By Kimberley McCullough
Benchmark: a standard by which others may be measured or judged – Merriam Webster
The Alberta K–12 ESL Proficiency Benchmarks are a language proficiency assessment developed in Alberta as an informal criterion-based assessment. They were designed for use by teachers of English language learners and can be used to assess language proficiency (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) in the classroom context. – LearnAlberta.ca
Level One – Beginning
One week to go until I start my new position as an English as a Second Language high school teacher. It’s meant a move to a new school, and I still haven’t met the principal. She’s been in meetings every time I’ve stopped by, but today she’s available to give me a tour of the school.
Back in June, I was interviewed by the vice principal, along with two coordinating teachers from the diverse learning department. Even now, that interview feels like a dream. Questions were fired at me in a half-dark, summer-hot conference room, often two at a time. My answers seemed to check all the boxes – even that one question that’s hovered like a spectre in the back of my mind all summer. “What are you going to do when some 6-foot-tall kid tells you to fuck off?” This, asked by the vice principal. I can’t remember what I answered, but it must have been acceptable.
I got the job.
I haven’t been this nervous since I was a first-year teacher. Until now, things have come easily. Moving schools, changing grades, or adding subjects have always seemed less like challenges and more like opportunities. Now, standing in an empty cafeteria, imagining it full of six-foot-tall students, I wonder if I am up to the task of working with new arrivals to Canada. Teaching English Language Arts has been my speciality, but it occurs to me that teaching English from scratch is a whole different thing. When the tour is over, the principal leaves me at the door with a handshake. “We’re so glad you’re here,” she says. “You’re going to love it.”
Around the same time, far away in the Frankfurt airport, two teenaged Ethiopian boys meet for the first time. They will continue their journey to Canada on the same flight west. Final destination: Calgary. They will meet again in my classroom on the first day of school in a barrage of Amharic and pure joy.
Different school, different culture, a different way of looking at the world. Meeting new people, deciding what to share and what to keep to oneself.
Figuring out who to ask questions. Who to trust.
And that’s just me. The students must do the same, but in English – for them, a second or third or fourth language.
Even the students who have been in Canada for a while are adjusting to the new environment. High school is not the same as junior high, and they need to find their footing quickly. There’s a lot of pressure from their parents to get things right.
When that first bell rings on day one, the race to meet the benchmarks begins. None of us – neither students or teacher – even knows where or what the finish line is.
Level Two – Developing
The school district’s tracking system for ESL students underwent an upgrade over the summer and wiped out most of the previous year-end summaries of benchmarks for most of our students. The levels we can see aren’t meeting up with what we’re seeing in our classes, and students we think are new have been here for months or even years. The other ESL teachers have experience to fall back on that I don’t. It’s taking me much too long to find the best way to reach my students.
Assessment is a struggle, especially when I learn that benchmarking doesn’t work the same way in high school as it does in the lower grades. In high school, a firm grade is given, and if it’s over 50%, the student is moved to the next level. This means that any student who’s attained just over 50% gets to move on. Passing an ESL class with 50% is not anywhere near the same as passing an ELA class with the same mark.
It seems I’ve been too generous in my assessments, allowing rewrites and revisions. I need to be much more rigid with my grading when I move to Level 4. The expectations for these non-English speakers hit different marks than for Canadian kids. Judgment of our immigrant and refugee students already goes beyond the classroom, but I try to keep my evaluations as objective as I can.
Level two is where many new kids come into the ESL program, and our Level one and two classes are full before school even starts. With the deep cuts that have hit the school district, there are no allocations for new teachers, so newcomers are absorbed into my Level 3 class. Starting out with two classes of seventeen, I now have forty-eight students between the ages of fifteen and nineteen on a sliding continuum of comprehension. I teach those who understand very little and speak, read and write even less, up to students who should be at least a level higher, but the level 4 class is maxed out, too.
Another new student arrives from Eritrea. She is nearly twenty, and struggles to follow even basic instructions in English. She is quickly enfolded into the class by two other Eritrean girls. They make room for her at their table, and each kiss her cheeks in welcome. They compare schedules and make a plan for lunch. The two old-timers have been in Canada just over a month, but they are experienced now.
The girls work as a unit. Short of in-class testing and assignments, it’s hard to know who completed the work that I’ve assigned. Writing projects are worked on together in the learning centre after school. They are not the only ones. The Eritrean students in my other class also rely on each other to help understand and complete assignments. Unwilling to call it cheating, or copying, I try to reinforce the benefits of each student doing his own work, but it’s obvious by what is submitted that they work as a team.
I bring this up to a parent at interviews. Through an interpreter I try to explain to a father that unless I step in, his son, Ay, does most of the work for his friends. The father looks at me like I’m clueless. Of course, they work together! They are a part of a community and it’s their responsibility to help lift each other up. Even after I explain how assessment and testing works in Canada, the father says he’s proud of his son for taking care of his friends.
And I see where he’s coming from. He makes a good point. Before I can try to convince him, he puts his hand on mine and says that he is the boy’s father, but I am his school mother, and whatever I say to do, his son should listen to me. That he belongs to me until the bell goes.
So much responsibility, but on the other hand, it feels like he is giving me a big gift of trust. He expects me to care for his child and do what’s best for him. That was never in question, but the father’s intensity of belief in me feels heavy.
I keep looking for ways to encourage independent work, but also begin to seek out assessments and activities that allow for more of a community mindset, strategies that reflect the ideals of the culture of my students.
We’re all still developing proficiencies – the students in English and western lifestyle, and me in teaching those same things.
Level Three – Expanding
Level three is the centre. Everything we do in the Level 3 class is designed to support opportunities for learning local customs—whatever that means—cultural norms, group work, support for in-school settlement, where to get a driver’s licence, or where to get glasses fixed.
There are people in our school specifically designated to help with these things, but I’m new, too, and I’m expected to advocate for them and ask questions on their behalf. Where once I used to be the one with, if not THE answers, MOST answers, now I feel I’m constantly saying “hold on, let me check on that.”
Nothing is at hand. Every question involves a quest for resources and experts, a search made more difficult by not even always understanding what I’m asking for. I see my students embarking on a similar search for support, but without the language base to make themselves understood. Some are afraid to speak at all, worried that their verbs won’t agree with their subjects, or worried that what they’re asking has been explained or answered already.
Not all the students trust me yet. That takes time. As a teacher used to having a whole year to build relationships and get to know my students and their families, it’s a challenge to do it all in a four-and-a-half-month semester.
Level Four – Bridging
We hit our stride by Halloween. I’m getting better at assessing levels and adjusting educational goals accordingly. The students are becoming more comfortable when interacting one-on-one.
The students from Ethiopia sit in a cluster at the front of the class. They look up to one boy who is a natural leader. His English has improved in giant leaps. He is regaling the others with a story in Amharic and they can’t stop laughing. In a regular classroom setting, reading body language is important when students are whispering, or making fun of someone. These students rarely whisper; the boys at least, have become confident enough to tell their story as best they can in English.
I ask if they’ll let me in on what they’re laughing at. The boy tells me about his last teacher, the one who would whip the students’ hands when they were naughty in class. He tells me about the rope the teacher would use. He says sometimes he would make the teacher mad on purpose because it was funny. He says he couldn’t help laughing when he was whipped, which made the teacher whip him harder.
“Miss,” another boy says. “Don’t you wish you could hit us when we’re bad?”
No, I say. They are never bad.
They must know this.
I share with them the stories my father-in-law, a former principal, would tell about the days of the strap; it was his job to mete out punishment to sassy kids. But that was years ago. In the 1970s. The olden days.
They laugh some more and I wonder if time and distance has softened their difficult past, or if they just haven’t yet shifted to a more Canadian view where hitting children is a crime. It’s a question I won’t ask.
But sometimes they write about those times in their journals. In English. Perhaps it’s easier to write about trauma in English.
Level 5 – Extending
This level in ESL means building on the other levels, but it doesn’t mean attainment of the final goal. It’s not a finish line. It means reaching for more while remembering where we came from.
At our school, the number of students on the benchmark rubric exceeds four hundred. There are so many our tracking system can’t list them all. Level 4 is the end of direct ESL support. The level 5 kids are moved on, pushed out of the safety of our little ESL hallway into huge, regular ELA classes where expectations will exceed the abilities of many of my students. Many will not make it through the highest level of academic English.
Yet, my students can’t wait to get into “regular English.” Even those who have no transition words, who can’t write a coherent essay, and couldn’t pass a grade-level comprehension test know that moving out of ESL is the goal.
I won’t be moving out of ESL. I get to stay, but every day, every student, every story that walks through my door will be different.
My supports could change too – my administrators could leave, budget cuts could send me to a different school. Still, like those students moving to Level 5, I have enough understanding to move forward. It’s up to me to pack all the things I’ve learned, and hang onto them, to take them out when I have to time to really look hard at them. When the urgency of the day to day slows down, I assess the outcomes of the lessons I’ve learned so far.
Along with learning the official strategies and expectations of teaching English as a Second Language, I’ve discovered that the way I’ve always built relationships still works. I just have to get faster at it.
The ESL benchmark guide says it can take seven years or more to fully gain fluency in another language. Some of these students will only have a year at our school before they age out and need to move on to whatever comes next for them.
As for my own benchmarks, I’m progressing. As a beginner, I flailed around, trying to find that magical thing that would open my students up. I developed lessons and activities, found images and sounds that would show them a new world, one they belong in. I expanded my ability to observe and listen, even when the expectation to check off the benchmark boxes was a loud backbeat I couldn’t escape.
I’ve been told that when I speak about my students, I sound like a teenager with a crush. But the more I get to know them, the more invested I am in their success. I don’t want to be tied to a rubric, checking off levels. Like all students, these kids need to feel valued, and like they have a place.
I’m still bridging. There are so many spaces between me and my students. But these gaps are where I’ve learned the most. I’ve learned about the Filipino customs of Semana Santa during Lent, about the Ethiopian Epiphany festival, Timkat, and the Eritrean custom of fasting before Christmas. I’ve learned about a church carved from a single piece of rock and about a badass Filipino superhero. I’ve learned how Filipino children of divorce come from broken “families” not broken “homes.” I’ve had students take me on Google earth tours of their hometowns—I’ve seen the streets they lived on, and the places they visited. And they do it all in English, because that is the language that bridges.
When they share these important stories and places of their lives, I sometimes feel I have so little to offer in return.
But this past December, just before Christmas vacation, the weather in Calgary warmed, and the air pressure shifted. Pulling into my parking spot as the sun rose, I looked up to see a Chinook arch forming. I could barely wait for my class to arrive.
When I asked what they knew about Chinooks, I was met with blank looks and shrugs. One girl said “It’s a mall, Miss!” referring to the city’s high-end mall in the south end.
“Yes,” I said, “it is a mall, but why is it called the Chinook mall?” One student knew it had to do with the mountains, another said it had to do with the rain and weather.
And so went my impromptu lesson on the Alberta Chinook, complete with a typically terrible whiteboard diagram from me. After a good laugh at my snow-capped isosceles triangles for mountains and red arrows for wind, I ended the lesson with a “field trip” to the parking lot to see the Chinook arch and to feel how the temperature had risen above zero.
They looked, impressed with the way the cloud carved such a sharp line in the bright blue morning sky. Then, shivering—even a Chinook was cold compared to what they were used to, they ran back inside to the classroom, with me following a few steps behind.
Kimberley McCullough is a writer and teacher from Calgary, Canada. Her first novel, Clearwater, won a High Plains Book Award. Kimberley's essays and short stories can be found in various literary publications including The New Quarterly, Grain, and Room.