A. Grace Martin

Author, Student Teacher, Optimist and Promoter of Self-Empowerment


Visiting an English Language Learner Program

Posted by agracemartin on March 5, 2015 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

The following is a reflection assignment from my Social Context of Education class in which I visited a middle school program for English Language Learners (ELL) also called students with English as a Second Language (ESL).

When I visited the middle school’s ELL program, the first thing that I noticed was the clearly amicable relationships that the teacher and educational assistant had with the students. The teacher knew what activities each student was interested in. I noticed that a student was using the Internet on the teacher’s computer, and the teacher asked, “When did you start playing that game?” To me, this demonstrated the teacher’s authentic awareness and personalized connection with the students.

This relationship seemed to make the students feel comfortable and at liberty to joke around. The teacher had a relaxed manner with an easy sense of humour. When students talked out of turn, they were not berated, punished, or even singled out. The teacher would simply say, “Hmm, I wonder why I’m hearing voices but no hands.” He did not once tell students before class to speak English only, allowing them to talk with their friends in any language they chose. In class, however, he said, “Please try using English—even if you are talking across the room when you shouldn’t be.” I liked this style of classroom management because it encouraged practice of both the English language and North American school norms. If I were to apply this strategy in a classroom without ELL students, I would adapt it to say something positive, like: "please use proper grammar" or "be polite even when you are talking out of turn."

While sitting at the back of the classroom, one of my fellow student teachers made a comment about a few of the girls being too young to have nose piercings. I sincerely hoped that none of the ELL students heard this comment, and I whispered to my colleague that it is culturally and religiously significant in South East Asian countries for girls to get piercings on the left-hand side of their nose. This further reminded me of the incredible importance of knowing your students’ backgrounds to avoid offensive or uncomfortable situations due to misunderstanding.

The teacher started the school day with a daily writing page. He wrote a prompt on the board: “if you were principal of our school, what would you change? What would stay the same?” I noticed that the teacher first asked if anyone knew what a principal was. It would not have occurred to me to ask this question, but the teacher knew his ELL students might not recognize the word at first glance. One student did not know the meaning of “change,” so the E.A. quickly said, “to make different.” I thought that it must be an acquired skill to give a simple definition quickly, and that a teacher might need some practice to do so. I was struck by the fact that I take communication in the English language for granted, especially with what I would deem to be “simple” words. I am not accustomed to defining common words, which could be a challenge for me if I have an ELL student in my future class. I am more than willing to practice this however, because simply vocabulary can also benefit a wider range of students with differing reading levels.

I liked the daily jobs, in which one student had to read the calendar, and one student had to read the weather forecast for the day. This got two students a day speaking in front of the class in English. I thought that it was a great idea to have another board with common language on it that the teacher changed each day. He wrote, “What a horrendous morning! Today Is Moonday February 2rd, 2015. Tomorrow iS Tusday and. Yesterbay was Suhday. Different animals had tales…” This looked like an effective daily exercise to correct mistakes and spelling of very common words.

As the class corrected the spelling together, one said that it was the wrong “tale.” Immediately the teacher said, “Oh wow! You know what that means! We need to get out our book for what? That’s right, homophones!” I liked this strategy because it is clearly a fun way to sprinkle in homophones into daily instruction. The students got excited about homophone time. They drew a monkey next to the word tail. Pictorially, such visuals seem to be the best way for ELL students to differentiate between homophones. After drawing pictures, the students came up with simple sentences to practice their writing.

For a while I wondered why the teacher asked students to color their pictures. It was a very time-consuming task. Surely the time could be better spent? Then I realized that it was the end of the period. Coloring provided a break without changing the class. Also, slower-working students were allowed to continue coloring while the class worked on their corrections on the board. I later asked the teacher and he commented that all of his ELL students are immigrants who have not acquired skills that we normally do in elementary school, like coloring and using scissors. He has to be very patient and offer his students a lot of time to complete their work.

Then the students were split into groups. The four groups were reading, playing apples to apples, playing boggle, and reading games on the iPods. Each group went to each station and rotated. It was beneficial for me to work with a small group because I was able to answer questions and get a good feeling for their level of comprehension.

Before teatime, the teacher held interviews (meaning that he sat at the front of the classroom to talk with students by asking them questions, then allowing the students to interview him). It was an approach to encourage student conversations in English and also gave the daily job students time to serve tea. I appreciated that the teacher took time to get to know his students and learn that they enjoy having tea when talking in a circle. This clearly made a strong, culturally significant connection with them. He told us that for him, the biggest part of his job is identifying his students’ needs and modifying his instruction to meet those needs.

In my future science teaching, I can help ELL students by giving definitions in two ways: one as the science textbook definition, and one using simpler words to be more commonly understood. When I teach science courses, I can offer multiple ways to say the same thing, meaning that I can teach a concept using different words. On examinations, I can differentiate tests to have the same question worded in different ways and give ELL students more time to complete their work. This approach contributes to a universal design for learning (UDL) that can also benefit students with learning disabilities as well as ELL students.

In the future, I can give more time for ELL students to write notes down. I think that one way to approach this is through a flipped classroom. Students can watch a lecture video at home at their own pace, pausing and rewinding the video until they understand the content. In class, I will then have more time to answer questions that arose from the video and give students time to collaborate with their peers while working on practice problems or other projects.

I think that the most important implication for my future teaching is for me to know my students and do background research into their cultural values. Truly the first step in the teaching profession is to build relationships.

Talking About the Uncomfortable Subject: Suicide

Posted by agracemartin on February 9, 2015 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Teenagers experience emotions much more intensely than adults do. Throughout the teen and young adult years, the prefrontal cortext is developing. In adults, the prefrontal cortext is responsible for decision-making and puts the brakes on our emotional center, called the amygdala. Since this is still developing in teens, they FEEL every situation more intensely. This is why teens always say, "adults just don't get it," because as adults we tend to forget how difficult it was for us to grow up. As adults, we tend to look back upon our teen years as melodramatic and juvenile, but that attitude de-values the experience of teenagers. If a teen tells you that they feel bad, don't tell them to "suck it up," but rather be understanding and give them tools to deal with their emotions.

Suicide is a very uncomfortable subject. In my Social Context class today, we had a presentation about suicide geared towards what teachers need to know. I really appreciated their approach to this topic because it was focussed on making students feel acknowledged, cared for, and open to talk. If someone has personal issues or experience with this topic then it can bring up a lot of intense emotions. As educators, we need to recognize that approaching this topic must be done with sensitivity.

I recently watched a Ted talk called Why We Choose Suicide (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1QoyTmeAYw) by Mark Henick in which he shared his struggles. While watching this video I felt pretty down by talking about such a sad and intense sob story. It brought up sad memories and I started reliving struggles as a teenager. In junior high (middle school) I struggled with suicide, and later in high school I helped friends through similar struggles with suicide. As I watched and listened, I was waiting for Mark to get to the message of hope. It didn't come in the way I expected. Mark Henick brought up the idea of "collapsed perceptions." I think that understanding "collapsed perceptions" is an important part of helping individuals who are suicidal. Mark asked: how can suicide be a choice when the person doesn't think they have any other option?

What I find to be most important when talking about suicide is not the sob story, statistics, or statement of how dangerous suicide is. What I find to be the single most important thing to include in suicide prevention talks is changing the way that we think about suicide. As Mark Henick argues, changing the way you think changes the world. Thinking about and discussing suicide is a very uncomfortable topic, but talking about it might just save someone's life.

In the future, I am sure that I will deal with suicide issues in my classroom. I am comfortable with this topic because I have lived through it, helped others through it, and become a stronger person for overcoming negative thoughts and self-talk.

The thing that I want to talk about with my future students is that they have a wonderful potential within them. They deserve to overcome the tough times. They have an amazing life purpose that they haven't discovered yet, but when they do will give out and get back so much more happiness than they've ever experienced. Many great people have faced tough times; they are not alone. They are also not alone in getting help. Teachers, counsellors, family and community resources are available to help, and it doesn't make them "weak" to access these resources. The main thing is to never give up hope. 

Teachers: reach out, ask if a student you are concerned about is suicidal, acknowledge their emotions and pain, show them you care, and talk with them about how you can help. With compassion you can ask, "are you thinking about killing yourself?" and ask "what can I do to help you?" Never promise to keep it a secret because you are legally bound to report this to the counsellor and administration, but assure the student that their peers do not have to know. You are there to help them, not publicize their feelings. Thank them for coming to you and opening up to you.

In short, the presentation I watched in Social Context class today summarized what to do with three simple words in the acronym, A.C.T.





Recognizing Hidden FNMI Racism in Canada

Posted by agracemartin on January 30, 2015 at 6:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Sir Ken Robinson said, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." As an educator, I am going to go out on a limb here and admit that I have been wrong.

My past thinking has been wrong. I am guilty of stereotyping and I am going to admit it in hopes that others recognize their own harmful stereotypes too.

In my Social Context class we have been studying critical pedagogy. This is different than critical thinking, which involves making objective and rational decisions based upon a collection of evidence. Critical pedagogy is defined as a philosophy of education and a social movement that combines education with critical theory, but it is more than that. The desire for social justice comes from a deep caring and compassion towards students, and from this compassion comes the awareness of unequal opportunities that students face and a desire to level the playing field. Critical pedagogy requires the disclosure of one’s subjective beliefs to understand where the writer/speaker is coming from.


My subjective beliefs sound airy-fairy, partially because of my spiritually leaning toward the core ideals of all major religions: to love everyone, to not pass judgements on others, and to be as giving and compassionate as possible. But I don’t think that we need to “label” these values as religiously-oriented. So let us take away the dogmas and say that I value being a good human being.


Of course it is very difficult for us to not judge others. We contextualize our interactions based upon our pre-judgements and that is not a bad thing.

We learn new content by relating it to something that we are familiar with in our past experiences. Where we come into a problem is when we judge others based upon their “labels.”


Ask me if I am discriminatory and I will immediately say no. I love and honour all people as individuals. I am a supporter of equal rights. I believe that both men and women are equally capable in the workforce. I believe that people who live with disabilities should be identified by their strengths. I believe that you deserve to marry the partner that you love no matter what your sexual orientation is. I believe that your age is not a number so much as a personal feeling. I believe that all religions are to be respected as long as no one is harmed by it. Finally, I believe that skin colour is an honoured part of an individual’s heritage but that is the only way that it should matter.


I grew up in a middle-class family. My mother reprimanded us for using the phrase, “that’s so gay” until we understood that it was inappropriate and derogatory. We respected that not everyone would be raised with the same religious beliefs as us. My parents were open and honest about treating people equally. We would get outraged at the prospect of racism against people who were black (probably because we have black family members).


Yet even with such a tolerant and well-educated family, I somehow managed to adopt stereotypes against Aboriginal Canadian peoples. If you had asked me this morning if I was racist against FNMI (First Nations, Metis, and Inuit) people, I would have said absolutely not.

Isn’t ignorance bliss? I thought that because I am against racism, that because I enjoy learning about different cultures, that because I believe in equality, that I was not racist and could never allow racism to go unchecked around me. Somehow, I was not aware that my stereotypes are racist.

I love nature. I am deeply spiritual and identify with any spirituality that honours our connection with the earth. I admire FNMI artwork. I love watching Pow Wows and hoop dancers. I have not yet but am looking forward to attending my first drum circle. How could I possibly be racist?


I have had friends from multiple different heritages which have never influenced my relationships with them. I have had friends who identify as FNMI and that has not influenced my friendships with them, either. I have, however, stereotyped that most people on reserves have intensive problems including poverty and alcoholism. I have thought that part of Canada’s economic problem is giving welfare checks to one native person after another. I have nodded in agreement at the saying, “If I need a drug-tested to do my job, welfare checks should require them too.” I have felt disgust at reservations for asking for more money, because apparently the handouts that we give them are not enough. I have felt anger over the fact that I have thousands of dollars of student debt because I did not get a free ride like FNMI students do. I was especially offended when a colleague said that [he or she] would be highlighting [his or her] status to get a job—and would likely get the job above a more qualified individual because of [his or her] visible minority FNMI status. I have seen homeless people in my city and cast my eyes away thinking, "Oh please, not another drunk native asking for booze money." I have wondered why can't we just let the past go and move on? Even though I have always been aware of these sentiments within me, I did not realize until today that I was racist toward Canadian Aboriginals. That is because I have also seen wonderfully successful people of Aboriginal descent. I have been friends with them. I have seen many FNMI individuals studying hard alongside of me at my university. I even checked "yes" to the education practicum form question: would you want to teach on a reserve? In my mind I was not racist because I did not apply these stereotypes to all FNMI individuals--just some.


This, I think, is the real heart of the problem. Privileged middle and upper class individuals in Canada seem to be blind to the inherent racism in our country.


Wonder what changed my mind? I started reading a MacLean's article for my Social Context class. At first I was taken aback by the title: “Canada’s race problem? It’s even worse than America’s.” Then I started reading. Here is a quote from the article: “If we don’t have a race problem then what do we blame? Our justice system, unable to even convene Aboriginal juries? Band administrators, like those in Attawapiskat, who defraud their own people? Our health care system that fails to provide Aboriginal communities with health outcomes on par with El Salvador? Politicians too craven to admit the reserve system has failed? Elders like Chief Ava Hill, cynically willing to let a child die this week from treatable cancer in order to promote Aboriginal rights? Aboriginal people themselves for not throwing out the leaders who serve them so poorly? Police forces too timid to grasp the nettle and confront unbridled criminality like the organized drug-smuggling gangs in Akwesasne? Federal bureaucrats for constructing a $7-billion welfare system that doesn’t work? The school system for only graduating 42 per cent of reserve students? Aboriginal men, who have pushed their community’s murder rate past Somalia’s? The media for not sufficiently or persistently reporting on these facts? Or: us? For not paying attention.”


Another part of critical pedagogy is asking some hard questions about the status-quo. Consider the idea that those in poverty are kept in positions of disempowerment in our society due to hegemony—a system of dominance without overt oppression that is upheld by societal structures and generally accepted by the populace. If we want to bring about change, then let’s live by the proverb, “a fear named is a fear tamed,” and admit that Canada is not as racially tolerant as we would like to believe.


If you are like me, then while reading these articles you will start to feel an overwhelming mix of emotions, one of which being “I just realized that I am a part of the problem.” Another emotion might be a feeling of hopelessness. What can we possible do to fix such a messed up situation? Since this generation is the product of reservation schools taking away parental role models, can we give mass counselling sessions to teach parenting skills? Is there a way that we can overcome genetic predispositions to alcohol and substance abuse?


Then go ahead and read this article to the bottom: “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst. How the death of Tina Fontaine has finally forced the city to face its festering race problem.”


This past August of 2014 a young girl by the name of Tina Fontaine died in Winnipeg, which has apparently brought the issue of racism against Canadian FNMI peoples to a head.

Thankfully, there is hope. I believe that awareness cultivates understanding, and understanding can instigate change. Hope lives in every advocate for change.

I was especially inspired by Michael Champagne’s Tedx talk from 2012. Michael Champagne says "those labels--that oppresion--do not define you" and advocates for a focus on opportunities, as evidenced by his group AYO: Aboriginal Youth Opportunities.


This Ted talk led me to several others. As an Albertan citizen, Judge John Reilly’s talk hit a little closer to home for me.


When referring to a case of domestic violence, this judge realized that there “was a need to empower victims. She was accepting beatings like that because she didn’t know any better. She needed somebody to teach her that.” I also appreciated when he defined justice as every child having a safe bed at night.


I then found the video Reshaping racism by Matika Wilbur. I was struck by the usage of “American-Indian,” because I will admit, I am confused at what exactly is the most respectful terminology to refer to people of this North-American aboriginal heritage. As far as I am concerned, an Indian person is someone from the country of India. From my understanding, FNMI is the best terminology in Canada.


I have come to the conclusion that awareness is the most important factor in this discussion. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as raising awareness to think again. Growing up, I played Cowboys and Indians. I dressed as an Indian girl for Halloween one year and was very excited because my I had found a gunny sack and thick brown face paint to look as authentic as possible. Yet if someone had said, “here’s some great black-skin-tone face paint, why don’t you go as a black person?” or “this wig stretches your eyes so that you can look Asian,” my family and I would have called them racist. So how was me dressing up as an Indian not racist? Nancy Marie Mithlo gives a great TedTalk on this subject.


So what’s my big take-away?


Well my next Social Context class will certainly be one with an interesting discussion after reading the two above articles.


More importantly though, I am willing to admit that I have been wrong. I have passed judgements. I have not recognized my stereotypes as racism and for that I apologize not only to others but to myself. I am willing to forgive myself for not being aware of my double-standard. My colleague reminded me that it is very important not to dwell in guilt, but let new realizations like this spark a desire to promote change. Now that i have admitted my wrongdoings, I am ready to search for solutions. I am open to suggestions if you want to contact me!


What’s the solution?


Naming the issue as one of racism does not solve anything. The problems of poverty are still present. To quote the MacLean’s article, “federally funded reserve schools receive 40 per cent of the funding that non-reserve schools do, amounting to a per child gap of $2,000 to $3,000. Many reserve schools don’t have libraries. One in three doesn’t even have running water.”


Come on, Canada, we can change our system. We need to stop giving repeat “hand-outs” in the place of much-needed “hand-ups.” Seriously, let's give all Canadian citizens what they NEED, and stop throwing money into a broken welfare system that promotes learned helplessness. Help these individuals take back their dignity. Stop portraying FNMI people as “Indians” in the media. Put funding back into our educational and social work systems. Most importantly, we need to stop thinking of poverty, violence, and substance abuse as an "us" versus "them" problem. It's the 21st century and we are all Canadian citizens. Let's put our heads together and see what good we can do. Social justice advocates for change. If we encourage our youth the possibilities and opportunities are limitless.

Promote self-empowerment!