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Hospitality and ESL

Written on May 30th, 2014

[caption id=”attachment_6376” align=”aligncenter” width=”600”]DCHS_ESL Above: Grace Van Niejenhuis, ESL teacher at Durham Christian High School and students.[/caption]

Learning a second language is a daunting task: There are rules (and exceptions to rules) to remember, surprising subtleties in pronunciation to listen for, and an endless bank of new phrases to absorb. Most English as a Second Language (ESL) students will enter into this hard work while adjusting to a new cultural environment—an overwhelming experience in itself. Every year, a number of OACS teachers keep this in mind—intentionally and creatively showing hospitality to their ESL students, within and outside of the classroom.

As an ESL teacher at Durham Christian High School, Grace Van Niejenhuis often returns to a book written by David Smith and Barbara Carvill, called The Gift of the Stranger.

“It talks about students becoming strangers in a foreign land but also about students becoming good hosts to strangers in their own land,” she says. “If I expect my students to do that, then I feel as a teacher that I should have the same qualities.”

Van Niejenhuis recognizes that life with a home-stay family in a foreign country is not without its unique challenges, which is why she makes a point of being available for the ESL students in her class, all of whom come from China this year.

“I’m a person who reaches out to others,” she admits. “Sometimes the kids kind of get stuck and wonder where do I go if …? So then I say, come see me. I can try to direct you where you might find the help.”

Van Niejenhuis isn’t the only ESL teachers within the OACS membership to adopt a posture of hospitality when working with international students.

For Shannon Marcus, ESL teacher at Woodland Christian High School, the concept of hospitality is closely linked to her role as translator. Over the years she’s become well attuned to the school’s buzzwords and phrases, which can create barriers or misunderstandings between ESL students and their peers. That’s one of the reasons she sees her job as much about “school culture translation” as it is about language translation.

“One of the things I’ve learned to teach the staff here is that we take a lot of ‘school culture’ things for granted. We assume that when we say ‘there’s an assembly in the gym’ that everyone knows what that means. We assume that when we say there’s a banquet on Friday the 23rd that everyone knows to go to the front foyer and buy a ticket. My job is to assume nothing and explain everything.”

Marcus believes that small habits can help make international students feel at home—like taking a moment to explain a detail in the morning announcements, or advertising a school wide event by bringing posters and handwritten invitations to the ESL classroom. “It’s a way of saying we want you there and we value you,” says Marcus.

“That’s the way you enfold students,” she reflects. “Even if they don’t participate. I’m not saying that they have to go to the spring formal, but they have to know what it is and why it’s happening. Then they can make a decision.”

International students can also be given the opportunity to share their culture with the larger student body. This past year, a group of students at Hamilton District Christian High organized a Chinese New Year celebration for staff and students, offering a window into a significant cultural event in Chinese culture.

“Belonging does not mean abandoning one’s own cultural values and first language, but rather celebrating God’s gifts of language and culture,” says Jessica Alkema, an ESL teacher at the school.

The same could be said for extending hospitality within a classroom context, which, according to Alkema, often involves “accepting and valuing students for the diversity they represent—in terms of language, culture, ethnicity, world view, ability, and talent”. Alkema encourages teachers to design assignments that invite ESL students to articulate elements of their culture and their cultural-values. She’s also interested in the many learning contexts where comparisons can be made with the students’ native culture and Canadian culturewhether that be in relation to systems of justice, cultural standards of beauty, or social media use in Canada and China.

“By providing students the opportunity to make connections across cultures, they are given the opportunity to consider the possibility of including multiple layers to their identity,” she explains.

Delving into those connections through discussion and dialogue is far less daunting within an ESL classroom than in a regular school setting, she points out. The learning atmosphere is unique in that it allows students to discuss topics without feeling self-conscious about their ability to articulate their opinions or pose questions in English.

Ideally, the confidence that students cultivate in an ESL classroom will stay with them long after they leave. The ability to voice questions and share opinions in a second language will be especially significant for grade 12 English language learners set to graduate in just a few short weeks.

Preparing for graduation presents ESL teachers with a unique tension, observes Marcus.“You try really really hard to make school language and school jargon accessible, so that students feel enfolded in that way, but you also know that there’s a good chance you’ll never see them again.”  Unlike other students at the school, location prevents most ESL students from staying in touch or coming back for a visit after graduating.

While that can be a tough pattern to get used to, Marcus, Alkema and Van Niejenhuis remain committed to making international students feel enfolded and “a part of things”, even if their stay in Canada lasts only a few years. As these three teachers work out the nuances of communication and school culture with their students, their passion for hospitality rarely gets lost in translation.

We’d love for you to share your ESL related thoughts and questions on the OACS eCurriculum site! Check out the OCSTA EHE for English Language Learners or English as a Second Language group to join the conversation!