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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!

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