2021 may have begun with us all experiencing less freedom than we would have liked, but it hasn’t stopped English for Women from kicking off the new term with plenty of conversation and laughter!

In March last year, EfW Chelmsford was continuing to thrive, the Harwich and English for All sites were established and EfW Goodmayes had just opened. Little did we know that by the end of the month, we would be forced to close our face-to-face sessions and come up with a plan to keep the project going. As always, we are consistently inspired by the flexibility and resilience of our wonderful army of volunteers who have, yet again, stepped up to demonstrate just how committed they are to the project, and with a turnaround of just two weeks, we discovered (and practised using!) the requisite technology to run the sessions remotely, stayed in touch with learners via social media and converted our resources into a format which would work online.

One of the most important things we can all do at the moment is to stay connected and talk to each other, the benefits of which are never more evident than during our online sessions when we see people smiling and interacting. The positivity which has always been part of the EfW ethos continues to shine within our community and, despite the individual hardships that we’re all currently facing, the weekly sessions are filled with discussion, learning, friendship and, importantly, a genuine sense of mutual support. Many of us are homeschooling due to the closure of schools, but children are welcome to join us and it’s been lovely to hear their laughter (or gurgles!) as they play in the background whilst we talk and learn together.

As the main online sessions took off, it became apparent that there was demand for an additional session, one in which learners at a beginner-intermediate level had the opportunity to talk in smaller, more focused groups in order to build confidence. This additional session now runs weekly, addressing topics which correlate with those of the main session, so that learners are able to come to both and benefit from the chance to practise new vocabulary in a conversational situation.

Topics this month have included Looking Forward. We were all able to think of some positives about the last few months – walking, reconnecting with people on the phone, getting to grips with technology, learning a new skill or having more time to practise a new one – and we are looking forward to continuing with many of these things over the coming months. One thing we all had in common was a desire to develop the new EfW friendships which have emerged as a result of the many hours we have spent together in our online sessions!

Other topics included the British Winter. ‘Blizzard’, ‘Shiver’ and ‘Quilt’ were just a few of the words our learners discovered, and we certainly had plenty of weather to talk about with snow, sunshine, rain and Storm Christoph! We looked at activities to keep busy during the colder weeks with a particular focus on wellbeing and positivity. Many of us are taking regular walks, but we also discussed opportunities for exercising at home with the help of online classes – yoga is a firm favourite! We agreed that setting small targets is useful, and that the most important thing is to be kind to ourselves. We revisited ‘Idioms’ (a session where the learners were not the only people in the EfW community to find out something new!), and ‘Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’ proved popular, especially when we were treated to a wonderful rendition of Robert Burns’ poem, A Red, Red, Rose by one of our volunteers.

We always aim to base a few of our topics around national or international events, and this month, we’ve included ‘British Gardens’ to tie in with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, and next week, we have planned a session around ‘Storytelling’ to mark National Storytelling Week. There have been plenty of pointers in the press and on social media recently about the importance of stories and reading as a form of escapism, and we couldn’t agree more. Stories from our childhood often stay with us the longest, and we look forward to hearing fables and traditional tales from around the world.          

Amongst our amazing volunteers, we are lucky to have fantastic team leaders who have taken over the reins to lead the online sessions on several occasions; they are used to introducing their respective face-to-face sessions by breaking the ice and encouraging subsequent discussion, so it’s great to have a continuation of their input during this time. There are plenty more team leader-led sessions planned for the coming weeks with some really interesting topic ideas, so watch this space!

Behind the scenes at EfW, there is always plenty going on too. There are regular meetings with the EfW Steering Group, and we’ve even managed to put together an EfW team (comprising of EfW community members past and present) for the regular Chelmsford Cathedral quiz night. As outlined in our History page, the Cathedral played an integral part in the launch of the project; we are so grateful for their continued support, and taking part in the quiz is a wonderful opportunity to stay in touch with members of our wider community. Our latest team effort secured EfW a highly respectable 7th place! And of course, there are the usual twice-weekly meetings for the EfW team where we take the opportunity to de-brief after the live sessions. 

We were also delighted to learn recently that EfW has been awarded grants from The Acorn Fund (£5,000) and Teledyne e2v Foundation (£5,000). A huge thank you to both organisations and to the Essex Community Foundation for administering the grants and helping to enable EfW to continue the work which we do.

The last few months have been a steep learning curve for everyone. Naturally, we are all keen to be able to meet again in person and we can’t wait to have everyone together; but in the meantime, connection, communication and culture continue at EfW, with our warm welcome still firmly in place.

Have a good few weeks, stay safe, and we’ll see you soon!

– the EfW Team