Photography by Daniel Vaughan
The First Step in the Journey
The turn of a new year or those September back-to-school days challenge people to try something different, take on improved habits, turn over that new leaf. It’s exhilarating. Exhausting. Sometimes discouraging. But empowering.
Consider what new beginnings entail for some. New country. New culture. New language. Quinte Immigration Services reports more than 400 new clients in the past year. These new arrivals come from countries many of us may not have heard of, some torn apart by conflict. Most have experienced the loss of a familiar way of life, separation from family members, friends, and colleagues, social, financial, and professional upheaval.
Despite these huge challenges, new arrivals bring a determination to succeed in a new place, to further their education, to take care of their families, to create a better life for their children, and make a contribution to their new country.
One of the first needs of many of the Quinte area’s new arrivals – understanding, speaking, reading, and writing English – has been met for 25 years by the Loyola School of Adult and Continuing Education at its campuses in Belleville and Kingston. Classes are funded by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada, the Ministry of Community and Social Services, and the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board.
Loyola offers non-credit day and evening classes in English as a Second Language (ESL) at beginner and intermediate levels. Numbers vary as students come and go, but in the 2018/19 winter term 77 students were in attendance.
Loyola is more than a language school however; it is a hub of inter-related learning opportunities. Loyola offers an Adult Day School high school credit program, and a certificate for Personal Support Workers. Loyola’s motto is ‘Every Journey Has a First Step.’
Job one for many new arrivals is to learn English. How does one go about learning English from scratch? Children seem to have a knack, picking up vocabulary from the playground, the classroom, and ESL instruction. Recently arrived Syrian children, for example, are assimilating so quickly some are losing their heritage language. Arabic is fast becoming the language of home only, so Loyola has organized a Sunday class to teach reading and writing.
In the ESL program, Canadian cultural norms are part of the teaching. So many attitudes and beliefs need recalibrating. In some countries, for example, police are greatly feared. One of Loyola’s many guest speakers is Community Policing Officer Dan Joly, who explains the serve-and-protect mandate of Canadian police work.
The school is a microcosm of the world; occasionally old tensions and divisions surface. Diversity is a key value. Program principal Rob Gilmour explains the expectation. “In Canada, this is what we do.” It’s a directive the world might do well to follow.
Michelle Lingard, coordinator of non-credit programs, checks the registration list. In January 2019 it contained names from 26 countries: Syria, Cuba, Chile, the Philippines, Turkey, Vietnam, Angola, Iran, Brazil, Egypt, Congo, Kazakhstan, Korea, Colombia, Afghanistan, Togo, Pakistan, Morocco, Mexico, Indian, China, Portugal, Venezuela, Burundi, Russia, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, and Poland. Students are referred by Quinte Immigration Services (QIS) – a government-funded assessor – sponsors, or members of their own community. Many of these students are experiencing peace and safety for the first time.
For the past 13 years, the Belleville Loyola program has been located in the old (1914) Queen Mary School on Octavia Street. It was constructed in the days when schools were formal and a bit daunting: three storeys tall, of dark brick with classical detailing, and tall entrance steps. Inside, steep wide staircases, high ceilings, echoing wide halls with gleaming floors – an aging elegance. It’s a busy place, a rainbow of nations, a bustle of students, families, and teachers, with Cheryl the secretary providing a warm welcome.
Out front, a sign proclaims Community Resource Centre Quinte. Until last year, Loyola shared the space with other support agencies – QIS, Sexual Assault Centre, Community Partners for Success, and Canadian Mental Health – all part of the circle of assistance available to new arrivals.
During the winter of 2018/19 new premises were under construction, and a move planned. The modern accessible premises are housed in the former Rexcan Building on Bridge Street West.
Michelle describes a possible pathway for a new student at Loyola: attending to pick up English, then taking a few Loyola high school credits before enrolling in the on-site Personal Support Worker program or moving on to Loyalist College.
“Research indicates it takes approximately 13 years to become a fluent English speaker,” explains Michelle. Students arrive at Loyola at different points along the continuum; there is no typical student. Many will have had some exposure to English, perhaps as an elective at high school, others none at all. Educational background plays a role, also. A few students are university graduates, other have had very limited opportunities for formal education.
Student Ahmad arrived in Belleville from Syria three years ago, just before Christmas, and was attending Loyola by the end of January. He was amazed at the speed; he’s heard of waiting lists in larger centres. He remembers his Level 1 teacher, Anu. She was a great encourager – he acts out determined but gentle pushing, with a smile.
Where to begin when one speaks not a word of English? Loyola ESL teachers start the same way we all began – naming things. Days of the week. Numbers. The confidence with which Ahmad entered a number into his smartphone speaks to the success of the approach. “Belleville is good, have to learn English.” Because not too many of us have a host of other languages up our sleeve with which to greet our newcomers.
The Loyola program is about applying language skills in real life settings. Michelle explains, “We try to teach students everything about Canada and its culture.” The ESL teachers and their students take a lot of field trips, from market shopping to Frink Centre snowshoeing, from the recycling centre to City Hall. Community organizations like the Health Unit and Quinte Immigration Services explain local supports.
Ahmad continues the list, “We learn Canadian seasons and celebrations. We learn things Canadians talk about: the weather, going to Tim’s. The school for me is like a family.” The teachers are kind, reassuring; students learn from each other. And like all families, the students and staff often share meals, an opportunity for informal learning and building community.
But it’s not all food and fieldtrips at Loyola.
Teaching is sometimes described as a balance between a science and an art. The science at Loyola is in the planning and evaluating of student learning using standardized tools. The Canadian Language Benchmarks, developed through Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 1996, create a consistent standard across the country by which to measure language competency. Another measure, Portfolio-based Learning Assessment, evaluates students’ progress from initial assessment, through the levels from beginner to Level 8.
The art of teaching is making classwork relevant to daily life. Writing assignments consist of completing an OHIP card application or writing a letter to a landlord. Speaking tasks could involve stopping people and asking for directions or learning to use the 911 system. All aspects of Canadian life are on the list, from Internet safety to winter safety, from navigating the health care system to preparation for the daunting citizenship exam, and soft skills, like how to cope in unfamiliar social situations. Students maintain a portfolio and are evaluated on their work samples, not by paper and pencil tests.
The art is also teaching to several levels within each class; continuous intake means new students (at whatever level) can enter the program (at any time.) It takes genius to meet individual needs in large classes despite differences in students’ ages and background. The personality of the teacher is part of the art, and it is priceless. A teacher makes the weather, creating a learning environment that is warm, risk-free, stimulating, and fun.
Sherry Archer has taught ESL at Loyola for 25 years. The Loyola ESL teachers make a difference in many lives, and their students remember. There’s a photo on the wall of a recent visit from two former students from Hong Kong who attended Sherry’s class 22 years ago when they were students in Canada. The sense of accomplishment students experience at the school’s annual Celebration of Achievement is not soon forgotten and is something worth revisiting.
Students’ stories are so different. Edith, a French speaker from Togo, has been here for eight months with her Canadian husband. She began English at Level 3 and is now reading and writing at Level 6. Lyailya, a young mother from Kazakhstan, has been in Canada only a few months. Her English is strong – she began English studies in Grade 2. Her next step is to find somewhere to learn French, so she can assist her child when he enters French immersion in a few years.
Nver, a multi-lingual student, is improving her English for her retail work, and wants to continue with French. Bader from Jordan hopes to continue to college for jewellery design. Vasily from Russia wants to be able to communicate with his neighbours and grandchildren; he and wife Galena have joined their daughter who immigrated 20 years ago and became a doctor.
Bilal and Intisar arrived in October 2016. “When I came, not one word of English.” Bilal proudly shares the results of his recent evaluation, English skill at Levels 3 to 5. The couple echo others’ deep gratitude for the staff and the school – and for the city. Their three sons love school in Belleville, a change from the harsh system in Syria. They appreciate the kindness of their sponsors, the neighbours who attempt a bit of Arabic. Their advice? If you need English, come to Loyola.
Teacher Michele Dean is an 18-year veteran at Loyola. She values the friendships that form, and endure. “We’re the first real contact, after the settlement agency. We’re a safe place to start in a new country. And life is not so scary when you have the language.” She admires the students’ openness to every new experience, describing their eager participation in a recent unit on Indigenous culture with drumming demonstrations, mask-making, and a trip to the Museum of History in Ottawa.
So many new experiences. How does one go about explaining Hallowe’en pumpkin carving?
Michele sums up the life-changing nature of the school. “Loyola is not just about language, but about culture and life in Canada. We teach the students to adapt to Canadian ways, the things that make us all the same despite differences in home culture or religion. We find out we’re not so different. We all want peace, safety, and a soft place to land.” Loyola is one of those places.