EAL at FHS by Paula Kristmanson
On May 25, 2017, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with the English as an Additional Language department from Fredericton High School (FHS). Although I was already acquainted with some of the team, it was really great to get to know some of these talented EAL educators. In this issue of the TESL NB newsletter, I will share a brief summary of the answers to my probing questions!
So, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to EAL?
Neil Brewer has been teaching English to speakers of other languages for 15 years. After finishing his Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) in 2002, he taught English in Korea for three years. He decided to return to NB in 2006 because of the growing populations of newcomers in this area and began teaching EAL in schools in Fredericton.
Matt Buntain, a new teacher at FHS, began his teaching career in 1999 and taught in Hong Kong for 9 years. As a science specialist he delivered the Ontario curriculum to English language learners in that part of the world until he returned to NB to do his B.Ed in 2009. He taught at Leo Hayes High School before joining the EAL team at FHS this year.
Tegan Taylor received her B.Ed in 2009 and worked with the English Language Programme (ELP) at the University of New Brunswick. This is her first year with the EAL team at FHS.
Jeremy Curnew, after finishing his B.Ed in 2000, went to Taiwan where he taught for 12 years at a private high school. He returned to NB in 2012 as an EAL tutor and was then involved in the International Enhancement Program (IEP), designed to meet the needs of a group of older Bhutanese learners. He has been teaching full time at FHS, in the EAL department, since 2013.
Greg Porter graduated from his B.Ed in 2014. Equipped with a strong motivation to work with English language learners and a course in teaching EAL, he has taught EAL at both FHS and Leo Hayes high schools.
Can you tell us a bit about the EAL students at FHS?
Each year has been very different in terms of the EAL demographics at FHS. This year, the vast majority of the students in EAL classes are from Syria (approximately 65%) after having arrived as refugees in Feb. 2016. The remaining 35% come from China, Vietnam, Israel, Iran, Sri Lanka, various African countries, Turkey, and Colombia.
Can you describe your EAL courses and programs at FHS?
FHS offers a comprehensive Pathways system for EAL learners. In Pathway 1 (pre-A1 and A1 level), students take 4 or 5 EAL classes per day. These classes focus on the fundamentals of English language literacy. In Pathway 2 (A1-A2), 3 of 5 classes are in EAL. In these courses, all language skills are addressed and there is also an additional class focused on specific needs like pronunciation and learning strategies. In Pathway 3 (A2-B1)- students only take 1 of their 5 classes is in EAL, with a focus on academic writing. This year, tutors also offered supplementary tutoring for newcomers in the areas of math and science.
The team talked about how comfortable they feel with their EAL department and how well they worked together. They are very pleased with the progress that some of their students have made this year and mentioned that some of the newcomers who arrived in February 2016 are ready to go full mainstream. Some will graduate next year. They are also pleased to be working with mainstream content teachers at FHS who are very keen to work with those whose first language is not English and have been willing and able to support them in meeting curricular outcomes.
What other sorts of initiatives have been happening this year at FHS to support EAL learners success in school?
Besides finding instructional strategies to support learner success in the classroom, the FHS team has also been involved in formal and informal activities to support academic and social integration. Most recently, they took the Pathways 1 and 2 groups to Saint John, New Brunswick, to meet with EAL students from that area for social activities. In addition, they visited the NB Museum. This year EAL learners also had a chance to take a cultural workshop from the Maritime African drumming and dance troupe. One of the goals of the EAL team was to encourage EAL learners to join an extra-curricular activity. To this end, many joined school sports teams and school clubs, helped with the Kats Kitchen program (FHS community kitchen), and became Black Kat Ambassadors (students who promote cultural diversity and support newcomers to the school).
In addition to the goal to encourage involvement in school activities, the EAL team reiterated that for this year their primary focus was on developing a “culture of learning” in their EAL classrooms. They set goals for supporting EAL learners to adapt to Canadian school norms such as coming to school each day, showing up on time, going to all of their classes, and organizing their school materials. They have seen real change and real progress for many learners and have experienced some big turning points (e.g., no need for interpreters anymore). They have found that the EAL parents are really supportive and want their children to take full advantage of the learning opportunities being afforded to them at FHS. They noted that in terms of spoken and social language, the Syrian newcomers have made significant gains, but the need for continued reading and writing development to support academic language proficiency is still a factor.
What are some of the successes and challenges of your work with EAL learners?
One of the instructional successes has been making links from classroom learning to authentic contexts such as part-time employment. One of the ongoing challenges has been the gaps in academic learning that the current group of students have.
On a socio-affective level, the EAL teachers talked about being available to the EAL students at all times. There are rarely opportunities for prep time or lunch breaks as students’ needs are of primary importance. Neil talked about how he wants to create a “safe space” for learners and has an open door policy in his classroom. He also said he has experienced first hand the utmost importance of “lowering the affective filter”, a concept discussed in his CTESL program. Other teachers talked about their multi-faceted roles as mediator of interpersonal disputes, informal counselors, and facilitators of social integration. This sentiment was summed up by Matt who stated, “This is the most uniquely challenging and uniquely rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
The team underscored how supportive they have been for one another by stating: “We’re here for each other, we listen to each other, we help each other to stay calm.” They describe themselves as having “flexible personalities” and expressed the importance of collegiality in working through issues. They all talked about how it is essential to be resilient and resourceful as teachers, but also to convey compassion and empathy for their learners.
They also highlighted the support of administration. Jeremy said, “If we go to our admin, they support us… they are always checking in to make sure we’re ok.” Moreover, they are extremely grateful for the resources (e.g., numerous instructional materials, technology such as iPads, and Reading Horizons program) and support that has been put in place in this school and look forward to the new curriculum coming from EECD. Tegan and Jeremy also mentioned that they look forward to the professional learning event that they will be attending in June and are appreciative of TESL NB’s and their school’s support of this opportunity.
Finally, despite the ongoing challenges that are presented to them on a daily basis when working with older learners from differing cultural and educational backgrounds, they wanted to highlight the successes. The success of their students, particularly the newcomers from Syria, has been a gratifying highlight in each of their careers. Tegan stated, “It’s amazing how far some of them have come.” Additionally, because of their focus on developing a culture of learning, they have seen a bit change from September to now and they look forward to further gains and strides forward in the coming school year.