My experience in a school

Before departing to Canada, I was told about the school I would be visiting daily during my stay (each teacher was assigned a different one with similar subjects to those we teach in Galicia). I was sent to Ottawa Technical High School, on number 440 Albert Street, which now mainly has ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for adult newcomers or for those who have been in the country for a while but who still need to improve their English. From literacy levels (people who never had access to education in their countries of origin) to more advanced ones; students are allocated to a group, a decision which is made based on their linguistic competence and they are promoted to the following levels as they improve in the different skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing). Most of the classes are general English, but there is also time dedicated to pronunciation, academic English (for those interested in continuing their studies in Canada) or preparing the Canadian citizenship test. Apart from receiving language training, in these lessons, students learn about Canadian life and culture, health, rules in the province of Ontario, etc. These programmes are free, students only pay C$10 for class materials at the beginning of the course.

When these ESL levels are finished, students do not obtain any diploma; however, they all show great motivation, this is because they need English to live in the country and, also, very often receive interesting talks and visits, for example from colleges where they can continue their studies or organisations which help newcomers find a job, issues which are also part of the regular lesson.

Lessons have a duration of three hours and everyone attends them from Monday to Friday, either in the morning (09:00-12:00) or in the afternoon (12:30-15:30). The teaching staff has half an hour, from 12:00 to 12:30 for lunch, they always gather in the teachers’ room with their food containers to share this time.

The school has classrooms with computers and projectors, IT rooms, lifts, cafeteria, free childcare service for students’ children, gym, library, staff and resources room. An interesting aspect of this school is that it is scent-free, everybody is recommended not to use lotions, perfumes, etc. as there may be people allergic to these types of products. The lockers are all around the corridors, and they gain special importance in winter time, as the first thing we need to do as soon as we arrive at school is take off our coats, scarves, hats, gloves... and even snow boots and pants; that way, we can be more comfortable during the school day.

I was mainly at Donna’s lessons, a teacher who has two groups a day. From 09:00 to 12:00 she has literacy class, with ten students of different nationalities, this was the first time that most of them went to a school in their lives. There is great work when teaching this group, not only with the English, but also with basic competences in classroom tools management, different forms, computers, etc.

The other class she teaches is a 6+ group (ESL levels are organised by numbers, level 6 could be the equivalent to CEFRL B2). This class is more numerous, there are 23 students from very different origins who attend these lessons every day. Here we find people who have been in the country for a little longer, and some who have just arrived but whose level of English is already at an intermediate level. Most of these students have higher studies, but cannot accede posts related to their professions because of their English level, there are also some students who wish to keep studying (at a college or university) once they improve their English language skills.

As part of the programme, I offered to give 10-minute presentations about my school in Galicia and about Spain in general, in Donna’s class as well as in those of the other teachers. They all signed up for it because they thought it could be a very interesting activity for the class, as it turned out to be. I had first-hand experience with the different groups in the school and with the different levels of each class, I had to adapt my presentation so that they could understand me, I could also notice how motivated students were. Due to the students’ interest and all the questions they asked, those 10-minute presentations became full sessions which finished with the firm intention of everyone to visit Galicia one day.

During my time there, I had access to the materials used in the classroom. On the one hand, they have photocopiable books and exercise books made by the Immigration department of the province of Ontario, organised by levels and by topics (health, living together, law, etc.), this is a way to help immigrants adapt and better integrate in the country through the ESL class, which makes their lives a little easier when they are new to the country. On the other hand, many teachers create their own materials, board games for revision, cards to use in oral expression activities, etc. Oral expression is the main skill practiced in the classroom, an activity they do regularly throughout the year is make students prepare presentations about a particular topic, they will then present them in front of other classes with a similar level of English, who will  listen to and assess their peers.

In my opinion, it is more productive if English lessons are daily, that way the language practice is more constant (apart from the total immersion of being in an English speaking country) and it helps the students improve more quickly. Over there, there are no motivation issues, everyone sees English as a necessary tool in their lives. One of the positive aspects of having students of so many origins in the same classroom is that most of them do not share their first language, so they have to use the English language as soon as they get to school in order to communicate with the others and, obviously, to carry out the activities in class.

As far as the way of teaching is concerned, I have to say I did not find big differences with what I normally do in my lessons at my school. The teacher does many collaborative activities and uses gamification very often in order to engage the students during the long sessions. Something different in Canada to what I do in Galicia is the presentations in front of other classes (which I commented above), it is a very interesting idea which could be imported here. Something my students are more reluctant to do is oral activities, as I observed in Ottawa, this could be encouraged through game, for example. Another positive aspect of the lessons at this school is that all the students have similar language competence within the same group, if that was not the case they would be promoted.

All the teachers at the school are very involved with the students’ school life, they have regular meetings with them to talk about their progress and their future plans, this way they can be offered the support and means available so as to help them reach their individual objectives. Also, the different origins of the students are always kept in mind, differences and similarities are usually established with the Canadian system, not from a judgmental point of view, but to help students feel included and understood. A common topic in the classroom is the problems that may arise from the impact of arriving in a new country and, in many cases, being far from their families. Psychological support is constant, there are workshops and also information on how to contact to professionals in the field in case they need it.

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