Arrive, Thrive and … Dream

On Friday, March 3rd, I was one of the 150 participants in the Halton District School Board’s Arrive & Thrive Symposium.

My school board employs over 8000 people and provides education to tens of thousands of students from various backgrounds.

In recent years we were fortunate to see initiatives such as the HDSB Welcome Centre come to life, where new students to Canada are assessed for their language and academic skills.

My background is in many ways the same and very different than that of our students. We all have unique stories. Being in the audience yesterday reminded me of growing up in communist Romania.

My parents were able to buy oranges once a year if we were lucky : Christmas time. Meat, bread and milk were rationed. I remember being dropped off in the morning, in line to wait for the meat truck and falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder after hours of waiting. My grandparents were farmers and were not eligible for the same rations we were in the city. I remember, from spending summers with them, our daily bread was made from a combination of corn, sometimes potatoes, stone ground wheat (stashed away from the agricultural police) and plums. The bread was an uninviting shade of grey-black, tasteless, however it was the only thing available.

Another vivid image and taste I carry with me is that of blackberries. Not readily available, my dad used to pick them from a field on the refinery he worked for. To this day for me blackberries smell like gasoline. Communist Romania was great at displaying wealth behind store fronts, that could only be entered if we had a passport and owned US currency. It was a method of oppression on such a basic level. I remember seeing chocolate bars in movies, but never had I tasted one.

Seeing stores, people, students discard leftover food brings back all these memories. The half eaten orange makes me cringe. The pizza that goes stale because our bellies are too full to finish it, makes me feel guilty. My story is insignificant to those of refugees from countries plagued by wars and unimaginable suffering. I can only imagine what they must feel and go through. What is their orange? Is it the destruction of their village? Is it living in a refugee camp for 1 year? Is it the fear that their family back home may perish in the war they left behind?

For years the images of dead bodies piled up during the Romanian revolution haunted me. The story of my friend’s grandmother killed by a stray bullet while in her apartment I’ll never forget. Watching the public execution of Ceausescu and his wife on national television was as horrifying as you can imagine. At 14, I watched deformed bodies, riddled by gunshot wounds rotting away in hangars. The media covered more than I was ready to see. And if you think this is bad, it does not even compare to the backgrounds of those coming from the war riddled Middle East.

I can only imagine, and I really cannot even understand what our students from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have seen or have been through. How will the community police officer’s presence affect them? How will they react to Remembrance Day events?

Before I go into what this day meant to me and what I learned from it, I would like to thank the six brave souls who took center stage on Friday. I would like Onella, Esma, Amjad, Bianka, Amritha and Stephen know that their stories are beautiful, and we want to hear their voices loud and clear.

Our day started with shared experiences and views on how educators are influencing their schooling in Canada. Onella and Esma read us a poem they wrote.

Then, Tina Lopes, our keynote speaker inspired, challenged and encouraged us to think, question and reflect on our daily practices.

Then we looked at case studies, showcasing real lives, real stories.

Some clear thoughts and ideas emerged and I would like to share my reflections with you.

1. Newcomers face unimaginable cultural differences

Newcomer means many things: sponsored, immigrant, refugee, international student.

Our six students referred to the culture shock they felt coming to Canada. While they try to build a new life in this country, they are learning constantly. One of the people in the audience shed light on how many students may feel about resources we take for granted: water fountains, free breakfast, free books in the library.

We must educate ourselves and others with respect to students’ backgrounds. Many of the things we take for granted are not even dreams for some. We face such deep divides that make it harder to integrate in a new country.

I remember vividly my first trips to the grocery store in Toronto. The variety, the overwhelming feeling of choice, the realization that a lot of the food ends up as waste.

If we do not understand our students, the cultures and backgrounds they come from, we are at a disadvantage in our work. The cultural brokerage needs to be part of everyday life.

2. Language acquisition does not reflect one’s intelligence, nor their ability in a subject area.

Stephen (one of the students) told us that we as teachers make assumptions about their prior knowledge or understanding of common conventions. Amjad said something very simple: “we would like teachers to know we want them to talk to us more”.

When I first came to Canada my comprehension was very good. However my spoken English was very poor. I was 22 and self-conscious of the words I spoke. I realized I had an accent, however something that many do not know, I could not hear my own accent. It is funny how the human brain works. To this day I cannot hear my own accent. Canadian born colleagues and friends thought they did me a favor if they pointed my accent out. However their innocent wish to help achieved something very different. The self-consciousness only deepened, my fear of speaking and being wrong heightened and it took even more time to become comfortable in speaking with others. I felt like screaming at times: I am an educated, intelligent adult, who can have professional discourse on a variety of subjects. Sometimes, people would assume because of my accent, I would somehow be less able. The world changed a lot in the last 20 years. Many brave souls had very difficult conversations to break the stigma around newcomers.

I would like to encourage educators to connect and converse with bilingual students. No corrections, no interruptions, as it is not easy for them to initiate it. The librarian could talk to them about the popular novel that just came in, the cafeteria person can make small talk about their favorite food, the teacher can ask about the dinner conversation the night below, the struggles one’s family may face or the worries the student feels. There is no recipe for conversation starters.

A question from the audience asked students if they would feel more comfortable or confident presenting in their mother tongue. They unequivocally said no. Many may not get it. I did. I would have answered the same thing. As an immigrant, as a bilingual person I want to achieve, to overcome hardships, to fit in. I did not want to be treated differently, nor did I want any handouts, any concessions. Speaking in my mother tongue would make me feel even more separated from my peers. We want to learn English, we want to become fluent.

Speaking in our mother tongues makes us feel connected to our roots. We want and crave to speak with others. However at school I understand why students would like to develop their bilingualism. I would like to encourage students to be proud of their accents. Our accents tell a story, encourage conversations and bring to light our backgrounds. Being confident and proud of my accent allowed me to bring light to many others on the challenges immigrants face in Canada. It allowed me to address stereotypes and initiate difficult conversations.

3. Do not play down the newcomers’ dreams.

This point is a hard one for me. I hear it all the time. The comments are innocent, however they are belittling dreams and aspirations. Their aspirations for achievement may be different from ours. I hear it all the time and I heard it yesterday too: “ Newcomers all want to become doctors and engineers, but we know they can’t”

For some newcomers the dream of becoming a doctor is all they have left in this world that is good and worth thinking about. For others getting an A or a B versus an A+ is unimaginable. We think we help if we try to diffuse their angst and provide “insight”. Yes many may not achieve their dreams, however

“If you have the will, the sky’s the limit”

said Bianka, a grade 11 student.

Yes many newcomers will have to swallow the hard pill of changing their dreams. So do many other students. However when you dealt with war, refugee camps, hunger, fear for your life, the last thread of hope is your own future. Let’s let them dream while we gently guide them through the maze that is their educational journey.

One of the settlement workers made a great point during our case discussions: do not feel bad for the newcomers. In many cultures, what we may view as hard or unimaginable, may be socially acceptable, may be a sign of strength.

I would like to tell my students that I understand their struggles and even if they do not know it now, one day it will get easier. I want to remind them to stay strong, just as strong as they were when they joined their families in coming to Canada. That strength is what we need in our schools, in our society.

Friday was a good day and a hard day. I laughed, I cried, I was amazed, I was shocked. My goal is to take those stories, and the resources I learned about to my school and my community and try to make a difference. We can all do the same.