These resources have been developed as part of On the Record’s project A Hackney Autobiography: Remembering Centerprise - a two-year project to record and remember the history of Centerprise, a community space open in Hackney from 1971-2012. Over the years, the building variously housed a bookshop, a publishing project, a youth club, an advice centre, a café and a reading centre, and much else besides.
The Hackney Reading Centre, a place where adults came for literacy classes, ran from the mid-1970s to the 1990s in a small room at the very top of the building. The Reading Centre did more than teach reading – alongside Centerprise’s publishing project, it set out to equip and encourage adult learners to be writers too. The resources are based on a selection of texts that were published by Centerprise in the 1970s and 1980s. Three out of four of the texts selected were written by Hackney Reading Centre students.
Centerprise published many fantastic books, and it was really hard to select a necessarily small number of texts to focus the resources on. The four I chose I did so because they drew me in, that though they were written thirty or forty years ago have continued relevance for learners living in Hackney and beyond today, and because they cover themes that I hope diverse groups of students can engage with. Many more Centerprise texts have been digitised by On the Record as part of this project, with huge scope for use with adult learners.
The texts can be used with learners working at different levels, though some are more complex than others. ESOL curriculum references have been included in order to highlight possible language and skills that could be developed with each text. A secondary purpose of this, reflecting the institutional requirements many teachers work within today, is to make it easier for those who may wish to include some of the sessions in their schemes of work.
Some of the ideas for the resources have developed out of work with adult learners studying in the same area today, on the two Local History for ESOL Learners classes I teach in Hackney. I am really grateful to the learners for their many thoughts and ideas which are reflected in the resources. The resources have been made in Word so that they can be edited to reflect the needs of your particular learners. It is also hoped that any thoughts and ideas you have on the resources can be shared, reflecting in some way the idea of a community of practice which underpinned the work of the Hackney Reading Centre.
Whilst the resources use the texts as starting points, they also aim to reflect the pedagogy and approach of the Hackney Reading Centre more broadly. Brief notes on some of the main aspects follow.
Building a class community
Whilst initially the Hackney Reading Centre taught people on a one-to-one basis, this shifted more towards groups by the early 1980s. This was described by teacher Jean Milloy as being “a political decision, that people learned better in groups than one-to-one”.
The resources are geared towards work in groups, with opportunities for learners to sharing knowledge, ideas and experiences. With some, trust may need to be established before you use them, and you may not want to use these lessons straight away, with a new group. It is hoped that this sharing might contribute to developing and strengthening relationships within the classroom.
Reflecting on the publication of Every Birth It Comes Different, Liesbeth de Block, former Reading Centre worker described the critical discussion that went on within the group of learners involved: ‘It just meant lots and lots of talking in the groups, and reading each other’s work, and thinking about different customs. And also it linked into debates around men’s control of childbirth, having to go into hospital to give birth…”. Reading it thirty years later, the book continues to provide rich material for thinking about issues such as the often very gendered customs practiced when a new baby is born and men’s involvement in childbirth. It is hoped that all the texts chosen will stimulate critical discussion amongst learners about their own lived experiences as well as those of the writers.
I Got it Right also enables learners to reflect on their own language and literacy use, why it is easy or difficult to use English in certain places, and why they have chosen to come to learn English.
Encouraging writing and reading about personal experiences
In the early days of the Reading Centre, there was little by way of resources. Sue Gardener, who worked there from 1975, recalls telling new learners “We write for each other”. What one group of learners wrote was put up on a notice board, to be read and reflected on by other groups, who then used what they had read and discussed to inspire their own writing.
Some of this writing, including three of the texts that feature in the resources, eventually went on to be published by Centerprise. Published texts were often line broken, that is broken down into units of meaning to make them easier to read. Another opportunity to share came from reading evenings, where learners would choose work to read aloud to their peers and teachers.
Learners were thus seen as writers, not just as learners. Even when a work is not being published, giving learners the opportunity to have the content of their work responded to is a really important way of helping them develop as writers. Isaac Gordon, whose work is featured in the resources, wrote about how feedback from readers of his published book made him feel “more intelligent in myself because…plenty of people spoke to me about my book.”
For those new to reading and writing, texts were written using the language experience approach, which uses the learner’s own words, recorded by the teacher, as the reading material. Using their own words makes it easier for the learner to read the text back, as it may meaning for them, and the text can be used as the basis for further literacy work. The same approach can be used with the newer readers and writers in your group with some of the suggested activities in the resources.
Developing awareness of different varieties of English
The majority of learners at the Hackney Reading Centre were from the Caribbean. This raised questions about language use, as many students spoke a Caribbean variety of English. As Reading Centre worker Irene Schwab reflects: ‘We were trying to talk to them about varieties of English not being bad, or broken, but just different…”. Some learners, however, wanted their work to be in standard English, and the issue was a source of debate and even tension.
Isaac Gordon’s work provides a way in for developing awareness of different varieties of English – important for ESOL learners living in a super-diverse city like London. Though the make up of ESOL classes differs from literacy classes, the issue of varieties of English is important, with different varieties of English – including new and emerging varieties - being spoken in learners’ communities and homes. Helping students make decisions about language use is crucial.
Meeting people’s language and literacy needs
Whilst publishing was an important part of what the Reading Centre did, the development of ‘functional’ literacy skills like filling in forms, reading signs and reading and writing letters was also central. The resources aim to allow opportunities for the development of ‘functional’ skills like form filling, and for the development of language at sentence and word level as well as at text level, in contexts which are meaningful for learners.
- Alice Robson