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

Briony Birdi, Lecturer in the Information School at the University of Sheffield, tells us about her project’s progress.

Our Engaged Curriculum project is now coming to an end! Between October 2014 and July 2015, seven iSchool Masters students have been providing voluntary support for English language learners across Sheffield in their classrooms, conversation classes and in local public libraries, helping to deliver the national Six-Book (fiction reading) Challenge with their non-English speaking learners.

Since the previous blog post, the students have completed their volunteering, attending English language or conversation classes in one of four venues in Sheffield, including a women’s refuge, a primary care centre, a community room within a block of flats, and a conversation club.

As the project draws to a close, I have been reflecting on the benefits to each of the stakeholders involved in the project:

For the students, the project is a valuable addition to their CV, via a volunteering role with an English teaching (third sector) organisation; curricular impact and outputs include reflective pieces for an online professional development journal, coursework and dissertation options relating to their experience and the role of public libraries in adult literacy education; in terms of extra-curricular impact the project has helped the volunteers to develop skills in cultural awareness and civic engagement.

For us as an academic department, this has been an effective way of engaging with the local community, in particular with some of the most vulnerable people living in Sheffield. Working with a new partner, we now have some clear ways forward for developing this kind of initiative in the future. Linking elements of our curriculum to the local community we have added value to our Masters programmes. The volunteers have been engaged and enthusiastic throughout the project, and there has been a noticeable increased awareness in class of third sector issues and the ‘wider role’ of public libraries in society. In short, it was a great pilot project for future work, and an effective test-bed for further cultural awareness work.

Feedback from the class tutors clearly shows how they feel that the classes have benefited from the input of the volunteers. ‘It was great having [name] come along to help the learners with their reading. I know that all the learners really appreciated her time and efforts.’ ‘It was very helpful that [name] and [name] could take responsibility for the practicalities…also their more personal input as friendly and informative visitors was greatly appreciated by all of us.’ Towards the end of the project, we were also able to use some of the project funding to buy a small collection of books for one of the project locations, a women’s refuge in Sheffield without any books of its own, and both learners and tutors sat down with us and chose the books they would like to read.

Having an engaged curriculum is about helping students to look beyond the classroom and into the town or city they’re studying in, and to recognise that not everyone is living such a privileged life. For this project the cultural awareness strand is particularly important, and I think the effectiveness of this comes across in some of the following student comments: ‘It has been enlightening for me to meet new people and to have the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of how challenging life in Britain can be for those who are new to the country or have a limited knowledge of English.’ ‘The experience has given me a greater appreciation of the variety of needs and challenges facing members of my community. This will be beneficial in future jobs within libraries as I will now more aware of attempting to ensure their needs are met and they feel welcome and valued in their local libraries.’ ‘I would certainly recommend participating in this project, as it provides you with a wonderful opportunity to support and help others with their reading. It is an incredibly rewarding experience and highlights some of the barriers adults have when learning how to read and accessing books and information. Living in a digital world it is easy to forget that a proportion of the adult society find it difficult to read.’

As this project ends – hopefully a pilot for many future years of engaged learning and teaching – my thinking returns full circle to Dave Calder’s poem which I came across when I was putting the project application together. This short but powerful piece of writing helped to shape the project and what I wanted it to achieve, with the idea that so many people ‘grow up both and neither, and belong everywhere and nowhere much the same’. It’s my view that our work this year, although small scale, has helped to reach some of these people and to make them feel that they have a valuable contribution to make.

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