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Voices from the classroom





By Paulina Kurevija, WRDSB

This blog was written about teaching before March 2020.



“OK everyone. Now for the chickadees to come eat from our hands we will have to be completely still and very quiet.”


I took my class on a field trip to a nature reserve. After we explored the forest and had ourselves a good ol’ fashioned halal marshmallow roast, this is what the guide said to us. I am an eternal optimist and believe anything is possible, but nevertheless doubt crept up in my mind. I have spent 5 days a week with my loveable group of students and NEVER have I heard complete silence or seen everyone completely still. The best thing in life is to approach it with a sense of humour, so with a smile on my face and the hope my kids would get to see chickadees I said, “let’s do it!”.


As we formed a line on the wooden bridge above a frozen marsh my students stood with excitement on their faces; this is the moment they have been talking about for weeks. I stood at the end of the line looking at each of my students trying their hardest to stand “as still as a statue”. Then… I see one of my students start to wiggle and fidget as is her nature, and then, more and more students start to wiggle and fidget. After about 30 seconds a student of mine says very loudly, “No birds are coming!” and I gently say “Shhh they won’t come if they hear us talking”, to which he responds, “Why do you always get ME in trouble?!”. Immediately another student in my class yells down the line, “STOP TALKING!” and just like that, the chaos.



These memories are so fond in my mind. I never ask for the chaos and wacky craziness to stop, we just slowly day by day learn to build a little more peace. My students have come from Syria and Afghanistan, most of their families coming to Canada as refugees. Some of my students have seen violence, others were directly involved with the violence. Many have never been to school, or were treated as second class citizens in the countries they moved to temporarily before coming to Canada. If you hear stories about Syrian kids being separated from the local kids, being hit with books and spending the afternoons cleaning the school instead of learning, I have students that lived that reality. If you heard that in many countries girls do not have a chance to go to school, or are kicked out as soon as there are too many kids for the number of teachers, I have students that lived that reality. When you watch tv and see kids sitting on plastic boxes in plastic tents with dirt below their feet and no books or pencils, I have students that lived that reality. Many of my amazing, resilient students grew up in a world of chaos, and when you are surrounded by chaos eventually the chaos seeps in.


As a child, the outside environment can very quickly change your internal environment. You cannot ask a child who feels chaos on the inside not to create chaos on the outside. I do not ask this of them, instead I do everything I can to create peace on the outside and slowly day by day I see peace begin to grow in my students.


“I can’t stop talking. When I quiet, I think about things. I get sad.”


My students have big, giant hearts full of love. The thing with hearts is while they can carry a lot of love, they can also carry a lot of pain. This was said to me by one of my students after a particularly disruptive day. He sang, he made funny noises, he rocked himself, he stood up and walked around, if it was disruptive, he did it. When I see one of my students doing things like this my first thought is always, “What are they feeling in their hearts that is making them do this?”. I gave gentle reminders and continued teaching. As soon as I could transition to another activity I did and then I went to talk to my student. He quickly told me that he has to make noise and move because then he doesn’t have to think about all the things that make him sad. He said he thinks about his home, playing in the front yard and training the wild dogs. He thinks about his cousin who died recently in Afghanistan, his cousin who used to dream with him about the expensive cars and big houses they would both buy when they grew up. He thinks about the things he sees on the news or overhears his parents saying in the next room about war and violence. No one could be upset at a 9 year old kid for being disruptive when he carries that much chaos and that much pain around with him everywhere he goes.


But little by little I see the peace in him grow. I keep seeing more smiles and less furrowed brows. I see more interest in reading and math, and less unfocused attention. I see more relationships and bonds being made with the other kids and less fighting at recess. I see more peace and I see less pain. Little by little.



 “Do you think if I work really hard I can become a doctor? Or is it too late now?”


Hell yah! Of course I can’t use that language with my students, but I constantly remind them that they can achieve anything. Being born in a situation where they had to overcome more challenges is going to serve them well in the future. They know how to fight for themselves, they know how to persevere when things get tough, they know how to pick themselves up and try again and again until it works. I’ve told them many times, “You might have to work twice as hard as someone else, but it will make you so resilient that you’ll be unstoppable. Any goal and any dream you have will happen, and YOU will make it happen.” There is no doubt that being denied the opportunity to go to school until grade 6 lit a fire for the student who said she wants to become a doctor. She has told me many times that she never got to go to school, and now that she gets to go to school, she’s not going to waste it. Everyday she comes to my class ready to do her best. That doesn’t mean she’s always perfect or always listening, she’s fighting the chaos inside the best she can and she is succeeding in school better than my wildest dreams. You don’t give up, you just keep fighting. Little by little you see your goals become successes. That is what my students have taught me. 


 “I love dancing. It make me so happy!”


Dance every day. Listen to music every day. These are lessons my mom has taught me and something that makes my students very happy. Some of them love to dance and all of them love to listen to music. I’ve learned a few Arabic dance moves and it’s incredible to see how music can bring a sense of calm and happiness in my students. Trauma lives in the body and can cause many symptoms such as stomach aches, muscle tension, headaches etc. Music and movement helps the body process trauma and slowly begin to let it go. Music and dancing. Every day. Little by little the body heals.


The work I do is sometimes difficult. Many of my students are frequently caught in storms, where their emotions and past traumas come back up and throw them off balance. There are a lot of waves and a lot of storms, but little by little we are supporting each other to make the waters peaceful. Little by little the pain and the trauma becomes less intense and their hearts can start to feel the love. Little by little they get to be kids. The work I do is sometimes difficult, but it always fills my heart with so much love and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


A few times in my life I’ve been asked the question, “What does Canada and being Canadian mean to you?”. These kids and this work that I do is what Canada and being Canadian means to me. We’ve all come from different parts of the world, lived different experiences and little by little we become a family. That is what Canada is to me, a family that has come together by choice. We’re proudly Syrian, Afghan, Croatian and Canadian and little by little we become a family, part of the big Canadian family that reaches sea to sea to sea. That’s my Canada.


“There is no such thing as a foreigner in Canada. There is only our newest addition to the family.”


Paulina is a teacher who loves her job. She is passionate about teaching through Trauma-Informed Pedagogy and helping to create Trauma-Informed Schools. In the classroom her goal is to make every student feel welcomed and appreciated in Canada. When she is not teaching, you can find Paulina biking, hiking and woodworking with her family.  


































































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How Small Boards Can Make A Difference For ELLs


Staring At A Blank Slate:  How Small Boards Can Make A Difference For ELLs

By Kaila O’Callaghan


Like many boards across the province of Ontario, the Algoma region, particularly the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada,  has been faced with a rapidly changing demographic and we have recently found ourselves supporting exponential growth in our ELL population across many of the schools throughout the district. Given the changing face of our schools and the unique gifts and needs of this student population, we felt compelled to begin to create programs, policies and procedures that would make learning accessible to everyone. This, of course, was and continues to be a difficult call to action in a small board where ELLs make up a growing, but still relatively small portion of our population. Creating programs and supports with limited resources that need to be  stretched over a wide area can be a creative challenge. 


That said, it is possible. Since 2016, our board has implemented a registration procedure that requires initial assessments and family interviews for all incoming ELLs. We’ve worked with all our administrators and teachers of ELLs on their understanding and use of STEPs. We’ve presented our work at Celebrating Linguistic Diversity Conference (twice!) We have two elementary itinerants supporting our ELLs and a grade 6-8 ELD class. One of our high schools offers an ELD program with credit classes for math and English and another provides ESL credits, and our board is actively growing a new international program. It’s been a busy four years! We are by no means finished our work, but we feel like we’re off to a good start.


A blank slate can be a real challenge, but it can also be an incredible opportunity, so when I think of boards like ours who are currently in the place we found ourselves a few short years ago, I can recommend some vital steps in starting the journey to shift the culture so that they can provide programs, policies and procedures that recognize and enhance the experience of English Language Learners:


1.  Get By With a Little Help From Your Friends…

Network. Network. Network. We would not be anywhere close to where we are without the connections we have made across the province. So many boards and their teachers were instrumental in supporting our learning. A great thing about the ELL community of educators is that it is really quite small and also incredibly welcoming. We visited boards and programs, we asked questions, we borrowed materials and resources, we called everyone, and we invited them to visit us. That blank slate came in handy because it enabled us to build off of the work of other boards, to take what worked and didn’t work for them and to pick and choose the models and resources that made the most sense for our context. Join ERGO, find out who the ELL coordinators are at various boards, learn the contact details of your Ministry Education Officers and add them to your speed dial. 


2. Make a Plan, Have a Vision, Start at the Start…

When we first started trying to map out all of the needs of our system in supporting ELLs, we found ourselves overwhelmed at the long to-do list that we eventually came up with, but we sat back, took a breath and decided to start at the start– which happened to be the first thing we do when any new ELL comes to our board – our welcoming process. We began by clearly defining what that would look like for our board and that was vital. For us it involves a clear registration process that includes an assessment team that administers initial assessments, supported by transition to school support prior to any ELL starting at any of our schools. This was vital and  it now means that no ELL enters our system without being recognized, welcomed and being provided the appropriate supports. From there we were able to use this to guide our work with administrators in creating awareness around this population of students, and later, when we moved on to working with classroom teachers, the results of the initial assessments and placement on STEP became a necessary part of our ongoing conversations about instructional supports and modifications for ELLs. 


3. Advocate and Collaborate…

At the end of the day, we have only been able to move forward because of the incredibly supportive senior administration team at our board, who each continue to recognize the ways in which English language learners and their needs intersect with all aspects of our system. ELLs are a small piece of their much larger puzzle, so we had to advocate for this particular group of students, for sure. And that advocacy involves the ability to deeply understand what ELLs need to thrive in our education system, how our policies and procedures support that and what barriers stand in the way. We learned about where funding comes from for ELLs. We lived in the English Language Learners Policy document. We asked a lot of questions. We worked with folks in the transportation department and secretarial staff and administrators. We worked with community partners and volunteers and families and of course, classroom teachers. In working with every group, it’s important to be able to articulate why this work matters and what it means. And if you’re in a board where the ELL population has typically been underserved, recognize that it will take time to change mindsets and historically entrenched practices. Be tireless in your advocacy. 


Keep In Mind That...

Creating programs, policies and procedures that support the gifts that our English language learner populations bring to our schools can be a daunting task when just starting out because it requires a fundamental shift in many of our historical practices. It requires looking at things differently, questioning the status quo and getting creative with our resources.  But it is so necessary. When we recognize this particular group of students and their unique strengths, gifts and needs, our schools become richer places of learning for all of our students - we open up opportunities to think about how all students learn best, we challenge our old ways of thinking and doing and we begin to create spaces that value multiple ways of seeing the world.


What will you do with your blank slate? 



Kaila O’Callaghan has been a classroom teacher for over 20 years. Her passion for learning and languages has brought her all around the world. She started her career teaching ELLs in Barranquilla, Colombia before moving on to work with struggling adolescent readers and writers in a vocational school setting. During that time she trained as a Language trainer throughout the United States. In 2010, she completed her MA in Applied Linguistics at University College Cork, Ireland, her dissertation focusing on striving adolescent readers.  She has served as the Secondary Literacy Lead for the Algoma District School Board and is currently the ELL Coordinator for the ADSB. She has presented her work at a number of conferences including OTR, Reading for the Love of It, and Celebrating Linguistic Diversity. She is also a member of the ADSB e-learning team that won the 2016 Ken Spencer Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for their work transforming online learning spaces. She’s the proud mother of a curious 8 year-old and wife to a charming Irish man. In her spare time, she travels as much as she can  and soaks up as much music and theatre as possible.



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