Paula Markus is the former ESL Coordinator for the Toronto District School Board (District), home to about 40,000 English language learners (ELLs). In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Paula provides some background on immigrant populations and ELL education in Canada, discusses her role in helping to craft Ontario's official ELL policy document, and shares some of the approaches to ELL instruction and assessment that differ from the U.S.
In addition, she helps her neighbors to the south brush up on Canadian trivia with her "O Canada!" quiz. We learned a lot — and bet you will too, eh?
Learn more from Paula about how ELL education works in Ontario her article on ELL Policy and Support in Ontario, Canada.
You can also see Paula's interview on our YouTube Channel!
Part I: ELLs in Canada
Well, when I graduated from university quite a while ago I was trying to decide what to do next and I knew that I really enjoyed learning languages. I spoke another language. And I was seated at a dinner party next to someone who had a Masters in TESOL that she had gotten, and this was up in Toronto, from the School for International Living in Brattleboro, Vermont. And I had never heard of TESOL before.
And I went home, and this was of course before the internet, and went to the library and researched this and I thought, "Wow, this is a really interesting subject where I can combine working with people with my love of learning languages. " And I ended up doing my Masters in applied linguistics at Georgetown here in Washington. And that was 31 years ago. So I've been doing that ever since.
My first teaching job was here in Falls Church, Virginia in 1980 where I worked with Vietnamese boat people and Hmong refugees from Cambodia.
Canada and immigration
Canada has roughly around 35 million people and we're a small country and we know that in order to maintain and grow our population we need immigrants, so government policy has been to admit about 250,000 immigrants and refugees a year into Canada. And the population is very, very diverse. People from every here in the world want to come to Canada and there's a long waiting list of people who want to come.
The government has different programs for immigration whether it's younger people who have their own businesses or who have professional or occupational skills who are allowed in, but there's also a family reunification program and then there is also a humanitarian refugee assistance program. So all those things together go into bringing in about a quarter of a million, what we call new Canadians every year.
And it's so diverse, it's different from the United States because here you have one really large group, language group and that is the Spanish speakers. And it's interesting to note that there are more Spanish speakers in the United States than there are people in Canada. So we don't have that one very large group, we have people from everywhere and things change depending on what the immigration situation is at the time, what's going on politically and economically in the world and where the hot spots are, wars, refugee situations, trauma and so on. Currently, the largest groups coming into Canada would probably be people from Mainland China, Mandarin speakers, a lot of people coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan.
Now with what's going on in the Arab world we're getting a lot of refugees from Iraq, from Jordan, from Syria. We get a lot of refugees from Africa. We get a lot of people from the Philippines. We do get Spanish speakers. And they come from everywhere. I would imagine that there are a lot of Spanish speakers particularly of Mexican background in the United States, but in Canada they're from everywhere. They're from South America, people from Spain, Central America, Mexico, everywhere. So we have people from 175 different countries.
Toronto is probably the biggest magnet city in Canada for immigration. So whatever is happening in Canada as a whole, Toronto reflects that. In addition to Toronto, a lot of new Canadians go to Montreal and to Vancouver. But now there's a new movement taking place. There's quite a boom happening in the Western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
And those are provinces that weren't used to getting a lot of immigration and didn't have that much experience in working with English language learners and now we're finding that a lot more people are moving straight to those provinces because of the availability of jobs and because things are really booming there.
Those provinces are still adjusting to their new population. One of the things that happens to me in my work a lot, and it's not necessarily because people know me in Canada, but they look on the internet and they look at Toronto being a magnet that it is for immigrants and they look at the website of the Toronto District School Board and many people tend to get in touch with me, so I've had a lot of people contact me from cities in Saskatchewan, Regina, which is one of the big cities in Saskatoon and similarly from Alberta, from Edmonton, from Calgary.
And there is a smaller city in Alberta which you may have heard of called Fort McMurray, and Fort McMurray is in the center of the Oil Sands area and a lot of immigrants are going there. And people have contacted our school board from Fort McMurray to come and visit our schools and ask about, find out more about what we're doing with our immigrants in our English language learners there.
Position in Toronto
My title is program coordinator for ESL/ELD in the Toronto District School Board. And Toronto's school board is the largest school board in Canada. We have approximately 550 schools, but 440 elementary, about 110 secondary schools. And my job is to coordinate programs and services for English language learners in those 550 schools.
We have approximately close to 40,000 students who would be classified as English language learners, whether that be that they have arrived in Canada say within the last five to seven years, but we also have a large population of children who were born in Canada and are similar to here in the United States are being raised in home environments where English is not the primary language spoken. So when you add all of those children together, about 40,000.
ESL vs. ELD
The difference between ESL and ELD. ESL is a program, English as a Second Language, which is for children who have age appropriate literacy and schooling, formal schooling experiences in their home country and in their first language. So the majority of our students are coming from countries where they have been able to access regular schooling and have age-appropriate first language literacy and numeracy skills in their first language. So that's ESL.
ELD stands for English Literacy Development. And that is a program for children who come from countries or transit situations where they haven't had access to regular formal schooling in the past. They have limited prior schooling, they could have been living in the refugee camp, they could have been fleeing a war situation, they could have been living in a country where there are school fees that prohibit many children from attending and the result is that when they come to Ontario they don't have age appropriate literacy skills or schooling experiences in their home language. So they need to learn literacy in general and not just in English.
And they also need to learn what we call how to "do school." So they're lacking a lot of the experiences that Canadian children you know just absorb into their blood when they start going to kindergarten of how to behave and act in a school environment.
Education policy in Canada
Unlike in the United States where you have federal laws that cover some aspects of education for English language learners, one of the defining characteristics of Canadian federal and provincial democracy is that education and health care, I'll just add that in, are totally provincial responsibilities. And the federal government doesn't mix in, in education and health care at the provincial level. So each province sets its own education policy and each province has its own Ministry of Education and its own laws and its own policies for every aspect of education.
So you know there is some variation among provinces. I'll give you an example. Until about eight or nine years ago, Toronto was the only province in Canada that had 13 grades of school. It had eight grades in elementary school and five grades in high school. And when I went to high school I did grade 13. And about eight or nine years ago, after a lot of study and a lot of preparation, the Ontario provincial government phased out grade 13 so that now high school students in Toronto, in Ontario rather would go for four years just like every other province in Canada. So that's just one example of how provinces set their own educational policy.
Ontario policy: Part 1
So English language learners are an interesting group. And you know I want to be very honest and talk about what I think some of the political issues are, because I think that there are a lot of similarities to the United States.
The parents of English language learners often do not speak English very well themselves. They're often very unfamiliar with the education system, whether that be in Ontario or in whatever state in the United States. They may come from countries where the cultural norm has been that parents and the community do not get involved in the workings of the education system. That's seen in some countries as really bad behavior. Leave education to the professionals and you don't mix in at all. And when you combine all this with the fact that many parents of English language learners are not yet citizens, and therefore can't vote, unfortunately the parent voice and the parent lobbying capacity for English language learners is rather weak. This is what we find in Ontario and you know I would guess that it's similar in many jurisdictions in the United States.
So whereas for many, many years in Ontario we've had really good policies enshrined in law, in education law, for special education students we hadn't had the same thing for English language learners because you just don't have the parent lobbying, the voter lobbying capacity. So basically it's the educators who work with English language learners that took it upon themselves to start lobbying for mandated policies for English language learners in Ontario.
And this started in the early to mid-2000s, we were getting a lot more students coming in, not just to Toronto but to other places in Ontario that weren't as accustomed to getting new immigrants, places like Windsor, for example, which is right over the border from Detroit. A lot of Mexican immigrants are going into Windsor now and also a lot of Arab Americans or people who are somehow transiting from Arab-speaking communities. I think Detroit has the largest Arabic-speaking community in the United States or northern Michigan anyway.
And then of course a lot of immigrants and refugees coming to Ottawa and coming to the high tech region around Kitchener or Waterloo, which is a little mini high tech community. If you're familiar with the Blackberry, I don't know how many Americans know this but the Blackberry is a Canadian invention by a company called RIM, Research in Motion. And they're based in Waterloo, Ontario, which is about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. And that's become another magnet community for new immigrants.
Ontario policy: Part 2
So with all of these people coming into smaller communities we found in the 2000s that educators and school boards from all over the province really were not servicing their English language learners effectively and there wasn't the parent lobbying group and so various education lobbying groups started to do surveys and reports. The Ontario Public School Board Association did a report about the vast disparity in the number of ESL teachers around the province in different school boards.
And a group called People for Education, which is a grassroots community lobbying group did a report showing that you know schools were losing ESL teachers. A lot of this got a good deal of media coverage. And the government of Ontario decided to respond, and rightly so, to this media coverage by launching their own study of what was going on in various school boards in Ontario.
And that was done through an arms-length organization that we have in Ontario called the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario. And the Auditor General's job is to audit and look at how effectively any provincial program is being delivered in the province, anything from driver's license registrations to liquor control boards to public schools to health care, anything that's controlled by the province.
So in 2005 they did an audit. They audited several school boards in the province. And the audit consisted of in depth discussions with people from the Auditor General's office about how we support English language learners. The Toronto district school board was one of the school boards chosen to be audited along with several other school boards. And they sent their staff around to different schools to observe, to find out how many ESL teachers were in different schools, in different school boards in the province.
And they also sent reps at our urging to the provincial coordinators advocacy group where they head from people, from school boards that didn't even have any ESL teachers, although they had English language learners.
And all of this resulted in a report coming out in 2005 on the delivery of English as a second language and English literacy development programs in the province. And when the Auditor General releases a report, it's big news. It's on all the nightly TV news shows and in the newspaper.
And the government has to respond. And so they responded to the suggestions of the 2005 report which showed that there was a great disparity in how English language learners were being supported by in 2007 introducing the first ever Ministry policy to cover English language learners. And that's how it came about and that's the policy that we work under today.
I think the impact of the policy has been uniformly positive in every school board across the province, because there's a statement in the policy that says that every English language learner must have an initial assessment of his or her English language proficiency, mathematics proficiency. There's another statement that says that if it's determined that an English language learner has limited prior schooling, then additional support must be in place.
And for school boards that didn't have that, they had to get up to speed. Now luckily in the Toronto district school board we did already have all of those things, although we didn't have as many ESL teachers as we really should have had. And because we had these statements saying that every child, every newcomer child had to be assessed and had to be supported, we were able to bring in approximately 40 additional ESL teachers in order to make up a cadre of what we call itinerant ESL teachers. So many of our schools have, you know, critical mass of English language learners.
And we also have many schools in Toronto that might have 40 or 50 English language learners and they would have an onsite ESL teacher. But we also have about 140 plus schools that have three English language learners or seven English language learners. These tend to be in communities where there isn't a lot of multifamily housing, where it's single family housing. And usually immigrants when they're first getting established tend to live at the beginning in multifamily housing.
So what the policy allowed us to do was to introduce this group of 40 teachers who would travel to different schools and support all the children in the schools with very small numbers of English language learners, which when you added it all up was like one and a half thousand children. But because they were spread over 140 schools in small groups they weren't getting any service because the board had not had a requirement from the Ministry to service them. So that's been a really positive development in our school board from this ESL policy.
We have a neighborhood in Toronto called Thorncliffe Park. Actually Thorncliffe Park has been the setting of a number of Canadian novels about immigration. It's an area of apartment towers. There are about eight or nine apartment towers and each of them are between 25 and 30 stories tall. And they're all clustered in kind of a valley and there are three schools serving the neighborhood; an elementary, a middle school and a high school. It's Canada's most densely populated immigrant area.
So in Thorncliffe Park Elementary School we have nine ESL teachers there and at any one time in that school, there are probably six or seven hundred children who are in their first four years in Canada, not to mention hundreds of children in the kindergarten who may have been born in Canada but are growing up so far in their early years with no exposure to English. It's interesting also that Thorncliffe Park is the largest elementary school in North America. It has somewhere over 2,000 students in it.
And what they're doing in the fall of 2013 they're opening Canada's first kindergarten only school. They're making a separate building and it's going to have between 20 and 25 junior and senior kindergarten classes. We're working very hard with the principal of this kindergarten school because we want to introduce a lot of first language development and maintenance and you know real celebration of the first language and parental involvement from parents and communities that may not speak English into that school in particular because we know that the vast majority of children coming to kindergarten in that school will be English language learners and their parents will still be English language learners.
Bilingualism in Canada
Canada is an officially bilingual country. And our two official languages are French and English. In the 1960s we had a Prime Minister who I think is probably the most familiar Prime Minister to Americans, Pierre Trudeau , and he brought in the policy of official bilingualism in our country.
So that what this means in effect is that anywhere you go in Canada you can access any federal government service in either of Canada's two official languages, whether that be the judicial system or anything that you want to do, order a passport, any kind of contact that you would have for any kind of service with federal governmental institutions you may carry out in either French or English.
And an offshoot from all of this is that we want Canadians as much as possible to be bilingual. French is a compulsory subject in elementary and secondary schools across the country, so children start learning French, in Ontario I believe it's in grade three now. I don't know about other provinces. But we also have a wonderful program which started in the 1960s in Montreal, and it was started by Wallace Lambert, and I believe that Fred Genesee was working with him at that time, and it's called French immersion.
And French immersion is really like I guess the father of bilingual education. When French immersion was started in the 1960s in Montreal what it was was an opportunity for Anglophone children to go to school and be in a school environment where everything took place in French all day. And a lot of research was done on French immersion and low and behold they found that, yes, children can become bilingual in two languages. And it's not going to be detrimental to their development of literacy and fluency in English, given a little bit of extra time.
So French immersion has spread across the country. It's in every province, in almost every school board. There are literally hundreds of thousands of children who have gone to French immersion programs across the country. Some of them start in kindergarten and some of them start in middle school. So in our board there's a choice, you can do one or the other.
And a lot of children do French immersion until the end of grade eight. And then when they go to high school they don't continue, but you can continue in French immersion in high school in Toronto. We have a number of high schools that offer a bilingual program. So the students are doing Canadian history, geography, science, mathematics, many of their subjects in French. And some of them go onto study in French universities, either in Quebec or in France. And we have a university in Toronto called York University which has a Francophone campus in Toronto where all of the courses are given in French. It's called College Glendon. And several thousand students attend there as well.
So that is Canada's real I think contribution to the area of bilingual education and second language education policy. It's a real commitment at a national level to trying to produce as many bilingual Canadians as we can.
One of the differences that exists between Canada and the United States is that in most Canadian provinces we don't have a formal program of bilingual education, the way I've seen it exist here. And I think there are a number of reasons for this. One of them is that we do have French immersion, the bilingual education program in Canada's two official languages. So anybody who wants to can take advantage of that.
One of the other reasons is that, as we've talked about, there are so many different language groups represented among Canada's immigrants that it is difficult and it would be difficult in a city like Toronto to run bilingual education programs in 75 different immigration languages, each of which has a strong representation in a community. So you know on a logistical level it's harder to do, so we haven't gone down that path.
There are a couple of provinces in Canada that do have education ministry-supported bilingual education, most noticeably British Columbia and Alberta. In Alberta they do have some bilingual education schools. I know that there is a Mandarin bilingual education program. There is a Punjabi bilingual education program. There is a Ukrainian bilingual education program. And I think a lot of the bilingual education thrusts there started with the Ukrainian language because a lot of the people who moved to Alberta in the early 1900s, and subsequently, were of Ukrainian heritage and they didn't want to lose their language.
And they advocated for Ukrainian language schools and the government was quite forthcoming and then it mushroomed from that into other language communities. So we do have bilingual education in some provinces in some languages, but there isn't the same kind of framework for it as there is in the United States.
Part II: Newcomers
Advice for new populations
I think one of the things that we want is for school boards to know their student populations. Sometimes it's amazing how when teachers work with new immigrants they really don't know very much about the children's background and you know you'll ask them what country did the child come from or what language do they speak at home and the teachers really don't know. So I think one of the biggest pieces of advice that we would give is make sure you know who your children are and what their needs are, because depending where they come from and what kinds of experiences they've had, they're going to have a whole range of needs.
Alberta now has very well developed standards for English language learners in terms of curriculum expectations. So I think they've realized what was happening and they've done a really good job. Saskatchewan is still working on it, but again more and more immigrants are going there. So they're needing to learn, you know, what's a good balance between English as second language instruction and having children be in the main stream, things like that, you know, how much time should they be devoting to each part of the day, that kind of thing.
Starting where they are
So when you have children with limited prior schooling, first of all they can come in at any age, so they could be children in grade three or four. That's really the earliest that we'll have an ELD program, because before that there are some countries where children don't start school until age seven or eight. So we don't really consider that to be ELD. But we have children from the age of seven or eight, right up to kids who are of older high school age. I myself have taught many students who have never been to school before, who are 14, 15 and 16 years old, and then everything in between.
So first we start with trying to find out where they are. Some of them may have some literacy in their home language or in another language where they've lived in a transit country for several years. So we try to get some idea of what kind of literacy skills they have, what kind of mathematical skills they've been able to acquire. And we also, we try to be mindful of the fact that just because they haven't had formal education they know a lot. And they've learned a lot of things about life and about a lot of different subjects that don't necessarily come from sitting in rows in a classroom, learning from a book.
And so we want to start with some of those things in order to validate the kinds of knowledge and skills that they bring with them.
Students with limited schooling
I'm a high school teacher myself and I had the opportunity in the early to mid-90s to work in a high school in Toronto which had the largest population of Somali students outside of Mogadishu, and it was quite, it was very well known in Toronto and people back in Somalia knew the neighborhood and when they got here they would send their children to that school.
And you know we had kids coming to the school who were 16, 17, 18 years old who had never had any real experiences using scissors or glue or crayons. They'd never done puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. They'd never played on a playground swing set. And so just because they were older teenagers they wanted to experience and do all those things, so some of the things we did, even with the older kids, in a way that you know made it fun for them as older kids was to introduce them to all those things that they had missed. And I think that sometimes is part of what you need to do with children with limited prior schooling.
Goals for SIFEs
I think the goals for children with limited prior schooling can be quite diverse. Of course our goal for every student is to have them reach their full potential. But there are a lot of intervening factors, especially if children come at a later age. They tend to come from families that need them to go out into the workforce to contribute to the family income.
So one of the goals that we do have is to get them to improve their literacy skills in English as much as they can as long as they can stay in school and to get them to see themselves as lifelong learners, so that if they do have to leave school say when they're 17 or 18 because of economic factors, that they will feel that they are learners and that they can come back to school at any time in the future you know as a continuing education student, at night, during the day to a community college and you know they have the potential to go on and achieve whatever they want.
So I think that's one of the things that we try really hard to impart to them — you might not be able to do it all now, but it's a journey and we want you to know that you have the ability. We want to instill in you the confidence and the skills to be able to go on that journey to wherever it is it will take you.
I'll talk a little bit about intake for refugees in the Toronto district school board. We get probably several thousand refugees a year, but we have two different intake processes depending on whether children are of elementary school age or second school age. Because we have about 11,000 new arrivals a year in the elementary school system all of those children go directly to their local schools. I mentioned 440 elementary schools. And the intake is done there by the onsite ESL teacher.
For the high school kids, and we have about 4,000 children who come in of high school age every year, they go to what we call newcomer reception centers. And we have four of them in the Toronto district school board. They are dispersed geographically around the city. The kids come for a day with their families and they spend a full day doing an assessment of their English skills and their math skills, particularly with children who have limited prior schooling, learning about where they're at in their math skill development is really helpful for us to get a little bit of a better fix on what their prior schooling might have been.
So they come to one of our newcomer reception centers. We have bilingual staff, multilingual staff at all our reception centers. And they spend have a day in a very, it's not a test, it's an assessment and it's a dynamic process where they sit one on one with an assessment teacher, be it for English or for mathematics. And the teacher is always trying to see not only what they know, but if with a little mini teaching if the student is able to assimilate that concept or that skill and learn it and show the teacher that they can learn that skill.
So it's a very dynamic and interactive assessment and at the end of the day the teachers will make a recommendation for ESL credit course and mathematics courses in the secondary school.
During their day at the reception center the families of the students, whether they're refugees or immigrants have the opportunity to meet with what's called a settlement worker. And the settlement workers are provided by a federally funded program which gives support to new Canadians and will help the families with all kinds of settlement inquiries and issues, like housing, health care, employment, looking for adult language classes, connecting with agencies and community groups that relate to their ethno or cultural community.
So they meet as well with the settlement worker. And if we think at the end of the day that the child, the teenager does have limited prior schooling then the teachers will make a recommendation for that student to go to one of our LEAP programs. And those are our special magnet programs for children with limited prior schooling.
The settlement workers of course they have their own training. You know we try to do some specific professional development with the teachers of our LEAP classes, our classes for students with limited prior schooling, and the topics focus on, you know, teaching basic and growing literacy and numeracy skills. But they do also often focus on working with students who have experienced trauma, who've lived in refugee camps.
We work sometimes with an organization called The Canadian Center for Victims of Torture. It's unfortunate that there exists such an organization. But it's there to help children and adults who have come from countries where they've witnessed or experienced terrible atrocities and now they're in our country and they need help to be able to process that and hopefully move forward from that. So we do incorporate that in some of our ongoing teacher training.
We work very closely with the settlement workers, with the federal workers who do the settlement work with families and in consultation with them they have produced a lot of different multilingual resources. We have something called the Newcomers Guide to School in Ontario. There's an elementary school book and a secondary school book. That's available in about 20 or 25 different languages. So that when families come they can download all of this information about what to expect in school, everything from you know uniforms, gym clothes, signing forms to go on trips, calling school to let them know if your child isn't there.
All available in different home languages for the parents. And we also have, there are some videos that the settlement organizations have produced as well for newcomers. One is about using the public library. And that's available in about ten different languages. And one is called New Moves, which is a very nice video which particularly focuses on a child just faced by teenagers as they come to another country and integrate into high school and you know all the feelings that they have around missing their friends and being in a school where things may be done totally differently to what they're used to in their home country.
And that's available in a number of different languages and has an accompanying facilitator's guide. Both teachers and a lot of guidance counselors use this facilitator's guide. And that can be downloaded for free from the settlement. org website.
So the settlement workers also worked on a project where our provincial ESL advocacy group was involved to produce a children's chapter book called coming to Canada. And this is a book about the adjustment of a new Canadian family that has two children, one's in grade three and one's in grade five. They come to Canada from Pakistan, their first language is Urdu. And we see what happens to the children over about a year of their time in Canada. And that has an accompanying teacher's guide as well.
And it's not just ESL teachers who use the book, because there are a lot of activities in the teacher's guide which really help the non-newcomer kids to understand what is it like to come to a new country, what are the feelings that you have of being excluded, what can we do as children who've been here longer or who were born here to help the newcomers in our class and in our school feel more comfortable and feel more Canadian right from the beginning?
And that's also available to download from the web. So those are some of the different projects that we've worked on to support English language learners.
One of the jobs that I do in my role is trying to think about what kinds of resources would be helpful to teachers, parents and students whether they be in English or multilingual resources, and then initiating them and seeing them through to completion. And some of the resources that we've developed in the Toronto District School Board, we're quite proud of and a couple of them we think are unique that we haven't seen anywhere else. And one of them is our DVD called Your Home Language: Foundation for Success.
And this is a short 14-minute movie that we developed. And it's a very soft message. And it's for parents and caretakers and people who work with young children and talks about the importance of maintaining the home language with young children and with older children as well. We did the movie originally in English and then we had it translated into 12 different languages. We chose the 12 languages at that time that were the 12 most spoken languages among students in the Toronto District School Board.
And had the scripts translated and had the entire production voiced over into the 12 languages. And one of the neat things about the this project was in the movie, there is a principal who speaks in English and she talks about parents should understand that speaking the home language, contrary to you know what they might think, it's not detrimental, it's helpful, it helps children gain concepts which they then just have to learn the vocabulary for in the second language. And she does a very good job of talking about all of this in English.
And we were able to have the voiceovers done by actual principals in the TDSB who speak all of those other languages. So that was really pretty cool that we had you know principals who speak Somali and Gujarati and Punjabi and Korean and so on. So we have a very multilingual educator staff to draw from.
Another one is our HOLA program. And that stands for Home Oral Language Activities. And it's a book bag borrowing program for family literacy development, for students in junior and senior kindergarten and grade one. And what it is, is we took six books that are on a common theme about counting. So it includes Anno's Counting Book, it includes Ten, Nine, Eight, another young children's book, Five Little Monkeys Jumping, several other books.
And we have them in different bilingual editions. And they're in bags. And in each bag are translated into about 10 or 12 community languages activities that you can do as a follow up to reading the book with your child such as matching words and pictures. And the words are provided in the home language as well as in English. The monkey one has a little barrel with the monkeys and their different, you know, there are manipulatives and things that the parents can do together with the children.
So a kindergarten or a grade-one class will get a tub of these plastic bags and the children can sign them out and keep them for a week. And whatever home language they speak there will be activities and explanations in there so that the parent can share with the child in the home language.
I had the experience of working in the early 1990s in a high school that had a very, very large population of refugees from Somalia. And one of my students whose name at that time was Keynaan Cabdi Warsame, went on to become, and I think you know him here in the United States, the rap artist K'naan who sang the, he wrote and sang the song "Waving Flag" that was the anthem for the FIFA World Soccer championships a couple of years ago. He was one of my ESL students, approximately 20 years ago. So he's one that I always think of.
We had a lot of amazing kids at that school who had been through real, real difficult hardships, in their country and coming to Canada. And we had incredibly dedicated teachers. We had another student, I'm not going to mention her name, but she didn't have sight in one eye. She was about 18 or 19 years old. And she just had never had access to the kind of medical care that would help her to see. And in addition to that she had like a milky white film over one eye, completely.
And it was very, you know, it was very distracting when people looked at her, one of her eyes was almost completely white. And you know just through our own devices I knew someone who was an eye surgeon at, we have a very good pediatric hospital in Toronto, it's internationally known, called the Hospital for Sick Children, and we referred this young woman to him. And he was able to arrange for her to have eye surgery and they removed the film from her eye. She went to convalesce at one of the teacher's homes, so that she could have darkness and quiet.
That's how dedicated these teachers that I worked with were. And she regained some of the sight in that eye and plus the milky film was totally gone and her self-confidence just shot through the roof because she just looked like everybody else. So that's another story that I remember and I hope that she's doing well and having a good life.
Part III: Assessment and PD
Assessment and evaluation is a very big topic in the province of Ontario, as I'm sure it is here. And the same approach is in place for English language learners as it is for all students. We have a big trend now, and I'm sure this is mirrored here in the states, where we talk about assessment as learning, assessment for learning and assessment of learning. And I guess another way to describe those three would be that assessment for learning is kind of your diagnostics, the things that you're doing all the time with your students to find out what they already know, what they still need to know and what's the variation among individual students in what they know about a particular topic.
Assessment as learning is the kind of metacognitive self-reflection piece where kids are thinking about their learning and thinking about the things that they do to help them learn better and kind of reflecting on their progress and what they need to know.
Assessment of learning is the cumulative assessment at the end of a unit or learning which most closely parallels the traditional idea of assessment of what children have assimilated and learned over a unit of study.
When I went to school, it was all about assessment of learning and teachers did not look at really diagnostics and checking kids' progress along the way to sort of fine tune what different individual children still needed to do in order to be able to achieve the expectations or the objectives of the curriculum. So that's something certainly that's very different from even when I started as a teacher 30 years ago. And it has its challenges, but I think it does more closely reflect what the real process of learning is and makes it into a more authentic understanding of what kids have achieved.
Some of the things that we have in our policy for English language learners pertain to province-wide or certain other kinds of standardized tests that all students in Ontario have to take. And we have some special exemptions and deferrals for English language learners, which I think are very humane and really reflect the fact that when a child just arrives, you cannot expect them to be able to pass a particular test on the same footing, especially if they're in high school with kids who have been going to school since grade one in an English-speaking environment.
So we have a credentialing test in grade ten. It's called the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. And this is something that you need to graduate. And it measures students' literacy achievement up to the end of grade nine, which the government has decided is a minimum amount of literacy skill that a high school student should have in order to be able to get a high school diploma.
And it covers reading and writing in different genre, fiction, non-fiction, newspaper reports, narrative, all kinds of different reading and writing skills and genre. The students take it, usually the last week in March, but students who are English language learners can be deferred from taking this test.
And they can be deferred simply by, you know, the principal's discretion saying this student has not yet achieved a level of proficiency in English necessary to pass the test. And usually kids who are at the first four courses of ESL in high school haven't yet achieved that level. So they have a deferral. They can take the test again in the following year and if they get another deferral they don't have to take the test anymore. What they can do instead is take a course. And the course is a regular credit high school course, it's made up of 110 hours of study, and it covers in-depth all of the reading and writing genre and the literacy skills that the test tests the students on.
So to me you know as an English language educator I think this is a much better way for English language learners to really learn and assimilate the skills needed for success to have an opportunity to take a course like that, where they're learning about, you know, direct and indirect speech and you know how do you skim and scan and how do you read a newspaper report to get information out of it and what are the things that you have to include when you're writing a report. So they can take that test instead.
And it's happened to me in the past that I spoke about this at a TESOL conference. I was on a panel of people who were speaking about various developments in secondary school education for English language learners and I was the only Canadian on the panel. And when I spoke about this course there were like about 400 people in the room and they all burst into like spontaneous applause. They weren't applauding for me. They were applauding what we were doing.
And apparently this was just such a radical concept that we would give students a more humane, less, you know, standardized test oriented way to show that they've learned a necessary skill. So we're quite proud of that.
We have two standardized test years in grade three and grade six where kids do provincial tests in English and mathematics. I know that some states do it more, but in Ontario we just do it in grade three and grade six. And it's not going to affect anything about the school necessarily or about you know a student's chances in the future. It's simply to see how kids are doing, one snapshot in time, and part of a much larger spectrum of things that we take into account when looking at a child's progress.
So in our policy it states that English language learners should only participate in these grade three and grade six tests when they have the English proficiency necessary for success. So this allows a lot of children, especially the newly arrived ones to be exempted. And we're pleased about that too. And I understand that that isn't the case in all jurisdictions in the United States.
The Ministry of Education has a program of teacher evaluation. And those teacher evaluations are done by school principals.
And there is a standard set of forms with the look-fors of teacher behaviors in the classroom and the principal will visit, the teacher's classroom will have a talk with the teacher beforehand to you know set the context for the professional appraisal, visit the classroom, perhaps maybe even more than one time and then have a debriefing at the end. So we do have a formal program of teacher appraisal.
What I'd like to say about appraising ESL teachers and this is something that I'm very lucky to be able to work in the same city with Dr. Jim Cummins. And I do a lot of work with him. And one of the things that he talks about quite a lot and I really agree with him on this, as on a lot of other things, is there is no requirement of any formal training for school administrators in Ontario to learn anything about English language learners.
And there is a lot of movement of principals around systems. Certainly in the Toronto district school board, principals are often being moved and vice principals from one school to another. So you know you could be moved from a school like Thorncliffe Park, which I spoke about where working with English language learners is what you live and breathe every day, to another school which has very few English language learners.
So without any training for administrators I think that, you know, it's difficult for some administrators to really understand the most important foundational things that should be present in schools to support English language learners and similarly they may not have the knowledge to properly evaluate and do professional appraisals on teachers working with English language learners, because they don't have the training and the knowledge themselves to understand what it really means to appropriately modify the students program for the needs of an English language learner.
So I think we need more foundational training for school administrators as well as what I mentioned before for pre-service teachers about working with English language learners. So I think it should be a requirement for every teacher working in a North America school today. Whichever jurisdiction you're in, you should have some basic understanding of working with English language learners.
Professional development for teachers, in different provinces in Canada it works in different ways. So I can only really speak about Ontario. When a teacher graduates from a teacher training institution they receive what's called a Bachelor of Education degree. And that qualifies them to teach in an elementary or secondary school. And if you want to add ESL to your list of teachable subjects, you have to take an additional course. They're called additional qualification courses. It's I believe 120 hour course and there are a series of three courses: ESL part one, part two and part three.
And if you take all three of those courses, then you're deemed a specialist in ESL. And there are some remuneration benefits to that as well as in the high school allowing you, for example, to apply to be a head of an ESL department.
But my experience is that, compared to most jurisdictions that I've come in contact with in the United States, they do require more preparation than one 120-hour course. So I think that's something that we need to think about in Ontario.
We also need to think about the fact that at the pre-preparation, like the pre- professional level when students are in the BED program, there's no mandatory requirement for any exposure to anything regarding English language learners. And in a province like Ontario, which is so multilingual and multicultural it seems to me that it should be a basic requirement of foundational teacher education that every teacher learn basic techniques of working with English language learners and have a basic understanding of second-language learning. And we don't have that in Ontario yet. So those of us who work in advocacy at the provincial level are trying to push for this, but it's a bit of an uphill battle.
So working with teachers in my role as the ESL coordinator in the Toronto district School Board one of my responsibilities is to oversee professional development for ESL teachers and also for mainstream classroom teachers as it pertains to their working with English language learners. So we have a full roster of different multi part courses that teachers can take. They don't get provincial credit for them on their teaching certificates, but many teachers are interested in helping their students if they have English language learners.
So we offer different courses on how they can adapt their curriculum to make it accessible for English language learners. Right now we're doing some very interesting four part modules on digital storytelling. I have a member of my staff who is very expert in working with a number of computer programs which allow the kids to create a digitized storybook. And they can do it in two languages and they can add all of the either photographs or art work and then they can also read the book aloud in the two languages.
So we're trying to incorporate some different interesting technological innovations.
We have a very active web page which all teachers in the TDSB can access. We have 17, approximately I think 17,000 teachers in the Toronto district school board. It's big. And we post a lot of different resources. We have a link to Colorín Colorado, as well as a number, there are a number of Canadian sites that have very interesting multilingual projects that we've put links to, so that teachers can go and look at things that kids have done. In Calgary there's a professor there by the name of Hetty Roessingh at the University of Calgary. And she has a website called Grandma's Soup and My Family's Treasures.
And these two websites you can easily Google them, they have all of the digital books of the kids posted. And you can look through the books and the kids are reading them in both languages and you know again they're interesting models to inspire teachers to do that kind of work themselves with their classes.
Professional learning community
We have professional learning communities for both our elementary ESL teachers and our secondary ESL teachers. And often the topics that are focused on in those professional learning communities will come from the needs and the requests of the teachers who are in the groups themselves.
And they may also do some inquiry based learning where they will look at a particular teaching or assessment strategy, talk about it in their professional learning group, go back and implement it in their classroom and then come back and do a critique of it and share what the class has produced and help each other to try to improve that particular technique. So we do a lot of professional development.
Well, if you want to be an advocate for your English language learners of course the first place to start is in your own school. And there are many wonderful schools that do an amazing job within the whole school community of making newcomers feel welcome and included in so many ways. And then there are schools that are still on that path. So I think you know one of the best things that you can do is to advocate within your own school perhaps work with some like-minded staff.
Look at some of the really good teacher resources that are out there and maybe focus on some things that your school could be improving, perhaps in its welcoming procedures or its inclusion of various cultural groups and the materials that are in the library or the things that are on the walls in the school. So that would be a good place to start.
And then of course if you're really caught by the bug, you would want to move onto your provincial or state level and participate in your advocacy group there. In Ontario we have a group of ESL coordinators, and we advocate on the provincial level with our Provincial Ministry of Education on anything connected to English language learners and how it affects them in the education system.
I've been lucky enough to, for almost the last 20 years, be able to attend, regularly attend and particular in Illinois, the annual conference for linguistically, Teachers of Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students. And that inspired me 11 years ago to start a conference in Toronto for teachers of new Canadians. Not just ESL teachers, but classroom teachers who wanted to improve their practice and wanted to network with other teachers.
And in 11 years at that conference, which is called Celebrating Linguistic Diversity, has grown to be the largest conference for people who work with English language learners in Canada. We have it on the last Thursday and Friday in April every year. It takes place in Toronto. It started off as a Toronto-based conference and now we have people coming from all over Canada.
We had someone come down this past year from Nunavut, which is the territory up in the north, from Iqaluit, in Nunavut. We have people coming from British Columbia, right through to the east to Newfoundland. And we get about 1,400 teachers. And it's really exciting because people can share from every province the things that they're doing and I think that a lot of ELL professionals around the country have found it really energizing and really useful to be able to make contacts, trade ideas and find out what we're doing.
So we certainly invite anyone who's interested to participate in the Celebrating Linguistic Diversity conference.
Part IV: Canada Quiz
Introduction to Canada Quiz
First of all I really want to thank you for this opportunity of being able to talk about how we support English language learners in Canada. And I think that if there's one thing that a lot of Canadians would like to say to Americans is that we're quite proud that we know a lot about your country and your culture and we would really be thrilled if more Americans would make the effort to learn a little bit more about our country and our culture and what's happening in Canada.
Canada Quiz: Canada 101
What is the capital city of Canada?
How many provinces and territories does Canada have?
Canada has ten provinces and three territories, which are not quite provinces.
What is on the Canadian flag?
A red maple leaf.
How many official languages does Canada have?
Two, English and French.
So who is Canada's current prime minister?
What animal is on the Canadian nickel?
What symbol is on the Canadian penny?
The maple leaf.
Canada Quiz: Inventions and Contributions
What mobile communication device was invented in Canada?
What extremely important medical discovery was made by Canadians in Toronto?
Insulin was discovered in Toronto by the scientists Banting and Best.
What television star's grandfather was voted by Canadians as Canada's greatest Canadian?
Kiefer Sutherland, whose grandfather was Tommy Douglas, the father of Canada's national health care system.
Canada Quiz: Pop Culture
What very famous silent film star was born in Toronto?
What two huge Las Vegas acts are Canadian?
Cirque de soleil and Celine Dion.
Which of the following singers, which one of the following singers is not Canadian: Celine Dion, Feist, Avril Lavigne, Natalie Merchant, Alanis Morissette, or Sarah McLaughlin?
And the answer is Natalie Merchant.
Which of the following movie actors is not Canadian: Michael J. Fox, Ryan Gosling, Neil Patrick Harris or Ryan Reynolds?
And the answer is Neil Patrick Harris.
Which Canadian actor was chosen by People's Magazine last year as Sexiest Man of the Year?
And the answer is Ryan Reynolds from Vancouver.
Paula Markus received her MA in TESOL from Georgetown University, and began her career in education as a secondary school ESL teacher. Since 2001, Paula has been the Coordinator of ESL Programs for the Toronto District School Board. She has worked extensively in ESL curriculum writing for the Ontario Ministry of Education, and has delivered ESL teacher training courses at the University of Toronto, York University and Queen's University.
This interview was filmed with the support of the Carnegie Corporation as part of Colorín Colorado's ELL and Policy project.