Earlier this month the Dandenong Centre celebrated its latest training achievement with the presentation of certificates to fifty students undertaking classes in the first semester of the ASRC’s ongoing English as an Additional Language (EAL) program.
Training Coordinators, Simon Dalton and Ann Carter presented each student with a laminated certificate that signalled their class attendance throughout the semester. The ceremony also demonstrated the camaraderie that has been built between members, volunteers and staff in this southeastern branch of the ASRC. There are plenty of hugs to go around, joyous shouts of ‘teacher!’ and numerous requests for photos to mark the occasion and share with loved ones later.
Addressing the students, Simon acknowledges their attendance and effort.
‘I know that all your teachers like you very much because you try so hard and it’s really important that you do. And we know that it is very difficult for you and that’s why we really admire and respect the way you work so hard with your English. We’re very proud of all that you do,’ he says.
Ann adds, ‘We love it that you come here and take English classes and feel so happy here. We love having you come to the Centre and we want you to keep coming and improve your English.’
And the feeling is mutual. As the centre breaks for lunch, local music group the Colourful Collective take up their instruments and treat the room to melodies of Sudan. More than one student stopped the group to thank them for bringing sounds of home into the centre.
As a physical resource, the Dandenong Centre is not much more than a two level shopfronted oblong space, with a couple of windowless rooms carved out for classes. It is not flash. Let’s say cosy and chaotic. Or as Ann herself says, ‘Really squashed and pretty ordinary.’ And yet the sense of community and care created each day within this space is palpable the moment you step inside.
The care extends to the small details too. Those new to the classes who do not qualify for an attendance certificate receive a letter from Simon and Ann that states, in part, ‘We hope that we will see you again in the next Semester to continue your classes – where if there is anything we can do to make it easier for you to attend classes, or if you have any concerns about the classes, please let us know.’
Ann, who focuses on syllabus development, stresses the need for flexibility and responsiveness in the design and delivery of classes. Last year the curriculum was split into two streams to allow more time for reading and writing, which, for many students, lags behind a proficiency in speaking and listening. The application of English to practical situations is also part of the Centre’s approach. For example, a student might bring in a utility bill from home that they are having difficulty reading and understanding. ‘We can work classes around learning to read a power bill and other real life situations,’ Ann says.
Dandenong has also just piloted a Pathway to Employment course with a work safety emphasis as an English learning opportunity for members at Levels 1 and 2 (and not yet eligible for the ASRC’s employment program). As Ann points out, ‘These members still need to work.’ But a lack of language skills makes it difficult, so Ann was keen to write and deliver a course that gave them a certificate in basic work, health and safety. Alongside the written material, the course has an interactive and hands-on focus.
‘I brought all my tools in one day so they got to identify and know the English words for what they were e.g. – what a drill bit is, what a hammer is, what a Stanley knife is, and so on,’ she explains. ‘And (we – omit) did a big floor plan of a factory and we did induction by walking around the map, and knowing the areas that were restricted. We went over and over again all the different signs that you might find in a factory.’
This was followed up with a field trip to a factory where the students could test their theoretical learning in a real life situation. Ann reports that one student who has struggled and been sad in class for much of the time returned from the site visit with a new confidence.
‘I saw a sparkle in his eyes that I’d never seen before. He had never spoken up in class or offered answers. But after the factory excursion he came up to me and he shook my hand and he said, “Teacher, I am so happy today.”’
Two volunteers, Helen and Barbara have been team-teaching English at Dandenong for the past three years. Both have a background in teaching and/or working with migrant women. Helen says teaching in the ASRC context presents with special challenges but great rewards. ‘How can I put this? The whole ASRC is a kind of chaotic biomass, in which you’re constantly trying to have some sort of structure and process,’ she explains. ‘But you’ve got to be incredibly flexible because people’s situations change, the rules on the outside change. Their whole life is changing around them. So you can’t expect them to come every week, or do the homework. You just have to ride the waves. To say, “This is what it is today.”’
Dandenong offers Reading & Writing (Levels 1-3), Speaking & Listening (Levels 1-3), Upper Intermediate and IELTS Speaking & Listening classes. It also runs small group conversation sessions and an outdoor education program. The first semester ran from late January to the end of June. 540 hours were taught in the EAL classes and 447 hours in small group conversation. 179 members attended classes in that time and 81 attended small group conversation.
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