Language Is Power

By Donna Pearce

power word 


Every year, thousands of Mexicans make the journey north to work on Canadian farms as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Although this program is clearly not without its problems, it does provide Mexicans with a legal means to enter, and work in Canada and the opportunity to earn significantly more than they could if they remained at home, thus improving not only their lives, but also the lives of their families.

Nevertheless, such opportunity comes at a price, since they must spend six to eight months of the year thousands of miles away from the people they love, in communities that often are not as welcoming as they could be. One key factor contributing to these workers isolation is their limited or, in some cases non-existent, proficiency in English.

This is where I enter the picture. My name is Donna Pearce and I am an ESL instructor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Mexico holds a special place in my heart because I adopted my daughter, Maggie, from Instituto Cabañas 18 years ago, and because my parents, Elaine and Phil Landray, have wintered at Lakeside for the last 31 years. I am passionate about language learning, because I believe that language is power and in the summer of 2016, I had the chance to put that belief into action. In conjunction with the Modern Languages department at Brock, I designed an ESL course to teach English to the Mexican migrant workers in the Niagara region. The course was delivered by Brock undergrad students who were themselves enrolled in a blended learning course (SPAN 3F80- Immigrant and Community Outreach Internship) that required them to complete an online academic components, as well as 60 hours of volunteer work with the Mexican migrant worker community. The course design presented numerous challenges. First, we had a limited time frame, one class a week in each of two centres for roughly ten weeks.

Secondly, we had to accommodate a range of proficiency levels, from beginner to advanced, in one classroom. Finally, some of the students were not literate in their first language, necessitating a somewhat different approach than is found in a “traditional” classroom. Nevertheless, the workers also presented some incredible strengths, most importantly a group of learners that was highly motivated and hungry to learn. Many of them rode miles on their bikes after long days working in the fields just to attend the classes.

My solution to the aforementioned challenges was to design a course that was fully bilingual, such that I could use the students’ first language, Spanish, to facilitate the acquisition of their second language, English. The course was implemented using a team-teaching approach, wherein at least two teachers were in the class at all times, one of whom was trained in teaching ESL and one of whom was bilingual Spanish/English. The curriculum was comprised of five stand-alone, thematically designed units based on the tasks that the migrant workers needed to accomplish to facilitate their lives in Niagara, such as grocery shopping, visiting the doctor and banking/sending money home. The lessons mainly focused on speaking, since oral communication was deemed most important, but each unit also included a “real world” writing task, such as filling out the medical clinic registration or completing a Western Union money transfer order, using the actual documents (referred to as “realia”).

Were we successful? Only the students can say for sure. However, the feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that one of our centres has implored us to begin a new series of classes for early-arriving workers starting in February. Where do we go from here? Hopefully, the program will continue.

PS: El Ojo Del Lago has previously published an article by Donna in January 1999 when she adopted her daughter, Margarita (Maggie), from Hospicio Cabanas in Guadalajara.  The title was “Maggie’s Story” and it was followed up a couple of years later by Marlene Robertson’s update on Maggie’s progress in Canada.  As a matter of interest, she is 28 years old now and has earned a B.A. from Brock University.


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