Content and Language Integrated Learning: I could, so I should


by Jennifer Walsh Marr

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

At this year’s BC TEAL conference [2016], I presented on the language materials I developed to support Vantage College’s first year Arts students. Here, I’d like to get into the agency, rationale, and impact of some of that work.

In the Academic English Program (AEP) at Vantage College, we don’t have language text books, in no small part due to the fact that we’re using the theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and Genre and applying them to a Content & Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach. At times it’s overwhelmingly ambitious, and textbook publishers have understandably focused their resources on less demanding, less specialized markets. But beyond the exponential learning curve, this need to create resources has given me significant creative and intellectual license. Where so often English as an additional language (EAL) and English for academic purposes (EAP) instructors are told to teach this course with this textbook, my context isn’t so prescriptive. There is significant agency as an instructor I just couldn’t pass up. I could, so I should.

My students take a full first year course load, including three credits of POLI 100. To supplement their English language proficiency, and prepared in conjunction with my fellow Academic English colleagues, students also take VANT 140, a three credit course in which we analyze and work with how language is used to construct meaning in the disciplines. I teach the Political Science (Poli Sci) portion of this language course, working one hour a week with students. Authentic texts are used as much as possible, as students are expected to do literature reviews and to prepare several research papers. In the first year of the course, most language tasks were built around the Poli Sci textbook. While logical, this approach wasn’t ideal. It had the unintended impact of positioning my course in a service role, with some students using it as a tutorial for Poli Sci rather than getting deeper into critical language work. Heading into the second year of our program, and having had the experience of working with research articles through the VANT 140 course of Geography in year one, changes were made. Instead of drawing on weekly textbook readings (which had the consistent voice and objective, descriptive tone one would expect of a textbook), I wanted to use fewer texts and look at them repeatedly, for different language features and in comparison to one another. This would require more authentic articles in which we could look for shared patterns of Poli Sci discourse, how definitions were contextualized and extended, and how different authors constructed arguments, referred to other scholars, and contested, even contradicted each other. A curated selection of authentic Poli Sci research articles would facilitate this, but they needed a focus for coherence.

In the first year of our students’ research practices course, they had read from some articles around Idle No More and Indigenous activism. This focus wouldn’t continue for the second cohort of students, leaving the articles available for me to use. The Poli Sci professor was quite happy to highlight her lecture themes in these articles, so we had our focus. She would point out the Poli Sci theories of normativity, sovereignty, and effects of colonialism in the articles and I would develop lessons on language features. But that makes the work sound accidental and tentative. The reality was that I wanted to roll up my sleeves, participate more in the academy, and better connect the classroom and community. At about the time this thinking and course revision work was going on, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very present in the news. I was galvanized. As an educator, parent, and citizen, I needed to do something. Hearing more truth, I needed to contribute towards reconciliation. Fancying myself something of an agent of change, acknowledging that I had benefitted from many privileges through my life, and now working with young scholars in the context of critical language analysis and Political Science, what better opportunity?

Not everyone embraces working with the communities of international students BC attracts. There are complicated differences in culture, socio-economic status, academic, and social expectations. While I genuinely like working with these young people, I readily admit I have missed the more grassroots, community-based satisfaction of settlement-based language work in which I started my EAL career many years ago. How satisfying it was to work with topics and language functions of real impact and importance to my new neighbours and prospective fellow citizens. This critical yet touchy topic of First Nations and Indigenous activism was perhaps an attempt to reclaim that sense of purpose and greater social investment. It was also an attempt for me to be as brave as the students who move halfway around the world to participate in our classrooms and social fabric.

Often, both general EAL courses and even EAP courses have unspoken guidelines of taboo topics, commonly referred to as “PARSNIP.” Avoiding controversy even more assiduously than a TED talk, most EAL and EAP texts and curricula stay away from politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms, and pork. But how does that prepare students for grappling with Political Science? How does that facilitate students’ respectful intercultural communication development? And what practice does reading about and discussing dreams, the weather, novel business ventures, or a simplified ecology cycle really do for students’ social, critical and academic engagement? If my international students were going to work through concepts such as positive and negative freedoms, totalitarianism, communism, and self-determination, surely I could be brave enough to lift the curtain on my nascent understanding of some current issues facing First Nations in Canada.

So we started. With my acknowledgement that I’m not an Indigenous scholar. That, in fact, I’m from settler stock. That language has power, and that the choices we make in using language position ourselves and others. Then we looked for and at examples: for the prevalence of Graeco-Latin morphemes and nominalizations that imply presumed knowledge; for inductive reasoning building a case for different ways of understanding and knowing; for causation developed not through explicit discourse markers, but through contributing factors more subtly suggested in particular verbs and sentence structures; and for responsibility and agency erased through the use of passive voice.

At the beginning of the term, I tasked my students with a warm up asking them what they knew and wondered about the academic discourse of Political Science and First Nations in Canada. At the end of term, I returned students’ initial impressions to them to revisit and reflect on. I asked them to describe what they had learned; here are some insightful, verbatim responses:

Nowadays, I am aware that First Nations suffered great genocides, they were almost annihilated by discriminatory policies. Moreover, that discrimination persists until now. Regardless of that First Nations stand up and face those policies. They are showing up all the injustice they have suffered from the colonization. I am conscious that they are not passive subjects any more, they started to leave people listen to their voice and people are eager to help them. They want people to know that better policies regarding them and the environment can be created. -Vantage Arts student, 2015

The feature of political science discourse I want to describe and explain is the functions active and passive voices. One of the major functions of passive voice is to hide the participants. For example “the bill C-45 was violated in…”, the people who violated the laws were not mentioned in the sentence. When newspapers and social medias used the passive voices in this way, they are trying to remove the social responsibilities of participants. When we read sentences written in passive voices, we need to critically think who are the participants. –Vantage Arts student, 2015

And what of it all? It has been really intellectually and socially rewarding work. I’m reading content I would never have imagined, and I’m reading it more critically. I feel like a bona fide, contributing member of the academy. I feel honoured and humbled by my students’ engagement in the work and my opportunity to work alongside them.

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Jennifer Walsh Marr is a long time member of BC TEAL, serving on its board now and again. She teaches at UBC Vantage College, has aspirations to write a book about paraphrasing someday, and believes marking doesn’t have to be bad as we all like to complain it is.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Walsh Marr, J. (2016, Fall). I could, so I should. TEAL News. Retrieved from


Classroom Corner: Agree to Disagree Lesson Plan Activity


by Edward Pye

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

Agree to Disagree is a fun and interactive opinions-based speaking activity which could easily be prefaced with a lesson on arguing and debate. I usually run through the different phrases for giving opinions before I do this. It works well with high-level academic students, but can also be customized to lower levels by using less complex ideas and language.


  • Using language and grammatical structures for arguing and debating.
  • Thinking and responding quickly
  • Interacting in content-based discussions with multiple partners


  • You will need to clear a space for the class to line up in two lines
  • you will also need to prepare a series of controversial debate statements. Obviously you can tailor them to what you have been studying; however, the more controversial the topic, the better it works. I have found these statements work well at different levels:

Lower Level:

  • Cats are better/more fun/cleaner than dogs
  • My home city is more exciting/interesting/expensive than this city
  • Women are better than men

Intermediate Level:

  • All school children should have to wear school uniforms
  • Athletes and movie stars deserve the amount of money they make
  • The death penalty should be outlawed
  • A bear/lion/crocodile could beat a tiger/wolf/shark

Higher Level (academic):

  • Higher income earners should be taxed more than lower income earners
  • Women should be allowed to serve on the front lines in the military
  • Marijuana should be legalized everywhere
  • Fast food companies should be allowed to market to young audiences
  • Abortion clinics shouldn’t receive funding from the government.


  1. Start by having all the students come to the front of the class and having them line up in two lines facing each other so that everyone is matching a partner. If you have odd numbers, put one person on the end in a group of three.
  2. Stand in the middle of the line and explain the activity to students
  3. The teacher will read one of the controversial statements aloud, the students have to carefully listen to the statement and quickly think about whether they agree or disagree with this statement.
  4. Once they have thought about their position, the student has to say “agree” or “disagree” before their partner can. The first student to do so gets to argue their opinion while their partner must argue the opposite (even if that is not their own personal opinion).
  5. Give students three to four minutes to debate with their partners. This can be a noisy activity, so I sometimes tell students to move away from the line to chat.
  6. When time is up, pull the students back together and quickly go over the main points on each side of the argument. Have the students give their ideas and then elicit rebuttal from the other side. Try to do this quickly because the activity can go on for too long if you let it.
  7. Once that idea has been talked through, rotate one line, so everyone has a new partner.
  8. Give the students the next controversial statement and repeat the steps.

I find that doing three or four rotations and giving about 10 minutes for each is good because it allows students to interact with more people, and that is the key for this activity.

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Edward Pye is a New Zealander with an English literature degree from Otago University. Before moving to British Columbia, he taught in South Korea for eight years. Since then, he has worked as an Educational Programmer on UBC’s Okanagan campus and as an EAL instructor at Okanagan College.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Pye, E. (2016, Fall). Classroom Corner: Agree to Disagree Lesson Plan Activity. TEAL News. Retrieved from

Welcome to the ADAPT Strategy: A Five-Step Strategy for Inclusion in Adult ELL Classrooms


By Raj Khatri

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

It is often experienced that due to the diverse linguistic backgrounds, disabilities are mostly unidentified among adult English language learners (ELLs), which makes it challenging for instructors to efficiently accommodate differently-abled students. Although instructors often feel that particular ELLs might benefit from certain classroom strategies or differentiated instruction, when learner disabilities are not formally identified, it becomes critical that instructors systematically and appropriately assess ELLs’ learning needs and identify potential mismatches in order to facilitate adaptations. With that said, I am going to discuss the ADAPT strategy (Hutchinson, 2010), which I employed when working in a regular classroom with adult ELLs who were formally identified as learners with disabilities or exceptional learners. This process (I prefer to call the ADAPT a process rather than a strategy), I believe, can also be implemented in an adult ELL classroom with learners who are not identified with disabilities but seem to be needing assistance.

A few days before I started teaching an adult ELL class, two envelopes marked “Confidential” were handed over to me at the program coordinator’s office. I carefully opened and read the documents right then and there. It took me no time to find out that they were academic accommodations from the school’s disability service centre. Because I had just completed my program on special education from Queen’s University and was then certified to teach learners with special needs in Ontario, I instantly felt that it was an opportunity for me to apply my learning to classroom practices. My responsibilities towards these two learners with disabilities started right from the moment they were introduced to me on that very first day. Since there were only two learners with disabilities in the regular ELL classrooms, I facilitated my classes in such a way that all of my learners had equal access to classroom materials and academic instructions. No modifications took place, but I used a variety of strategies to accommodate learners with disabilities. I always provided a supportive and encouraging classroom throughout the semester so that all learners would participate in activities and assignments in a non-threatening environment.

The ADAPT Strategy

It is important that for teaching to be effective, it be differentiated in regular classrooms with exceptional learners and that differentiated teaching be an integral part of planning and delivering lessons (Hutchinson, 2010). One of the systematic processes or strategies I often use for differentiating teaching is the ADAPT process, which Hutchinson often discusses, showing its application and importance in accommodating learners with disabilities. During the use of the ADAPT process, I try to ensure in class a structured learning environment, scaffolded instruction, and opportunities for learners to experience success, all of which, I believe, alleviate boredom and frustration and promote engagement and learning, as stated by Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008). The ADAPT process, which I incorporated when teaching the learners with disabilities in an adult ELL classroom as mentioned in the paragraph above, consisted of the following five steps (Hutchinson, 2010):

Step 1: Accounts of learners’ strengths and weaknesses (A)

Step 2: Demands of the classroom (D)

Step 3: Adaptations (A)

Step 4: Perspectives and consequences (P)

Step 5: Teach and assess the match (T)

Step 1: Accounts of learners’ strengths and weaknesses

During Step 1, I familiarized myself with all information that was important for me to know about the exceptional learners with the help of their confidential files that contained medical information, counsellors’ contact information, exam instructions and accommodations, assistive technology needs, classroom accommodations, supportive services, and other relevant information, as is generally provided in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for K-12 public school system in Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2004). These files contained very specific statements about learners’ strengths and weaknesses under social, emotional, and behavioural; physical; and academic categories, just as Hutchinson (2010) discusses. Turn taking in a group assignment, avoiding from being harsh, and being highly motivated to do better and score higher grades were some of the social, emotional, and behavioural strengths, whereas showing resistance to move and participate in group work, crying as a result of frustration caused from academic assignments, and disobeying classroom instructions were part of social, emotional, and behavioural weaknesses that I came across when reading the files. Physical strengths and weaknesses are mostly manifested in motor skills, sight, hearing, and neurological functions. Reading and mathematical skills, problem-solving strategies, and organizational skills could be connected with academic strengths and weaknesses. I also assessed the learners’ knowledge with regards to their learning expectations and gathered information through observation of the learners. I finally prepared a detailed description of these strengths, weaknesses, and needs of every exceptional learner and added it to my agenda so that I could easily and promptly access this information whenever needed, keeping all information still confidential throughout the process.

Step 2: Demands of the classroom

All social, emotional, and behavioural; physical; and academic demands of the classroom were taken into account when planning classroom activities, and this occurs in the second step of the ADAPT strategy. It is important that classroom activities be planned, keeping in mind strengths and weaknesses of learners with disabilities. When preparing long-range and daily lesson plans, I made sure that I balanced grouping configurations. I realized that some learners would benefit from discussion in pairs, as it helped them understand some difficult assignments in class when working with peers, but at the same time, I had to make it sure that these learners did not find it difficult to concentrate because of the noise or commotion originating from nearby pair or group discussions, as the challenges of the learners with attention difficulties would generally be further complicated because of the noise or commotion. As far as physical demands are concerned, I exercised caution when I moved furniture around for grouping configurations. Similarly, the academic demands of the classroom are related to instructional and supplementary materials, such as textbooks, realia, audiovisual aids, manipulatives, etc, and assessment methods. With regards to this, I provided direct instruction before guided and independent practice took place in class, which mostly helped the learners become independent gradually. I included the supportive service or the support from a note taker in the academic demands of the classroom, and I add that sometimes a note taker was recruited to help a learner with the class notes. Regarding assessment methods, additional time was provided for submission of both take-home and in-class assignments. Time was doubled for tests and exams, but the questions remained the same in all tests and exams. Private rooms were always arranged during tests and exams for the learners with special needs in this particular class.

Step 3: Adaptations

According to Hutchinson (2010), in the adaptations step, teachers need to find out potential mismatches or gaps between learning needs of exceptional learners and demands of the classroom and identify adaptations to differentiate teaching and evaluation methods in order to eliminate these mismatches or gaps. There are, in fact, several ways for the instructor to adapt and to make changes that meet learner needs. I sometimes ADAPTed the instructional and evaluation approaches. I broke a complex assignment into three key steps without watering down the curriculum (Dehn, 2008), and thus avoided learner frustration. Based on the learner strengths, one group of learners was assigned to read a few articles on multicultural characteristics of Canada, discuss some key important elements as provided in those articles, regarding different cultures and their celebrations, and bring their ideas to class. However, the other group was asked to visit some street festivals and cultural shows that were happening around them, write down about cultural showcases that they thought were very interesting as well as significant, and report to class. And, the third group was supposed to watch videos online, and use the Internet and talk to their friends and members of their family to gather information on different cultures, discuss some key celebrations of the people from these cultures, and present it to class. Learners from these three groups would then gather information from all sources together to present their findings both orally and in writing. Students had varied amounts of knowledge when they completed their part of the assignment, but when they got together in class and shared their experiences and knowledge, everybody in class made gains, which I could definitely observe.

There are also other ways to ADAPT. As instructed in the confidential file that belonged to a learner with disabilities, the student’s learning need was also bypassed sometimes, since she was allowed to use a word processor with spelling and grammar check, so bypassing some learning needs of learners with disabilities can also be a way to ADAPT. I also facilitated some classes on basic or study skills, such as note taking, test taking, scanning, and skimming skills, and teaching such skills are also considered a way to ADAPT. As Hutchinson (2010) mentioned, students with learning disabilities may need support right away in such basic or study skills, whereas the whole class can still benefit from instructions on these skills although they may not need these skills right away.

Step 4: Perspectives and Consequences

Now is the step for critical reflection on adaptations. I considered my own perspectives, and perspectives from learners with disabilities and the rest of the class. It is essential that adaptations be critically reflected on from several perspectives, such as considering how the adaptations went, whether the adaptation process was very time consuming, if instructors and learners were happy with the adaptations, how effective this process was, and whether instructors would ADAPT their teaching the same way in the future. In the process, as Hutchinson (2010) suggests, throughout the semester, I incorporated the simplest adaptation that, I believe, was effective, and was beneficial for many of my learners, if not for all. Although it was the simplest adaptation, planning, preparation, and implementation of it took considerable time and energy. As it was a summer class, and there were not many classes I was engaged in teaching that summer, I had sufficient time to use for creating and implementing a variety of strategies for incorporation in this particular class. But, as Hutchinson suggests, the adaptation process should not consume considerable time and energy. I surely had to reconsider time management and effort level for the adaptations in the following semesters. Along with my perspectives, I also considered the perspectives on adaptations from the learners with disabilities for their learning. I ensured that adaptations I incorporated were not biased and that these adaptations did not draw undue attention to the learners with disabilities in my class. I kept confirming that all of my learners were respected in the adaptation process.

Along with perspectives as such, I was able to consider consequences of my ADAPTing teaching in class. I made sure that the learners with disabilities benefited from my adaptations and that these learners and the rest of the class were always engaged in activities and the learning process in and outside the classroom. I kept observing and sometimes assessing as much as possible for evidence that would demonstrate all learners’ learning. While I provided the learners with additional time after class, I also ensured that these learners did not become dependent as a consequence of continued assistance.

Step 5: Teach and Assess the Match

This step meant the time for me to decide on whether to incorporate this adaptation again or make some changes in the existing adaptation, or rethink a completely new adaptation should I be assigned to teach adult ELL learners with disabilities in a regular classroom. I carefully analyzed whether the adaptation matched strengths and needs of the learners with disabilities to the classroom demands and whether it was able to eliminate the mismatches or gaps I had identified during my adaptations step. It was again important for me to include the learners’ opinions about the adaptations. To assess the adaptation process, I also needed to find the evidence of learners’ getting involved in different activities in and outside the classroom.


This was the ADAPT strategy I incorporated first when accommodating the learners with disabilities in my adult ELL classroom a few years back, and it was really a learning opportunity. The process went well; however, I sometimes think it could have been a little different, and possibly better if I had opportunities to discuss with colleagues who were involved with the students, just as the IEP would allow the student, his or her parents, the school, the community, and other teachers or professional involved with the student to work together for the best accomplishments (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2004). However, there were no such instructions from the disability service centre. And, as it was the only class the students with disabilities were taking that summer, the instructors who had taught them previously were not available then. Nonetheless, it was a great experience, and since then this process has been part of my teaching and learning engagement. It has been instrumental in further shaping my teaching and learning process when it comes to working with exceptional students. I have lately come across a few learners who have not been identified with disabilities due to various reasons, such as learners’ diverse linguistics backgrounds and lack of diagnostic tests in different native languages, that would help identify disabilities. Although learners might not be identified and the instructor may think that learners might benefit from the ADAPT strategy, I think it can still be used, which can enable the instructor to identify strengths and needs of their learners and differentiate their teaching and assessment methods accordingly.


Dehn, M. J. (2008). Working memory and academic learning: Assessment and intervention. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model. New York: Pearson Education.

Hutchinson N.L. (2010). Inclusion of Exceptional Learners in Canadian Schools: A practical handbook for teachers. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada Inc.

Ontario Ministry of Education and Training. (1999). Special education companion: Curriculum unit planner. Retrieved June 5, 2016, from

Ontario Ministry of Education (2004). The individual education plan (IEP): A resource guide. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Retrieved June 29, 2016, from

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Raj Khatri has facilitated EAP and EAL classes for over fifteen years at a variety of settings, including at the University of Regina, Toronto Catholic District School Board, and Centennial College. His areas of interest are L2 reading strategies, L2 writing, intercultural communication, teacher professional development, and strategies for adult ELLs with special needs.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Khatri, R. (2016, Fall). Welcome to the ADAPT Strategy: A Five-Step Strategy for Inclusion in Adult ELL Classrooms. TEAL News. Retrieved from


My Experience with the Syrian Refugees Landing in the Okanagan Valley


By Raafa Abdulla

[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

I have been very fortunate to volunteer with three organizations (Kelowna Islamic Center, Mission Creek Alliance church, and St Pius X church Refugee Committee) sponsoring six Syrian families. My experience was eye-opening, full of excitement and new challenges every day. Every sponsoring group took their role very seriously. They spent hours discussing and preparing a new life for the Syrian families. Some of them even asked me to contact the families while they were in Beirut, Lebanon and then they tracked the flights until their arrival in Kelowna, BC. I couldn’t believe the number of people who were willing to dedicate their time and money to help strangers. Everyone was treating the newcomers as his or her own family. I have been asked several times to talk about Syrian culture, food, and social traditions; everyone wanted to know how to approach the families faster. In return, once the Syrians settled, they were eager to learn about Canadian culture. I was very thrilled to feel as a bridge connecting two cultures.

Settling the new Syrian families could have been a challenge. However, most organizations were very successful, and the process was smooth. Many have divided their committee members into four groups: planning, transportation, education, and health. The planning group sets weekly plans—at least for the first month—and they look after the family’s needs. They also connect interpreters with the other groups. In the first two weeks, Syrian families are required to be in different places; they have to fill out some governmental papers (child tax benefit, provincial health insurance. etc.), open new bank accounts and register into English classes. Therefore, the transportation group is highly in demand during these days. The education group helped registering the parents into adult English classes and their kids into BC public schools. As more families arrived, many adult English classes were full and couldn’t accept new students immediately. As a result, some of the committee members became private English tutors until the public English classes became available. Some groups opened their own English classrooms. For example, the Kelowna Islamic Center is running classes every day to teach English and Canadian culture to Syrian mothers. Finally, the health group, most likely led by someone who has a medical/science background, is responsible for registering the family with a family doctor and looking after any family health issues.

I found every committee member and every volunteer to be very happy and excited to help the Syrian refugees. Everyone works with a smile and everyone knows what to do. Many groups in the community offered lots of free or reduced price services and items; such as motels, dental centres, and thrift stores.

Finally, I have noticed two main issues while working as a volunteer. First, the settlement process was much easier with fully (or partially) privately-sponsored refugees as compared to fully governmental-sponsored refugees. Even though the later group are financially secured, they don’t have specific people helping them. These families need to be assisted by the whole community. Some people have started creating Facebook pages to offer services or offer donations. The main issue is the communication between the two groups. All the services are offered in English and most Syrians can only speak Arabic. Another challenge is with the school English as an Additional (EAL) system. Most schools are prepared to accept EAL students who have some English skills. However, most of the Syrian students have no English skills and they are required to be taught the very beginning levels. In general, they learn very quickly and they show a high enthusiasm for learning. They are very motivated and willing to integrate and create more friends.

To sum up, this is some of my experience with the new Syrian families. I have been pleasantly astonished with the help and effort that the Okanagan Valley community provides to families who suffered from the war in Syria. One Syrian father once told me that Canada not only gave him a place to live but also granted him a new life. He said that he was dead and now (in Canada) he is alive again.

I am very thankful and I appreciate all the hard work that everyone is doing to help Syrians refugees. This experience makes me meet not only new people but also new real friends.

Biographical Information

From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Raafa Abdulla holds an honour degree in medical biochemistry from the University of British Columbia. She was also a teacher candidate at Rutland Senior School, Kelowna, BC.  She has volunteered as an English-Arabic interpreter with several organization sponsoring new Syrian refugees, and she has also helped some Syrian children integrating into the BC school system.


This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Abdulla, R. (2016, Spring). My experience with the Syrian Refugees landing in the Okanagan Valley. TEAL News. Retrieved from

Communities on the Kazakh Steppe


by Janice GT Penner

[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

As many of us know, the longer we live somewhere, the harder it is to articulate what we’ve learned. With only eight months teaching in a foundation program at the university named after the nation’s president, it seems “all I know is that I know nothing” (Socrates). I’m still learning, discovering and developing my different communities as I work and travel in Kazakhstan (KZ).

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.—Gustave Flaubert

Astana has something for everyone in the expat community—an impressive opera, ballet, and symphony calendar, thriving international clubs, competitive quiz nights, lively pubs, dessert cafes, a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, and unique shopping experiences.  Neighborhood flower shops remain open till early hours of the morning for the “can’t get in the door unless I have flowers” drinking buddies.  Just google “Architecture in Astana”, and you’ll see what the locals call the flying saucer, pyramid, tent, castle, sail, lollipop, dog bowl, cigarette lighter, mattress, buckets, egg and rose. For now, these unique structures are situated relatively far apart from each other on the vast flat steppe, but their views are marred by the cranes that signal even more housing, malls, and hotels to come. With the economy in crisis mode, the priority is completing the EXPO 2017 site, which faces my western style campus apartment.

Among the expat community, I am most involved with the Haileybury International Community Choir.  Our choir is comprised of diplomats, Haileybury school teachers, their Kazakh assistants, and a few academics and business people.  The weekly practices don’t seem to prepare me enough for the Swedish, Finnish, Russian, German, French, and Kazakh pieces we’ve performed—and those were just for the seven Christmas events!  We never did sing the Welsh songs for St. David’s Day at the British ambassador’s residence because once we arrived, she insisted only six of us enter and sing at a time. Our next event is Nelson Mandela Day when we’ll sing the multi-lingual South African anthem and likely dance in a flash mob. If you get a chance to watch the 2013 TV mini-series The Ambassadors starring David Mitchell, you’ll get a well researched and lighthearted glimpse of diplomatic community life here.

A journey is best measured in friends than miles.—Tim Cahill

What are the Kazakhs like?  Well, the majority of them have typical Asian features, have Arabic or long Kazakh family names, and speak Russian. Their hospitality towards strangers, which is rooted in their nomadic past, seems in stark contrast to their public unsmiling faces—likely a survival technique from the more recent Soviet era.  Respect for elders and authority runs deep.  As an older person, I am always offered a bus seat. My friends have graciously welcomed me into their homes and patiently answered my numerous questions.  Very few know anything about Canada, but they recognize Vancouver from the Olympic Games.  There is growing statehood pride and numerous 550th Anniversary of the Khanate events were held in 2015 to remind all citizens of their long yet difficult history of statehood.

Kazakhs love to celebrate and party! Officially, there are 120+ cultures represented in the population, so the traditional outfits, festivals, and special dishes vary considerably.  The 11 statutory holidays are a fusion of nationalist and religious: Islamic (Kurban Ait- sacrifice), Russian Orthodox Christian (Christmas), Zoroastrian (Persian New Year)] and Soviet (Women’s Day). Events are usually celebrated with sweets, beshbarmak (horse meat and pasta), black tea, vodka, and kumis (fermented horse milk). As a young nation of 25 years, new celebrations are still being added—this March 1 the inaugural “Day of Gratitude” was held.

As in any community, adherence to belief systems and definitions of religious freedom vary.  For 2014, the agency for religious affairs had registered “3434 religious organizations from 18 confessions” (faiths) ( While the majority of Kazakh people are nominally Muslim, with varying levels of religious adherence, KZ is generally secular.  For example, only one of my students has requested permission to come late on Friday because of travel time from the mosque. When I suggested he get the student government to advocate for a prayer room, I learned that religious spaces have been banned from all public buildings since 2011.  More stringent registration rules for religious groups came into effect after an apparent suicide bomb that year in another city.

An important characteristic of understanding a culture is its concept of time. I had assumed punctuality would be revered in this community.  Alas, in my experience, “I’ll be there in 10 minutes” Never. Ever. In any circumstance. Means. 10. Minutes. In order to “train” the students for their future academic life here, our program has a strict attendance policy: after 10 minutes late, students are barred from entering the classroom.  Within my learning community, we negotiated the policy, so students can enter after the 10 minutes, but they are marked absent.

The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.—Carl Rogers

One of the factors that attracted me to this position was the opportunity to “make a difference” in a dynamic school that opened its doors in 2010.  It is an ideal case study for research on national and program “change.” The faculty of 330 are a mix of internationals and locals, many of whom had studied abroad in the Bolashak (the future) Program. This is a study abroad program that funds outstanding Kazakh students provided they return for at least five years after graduation.  Currently, the government only funds Bolashak scholarships at the graduate level because the English medium “Western” style educational institution where I am teaching is meant to serve the undergraduate scholars at home.  Each of the seven schools and six research centres has a different international strategic partner and different organizational structure, which accounts for the variety of academic cultures and contracts in each of the units.

I am one of the 45 newbies in the foundation year program of 90 “tutors” who teach English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Maths, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, or Humanities. The majority of my program’s leadership and tutors are British and many have been teaching abroad for 25+ years.  (Several have come from a school in the PRC that has enforced the 60-age-limit rule.)  The program itself is quite complicated to explain, and it is in constant flux. Over my 32 years of higher education experience, I thought I had learned the skills for facing change and saw myself as a change agent of sorts. However, our new curriculum’s growing pains have been more difficult to manage than expected. Although it has been difficult at times, I haven’t given up yet.  It’s been an informative and humbling process in this unique institution which has so much potential.

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.—Albert Axent Gyorgyi

Our current students (nearly 700) have at least an IELTS 5.5, distinguished high school grades, and stellar entrance subject entry test scores.  Now, KZ has an 11 year school system, so they entered as young as 16, and many were still not old enough to vote in March’s national election. (National reforms to a 12 grade system have begun and IELTS 6 is required for admission here in fall 2016).  Most students are used to dorm life, campus-wide smoking and drinking bans, and managing club and sport responsibilities because they have been at boarding schools since Grade 8.  Study Skills and Personal Development are part of our curriculum since it’s their first time getting to class on their own, being responsible for their success and budgeting their monthly stipend ($65 CDN). It is a merit based institution, and progress into the undergraduate schools is based on their foundation year grades, their Personal Statement and our carefully worded report.

The local Boloshak students and faculty have been instilled with the mandate/burden that the future of the nation rests on their globally aware technically savvy shoulders.  It is a privilege to work with these bright learners in sharpening their critical thinking skills and discovering new knowledge.

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money.  Then, take half the clothes and twice the money.—Susan Heller

You can build your own kind of lifestyle here. Essentially, it is possible to buy anything your heart desires with a wide variety of vendors.  Days before classes began in August 2015, the local currency, the KZ tenge crashed. The senior management arranged for our contracts to be fixed to the USD, and some adjustments were made for local staff and faculty.

Unsurprisingly, imported goods are much more expensive.  Local malls have European stores next to The Gap, La Senza, Adidas, and authentic Gucci boutiques, to name a few.  Once a month I take the campus “Metro” bus for the warehouse experience, and admittedly, the opportunity to catch up on the “campus community news.” The bazaars are soviet style with small booths and bargaining is expected. The opportunity to purchase all your groceries online and get them delivered to your door also exists.  At least one expat I know gets his eggs delivered from the UK!  I have just learned that second hand stores do exist here, so I can hardly wait to explore that “community.”

To study a language without learning its culture is a great way to make a fluent fool of yourself.—M.J.  Bennett

So far, my reality is learning a lot about culture but little language. Really, all my expat and local contacts want to practice English!  Besides, which language should I learn?  KZ has a high bi-lingual Russian and Kazakh literacy rate. The Trilingual Policy goal for 2050 means compulsory English instruction has already started in the school system.  My strategy is to have “bi-lingual survival” communication skills.  I listen to the Russian and Kazakh versions of the expressions I need.  Then, I learn the one that is easiest to pronounce, so I’m not really sure which language I am using as I communicate!

Professional Development communities

I am very keen to explore the private schools and their PD needs.  With the growing population, public school buildings have two shifts of learners, so these schools play a vital role offering additional subject classes, exam prep, homework support, English classes, etc. One school I know of took a group of students to four EU countries during Christmas break. I have serendipitously met owners of five private schools, and the teachers I have met are well qualified. I even got to sit in on some interviews!  I had hoped to fulfill my mandatory voluntary community service hours at a private school, but the senior management was concerned about the perception that we were favoring institutions. (Instead, I am aligned with a children’s club which mentors vulnerable school children on Sunday mornings on campus).

I have finally connected with KazTEA, ( the national Teachers of English Association, and my proposals have been accepted for their annual conference in June. I am genuinely looking forward to becoming actively involved with the local chapter/community.

The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.—Adam Gopink, Paris to the Moon, 2001

This is my 4th international academic community experience, and it is significantly different than the days before Skype (2003), Facebook (2004) and YouTube (2005).  While in Beijing, Taipei and Kyoto, it took two weeks to get family news via snail mail and phone calls were exorbitant.  Accessing national and international news depended on the priorities of the host country’s media services. There were no translation apps to facilitate communication or free Wi-Fi (2002) to search for schedules as I waited at a transit stop. For mental health, I had to make friends and find confidantes in my new academic community, and had to cross linguistic barriers to develop relationships with the locals.

Nowadays, it is very easy to be an EAP teacher who does not participate in the host community(ies) abroad. Our “class composition” is different than other places we have taught in, but the “nature of our work” is essentially the same.  With the technical conveniences we have, the daily commute to our school classroom and office could essentially be a commute from our virtual “homeland communities.” Tellingly, Gopink published the (above) “escape” statement before the internet/social media became ubiquitous in our personal and work communities.

Biographical Information

From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Janice GT Penner has taught EAP and TESOL since 1984. She has also taught EAP in Astana, Kazakhstan, the world’s newest capital city in Central Asia.


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Original reference information:

Penner, J. (2016, Spring). Communities on the Kazakh Steppe. TEAL News. Retrieved from