It's all about the narrative


Overland Stories



There’s a thirst to starting to learn a new language, a glee when one deciphers  a new word independently.  It reminds me of the way my children laughed when they first made that letter-sound-meaning connection.

I’m learning Arabic  — my first new language since my teens.  And yes, the language brain is not what it was, but “tho’ much is taken much abides” as the wise poet said. * What I didn’t expect was to be having so much fun.

But what is most important about this thirst is that it’s contagious.  A group of learners will spread the excitement amongst themselves, and beyond that, to the instructors and school staff.  I missed out on the big waves of refugee immigration — from Vietnam and Somalia — but I do remember when  the last big group of Colombian immigrants crossed the border and how our halls were alive with the buzz of Spanish and the energy of people for whom learning English was a true survival mechanism.  Every week they could see quantifiable progress in their English; what’s more, this progress translated into greater ease that they felt as they settled into their new homes.

In recent years, immigration has been restricted to more proficient speakers.  The tone has changed.  English classes for most have been a choice rather than a necessity.  While this has its advantages — students with more specific ideas of what they want from a class –there is something lacking.  We can spend weeks discussing the use of infinitive versus gerund forms, but even if that information stays with them, knowing  the difference between “I had trouble doing that.”  I got into trouble for doing that” and “I went to a lot of trouble to do that”  will not necessarily make it appreciably easier for them to make small talk on the bus.

But now…

Surely you’ve seen the news photos of Our Handsome Prime Minister hugging parka-clad children. ** Canada has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees over the past 7 months.  Many of them have settled in Toronto, and a great deal of them are at a basic English level.  Again, we have an influx of people for whom English is literally a survival need, and who are clearly aware of its importance. I have met members of this community in different settings and in each case I have been struck by the intensity of their motivation to learn.

This could be our opportunity, a chance to infuse new energy into the ESL system, on the level of funding (1 student = x government $), but also on the level of morale.  A flood of new  students, especially at the beginner level, could bring that contagious thirst that would give all involved a new sense of purpose.

And yet…

I’m not hearing about that.  I think the students are coming.  When I talk to colleagues at the Board, some of them tell me that they have seen their numbers leap.  But I hear no official pronouncement from the Board welcoming these new learners, no billboards promising broad educational vistas to beaming newcomers. What’s more, I’m bombarded with frustratingly ill-informed messages from the media, stories of newcomers on 6-month waiting lists for English classes, or even one organization dismissing other sources of ESL education as “inadequate” for refugees.*** Even worse, I’m not hearing these claims refuted by the school boards.  I have first hand knowledge that classrooms are sitting half-empty.  We do have space for those students and we do have first-rate programs for helping them.  Why is nobody screaming this from the rooftops?

Community language organizations need to step up, to promote themselves as the best and most accessible option for the refugee community. This makes good business sense, but it’s also common courtesy: we need to let our New Canadians know that they are welcome here.  Management also has to improve internal communications.  Present this to your employees as an exciting new development, a challenge and an opportunity to learn more about another culture, a real chance to make a difference.  Make them see that the work they do is of vital importance — to each individual learner, but also to the country as a whole.

Before you yell at me

Yes I know.  I’m essentially an outsider at this point.  You may bristle at my easy criticisms. You may argue that in fact you are taking many steps to accommodate these new learners.  That’s as may be, but I’m not hearing it from where I am, and I’m pretty close to the ESL world.  You  should be making a noise that I can hear across the city.  Wake up, guys!  This is the work that we were born to do.

*this quote set off a chain of memories and associations that evolved into its own blogpost 

** at least he managed to keep his shirt on this time, as opposed to this one and this one; there’s also this.

***not linking or naming the parties involved, but it definitely did happen


Empathy Sucks



So* I’ve been reading a post by a fellow blogger about how taking an academic course generates empathy in us for our students, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, tried that once.”

Last year, I created a reading blog  to follow my students in their extended reading program.  I read a novel in French as they read theirs in English.  Did I experience empathy?  Well I found out what it is like to read really really slowly.  By obsessively examining my reading practice, I discovered that I was marginally less proficient in reading French than I thought. But did I really develop empathy for my students?  No, I was having a good time.  Reading and self-obsession are my two favourite hobbies (well besides #catsofinstagram) (And let’s just say that there’s a fine line between reflective practice and narcissism; in fact they are part of the same Greek myth.)

I love me some good Pre-Raphaelite.
I love me some good Pre-Raphaelite.

To really mimic their experience, I would have to be kidnapped, transported to a place halfway across the world where the time was always 12 hours wrong.  I would then be forced to read books I didn’t want to read and have to pretend I liked them.  To receive credit, I would be compelled to join an organization that was illegal in my own country and participate in an activity as potentially addictive as online gambling or crystal meth.**  So no.


So what is empathy really? Empathy is when students cry and you cry with them, and it sucks because it’s really tough to teach separable phrasal verbs with mascara running down your face.  It scares the students and makes them feel bad for disturbing you.

True empathy is a dark primal emotion***, as volatile as lighter fuel.  It’s not necessarily something you want to have around when you’re teaching.  In fact, perhaps we are more effective without empathy.

I think Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point about surgeons, but I don’t acknowledge his existence any more after that obnoxious article he wrote about being a jackass at his best friend’s wedding.

Before I started working in settlement, I had a kind of awe of anyone who had led a life of suffering.  I felt that they were somehow ennobled and not to be judged by conventional moral standards.

That all changes when you get a class full of people who — well let’s put it this way: very few people leave their jobs and uproot their families and get on a plane because they are so happy with their life that they want to spread the joy.

They all come from some kind of suffering, but suddenly they are not so noble. You don’t judge them exactly and there are all sorts of things that you take into consideration, but even so, a teacher soon realizes that some students are better at getting along with each other and contributing to the community than others****.

If you encourage the behaviours of those students, you’re going to have a safer and more collaborative space for everybody, and they might even learn more. So you can either melt into a puddle of sorry or impose some norms on the classroom.

And so yes, one does have to turn off one’s humanity to a certain extent.  It’s surprising how quickly this surgeon mindset takes hold.

I remember the first time a student cried in front of me, the first time a student told me of a friend being killed, the student who told me of her children being taken away by social services.

There were times when I lost it*****, but more often than not, I would hear my own voice saying, “So tell me what happened; tell me what I can do.”  Often I was shocked by my words.  How could I not be destroyed by this terrible story I was hearing? It was as if some mechanism had malfunctioned in my brain.  But had anything been lost?  Would I have been a better person had I stayed connected?

Let me give you an example.  Back in the days before cellphones, daycares used to call the main school phone if there was a problem with the child.  The secretary would then page the parent on an all-call throughout the school.  Then the parent would have to go to the office to take the phone call.  Once when a woman was paged, she asked me to walk with her.  As we made our way down the stairs and along the hallway, I could see that she was terrified.  I walked calmly beside her, keeping my steps even so as to encourage her body to slow its pace. Would I have been a better person if I had empathised, if I had imagined feeling that terror for the safety of one of my children?  Perhaps, but I would never have made it down the stairs, and then what good would I have been?

There are times when the best thing we can be is a mirror that reflects back a person’s emotions, but sometimes that is not what is needed.  If we both feel our knees buckle, how can we keep from falling?



*Yeah, yeah, yeah, I read that banned words article. Not going to change, though.

**I know — I am also participating in this addictive activity, but it’s different when it’s voluntary.  It’s the difference between becoming a heroin addict through one’s own actions and that episode of  Starsky and Hutch.

*** Read this if you don’t believe me.  Read this too: it’s not as relevant, but it’s really good.

****George Monbiot articulates this phenomenon nicely here: “I have seen people undergo astonishing trauma and emerge scarcely changed by the experience. I’ve seen others thrown off balance by what look like insignificant disruptions: the butterfly’s wing that causes a brainstorm. We cannot expect a system as complex as the human mind to respond in predictable or linear ways.”

*****like here.





Set piece/wistful leitmotif

strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense
(strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense)

There’s a kind of watershed when it comes to memory.  Too close to an event, you can’t really process it; too far, and you start to lose the nuance of the experience.  I feel that I’ve come to that point in my memories of Overland. I’m finding ways to articulate things better than I could when I was immersed in that world, but I sense that if I wait any longer, I will no longer be able to truly capture the experience.  It’s already starting to happen with the Overland Heyday stories.  My semantic memory of that time is pretty good, but the episodic is becoming vague and generalized.  I can write about how Overland made me feel, and I have done so here and here and here and this whole series.  However, I can’t really capture what it felt like to teach a particular class.  That teacher is so different from the person I am now that we can’t even talk to each other.

I became aware of the fading of these memories  as I wrote this article.   The story is set in the Later Overland era,  but even so,  I realized that the scene was already slipping away from me, and that if I was going to write this, it should be now.

This originally started as a set piece that I was working on for a very pragmatic reason: I needed something  halfway serious to do while I was supervising a test.  In other words,  I didn’t want the students to see that telltale shade of blue radiating from my screen. It’s a response to the imagined prompt:  Talk about a lesson that you are particularly proud of.  This is actually a series of lessons leading up to a pizza lunch, although the pizza lunch itself was distinctly underwhelming.

Two events precipitated this series.  There was a famine in East Africa, and schools around the city were raising funds for relief efforts  The TDSB had offered to match any funds raised.  Around the same time, TIFF screened the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc , which articulated the first quiet suggestion of criticism of the breast cancer awareness campaign.

pink ribbons

I used an audio clip from a radio interview with the producers of the film and located  some print background material.  The class compared the different resources and discussed the ethics and practice of charitable donation.  I was so impressed with the interaction, the level of sophistication and engagement, that I decided to extend the conversation.  It seemed like an ideal lead-in to a fundraising activity.

So I devised a series of lessons in the course of which the students would to choose a charity to donate to, publicize the cause and the event, and then perform the actual fund-raiser.

Students worked in groups.  The first task was to identify a cause that they considered important.  They then researched the aid groups that  targeted that particular group or problem.** Students worked together to prepare an information sheet on their chosen organization and its mission.   Through discussion, they identified the arguments for and against choosing the organization as the recipient of our funds.

Each group shared their information with the class.  We then discussed the relative merits of the different programs.  There was a real range of knowledge and experience: some students were thinking critically about these issues for the first time; others had experienced  directly the situations at which the aid was directed; still others had worked with the NGOs we were discussing**.

The students worked hard to determine the group that best matched their values, and ended up choosing MSF.  Key factors were the effectiveness of their programs, the absence of geographical restrictions, and the transparency of their mission.

The next step was to create the print publicity.  We discussed  the basics of poster making and the need for balance between attracting attention and relaying information.  We talked about how to make the content appealing and accessible, and about why it was a bad idea to copy and paste chunks of material from the internet.  We then negotiated the logistics of getting access to the only colour printer in the school, and posted the documents.

In the week before the actual day we broadcast the information over the PA system.  Normally strong, confident  speakers volunteer to read an English script.  It is challenging, but it is  very valuable experience, especially for students who plan to undergo the ordeal of the TOEFL Speaking Test.

Earlier that term, however, one of the other teachers, Glenn, had experimented with bilingual broadcasts (Spanish and English) for soccer team announcements.  We decided to take it one step further and provide announcements in languages that reflected the school population. There was a discussion as to which languages should be used; then strong speakers were chosen from each of the dominant language groups.  They decided on the key details of the message and then wrote out two versions, in English and translated.   They worked with a partner from the same country to make sure that the translated version was smooth and accurate.

Watching the delivery of these PA messages was fascinating.  When the students switched into their native languages, it was as if they had slipped on new clothes.  Their voices were stronger; even their body language became more assured:  it was yet one more reminder that these students had really been persons of stature in their original countries.  I enjoyed watching the reactions of the students from other classes:  that slight double take when they realized they were hearing their mother tongue.  The announcements generated inter-class discussions: comparisons of the sounds of the different languages, and the dialects and accents within individual languages, and suggestions that other languages be included.***


The pizza lunch itself was, as I said, anticlimactic.  The scheduling made it difficult for the students to be involved in the actual serving; other events had made the day unusually chaotic; and well nobody really likes pizza that much anyway.  Later on, I was told that we had missed the deadline for the fund matching, but ours would not have been matched anyway because we had not chosen to earmark the funds for East Africa.****

So as an actual fundraising event, this was not an amazing success.  However, it’s one of those moments I come back to when I want to remind myself of the enormous wealth of talent, intelligence and experience that I encountered every day in the Overland classroom.  It keeps me humble , at the same time as it strengthens my belief in the benefits of an open immigration policy.

When I look back on that, and notice what year it was, I realize that I was already halfway out the door at Overland, but I didn’t see it at the time.  Sometimes a peak experience like this gives us renewed vigour for our job, but it can also be bittersweet.  When you realize that yes this is as good as it gets, no matter how good that good is, it may be a signal that it’s time to move on.





* Students often became aware of an asymmetry between need and services, sometimes because a problem did not have a clear and coherent solution, sometimes because the cause just was  not as media friendly.  The essential unfairness of  the marketing of the more glamorous causes at the expense of others became a key consideration in our discussions.  This was one of the  factors in  our decision not to choose an event-specific charity: we wanted the organization to spend the money where it was most needed, not where the media attention was most focussed.

**For example, one student was a former member of Veterinarians Without Borders, which in not nearly as cute and cuddly as you might think.

***There was an interesting contrast among the language groups.  Some students were quite eager to have their language represented.  In contrast, one language was fairly widely featured at Overland, but its speakers were hesitant to present it as one of the school languages.  There was no obvious political reason for this: it was more a matter of the particular character of the country in question.  If you speak the language yourself, you might be able to guess which one I’m talking about.

**** As part of our decision was based on avoiding ear-marked charities, I can’t say I really regret this.


voices 2
So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices  from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh?  Usually it would be totally the other way around.)

I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text.  Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.

But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986.  I was here in Toronto.  My parents were in Greece.  They were phoning me:  be careful; don’t go outside.  We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.

Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and  weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.

Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater.  They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.

I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl.  I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.

He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field:  Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too  much about certain topics.  However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.

When I think about this, I feel so fortunate.  In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada.  But there’s also a more personal  reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful.  The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.

* and here it is

update:  this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?

Biting the hand

never bite   Then there’s the Union.  This is a ticklish one.  I was raised Socialist the way some people are raised Catholic.  In light of this, I’m going to choose my words extremely carefully, and even so, I’ll probably screen my calls for the next little while. So first, I’d like to say, “I know.” I know the union is the reason that we were making $45/ hour when some private schools were offering minimum wage.  I know that it’s good to feel that there’s someone who has your back if you are being treated unfairly.  I know and I’m grateful,  but still… It’s not that the union shelters bad teachers (I’ll leave that argument to my colleagues on the right.)  It’s that it has difficulty encouraging good teachers.  I’ll try to explain why. Union collective agreements enshrine our right not to do more than we are hired to do, and that makes sense.  The problem is that  policies like that tend to create a sense of the lowest common denominator. Let’s take the example of DM, one of the Overland legends.  DM would sing The Red River Valley with his class before afternoon break. At the end of year picnic, he would travel to the event in his handmade canoe and then give students rides around the island.

DM's canoe looked a bit like this.
DM’s canoe looked a bit like this.

Now, if there were a policy passed demanding that we all provided those services to the students,  it would be absurd.  We of course would be up in arms.  As for the students, if I tried to replicate either of these it would be disastrous: the first would merely constitute cruelty, but the second would definitely expose me to  legal action.  There is no way to make those sessions part of the standard syllabus. Still, I have a feeling that the Canadian folk songs and handmade canoe represent  where Dennis lives as a teacher.*  What I’m saying, I guess, is that a collective agreement standardizes job descriptions while the things that make us who we are as teachers lie outside that standardization.  I suppose it all comes back to the at school/at the school conversation. The most controversial product of the collective agreement was the seniority list.  Teachers originally asked for this, and it does make sense.  Otherwise, long-standing teachers lose their jobs when a class closes.  Nobody wants a flood of fortysomethings released into the job market, especially if they have few transferable skills (unless someone wants a quick active/passive sentence transformation). At the same time, there’s no denying that it is demoralizing for newer teachers (and the hiring policies have  created a situation where people stay new teachers for a very long time).   I  salute those guys, who keep on doing what they do from year to year, never knowing in June where they will end up in September, building up their rapport with the class, only to be moved on if a more senior teacher applies for the job. So for teachers, I guess it comes down on the side of a necessary evil: it’s probably the system that keeps the maximum number of us employed for the longest time. For students, though, the bumping system is definitely unwelcome.  As I have said before, the big centres have powerful institutional memory: friends tell friends about such and such  a class; a teacher’s methods and idiosyncrasies become part of the lore of the immigrant communities.  When the  established teacher doesn’t return in September (or sometimes even vanishes in the middle of the year), students are confused and angry.  And why shouldn’t they be?  Nobody has consulted them.  Often classes get together a petition and bring it to the site manager or program officer, but he or she is unable to take their wishes into account.  This further highlights their sense that student needs are not considered important.  Frustrated and resentful, they are not primed to be receptive to their new instructor, and they often drift away from the class, and perhaps from English lessons altogether. So yes, unions do make things fairer, and they do create a sense of equality, but standardization can negate the individuality that makes a teacher shine.  What’s more, when teachers are reduced to Tetris pieces in staffing model, we lose track of the needs of the students, who are, after all, the most important elements of this endeavour. *There’s probably only one reader who would realize this, but this is a Tina Torlone line; please consider it homage rather than plagiarism.

So why write this

I’m in the middle of a series of posts about changes to community ESL.  In this one, I get a little meta: I’m writing about why I’m writing them.  You can catch up on the series here and here and here.

The Overland pieces have been percolating for a while, but it has got to the point where I can’t write anything else before I get these done.  What impels me to write them? I think there are two things going on inside my writer brain.

First, the whole “too much democracy” theme is a bit of a thought experiment.*  How do we balance equality with excellence?  I have been raised to believe that systems should be as equal as possible, that we should not enjoy a benefit of any kind if others go without.  For this reason, these measures of standardization represent an objective that I have been taught to see as desirable.

At the same time, it could be argued that beauty and excellence cannot occur in a totally standardized world. Perhaps these egalitarian measures that seem so benign have  limited the luminescence of the bigger learning centres.

The old Overland was in many ways elitist and nepotistic, but at the same time, it was its exceptionality that generated the energy. Overland was a space to which teachers and students gravitated; we all brought our best skills, and somehow the school offered us a place where we could contribute the finest that we had to offer.  Is it possible to honour that, when other students and instructors  did not have the same opportunities?  I hope so, but I don’t have a conclusive answer.  I’m writing to find that answer, or at least to understand the question more clearly.

But also, I’m writing to preserve.

I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn (says she casually, as if she had just picked up the Structure of Scientific Revolutions in a light hearted moment)**, and one of the few things that I managed to glean*** from an extremely intense and somewhat adversarial reading experience was the idea that new scientific knowledge didn’t just add to the pre-existing ideas, that truly revolutionary discoveries obliterated the previous concepts.  In other words,  after a major scientific revolution, the old ways of understanding previous theories were completely replaced.  Einstein, for instance, made it impossible for us to really understand Newtonian physics the way it had been understood before .  Thus, the history of science is very difficult to trace as every significant discovery involves the erasure  of earlier thought.

Now I don’t really see education as a science, as I mentioned in a previous post, but I do find that we sometimes mimic scientific culture.  I think there is a strong impulse to rewrite education history in a way that erases all the achievements of previous educators.****  This is something that is very much in the air at the moment. When we hear public statements  about immigration, about settlement, and immigrant education, we become aware that the very vocabulary of the conversation is shifting. **** *I fear that this re-writing of settlement education policy will change the terms of the discourse to such an extent that the grass-roots, Transformative-oriented education event that was Overland will be written out of the script.  Like a character in a time travel movie******, I am trying to hang on to my memories as the event itself disappears from the public consciousness .  The one thing I can do is write it out, and by doing so celebrate an education event that embodied many of the best qualities of community engagement, adult education, and just Canadianness.

The Overland that I am writing about is not the only way for a school to be, or even the only way that Overland could be, but it did represent the work of a talented group of people at the top of their game.  There was something in the atmosphere that encouraged us all to be our best selves and, as I said before, made us all so much more than the sum of our individual parts.  Policies will change; teachers and students will adapt; things may even be better than before.  However, there was much of value in those early years and we will lose it if we heedlessly over-write our local educational history.


*Hence all the Dufferin Grove stuff.

**If any Kuhnites should ever happen on this post, first, welcome, you have travelled far; second, please don’t yell at me in the comments.  I freely admit that I don’t understand the majority of what he’s talking about; I  am just using him to set up my argument.

*** Thanks, so much, Mark Zuckerberg for choosing this for A Year of Books, except not really.  Here’s an interesting post on that topic.

**** Real props to Chia Suan Chong for not  doing that in her 2012 webinar for The British Council

**** *If you need an example of this, have a look at this video.  Listen to how differently the topics are being framed than they would be today.


****** or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Memento, or Inception, or..

The Parable of Dufferin Grove

dufferin grove

I’ve been writing about standardization in community ESL programs.  I realize that this can be quite an emotional issue for me, so I’ve decided to back off a little.  I think I can get more clarity if I focus on a situation that has many parallels to Overland’s, but one where I have no personal involvement. 


If you grew up in west of centre Toronto, you are probably familiar with Dufferin Mall.  If you didn’t, you’re unlikely to have any real reason to go there now.  When I first moved back to Toronto in the early 90s, It was a nondescript shopping centre in the inner suburbs.  There was a certain drab sameness to its retail outlets; also one was more likely to be the victim of a crime when shopping there than at other Toronto malls.

There was a feeling that change was needed, and the mall was re-worked.  Rather than gentrifying it with upmarket stores, the management brought in a few businesses that were more attractive but at relatively low pricepoints; more importantly, they brought in public services, locating literacy and social work programs right in the concourse of the mall. It is considered a an urban planning success.

Across from the mall is Dufferin Grove Park,  This peaceful wooded area had previously provided a venue for the exchange of recreational drugs, but when the mall was revamped, a similar process took place in the park.  The residents banded together to make it a space that could benefit the whole community.  Communal vegetable gardens, an ice rink with a skate exchange, family events, the first Toronto pumpkin parade: involvement made it possible to achieve  change at a very low material cost.

The park escaped official notice for a while, but eventually Toronto City Parks caught up with it.  They began to ask questions about liability (Did the rink supervisors have proper credentials?) and fairness (Why should Dufferin residents enjoy these benefits when people of other high needs neighbourhoods did not?;  Why were the park staff not drawn from the pool of unionized City workers?).  The community argued back, stressing the importance of staffing the facilities with volunteers who had a stake in the community.  There was also the fact that many of the DG projects (communal bread ovens, compostable toilets) would not have succeeded in a different neighbourhood.

Now DG Park is part of the Toronto circuit, a popular space for farmers markets and other city events.  However, there is a sense that something has been lost.  The  Friends of Dufferin Grove website reveals a legacy of bitter disputes; interspersed with these articles are baleful quotes on totalitarianism from the likes of Hannah Arendt.  In a sense, the space no longer belongs to the community, but rather to Toronto as a whole.

But the question remains.** How close does a community have to be to create a meaningful communal experience?  How do we prevent that closeness from becoming insular and elitist?  Beautiful things are achieved when a community works together informally, but at the same time, we cannot discount the rules that enshrine fairness, efficiency and safety.  Is it inevitable that these rules will extinguish the spark of originality that can arise from spontaneous collaboration?

At some point in the 1980s, a catchy slogan started to appear on T-shirts; “Think globally; act locally.”***  The words seemed at once revolutionary and intuitive, and many of us internalized them.  However, we never really stopped to examine the implicit corollary: that there was some kind of continuum between our local actions and global effects, that our small personal good deeds would naturally radiate outwards to embrace a wider community.  What if this does not happen? What happens when our local actions stay just that — local?

*I’m also putting off writing about my next Overland topic:  the role of the Union.  I’m scared that my family will disinherit me after they read that one.

** A similar issue arises regarding fundraising for elementary schools.  However, some family members were on the other side of the fence on that one.

*** Here’s a new and sexy iteration.

A little Procrustean..



I have been writing about how community ESL has changed over the past 20 years.  This is the second part of a post about the standardization of the curriculum.  The first is here.  You might also want to look at the introductory piece.

Whoah!  That last piece started off as one sentence on the way to this one. So let’s just get all that philosophical Freirean stuff out of the way and just say for the sake of argument that learning can be quantitatively calibrated.

So we have Overland, with these seasoned motivated teachers, who really know what works and doesn’t work on the ground, and we have these universal objectives governing what should be taught in the context of the job market and immigration patterns.  This would be a great opportunity for both parties to sit down and work toward a shared program that incorporated the wisdom of the teachers into a vision that suited the modern economic situation.

Sadly, no such consultation took place.  Perhaps it was too much to hope for that an organization as large and unwieldy as the Board could be supple enough to manage such a  compromise, but as it is,  the standards and checklists were imposed in a  top-down fashion.   There was  little acknowledgement of the pragmatic problems inherent in applying them, and these problems are especially common in the larger learning centres like Overland.

A one-size-fits-all solution does not suit complex learning systems.  Overland prided itself on its specialized programs, classes which focused on specific skills, classes that blurred the lines between language teaching and community programs.  These classes did not conform to the CLB criteria, which focus on functional language units.

Benchmarks also become problematic when they are applied to higher level classes.  We all have a pretty consistent idea of what basic survival fluency is:  hello/ goodbye/ thank you/ where’s the bathroom?/ sorry (we are in Canada after all!)/ Go Leafs Go (Sigh! That’s nostalgia for you!), but as language skills increase, the objectives become less standardized.  When I look at the Can-do sheets for the advanced section of the Benchmarks, I start to feel extremely uncomfortable.  There are many skills listed there that I do not possess (read a tax document; write an interoffice memo…).  Not only is English my first language, but it is the way I make my living .

In other words, there are many paths to cultural and linguistic maturity, and these paths tend to diverge as one’s language skills increase.  How can one checklist measure literacy at that level?

What this means is that for the past 10 or so years, there has been increasing pressure on instructors to reverse engineer their programs so that they can write them up as acceptable elements of the new curriculum.  More and more, the specialized classes are falling by the wayside, or being re-purposed  in a more standardized form.

What happens, then, when, teachers are forced to navigate ever increasing layers of bureaucracy merely to justify what they have been doing competently for 30 years?    Well, clearly, classes are losing some of distinctive qualities, but the fallout extends beyond that.   Remember the at the school, not at school moments?  There is less time and energy for them.  Now activities still take place, and many of them are successful (Overland Learning Garden, you guys rock!), but teachers are being asked to work within a framework that fails to acknowledge the importance of such a key part of the community school.

Breaking ground at the Overland Learning Garden
Breaking ground at the Overland Learning Garden

So yes, a common curriculum is an inevitable, and by most counts a positive, development.  In many ways it brings a sense of security to the student, and to the fledgling teacher; it also makes it easier for students to transfer from one school to another. Still, the imposition of this system has changed Overland, and with any change comes some loss.


The measure of a moment


I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken place in community ESL programs.  I’m trying to work out in my own mind what we’ve gained over the years — and what we’ve lost.  This is the second piece in a series.  You can read the first here.

One thing that really set Overland apart from other schools was the fact that we had very low turnover — I was the newbie there for my first ten years.  Teachers tended to stay because they liked the centre and because they liked teaching.

One of the main attractions was the fact that we were given virtual free rein to design our courses (and I’m sure that there was a bit of a virtuous cycle going on here as well).  This might sound like utter negligence on the part of the supervisor, but in fact it worked out really well.  There were teachers who used a lot of theatre in their classes, teachers who structured lessons around cooking and shopping for food, and teachers who favoured straight up old school grammar classes. It was a case of something for everyone rather than interchangeable 150 minute slots.

To be honest, I’m  not quite sure why it was so successful. Perhaps it was the fact that the program had evolved organically, based on the needs and interests of the parties involved. It was partly that the assessors (remember them?) had a good sense of which students would fit well with which program.   Also, well, I could say that JT and KP had a knack for choosing the right teachers for the job, but that wouldn’t be very humble of me.

But then…. funding patterns changed; things got leaner and meaner.  One upshot of this was the push for teachers to provide quantifiable and comparable results.  That sounds like a really good idea.  What if students are just marking time? What if instructors are building curricula solely based on comparative study of their cat photos?  Isn’t it a positive development if everyone is learning from the same  set of lessons?  Surely students need to have a sense of an end goal in their learning.

Well, yes, but also no. First off, let’s examine the assumptions implicit in the phrase “measurable results.” It seems a little simplistic  to draw an equals sign between curriculum and outcome. Teaching and learning  and results are not always symmetrical.  Teachers come to class with a set of prepared material, but what students receive from them is a completely different story.

So , it’s all very well to have a good hard look at what teachers teach, but how does that relate to what students learn, and to what they do with that learning?

Well in my case, in both academic writing and toefl prep, I taught skills — fairly pragmatic lessons on discrete elements of the test or the essay.  This specific material gave students a sense of security: they knew where they were, and they knew that I had the chops to deliver the content.  However, what did they actually learn from my class?  Bear in mind that they were generally the products of academic meritocracies, often at the top of their professions. (I’ve written before about being the dumbest person in the room.)  They were usually multilingual and well versed in academic protocol.  If they had wished to learn how to use a mixed conditional or form a topic sentence, they were perfectly capable of sitting down and mastering that themselves.  Yet, they came back to class and I do believe they found it useful.  What did they actually receive from the lessons?

The comment most often volunteered by students is that I taught them patience and open mindedness.  I am touched by this, although perhaps they would not have rated my patience as highly had they been better at reading British body language.  Apart from that, what they learned was a lot more about adapting to their new situation than about acquiring language.

I think from TOEFL class they learned to understand their frustration and anger at the test, and to deal with that before they reached the testing centre; they  learned that the perfectionist is not always the winner in a time sensitive  activity, and that sometimes one has to walk away from a problem.

In writing class they learned that acquiring a new technique does not repudiate one’s previous knowledge, and that sometimes in writing one has to sacrifice beauty for function.

At a most basic level, what I gave the students was recognition.  If I were to articulate it directly, it would go something like this, “I see you;  I see your intelligence and your accomplishments.  They are no less now than they were in your home country.  I will do my absolute best to meet you at that level. And I promise never to lecture you,  chief of staff in your country’s largest hospital, (or deputy minister for finance, or CEO of the first company to develop a cell phone for the blind), on Canada’s Food Guide.”

Then there’s the matter of results.  How did this learning translate into results?  That’s a bit of a tricky one.  Some passed their language exams and went on to continue their careers in Canada.  True, they might have passed them anyway, but I believe with my help their passes were cleaner, based more on a strong sense of the fundamentals, less on tricks and work-arounds.  Some of them realized that their goals were not realistic, and looked for workplace opportunities instead.  All the same, I believe they left the class with their heads held a little higher.

So what does this amount to?  A restoration of cultural maturity? A new comfort in an unfamiliar emotional landscape?  Very hard things to measure on a numerical scale.


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