Graffiti and… English lessons? I normally wouldn’t peg the two as synonymous, but they both came together in a classroom at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
Bella Szyszkowska, an ESOL teacher at Lewisham Southwark College and Jess Croll-Knight, a member of the learning team in the community engagement program at ORNC, have teamed up for a 5 week-long program to help young ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students learn the language in an interactive, unique way that allows them to put the lessons they learned in the classroom into practice.
Bella contacted Ingrid Beazley, creator of Dulwich Outdoor Gallery, which is a collections of walls around Dulwich Picture Gallery painted by internationally renowned street artists who have based their Dulwich walls on Baroque paintings in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection. Ingrid introduced Bella and Jess to street artist Alex McClelland, who created a spray paint workshop day for the students.
The day began with preparing a background for their street art. They sectioned off a large wooden wall and spray painted each block with the flag of their native country, creating a kaleidoscope of colors and cultures for them to work with. A break for lunch allowed me to steal Jess for a bit and talk to her about the program.
“We started by looking at the different marks that people had left on the sites we visited; old graffiti, letters, and symbols we saw, and we wanted to find a way to work that in to language communication development.” Jess and Bella have been working together since last year, and have seen great success as the program grows. “It’s frustrating because ESOL programs don’t get much funding,” says Bella, the teacher of the 15-19 year old students. “We try our best to make their learning experience as interactive and engaging as possible.”
Next, the students got to tap into their own creative energies as Alex, a professional graffiti artist, taught them how to make stencils for the next half of the spray painting workshop. Each student drew what they wanted to paint on a white sheet of paper, and then cut the design out using a scalpel-type knife. It was so interesting to see the different designs that arose from these young minds. Since communicating verbally in English wasn’t the easiest for them, their thoughts, passions, and interests came out in their artwork. Visions of love and peace, a dragon, and even the international symbol for nursing made appearances as pencil hit the paper. Alex maneuvered his way from student to student as he used his expertise to make improvements, encourage the more reserved students, and answer any questions.
We returned to the blistering Greenwich wind (not exaggerating here) for the final part of the day. Each student took their stencil up to the flag wall and sprayed it with the color of their choice. It was so heartwarming to see everyone giving each other a helping hand, laughing, and most importantly, communicating! Watching a group of very diverse young adults getting together and bonding over something they were totally unfamiliar with, and then seeing the products of their fruition come alive in front of them was a feeling of true pride, even from a bystander’s perspective. The students continued to play around with different designs, techniques, and color combinations, even after their scheduled end time. I went home with a feeling of warmth and welcome, and can only hope that they continue to thrive in their new home.