Jane’s story: Bible storytelling to lower level learners

Jane McNabb is based in Plumstead where her husband is pastor of Slade Evangelical Church. Jane is involved in English conversation classes based at the church and has experience of storytelling/Bible studies with lower-level English learners. You can hear the seminar that she lead at Forum 2016 on Bible storytelling here.

Could you tell us a bit about your context and the mix of nationalities you get in your classes?

Like much of South East London, Plumstead is very diverse both socially and culturally.  Over the past 9 years since we started English classes we’ve taught a wide range of nationalities and abilities. More recently our classes have become predominantly Nepalese, many of our students being retired Ghurkas and family members.  

How and why did you first get into English language teaching?

I worked for several years as a primary teacher and was always intrigued by teaching English as a second language. This interest was reignited when we moved to London but this time with a desire to reach into our community with the gospel. Kirsten Wynn, a Friends’ International worker based at The Slade, decided to do the CELTA course and I seized the opportunity to join her.

How did you invite students along/advertise?

Initially we left posters and flyers at community centres, GP surgeries and in shop windows etc. We also put an advert in the local paper and hung a big banner outside the front of church. Now we have a waiting list so we just rely on word of mouth.

When and where did you do this? How long were the sessions?

We began with two hour evening classes once a week. After a couple of years our students had all moved on and weren’t replaced so we switched to a Wednesday morning slot and we were overwhelmed  with new students.

Were there any resources that you found helpful?

For teaching English we used the New Headway series. Until more recently I tended to teach the higher level classes and personally I loved it and would supplement it with a whole range of other resources to mix things up a bit. I loved the way it naturally opens up discussion. When it comes to teaching the Bible we have mainly devised our own material so that it’s appropriate for our students. .

What made you think about engaging with the students about the Bible?

Although Kirsten and I have always wanted to provide high quality English lessons, we were motivated by the desire to share the good news of Jesus and so it wasn’t something we just ‘thought of’ after a few years of teaching. We have been sensitive in our approach so this has looked different over the years depending on what is appropriate for each class. Sometimes we have simply tried to share our faith naturally through teaching English and through developing friendships, at other times we have offered Christianity Explored as an optional extra during the week or used a Bible passage as an English Comprehension at the end of the class. Although we always make it clear that the students are under no pressure to remain for the ‘Bible bits’ (which are always at the end or the beginning of our classes to save them any embarrassment), I can only recall one student who left early and didn’t come back. Interestingly enough she wasn’t one of our practising Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists but a secular French student!

You put together a simple Bible overview for your students. Could you tell us a bit about it? What prompted you to do this? And how did you know where to start?

The ability of our classes the last few years has generally fallen and become more of a conversation class. Although we prayed the students would see Christ’s love working through us, we were frustrated that we couldn’t share the reason for the hope within us because of the language barrier. We experimented with telling Bible stories but they had limited impact because there was no context for them. That was when we decided we needed to try and tell the small stories of the Bible in the proper context of God’s Big Story and begin at the beginning, work through to the end but show that Jesus is the theme all the way through. Our classes run on 10 week terms so we worked around that. Our first term is basically Creation to Christmas, our second term looks at the life of Jesus, and our third is the Easter story up to Christ coming again.

Many biblical concepts and words can be tricky for English learners. How did you tackle this?

Firstly I made a list of key words that are essential for understanding the gospel and then I worked out if another simpler word could be used in its place. I then looked for a picture to symbolise that word. For example I use a crown for God, thumbs up and down for good and bad, a heart for love, a lifeguard on a helicopter winch for rescuer, a photo of a gift and a baby and a teacher for Jesus and some scales to show that Jesus is God on the one hand and man on the other…the God-Man! I introduce these key words and pictures in the early sessions and then use them to begin every lesson. Secondly, it’s worth finding some good pictures to tell each individual story. I have found www.freebibleimages.org an invaluable resource for this. As I tell the story I make sure that I incorporate those keywords again so that the students understand that each individual story in the Bible is part of that one Big Story.

What problems did you encounter?

Too many to mention but maybe not as many as you might think! The thing I’ve struggled most to explain is what Christ actually achieved on the cross and how that applies to us personally, probably because concepts like sacrifice and substitution are so hard. I have also been surprised how difficult some of the simple parables can be to apply. I can be explaining something, look out and see blank, puzzled faces and realise they haven’t got a clue what I’m on about! Like all English teaching there has to be a certain amount of thinking on your feet and so much of learning to teach well is through trial and error.

Can you share an encouragement?

There have been a few times when the students have been hanging on every word of a story about Jesus and then when I’ve finished have sat in complete  silence or spontaneously started pointing to the pictures and chatted about the story among themselves. It’s also encouraging when students ask questions during or after my story.

What advice would you give someone wanting to do this kind of thing but not knowing where to start?

Something like Vaughan Robert’s book God’s Big Picture might be of help if you’re unclear how the Bible fits together but definitely get yourself a copy of The Jesus Story Book Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones. Yes it’s a children’s book but I found it great for reminding me about the art of good storytelling and how exciting and amazing God’s Big Story is.

What is it important to consider when preparing sessions like these?

The aim of these sessions should always be to declare how wonderful King Jesus is and to do that effectively it’s vital you study your Bible and study your students! However simple we make it, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re still sharing the Word of our great God with men and women from a variety of cultures, religion and experiences.

 

If you are keen to be able to follow in Jane’s footsteps and tell God’s big story with your learners but are unsure of how to begin, we have some exciting news! 2:19 is currently working with Jane and Kirsten to produce a resource book which will provide you with all the materials you need to begin storytelling with low level learners. The book will cover stories from Creation to David, and will work as a follow-on resource from our recent publication So to Speak.  Follow us on Facebook or subscribe to our Resource Newsletter mailing list to stay posted!