Stories through objects

Every Xenia session has a theme, which guides us through three hours of conversations, activities and sharing. The themes may be simple or abstract, but they are always equally relatable for both British and migrant participants. This makes sure that everyone can understand and connect to the discussions, and each other.

The theme for last week’s session was ‘Telling Stories With Objects’. Objects have an important place in language learning; you do not have to rely on words to understand or express yourself. At Xenia we use a lot of objects from the Hackney Museum to bring out themes and discussions, and participants have loved looking into life in Hackney over the years through the items left to the Museum by residents past and present. This  workshop was a great example of this approach, and so we thought you might like to hear a bit more about how the session went!

All Xenia sessions begin with participants sitting in a circle, reminding everyone of a few vital guidelines:

  • English speakers, speak slowly and clearly, and make sure that the learners in your group understand
  • If you do not understand, just ask – we are all here to help
  • We are all from very different backgrounds, so listen openly with respect

Ioanna then invited everyone to say their name and an object they never leave home without, and why. It was really interesting to hear how many people chose a piece of jewellery – many because of memories, or gifts from loved ones (nobody chose a wedding ring though!).

We then broke out into small groups for a few activities helping us to think about describing ourselves – what are three positive things about you? What is the story behind your name? With a group of 10-15 women from almost as many countries, these conversations are always fascinating! Everyone listens carefully to stories which can be both joyful and very difficult to hear. Participants can always ask their neighbour if they don’t understand anything – our mini whiteboards are useful here, as they aid explanations while someone is talking.

Taking a break halfway through the workshop is important, to give women a chance to talk to others not in their groups, and have some lovely homemade food. No matter what the theme is, a session never passes without at least one participant bringing something to feed the rest of the group! This week we had Italian spinach bread, Polish sausage rolls and Iraqi chocolate cookies – plus some delicious biscuits.

It was then time to look in the suitcases at the Museum, with each one created to tell the story of a Hackney resident. After taking the time to explore the items inside, read letters and look at photos, we returned to a circle where groups shared the stories they had learned from the objects in the suitcases – from Nigeria, Vietnam, Lithuania, and Yorkshire. There is always space left in the session to let the discussions take their own turn, and as a result of some stories told, participants started suggesting writing to MPs to lobby problematic issues in other countries. This was a perfect moment to share the letter we had received from Diane Abbott MP in response to letters participants had written her last year – click here for a link to our session with her, and her response below.

The stories we hear and tell at Xenia are very diverse – they can include family tragedy, political turmoil, war, and separation. What is always impressive is the respect and love in the way participants listen to each other, support each other, and help each other to find humour and joy. For many of our British participants, it is a rare opportunity to really understand what is going on in other countries, through personal stories; for migrant women it is a vital chance to practise their English in an open, welcoming environment where they can share their experiences and find friends.

We finished the session by thinking about what objects we would all put in a suitcase if we could tell our story through objects – an idea that could certainly become a reality, as Hackney Museum has invited Xenia women to contribute their suitcases to add to their collection. We can’t wait to see others learning from the stories of Xenia women soon!

DA letter
Diane Abbott MP’s response to Xenia participants