Archive for the ‘ESL’ Tag

Moneymoneymoneymoneymoney   4 comments

cad-500I have mentioned elsewhere on this illustrious blog of mine that for the past few years, on and off, I have been teaching about “cultural vocabulary” at a place called ABES in North East Calgary. (Please see Cultural Vocabulary at ABES and Work, Work, Work.)

On thing I believe it’s important for my students to know is who’s on our money, from the Loonie on up.  I guess I might well ask at this point, to my Canadian readers, if you know, exactly, for all the times you’d handled, say, a ten dollar bill, whose picture appears on it.

I ask this because one day last week, I came upon a conversation between one of my students, a doctor from Pakistan, and a Canadian–born student from another of the programs. She was asking my student just what, exactly, we focus on in my class. (Another way saying, “What the hell do you do in there all day?”)

By way of example, he mentioned that he now knows who appears on our ten dollar bill. I asked her if she knew, to which she said she had no idea. The good doctor then informed her “It’s Sir John A. MacDonald.” To which she asked, “Who?” To which my student, who has been in Canada for all of six months, replied, “Our first Prime Minister, and The Father of Confederation.”

I guess we still must teach Canadian history in our schools. But I was really surprised, one might even say shocked and appalled, that a young, intelligent woman who received her education in Calgary wouldn’t know the answer to this.

While we might believe that all American students learn about George Washington (as we do in Canada as well), there are clearly gaps in the American system, as the following story illustrates.

A number of years ago, I found myself (not that I was lost, but you know what I mean) in New York City, specifically in Spanish Harlem. I was there with a program developed at Calgary’s Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts called the Playwrights’ Web. We had partnered (I hate using nouns as verbs, but sometimes it seems inevitable) a Calgary junior high school with one in Harlem,  the idea being that we would learn about each others’ cultures through the vehicle of playwriting.

The class in Calgary had been quite into the spirit of the project, but when I walked into that classroom in Harlem, it almost seemed to be the first they had heard of it. One young, diminutive fellow in the class walked up to me, in the midst of utter pandemonium, stood there looking at me, arms akimbo (as we used to say) and said, “Yo! You’re the man! You’re the big tall white man! Do something! Teach us something!” And then he returned to his seat, getting high fives and low fives from his classmates as if he played for the Yankees and was returning to the dugout after hitting a home run.

I remember at that moment looking at the door thinking to myself, “New York City is just beyond that door. I could just leave. Why don’t I just leave?” It was very tempting.

As I stood there contemplating the closed door to the classroom, three girls in the front row who were all in their best attire, and unlike anyone else in the room actually seemed interested in the program, engaged me in conversation. One of them asked, “Do you all got your own money up there in Canada?”

I said yes, indeed we do. I happened to have a Canadian 20 in my wallet and so I fished it out and held it up for their consideration. At the moment I held it up, the whole room went quiet. No more pandemonium.

The young dude came back up the centre aisle looking at the bill with great confusion and suspicion. At length he asked,

“Whut da fuck’s that?”

“That’s a 20 dollar bill, I said.

“No it ain’t,” he said.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“Where da fuck’s that from?” he asked.

“Canada,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said, “Where da fuck is dat, anyway?”

“North,” I said, “North of the Bronx.”

“And it’s like its own country?” he asked.

“We like to think so,” I replied.

“And you all got your own money up dare?” he asked.

“Yes we do.”

He leaned in and looked more carefully and then asked, “Who’s the fuckin’ chick?”

“That’s the Queen of England,” I told him.

He worked that around in his brain for a moment before asking, “What da fuck’s she doing on your money?”

To which I said, “That’s a very good question.”

And after that little interchange, we managed to have a very good week together. I taught them a bit about the theatre, a bit about playwriting, a bit about Calgary, and a whole lot about the American Revolution, which oddly enough, they seemed to know very little about.

And so it begs the question, “Who’s on your money, and why are they there?”

Have a look sometime. You might learn something.

Thanks for reading!


Cultural Vocabulary at ABES   2 comments

I managed to sneak one of my classes on stage at the Jack Singer after a tour of the downtown library.

I managed to sneak one of my classes on stage at the Jack Singer after a tour of the downtown library.

In 2009 I began a very interesting adventure in teaching at a school in north east Calgary called Alberta Business and Educational Services, or ABES, as it is known. They had just come up with an idea for a program aimed at helping internationally educated professionals, primarily in the health care field, find meaningful employment in the health care system here in Alberta. (I have written about ABES before: please see Work, Work, Work from August, 2011.)

I know we have all had a cab driver who comes from somewhere else and who has a PhD in some exotic field or other. I know it doesn’t seem right to most of us that we accept such talented people into Canada and then give them little or no opportunity to practice in their particular area of expertise.

Well, this program at ABES allowed me the opportunity to do something about that. The idea was that they would study for 12 weeks with me, and then study the very practical  program in sterile processing that would allow them to become medical device reprocessing  technicians. In other words, they would be cleaning up the instruments from the operating rooms and other areas of the hospital.

One might argue the merits of training former surgeons how to clean up the instruments they had used in their home countries as a matter of routine, but it was at least a door into health care services here. Compared to what a lot of them had been doing, such as cleaning floors at Tim Horton’s (as a pharmacist from Afghanistan was doing) or stacking apples at Superstore (as a surgeon from India was doing) or delivering pizza (which a veterinarian from Iran was doing), etc. etc. etc., this new gig we were offering in the hospitals was very prestigious and the pay wasn’t bad either.

For my part, it hasn’t been ESL, exactly. My boss at ABES, Mitchell McCormick, refers to it as “teaching a cultural vocabulary,” which is an apt description. Let me give an example of how I can build a whole week of lessons from something that emerges organically from the class.

During the last federal election, one of my students, a doctor from Cairo, asked me one morning, “What eez ziz I am seeing on all of zeez signs everywhere, Fote, Fote, Fote?”

“Fote? Oh, you mean vote.”

“Zeez eez exactly vot I am saying: Fote.”

Well, I explained, we were in the midst of a federal election and we were being encouraged to vote. And as I said this, it dawned on me that the entire concept of a free election, which we take so much for granted in Canada, to the point that most of us don’t even bother to vote, was an entirely new concept to many of my students, depending on their country of origin.

This allowed me to tell them about our political parties (maybe one in ten would typically know who our Prime Minister is, for example) and the history of politics and Canada going all the way back to Sir John A. (And despite the fact all of my students had handled many ten dollar bills in their time here, none of them knew the name or significance of the old boy on the ten, let alone the guy on the five, but of course we would get to Laurier eventually.)

So, a reasonable exercise was then to find out what ridings they all lived in, who their MP was, who was running in the election, the nature of their platform, etc. etc. etc. In a subsequent provincial election we did the same thing.

You get the idea. What I teach is very practical, meaningful and inclusive. All of my instruction is aimed at helping my students get a job, and instilling the feeling that they are informed and valued members of our community.

This program has been a remarkable success by anyone’s standards, with a completion rate of 97% and an employment rate of nearly 90%. For me, personally, it has been a good fit into my lifestyle, providing some structure and steady income for roughly half of the year, and then affording me the freedom for my other pursuits the other half. This summer, for example, has been taken up with the writing of a novel. But even as I have taken the time to write my novel, there is now a growing concern that the program may not be renewed.

I have seen firsthand just how effective this program is, not just in terms of job training, but perhaps more importantly restoring a sense of hope in our students, and the attendant dignity that goes along with having a meaningful job that allows them to provide for their families.

Unfortunately, the funding for the program has always been tenuous and now we are worried that despite its unparalleled success, it could be cancelled altogether. Honestly, there are so few good opportunities out there for the community we are serving with this program that it would be extremely unfortunate if the funding were not renewed.

You know, it’s not easy immigrating to a new country. I know the alienation and even despair my students feel when they first walk into my class. Yet, I have seen so many of them grow and take their place in our community thanks in no small part to a cool little program in a cool little school just a little east of Deerfoot.

We put together a short video, narrated by yours truly, which I am including below for your further edification. If you agree with me and can see for yourself the importance of this program, please feel free to share this post or just the video itself with others, including MLA’s and other people who could influence a decision on the future of this program.

In the words of the poet, “Don’t it always seem to go, seems you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone . . .”

Thanks for reading!

Work work work   2 comments

Tuckered out at the Zoo, here I am sleeping on the shoulder of Igor, a miliary doctor from the Israeli Army.

For the past few years off and on I’ve been working at a place called Alberta Business and Educational Services (ABES) in North East Calgary.

With some of my students: Farhana, Joya. Parinita and Priyanka. It’s not so hard to go to work every day.

They have a program aimed at helping doctors from other cultures integrate into the health industry here. I think it’s a sad and somewhat outrageous situation, we let these intelligent and talented people into Canada because they are doctors, and then we tell them they can’t practice here. I suppose the argument goes, well, some of them are from the third world, we don’t know how good their education was there. Tell that to a former student, Dr. Rau, who was an orthopedic surgeon in India, and who went to Nottingham in England to do post doctorate work in sports medicine. He became the head of the sports medicine clinic there. He then came to Canada, where he could only find a job stacking apples at Safeway for $9.00 an hour. Meanwhile, we have an acute shortage of doctors here. Go figure.

In the past few years, I have taught people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Belarus, Slovakia, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakstan, Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, The Congo, Congo-Zaire, Guinea. Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, even Australia — I’m probably forgetting a few but that will give you a sense of the international flavour of my classes.

It’s not ESL per se. It about helping them understand language well enough so they can have the best experience possible in their new country.

Most of them have given up very prestigious and lucrative careers (mansions, maids, the whole nine yards) to come to Canada because they perceive that their children can have a better future here. All I try to do is make them feel welcome and give them the skills to get a foot in the door in the health industry. Most of them will never be doctors here. The current system makes it too hard and too expensive for them to pursue accreditation. But most of them, I believe, will have a good life here. And their children will in fact have opportunities here that they never would have had back home.

So, after a few glorious months of working on my new play, riding the bike paths, hanging out at Caffe Beano, reading Italian mystery novels (Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series)  it’s back to work for me this morning. I don’t like the idea of it, clearly I should have been born wealthy, not just rich but WEALTHY, but I like the work and I love the students and it’s not so bad at the end of the month when they pay me.

Hi ho . . . .

Posted August 4, 2011 by Eugene Stickland in Uncategorized

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