Radical ELT Part One

Recently I appealed for help in writing the final chapter of a book Mike Long and I are doing on ELT. The chapter is called Radical ELT: Signs of struggle: Towards an alternative organization of ELT and I’d like to thank all those who have been in touch. I’ve had replies from lots of radicals, all doing great things to challenge the interlocking publishing, teaching, teacher-training, and testing hydra that makes up the current $200 billion ELT industry, an industry whose prime motivation, profit, leads inevitably to the commodification of education, with disastrous consequences for almost everybody concerned. Woops! I should have said, perhaps, that they’re all making significant contributions to on-going attempts to change ELT practice in such a way that students and teachers benefit.

In this post, the first of a series dedicated to radicals working in ELT, I’d like to highlight the work being done by Nick Bilbrough.

The Hands Up Project  (Click the link to go their website)

Nick Bilbrough is the founder and main mover of this project, which aims to help kids in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank learn English. Five years ago, using simple video conferencing tools, he started connecting online to a small group of children in a library in Beit Hanoun, Gaza for weekly storytelling sessions. Now, to quote from the website, “the Hands Up Project works with over thirty different groups in Gaza. More than 500 kids a week now connect to volunteers around the world who work in collaboration with the local teacher to tell stories to each other, to play games and to do other activities to help them bring the English that the children are learning come to life”.

Just last week, Nick organized an online session where the winners of the “Toothbrush and other plays” competition were announced. I join the 100+ people online for the event, and I have to say it was incredibly moving to watch so many kids from all over the world taking part, all of them doing their bit to support their friends in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. The authors and actors all had their say; kids from Brazil did a play written by kids in Gaza; the solidarity and human warmth of everybody involved was truly inspirational.

By far the most important thing about the Hands Up project is its brave political stance, its support for Palestinians and all those who are marginalized by the policies of the Israeli government. We should all speak out against the long-standing abuses of human rights, the illegal expansion of territory, and the apartheid policies of the Israeli government which are, shamefully, condoned by the US and UK governments, among so many others.

When I talked to Nick on the phone, he said he agreed with Scott Thornbury’s views of ELT, his dismissal of coursebooks, his emphasis on communicative practice. (Scott, by the way, is a trustee of the Hands Up project and has done a lot of work for them, “Invaluable! Nobody else could have done it”, Nick said.) I asked him why he called himself a radical. “Because I’m trying to give a voice to those without a voice” he said. “Empowerment” was a word he used a lot. And he didn’t know a better way of empowering learners than by storytelling and putting on plays.

Now, I don’t want to claim Nick as a trophy, signed-up supporter of TBLT (although I reckon he’d be pleased to be counted as a signed-up supporter of Dogme), but it’s important to note that Nick and all those working on the Hands Up project reject current ELT practice. They care little for the CEFR, they care less for a PPP approach, and they care absolutely nothing for coursebooks. They DO English. They involve their students in storytelling, in shooting the breeze, and in the collaborative work of writing and putting on plays. That’s the focus of their work, of their classes, which together make up a coherent, exciting, alternative syllabus (sic). It would now be possible for Nick, a highly qualified and experienced teacher of English as an L2, with lots of potential commercial backers, to organize more conventional English courses, using coursebooks with all their bells and whistles, gladly donated by a savvy publisher. But Nick’s a radical, and so are all those in his growing team.

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