess I lined it up for posting then somehow forgot all about it. I’d like to share it with you now, as the project had a positive impact and I’m still stunned at all the amazing things we did in such a short space of time. Plus, social connections are so hard right now, it’s nice to reminisce on more sociable times.

Those of you that have read my previous posts will know how strongly I feel about getting students out and about and using their English.  Students that use their English outside the classroom at work or volunteering or socialising pick up the language more quickly than those that are socially isolated or don’t have such opportunities.  This was the inspiration for the Scottish Refugee Council‘s Sharing Lives Sharing Languages Peer Education project.

The project, was designed as a complement to ESOL provision for refugees resettling in Scotland under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme.  The pilot project was funded by the Scottish Government and the advisory board included COSLA, Education Scotland, University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret University.

Peer Education is an activity based method of learning in which two equals share information and knowledge with each other. Peer educators facilitate activities which support peers to share their ideas in a group setting.  It is based on the idea that peers respond better to advice from their equals than from their superiors.  In this case, Peer Educators were English speakers who knew the local area well and wanted to help New Scots to settle.

Our peer educators came from a range of backgrounds, for example – an RE teacher, an Arabic speaking nursery worker and a Kurdish asylum seeker.   Our peers were mostly Syrian VPR refugees who wanted to improve their language skills, meet local people and increase their social connections.  Peers and peer educators shared their lives and their languages with each other.

Firstly, four organisations were identified to participate in the pilot.  These were Aberdeenshire WEA, Dundee International Women’s Centre, Midlothian Council and Renfrew YMCA.  These were chosen as a range of rural and urban communities and a range of ESOL and Community Development backgrounds.  I delivered training to a peer education coordinator from each organisation who then recruited peer educators.  The Peer Education Coordinators then trained their Peer Educators in the aims of the project, peer education, supporting refugees, communicating with English language learners and facilitation skills.

The peer education sessions focused on what peers knew about the local area and how they wanted to participate in the local community.  Group activities facilitated discussions on peers’ hobbies and interests as well as sharing their local knowledge, sharing their cultures and sharing their languages.

At the end of the programme, peer educators and peers carried out a collective action.  These involved groups doing something to engage with the local community.  These had to involve everyone, be peer-led and establish social connections and opportunities for language acquisition.

In Aberdeenshire they chose to collaborate with a local women’s group to share Syrian and Scottish recipes.  Pre-COVID, this group were still meeting for day-trips, walks and coffee although the funding for the project ended in 2017.

Cooking Collective Action
Aberdeenshire Collective Action: Syrian and Scottish women sharing their delicious recipes.

Renfrew YMCA were the only organisation involved that were not ESOL trained.  Their focus was on youth and they started a community garden.  Peers and peer educators still went to the garden, which is now run by the local council, after funding stopped.

Wasteground
Renfrew Collective Action: working together to turn a piece of waste ground into a community garden.

Dundee International Women’s Centre had two groups; one mixed and one women-only. The Coordinator was an ESOL Tutor.  Their collective actions involved joining up with local walking groups and visiting a community garden.  One year on, some peers were still attending courses run at the centre.

The Midlothian Council project was coordinated by one ESOL tutor.  The focus here was on mothers and children. Sessions took place at a local school with peer education sessions in one room while the children played in another.  Their collective action was a trip to the beach.

As this was a pilot project, evaluation was integrated throughout.  Lavinia Hirsu of Glasgow University was the external evaluator and she developed a range of imaginative data collection and evaluation tools that could be used as peer education activities.  The diagram below is an example of one such activity.  Peers noted their social connections at the beginning and end of the project by placing those closest to them at the centre and acquaintances towards the outer ring.

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mapping social connections

The outcomes for the project were positive, with all involved increasing their social connections, local knowledge, cultural knowledge and language confidence.

Now times have changed. I can’t teach my students face to face, let alone signpost them to volunteering or local social opportunities. Since March, one of my real concerns is that social isolation amongst already marginalised groups is even worse than ever. I miss the people in my life and I can only imagine how it feels to live in an unfamiliar country with a limited number of social connections.

I’ve started to do what I can with my students; opening the zoom room early and leaving it open after class to allow them to chat to each other, encouraging discussions in our Whatsapp group and giving them ideas for local daytrips that might be marginally more exciting than their local park.

How you are supporting your learners to use their language outside the classroom or to increase their social connections in these strange times?

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