A smooth blend of Scottish and Polish
We're discussing verbs, regular and irregular, which leads to a discussion of the regular and irregular drinking habits of Poles and Scots. There are other "regulars" and "irregulars" too. Polish society (according to the students) is more regulated than Scottish society, with a greater sense of cohesion. Two of the students, bus drivers, then complain of the irregular behaviour of some pupils on their buses. Their phrasing can be quite vernacular.
We're now discussing tenses, the past tense pointing us to each individual student's history, as posted by them on the course website, the present tense leading to an exploration of how they find living in Scotland.
These 10 Polish migrant workers, mostly parents of pupils at St David's High in Dalkeith or its associate primaries, are part of the first tranche of 30 migrant adults to embark on an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) course which offers blended and family learning. The blended elements are provided by face-to-face classes at Newbattle Abbey College, with online lessons provided by e-learning company The New Curiosity Shop.
But what the organisers believe is unique to the Scottish further education sector is the combination of this with family learning: the Polish pupils act as translators for (and learning partners of) their parents and other members of the large, local Polish community.
"By May, we hope to have three coaching workshops involving P7-S1, S2-3 and S4-5 pupils," says Newbattle's depute principal, Norah Fitzcharles. "Using two coaching professionals, the pupils will learn how to give and receive instructions and feedback, and they will be given teaching tips to boost their confidence in coaching IT.
"We believe this inter-generational aspect is unique to the Scottish FE sector. Part of the idea is that, if children support their parents, they will have a vested interest in their parents' continuing education."
It's not simply that blended learning lends itself to family learning, says Ms Fitzcharles, but also that inter-generational learning empowers young people as learners and will help with different transition stages: the P7-S1 pupils working together, helping with primary-secondary transition; the S2-3 with course choice and the S4-5 with the move to further or higher education.
The Poles are the vanguard in this enterprise. It is hoped that, by next session, the Newbattle-St David's partnership will be working with other community languages, African and Asian, and that when the Scottish Funding Council's ESOL grant runs out in two years, the partnership will have established a sustainable model.
Eventually, using the e-learning resource, St David's hopes it will prove fruitful for the school's contact with pupils in Malawi, and Newbattle hopes to use it in its work with Burmese refugees in Thailand, where an understanding of English will greatly increase their employment prospects.
"The e-learning resource was adapted from the Scottish Qualifications Authority's written exemplar 'ESOL: English for Everyday Communication, Access 3'," says Noel Chidwick, who runs The New Curiosity Shop with his business partner Arthur Chapman, both former FE lecturers. "We converted it to an online course made up of 20 lessons, adding a few extras like online dictionaries and audio-voice materials for students to practise their English out of class.
"The lessons are structured to the same format, mostly built around quizzes, with homework. While the tutor can access each student's work at any time, the exercises are designed to be done at home with partners andor children and then tried out again with other partners in class. They can do the exercises as many times as they want and use them as refresher lessons."
Initially, it seems, IT skills did not prove too challenging for the first adult learners. Language was more of a problem. But the introductory session saw the pupils helping out with both. "Our system is pretty accessible to anyone who can use e-mail or browse the internet," says Dr Chapman. "But it was great to see the children providing initial technical and translation support. It really is family learning in action and it's good to know that technology is helping to provide solutions rather than problems."
At the second of their 10 weekly tutorials, Ian Tullis and the students agree there have only been "poczatkowe problemy" (teething problems) with the online system. We practise questions and answers already looked at online and spin out from the purely linguistic to the social and political during the two-hour tutorial.
"I like to bring a different angle to the online work" says Mr Tullis, ESOL development officer with Midlothian Adult Literacy and Numeracy Initiative. "I'll activate it more and look at grammatical structure, but keep the discussion real, talking about relevant matters and issues raised by what the students are actually saying. And we finish by having a chat," he says.
"I like the course and think the family learning aspect is tremendous. It brings real bonding. With a growing migrant population in Midlothian, there's a huge need for courses like this."
The importance - and popularity - of the new family-learning ESOL course was apparent at its launch at the college last month, when Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, celebrated a special Mass in the chapel, and Scottish Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop described the pilot as "lifelong learning at its best - an approach to family learning to share across the country".
The formal launch was marked by a Scottish-Polish ceilidh complete with a Goral (Polish Highland) Piper and a Scottish ceilidh band in the venerable crypt of the old Abbey beneath the college. And in spite of the vodka served with the blended Scottish-Polish buffet, the musicians maintained a regular beat and the dancers stayed online to the end.