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Marta Moreno teaches English at the Official School of Languages in Fuengirola. Currently she is involved in the European Commission Lifelong Learning Programme “Senior Volunteering in Europe”, which tries to promote volunteer work among people over the age of fifty.



Crossing Bridges Across Generations
Today I am going to meet Allen David Mathews and David Atkinson, who work as volunteers in the “I Speak English” programme giving conversation classes at Vega de Mijas High School. Ana Quijano, the member of the English Department who started this program, and Pablo Navarro, one of the teachers who benefit from it, will also join us. Finally I’ll attend one of Ana and David’s classes with a group of students from the fourth year of secondary education. This is a type of volunteer work I feel especially close to, both as an English teacher and as a member of a community with a great mixture of nationalities sometimes “living apart together”.
I first meet the teachers and volunteers. Ana, who has just finished one of her lessons, starts talking enthusiastically about the origins of this project, telling us that it began at Virgen de la Peña Primary School, when the Foreigners Department at Mijas Town Hall gathered a group of British residents who agreed to devote some of their time to giving conversation practice to the children. Actually, some of Ana’s students have been pioneers in this project, as they come from this school.
When Vega de Mijas decided to follow suit, the first thing Ana did was to visit the volunteers at Virgen de la Peña. She was convinced that the idea would work with older kids, but a few changes had to be made. “For example, all the volunteers worked together in a big hall, and each of them was in charge of a group of children. This wouldn’t work in our school. First of all, we didn’t have an appropriate room and secondly, we had to take into account the issue of discipline. So, we decide to take the most advanced students out of the class in small groups to practice their speaking skills with the volunteers.” And it really works, the students are very motivated, as they can have more spontaneous conversations than in a regular class.
David and Allen have joined the program this year and they arrived at Vega de Mijas through different paths. David, a retired roads engineer who has lived in Fuengirola for ten years, literally offered himself. “I was in Fuengirola one day. Two boys had questions in English on paper. The questions were well constructed, but the boys’ pronunciation was not good. I had the idea that maybe I could help and here I am.” He first contacted the Foreigners Department at Fuengirola Town Hall, but some of the schools that were interested were too far away. Then he happened to go past Vega de Mijas, which is right next to his house. “I entered, I talked to Ana, and here I am.”
Allen, who used to work as a play project leader in London, learned about the British volunteers through his Spanish wife, who was doing an apprenticeship connected to her Master’s Degree in Arts at Vega de Mijas. “ I met some of the volunteers at one of the school dinners. I had worked with children for eleven years professionally and I knew I would be able to teach the students and teachers.” Actually, Allen has the best background to work with teenagers, having spent years organizing the free time of hundreds of children of different ethnic and social backgrounds at the Three Acre Play Project in Camdem, North London. “I started as one of the boys and as time passed, I ended up working there.” For him it’s easy to relate to the kids, especially the youngest ones. “I just click with children, maybe because I’m a big kid.”
Another novelty of the program is that not only the students, but also the teachers can benefit from the work of these volunteers. Both David and Allen give one-to-one lessons to teachers who need to improve their English for several reasons. This is the case of Pablo Fernández Gallego, a Biology teacher who needs English to communicate with his partners from Germany, Holland and Italy in a Comenius programme: Challenges of Eco-citizenship in Europe. “We have carried out some preparatory visits and we are expecting our national agency’s approval. In the meantime, I am having conversation classes with Chris, one of the volunteers, in order to prepare my trips.”
The volunteers work together with the teachers. This is the case of Ana, who works with David. Before each lesson, they decide the topic of conversation (the students made a long list of the subjects they are interested in at the beginning of the year) and Ana decides who is going to be in the group that leaves the class with David. This volunteer gives credit to both Ana and Teresa, the head of the English Department, for all the work they do. “I receive the help and support I need from Teresa and Ana, but I think it’s a little difficult for them. They have to organize their classes, organize the work for me, the voluntary, which is additional work for them, and they must continue to prepare work for the following classes also.”
When I finally meet Ana’s students, I am impressed by their fluency and confidence. They are also amazingly well behaved and attentive, especially considering that it’s nearly three in the afternoon and they have been having classes since eight in the morning. We talk about volunteering in general, about their lessons with David and the culture of volunteer work in the United Kingdom. Ana tells them the story of the volunteer program in Vega de Mijas and I tell them about the SenVol project and the importance of the older generations. David has a good understanding of people, of work ethics and of life in general. He tries to pass as much of this on to the students at every opportunity. He learns from the students as they learn from him. This is confirmed by Alexis, a boy who normally would be bored in a regular English class, as this is the language his family uses at home, who says that “He not only helps us with our English but also teaches us how to live better and that’s really, really helpful.”
What has struck me the most is that these boys and girls really love learning English. Evidence of this is the fact that half of the class raised their hands when David asked if they would be willing to have extra English classes in the evening.
Thank you Ana and the rest of the English Department at Vega de Mijas for the wonderful work you are doing with these kids. And thank you Allen, David and all the “I Speak English” volunteers for devoting your precious time to helping these children to learn not only how to love the English language, but also how to leave their small circles and open up to the world.
And as a final note, I came across someone I knew, again. In the second row there was a familiar face, a boy who is studying German at the EOI. And this evening in class, one of my students asked me: “Marta, have you been to a high school class this morning?” “Yes, why?” “My brother was there”. Small world.


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