Supporting isolated adults via the Six Book Challenge in Sheffield: An update

Briony Birdi tells us about how her project, which received support from the Engaged Curriculum funding stream, is progressing.

Happily, I have plenty to report since the previous blog! The student volunteers signed up for this project early in the academic year, were allocated to specific English language and/or conversation classes around Sheffield, and then the first semester was spent undertaking DBS checks (Disclosure and Barring Service – essentially a criminal record check required for all official voluntary work) for each volunteer, which all went very smoothly despite having 3 non-UK (and 2 non-EU) students participating. Thanks are due both to the students for their cooperation, and to SAVTE (the Sheffield Association for the Voluntary Teaching of English), the partner organisation in this project.

In December 2014 the students participated in an information session explaining more about what the volunteering role would entail, combined with a cultural awareness workshop, developed and delivered by Briony Birdi, with valuable input from Jess Elmore, PhD student in the iSchool and former member of staff at SAVTE. The workshop comprised five main elements: firstly, looking at our own cultural and ethnic backgrounds and introducing ourselves in terms of our personal cultural map; secondly, understanding reasons for migration and looking at Sheffield’s profile as an example; thirdly, understanding asylum seekers and refugees and related definitions, plus considering the challenges faced by these groups; fourthly, looking at racial awareness and issues such as cultural sensitivity, racial discrimination and stereotyping via personal and other examples; and finally, via a series of brief (hypothetical) individual profiles, considering the barriers each individual might face both in daily life, and in participating in the classes which form the context for the project – and, crucially, how the student volunteer role can help them. Feedback from the volunteers showed that they all found it interesting and useful, with comments including the following:

‘The workshop had a very nice, open atmosphere that put me at ease and the informal nature made me feel I learned more about my peers.’

‘I felt a bit nervous about talking about my cultural background to start with, but after other people had shared their own the atmosphere was sufficiently relaxed and friendly to make me feel confident in talking about this.’

‘I found the workshop particularly useful in reflecting upon my own cultural background and life experiences and learning about the various minority ethnic communities that reside in Sheffield. It was also very interesting to consider racial discrimination and stereotyping. I felt this was quite a thought provoking section of the workshop.’

‘I have worked with many different cultures before and have experienced first-hand negative experiences based on my heritage and felt like for many participants this was possibly the first time they have ever had a seminar of this kind and the first time they were exposed to any type of training like this.  I would recommend that all students should partake in some event like this…’

‘Thanks for doing this session! It helps to know where you stand and what you already know or not. It also gave great insight into the Sheffield situation!’

Since the beginning of Semester 2, the volunteers have been attending their first (and, in some cases, second) classes with their groups. These range from established language classes with a clear educational focus, to the most informal conversation groups, and include both mixed and women-only groups, of a wide range of ages, abilities and personal situations. Their role has been to accompany participants to the local library (where feasible), and to help them to join the library and to participate in the Six Book Challenge, a national fiction reading challenge which aims to ‘improve the chances in life for people who find reading difficult by building their reading confidence and motivation’. At a catch-up meeting with the volunteers at the end of February, it was clear that despite some initial (and understandable) nerves, all participants were enjoying their volunteering and, crucially, feeling that they were playing a useful role in the group sessions.

During this second semester our generous student volunteers will continue to support the classes with a particular focus on the Six Book Challenge. This is a brief project, but is hopefully building an important foundation for future work both developing student cultural awareness, and in providing opportunities for students to support some of Sheffield’s most vulnerable people.

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