The Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County – Jenny Harris

Jenny Harris, The Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County




Short Interview

Jenny Harris is an Adult Educator at the Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County where she has taught for 11 years. Jenny teaches English at the lowest level, a position she finds extremely rewarding due to the nature of the class, typically being New Canadians. When describing the students’ Jenny typically sees in her classroom, many of the students are extremely low-level language learners, some unable to read and write in their native language, although they all have certain multimodal literacy capacities (for example, they can verbally communicate in the native tongue). This low literacy challenge is sometimes also coupled with varying ages, learning disabilities, and mental health challenges, which makes for an extremely diverse learning environment with varying needs. Jenny explains how some students enter her classroom unable to hold a pencil due to their limited schooling experiences. Some of the students Jenny teaches fall under the term Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE), a term used to describe a very diverse group of English Language Learners who share unifying characteristics (Montero et al., 2014). These students are usually new to the Canadian school system and have limited or interrupted school opportunities in their native country. They may be refugees or migrant students, or they may have experienced limited or interrupted schooling due to poverty, isolated geographic locations, persecution, natural disasters, or war (Montero et al., 2014). Many academic challenges such as a gap in language development can be due to prior traumatic experiences (Montero et al., 2014).

Classroom Excerpts

Teachers may face various challenges when teaching SLIFE students, such as aligning curriculum to meet the needs of these diverse learners, providing appropriate materials, and offering opportunities for adult learners to learn about a new culture while educating others about their own (DeCapua, 2016). Jenny’s method of teaching showcases many unique teaching practices when working with a low literacy level class. In the following video, Jenny is contextualizing the weather by using a real weather network station. Students are learning to interpret a weather forecast, read temperature, and learn purposeful temperature and time vocabulary by repetitively listening to Jenny’s use of words like “tomorrow” and “yesterday” in context. Students are able to provide one-word answers to questions she is proposing. 

Through a series of videos, you will see the process of various modes being utilized to help students through reading and writing. Students begin by each writing simple sentences on the board, and it is very evident that writing is not an isolated skill. All modes are combined to make meaning for these adult learners. During this process of sentence writing students write, speak, and use gestures to work through this writing process collaboratively. According to Decapua et al. (2020), “combining the oral with the written integrates the four language skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – and encourages students to develop their ability to navigate freely among these modes of communication” (p. 64). Jenny also utilizes anchor charts to help students visually when spelling difficult to write words.

Through this language learning process, it is not just about learning to write out basic sentences. This language learning process connects to bigger ideas about their new experiences in Canada, experiences like varying seasons and driving in the snow for the first time. Students are not only learning about a new culture they are apart of, but also shows relevance and connections of the writing to their lives. According to Miller (2010), “this connectedness to peers and the multimodal world is key to purposeful learning through all the senses and modes of communication – and to drawing on lifeworlds to remake identity” (p. 268). It is obvious throughout these videos that these adult learners’ sense of confidence is in large part because they feel comfortable and animated in response to Jenny’s enthusiasm and compassionate way of listening and engaging in conversation.

Similar to the use of anchor charts, depending on each learner’s abilities and the complexity of sentences, visuals are used to help students understand. Along with speaking, Jenny is often modelling and pointing to various visuals or letters to help students work through writing. Through this sentence writing process, Jenny takes continuous breaks to ask conversational questions to the students. Even though these questions only evoke one word responses, which is all that most of these adult learners are capable of at the pre-production stages of learning English as a target language, the deceptive simplicity in this pedagogy is an extremely effective way to engage learners. According to Suh (2020, “Honoring learners’ literacy identities helps learners see their goals and experiences as connected to those assignments and their legitimate membership in the classroom’s community of practice” (p. 169). Although Jenny makes this look natural and easy, it is a very difficult task to continually encourage conversational style discourse when students have a very limited production of spoken language at this stage in their language learning.

Once all of the sentences are written on the board, each student has a turn reading every sentence written on the board. Jenny is scaffolding the read aloud in order to meet each adult learner’s needs and current abilities. No matter the level of the learner, you will notice that each student still goes up to the board to try writing or reading. According to Jenny, “you have to provide a positive atmosphere for them to come because you do not know what it has been like for them at home and what struggles they have. So, I try to make this a place where they can be happy, and they are not stressed, and they do not feel uncomfortable.” It is clear that Jenny has built relationships with each of her students, and created a space for them to feel comfortable and capable.

Jenny moves around the room, ensuring that each student has all of the sentences from the board lesson written correctly in their book. During this process, Jenny furthers everyday conversations as well as offers lots of encouragement while providing constructive feedback.

Jenny regularly learns words in Arabic, Nepali, and African languages to connect with students. While having a conversation about Leap Years, she connects the conversation to a personal story of a friend.

Jenny provides multiple opportunities for adult learners to re-read stories she has created to help them learn vocabulary in a narrative context. This can be seen as an example of guided reading, which according to Montero et al., (2014), “allows the teacher to first, model strategic and fluent reading to students; then observe students as they process new texts and, finally, provide supportive opportunities to help students develop the skills and strategies to become independent readers” (p. 62). She provides visuals, examples, as well as both personal and common questions as interjections to build off of a story to ask learners to consciously draw upon their prior knowledge. Jenny consistently tries to engage all learners in discussions by asking each student specific and personal questions that would only require simple, one word answers. For older learners, guided reading provides opportunities to take advantage of life experiences and more advanced cognitive skills (Montero et al., 2014).

In the following video, visuals are used alongside of a graphic organizer to provide clues for spelling. According to Decapua et al., (2020), “teachers should be sure that there are numerous and varied visual elements in the text to provide non-linguistic clues to meaning” (p. 44). While learning the name and spelling of each vegetable, Jenny connects to the languages of the classroom. She also starts simple conversations around each vegetable. Questions like “What do you use this to cook with?”, “Where can you buy this?”, “Do you eat this on your sandwich?”. These questions are helping students find meaning in the new words they are learning. Connecting the conversation in this way helps “motivate and engage students with situations that are representative of their lives, experiences, and interests” (Decapua et al., p. 44).

In order to reduce anxiety around tests and assessment, Jenny previews the format and goes over which skills will be emphasized. She does this by modelling a matching activity example on the board as well as each student also completing their own on a piece of paper at their desk. 

In the following video, everyone in the class participates in a discussion about what they will be doing on the weekend. Not only is this helping adult learners in the room listen and learn the language used in conversation, but it also provides diagnostic for Jenny to see the level that they are able to understand and respond.