Stabilizing the ESL program

The English as a Second Language (ESL) pilot demonstrated that there was a real need for free programs where immigrants could practice their English. The conversation groups became valued not only because participants could practice colloquial English in a low-risk, friendly environment but also because participants could get to know people from all over the world. A typical group might include people from South America, China, India, and Eastern Europe. Many of the ESL participants were recent immigrants; some were professionals who needed to improve their conversational English to be more competitive in the job market. Many others were long-term Canadian residents who had never had the opportunity to learn English.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden in Chinatown

We wanted to make the ESL program a stable element of what we offered at the storefront not only because the demand was strong but also because the program’s benefits were so obvious. For example, one older woman in the program had lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside for decades, since emigrating from China. She came to our ESL program because she wanted to be able to communicate directly with her grandson who could only speak English. When this woman learned enough English to have a direct conversation with her grandson, she was ecstatic. She became an articulate and passionate champion of the program, speaking movingly of how her ability to form a relationship with her grandson had changed her life.

We could also see that having local residents facilitate the conversation groups was an effective approach. Immigrants liked the fact the facilitators were not intimidating or judgemental. They were ordinary people with their own struggles. The facilitators liked having a role that was respected and that allowed them to help others.

Securing funding

A major Canadian bank had been an early supporter of the Learning Exchange. Since the idea of an ongoing ESL conversation program was a good fit with the bank’s philanthropic goals, the bank agreed that part of their gift to the Learning Exchange could be allocated to sustain the ESL program. While the basic concept from the pilot provided the foundation for the ongoing ESL program, the shift from being a student-initiated pilot to a core program of the Learning Exchange meant some changes needed to be made. As an official program offered by the university, the ESL program had to demonstrate that an appropriate degree of due diligence had been taken in its design and implementation.

Refining the model

As a way of managing risk, we decided to add UBC student volunteers to the mix, defining a role for them as assistants to the facilitators. The idea was that facilitators would have back-up if they needed it. In addition, we developed a process to screen both facilitators and learners. Although there was some discussion about requiring Criminal Record Checks from facilitators, we decided this requirement would be both unnecessary given the public and controlled setting where the program took place and inappropriate given our goal to engage marginalized residents.

In 2005, the ESL conversation program organized five “terms” of eight to ten weeks, with about 10 facilitators and about 70 learners participating in each term. Many learners and facilitators took part in more than one term and participated in more than one conversation group each week. Both facilitators and learners were extremely enthusiastic about the benefits of the “learning exchanges” they were taking part in. We became convinced of the value of the program.

However, our evaluation of the first year of the ongoing program revealed some unintended consequences of the changes we had made. It turned out that the presence of the UBC students intimidated the facilitators. The facilitators tended to defer to the students rather than taking ownership of the groups they were supposed to be leading. I was surprised by this sign that the students were perceived as having more clout, especially since the facilitators were older, with more life experience, and a higher “official” status than the students. This was another sign of the perceived power differential between anyone from UBC and anyone from the Downtown Eastside. Since one of the key goals of the program was to empower Downtown Eastside residents and since all the group sessions took place in glass-walled rooms in the busy environment of the storefront, and since a year had gone by with no worrisome incidents, we decided not to continue to have UBC students involved.

Training and supporting facilitators

The other significant lesson we learned related to the question of how to train and prepare facilitators for their role. Initially, we hired a consultant with expertise in teaching group facilitation skills, conflict resolution, and cross-cultural sensitivity to do evening workshops for facilitators. However, it became clear that what the facilitators needed and wanted was concrete advice about how to encourage people to speak English correctly. Abstract theories about group dynamics and outlines of the pros and cons of different models of conflict resolution were not helpful.

In addition, we realized that the trainer of the facilitators needed to be someone who could relate respectfully to marginalized people, someone who would not be fazed by quirky behaviour and whose view of the facilitators would not be coloured by stereotypes. Fortunately, in the process of developing the ESL program model, we had been in touch with the UBC English Language Institute (ELI), a unit which provides English instruction to foreign students who need to upgrade their English skills to gain admission to UBC. We gradually developed a plan to have the ELI take on the responsibility to train the facilitators for the ESL program.

This partnership resulted in a small number of ELI instructors becoming comfortable with the patrons (and vice versa). The ELI gradually developing a training program that was tailored to the specific context of the Learning Exchange ESL program. For example, the training covered topics such as lesson planning and how to teach pronunciation. This partnership with the ELI continued for several years, until the Learning Exchange had enough in-house expertise to do the training.

Becoming part of the core

By 2011, the ESL conversation program had become firmly entrenched as a core Learning Exchange program. Every year, hundreds of immigrants, refugees and non-English speaking citizens took part in the program and dozens of local residents were trained and supported to act as group facilitators. Most people came to the program as a result of word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and neighbours who hae been involved. Learners appreciated the opportunity to practice colloquial English in an informal, peer-led environment. Facilitators valued the opportunity to learn new skills, develop self-confidence, and give back to the community.

The program continued to evolve based on feedback from facilitators and learners. For example, staff worked in close collaboration with facilitators and learners to prepare a series of curriculum guides that were made available to other organizations as well as being used at the Learning Exchange. A peer support network for facilitators was created. UBC students got involved in the program again, acting as 1:1 tutors for immigrants, especially those with specialized needs such as professionals aiming to gain certification in Canada who need to be conversant in the terminology related to their particular field. The ESL program has had enormous benefits, both for facilitators whose skills, self-confidence, and aspirations have grown and for the immigrants and refugees whose English has improved. For both groups of participants, the ESL program has served to connect them to each other and to the larger community.

Tapping into the talent

Laszlo Szemok
Laszlo Szemok (photo copyright UBC)

The ESL conversation program has reached hundreds of people over the years. The foundation of the program continues to be the local residents who act as facilitators of the conversation groups. Laszlo Szemok acted as a group facilitator in the original pilot. Since then he acted as a facilitator in more than twenty different terms or semesters in the ESL program. Laszlo had difficulties in the beginning. He found himself homeless and poor after the breakup of his marriage. He was traumatized and his unstable living situation made it hard for him to focus. But gradually Laszlo started feeling more comfortable. He began to take ownership of the groups he was facilitating and started enjoying himself. He says he had the opportunity to “become somebody else.” He was not being judged for his social position but for what he knew and how he behaved.

Laszlo believes there are lots of opportunities to tap into the talent that exists in the Downtown Eastside. He thinks more options need to be created for marginalized people, options that “give people a stake where goodness is rewarded.” Laszlo thinks it was important that he was offered and accepted a particular role, one where his actions had consequences for others. But there is an irony here. People in places like the Learning Exchange come together because of their roles but the real connections happen outside the roles. Click below to hear me and Laszlo talking about this. 

“To me it’s elemental to have open relationships with people you’re working with.”

“Although I’m acting, I’m bringing forth myself.”

The regular evaluations done after each term of the ESL program showed that Laszlo’s experiences as an ESL group facilitator were not unique. Most people who acted as facilitators reported that being trained and supported to play a role where they were respected for the contribution they made was extremely important, even life-changing. Small things like having group participants say, “Thank you, teacher” as they left a session meant a lot. So did the exposure to so many people from different cultures and life circumstances. Facilitators’ active participation in the groups made them feel like valued, informed participants in the larger world.

We were so impressed with the results of the ESL program that we decided to apply the same approach to the computer training workshops we did at the storefront. Now the Learning Exchange computer training is done primarily by tech-savvy local residents who are trained and supported by the staff team to play this role. As with the ESL program, this approach has been very effective from the perspective of both program participants and workshop facilitators.

For the staff team, the process of refining and institutionalizing the ESL program and other aspects of our work represented a shift. No longer were we flying by the seat of our pants all the time. We had a sense of purpose we could articulate and a set of practices we relied on to keep us focused. A structure took shape on the foundation we had laid.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Stabilizing the Reading Week model.