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A Conversation with Fundación Senara

Sungkyu Kim (FATIMA external examiner)

Meeting with Almudena Puerta (CEO), Margarita Morales (project manager), Rocio Montero (project coordinator), Almudena González (teacher) from Fundación Senara in Spain.

Introduction and organisation background 

Fundación Senara began its work in 1997. The word Senara comes from the Medieval Spanish word which means a parcel of land that is given by a generous landlord to the tenants for freely cultivating the plots (that is, free from the rules of serfdom). Thus, the word relates to a gracious gift. 

Senara focuses on four areas of work: (1) empowering mothers and women of the household, (2) employment matching and training, (3) promoting healthy childhood development and (4) young adults’ development. Senara’s clients come from various economic and ethnic backgrounds such as from Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as the long-established Romani people (colloquially known as Gypsies or Roma). Senara receives funds from multiple donors both from the public (central, district, and municipal governments) and private (through corporate social responsibility funds). 

Discussion on Fatima project 

Rocio explained the difficulty of recruiting and retaining participants in the first year of the project. For instance, out of 20 students who joined the programme early last year in April, only five completed and graduated. One of the reasons for the low graduation rate is due to many other organisations that provide free language courses. Another critical reason is students' life circumstances and situations that make their commitment to completing the course challenging. For example, some of the women often missed the class for childcare responsibility and emergencies, as well as for the financial need to work, and other health and family obligations. Also, there were differences in times of religious and cultural celebration uncommon to Spanish customs such as Ramadan and Eid and the Asian Lunar New Year. It was common for the students to have an extended leave of absence during these periods. Worst still, many students discontinued the course altogether after such absence. That is why now, Rocio, Almudena and Lia (the teachers) keep close and frequent communication when some students miss more than one class without notification to follow-up and encouragement. 

To make up the number of students who dropped out last year, Rocio found innovative ways for reaching out to different groups of migrant women. For instance, through a Nigerian student, Rocio joined various FaceBook groups of West African communities in Madrid. Since joining their social network, Rocio received over 35 enquiries and 22 new enrolments for Fatima project. 

Rocio, Almudena and Lia are continually trying to improve the women’s learning experiences. Classes have to be engaging and fun. If not, there is a risk of students dropping out and discontinuing the programme. Since teaching goes on for four hours at a time, Rocio provides coffee, tea and other drinks and dessert for the students during the break. Usually, Almudena also encourages the students to bring lunch so that they can have a meal together in class. 

Issues and concerns 

There is a lack of potential women participants for the programme. In the past year, Senara attracted students from two major geographic regions: the women from North Africa and China. North African women, particularly the Maghreb, learn and speak Spanish faster thanks to the similarity to French, but they proved to be less reliable in attendance and completing the course. On the other hand, Chinese women require much more support and explanation in the beginning (such as learning alphabet and pronunciation) because of complete dissimilarity in Chinese and Spanish. However, Chinese women are more reliable in attendance than the other students, because most of their spouses have businesses and jobs, and the women are not obliged to work full time. Therefore, they have more time to concentrate on studying Spanish. 

Teaching diverse groups of students with varying language skills and levels is a challenge for teachers and designing a balanced language course curriculum. The conditions in which the Fatima project operates, the number of participants is not sufficient for more close matching and setting up of students based on their similar skills and level. While the challenge is great for designing and delivering a comprehensive and coherent curriculum, the teachers at Senara learned from their experiences and devised innovative practices. 

For instance, there are striking differences in strength and weakness amongst these two student groups. For example, North African students have strong speaking skills, but weaker writing and grammar knowledge. On the contrary, Chinese students are stronger in writing, reading and grammar, but seriously lack confidence in speaking. Almudena is aware of these differences and manages her class activities evenly so that one type of exercise does not overwhelm the students. For instance, when speaking practices make the North African students more active and Chinese students less engaging, Almudena switches to writing and grammar activity to reanimate the Chinese students to lead the group dynamic.  

There is no shortage of local volunteers for the programme (through private companies promoting corporate social responsibility and universities). Most of the time, Senara works with two to three local Spanish volunteers along with overseas interns from America who are helping out with conversation practices as part of the mentorship engagement. Each volunteer is in charge of up to three students, and their work varies depending on the needs of the students. For instance, if some of the Fatima women need extra help because it is their very first time learning Spanish, then mentors can spend more time and attention in their reading and writing exercise than conversations.  

Additional activities of Fatima programme include workshops in makeup, yoga, cooking, and day trips to local and cultural attractions. There is also a weekly café meeting. 

One of the significant challenges for Rocio and the teachers is a load of monitoring work and requirement. The PDP (personal development plan) is the first evaluation and screening tool to assess the participant’s language level. Then, once the participants are assigned into a group, every class, the teachers have to record the journal entry for each Fatima participant. The students perceive this task tedious and repetitive. The more problematic issue is that even though the exercise is completed diligently, it does not seem to reflect the information that the programme is designed to measure, that is the student’s actual progress. The way it is currently done, journaling is more of a symbolic task than the measurement of progress. The students find the exercise difficult too. 

Rocio, Almudena and I discussed on several occasions how we could make journaling useful and more efficient. Rocio expressed her concern that most of the students do not understand the purpose and reason behind journaling, and Almudena has to intensively guide and at times, complete the entry for them. There is also the problem of extended absence that makes some students’ journal extremely difficult to follow-up. 

Almudena’s suggestion – since she is already helping out extensively with the journaling of the students, she proposes to adopt the conventional ‘report card’ method. Almudena knows her students very well and their levels and progress. She is confident that she could carry out the task more accurately (and objectively) if she managed the task by herself. While both Rocio and I agreed about Almudena’s intimate knowledge of her students and have no doubt about her professional (and objective) judgment on the students’ skills assessment, the design and purpose of journaling was to give the ‘voice’ to the participants to reflect and (subjectively) assess their learning journey. However, at the current language level and skills of the students, the self-reflected assessment and writing these ideas in a journal is not feasible. 

That is precisely the reason why the Baytree journaling system was to solve this issue - where entries are simplified in pictograms and have limited inputs. While simplification could make the process easier, there is a tremendous loss of value in the purpose of the activity and changes the nature and experience of this monitoring tool. Instead of measuring self-reflected progress and empowerment in one’s learning journey, the task instils top-down command and is compulsory. 

I proposed to rethink and approach journaling with more user-friendly and integrate into a more intuitive learning exercise. For example, at the early stage of journaling, we need to make this task familiar and fun to the students. What if students took home their journal and wrote a sentence (or two) on what interesting thing, event, news, or ideas that the students encountered over the week? Then, upon returning to the class the week after, each student can read out loud their statement as part of the homework and in-class presentation exercise? As they become more experienced with this task, and if some students have more advanced writing skills and appetite for writing more, then we can encourage them to start writing more freely. We can even encourage them to think about (favourite) songs or poems from their home country to translate. 

In terms of the logistics and methods of reporting of these journal entries to Paola, we need to discuss later. 

Last but not least, we can make journaling into a safe and secure one-to-one communication between students and the teacher. Each student can write anything that she feels the need to express more privately without the pressure from being heard by her peers. I remarked that Asian students might find this method of communication more suitable to express their honest feelings and thoughts about the programme.