Dumpling Lessons: The importance of learner centred sessions.

When we do our private workshops  we know our structure very well. We come in, make our coffees, set up the space. We unpack our ingredients, get out pots, pans and rollers, attach our badges to the aprons, place the water on the stove to boil and await the arrival of our participants. These actions are satisfyingly familiar to us. However, the shape of the sessions as a result of the characters that enter the room is the surprise. What each participant brings remains the most exhilarating part of Heart & Parcel.

Our ethos here aims to place the participant in the centre of the sessions; their preexisting knowledge present in the space; being awakened, stretched and exercised through engaging with the cooking task, with each other and with us. We reject the idea of completely teacher-centred sessions, where knowledge comes from the top and filters down. Instead, we seek a collaborative and democratised space in our sessions with all people present. As a result, each week is unique and we witness the generation of unknown knowledge that is presented for us to acquire and to learn.

Unlike previous posts about our sessions, this blog explains more about what we as facilitators ourselves experience in our sessions. It explores why as a teacher or facilitator it is can sometimes be useful to position yourself as a learner, to let your students take the lead.

For this particular workshop, we returned to one of the many safe houses owned by The Medaille Trust.  Their work lies in the empowerment of people who have suffered from human-trafficking and the modern day slavery industry in the UK. We had been asked back to come and make dumplings as an evening activity with a group of men. Chinese dumplings this time. Our participants that evening were from a variety of countries: Romania, Latvia, Germany, Poland, Britain and the Czech Republic.

English levels varied. We decided to do a blind smell and taste test with the ingredients so we set up the potentially exotic ingredients out in front of the participants to smell and guess what they thought it might be.

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Clare setting up the initial activity – Guess the ingredient!

Interestingly, from chatting to the learners, we learnt that the word for ginger is similar in in German (Ingwer), Polish (Imbir) and Romanian (Ghimbir)! In terms of the Asian sauces, there were quite a few complaints about the inclusion of fish sauce for the pork & lemongrass dumplings… we assured them the fish sauce would enhance rather than overpower the flavour.

Once all ingredients had been mulled over and discussed, it was time to cook. The men instantly sprang into action. We felt a sense of care and responsibility. They wanted to do everything for us. An older Latvian gentleman quietly took the ingredients that had been on the table for the warmer activity, found himself a chopping board, started briskly sharpening a knife, and set to work on the spring onions.

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Chopping for the dumpling filling.

The rest came together to watch the dough demonstration. Learners were eager to take in the process of the dough and were interested about all the ingredients that were going in.

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Teaching the dough recipe to the participants.

One of the Polish learners decided to speed things up, took some of the dough from the ball Clare was kneading, grabbed a spoonful of beef mixture and started to pinch it into a pierogi before the kneading step was complete.

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Kneading together with a pierogi centre stage.

We didn’t stop him. This was an opportunity to ask further questions and move away from our usual structure. We made the connection of the pierogi to Karolina and her mum who makes them back in Poland. One of the learners piped up that he was a chef and that he makes all different kinds of Polish parcels. We continued this digression which led to the generation of new knowledge and informal English language conversation.

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Dough balls ready to be pressed and rolled.

During the making of the dumplings, the teamwork fell into a natural flow. we didn’t need to instruct and were almost placed into roles ourselves by the learners. We even got lessons in other types of dumplings from Poland, Romania, Latvia and Russia. There were also shapes and patterns being created that had no national identity. Again, there is no correction needed from us. There is no right or wrong way to make a dumpling in our opinion. As long as the task is being attempted and the participants are making the choice to create, we feel as if our aims are complete.

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The dumpling process.

The rest of the night went smoothly. The learners continued to do 85% of the work, making most of the dumplings, telling us the best way to cook them, packing away the equipment, doing the washing up, clearing down the surfaces and even going into their bedrooms to grab their chargers for our phones. We let them look after us.

Talking later about the session together, we reflected on why it had been such a success. Our learners had assumed senior roles during the folding – they had become the decision-makers of the session and we had welcomed this. In their temporary situations now, living in this safe house and waiting for their court cases, they had many people working for them. Supporting and making their decisions for them. Although this help is of course appreciated and welcomed by the men, perhaps their willingness to then care for us was a reaction to that. To want to feel useful, needed and in a position of power. It reminded us of an extract from our Boaz trust report where the project worker comments on the strong presence of deicision-making in our sessions. She witnessed the participants wanting to feed us, making us hot drinks and washing up. By helping people out, you feel good. We all can relate to that.

Taking the authority away from your role as a facilitator and teacher can contribute to the evidence of existing knowledge as well as the development of empowerment and confidence amongst participants. This was a way we could take a back seat, view what participants already know and what we could learn from them. By taking this position, we found this allowed them to exercise their own choices and make their own decisions about what they would like to do during the session. The personalities of our learners shine through the session with aspects and elements that normally wouldn’t present themselves in a formal ESOL lesson. This allows for a collaborative environment where everyone learns something from each other. For us we have found this makes for quite a meaningful way to spend the day.

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