ESL Students Spell "S-U-C-C-E-S-S"

Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” - Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Channah Coehn was moving into her new office when we met. We were surrounded by dismantled furniture and boxes of papers. The interview was about a spelling contest that she had idealized and organized last November.

Channah’s contest wasn’t just any spelling contest, like the ones where kids win lots of money. To begin with, this one wasn’t for kids, but designed for 18+ years LINC (Learning Instruction for Newcomers in Canada) or ESL (English as a Second Language) students, residents in Canada (no visitors or foreign students), with a Canadian benchmark between 2 and 7.

An immigrant herself, from Germany, Channah found inspiration through her parents “survivals” as she says. They traveled by boat to Canada when she was 12, escaping the horrors of the Holocaust. She was also inspired by Ms. Mullighan, her first teacher in Canada, “who wore a different colour suit every day” and kept a sign on the wall saying “A smile is the same in any language.”

Channah loves the multiculturalism in Toronto, something that is part of her nature, being the daughter of a Polish father and German mother with Jewish background. “It’s great that we have so many different cultural, ethnic, racial aspects in Toronto; we should celebrate that. But, if we stick in our own area, we are cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.

“The language thing is important to me because we have to communicate in one language…English has to be ‘the language’… Maybe, through that, we will reinforce the language of the heart. We will recognize each other as human beings, not just as members of certain ethnic, racial or social aspects.”

Channah is working to make this possible. She and many volunteers have worked hard to turn the 2007 Adult ESL Spelling Competition into a reality.

The idea was introduced by her in a TSEL (Teacher English as a Second Language) meeting. The teachers loved it and quickly spread the word through their classrooms around Toronto. Every LINC center in the city was also contacted. Hundreds of emails, phone calls, and visits to schools were made before the grand day arrived: November 15, the first day of the competition.

The contest was divided into two levels: low (Canadian benchmark 2 through 4) and high (Canadian benchmark 5 through 7). It took place at Metro Hall, where the 31 contestants of the first level faced three rounds of spelling. Just one mistake was allowed.
Grigori Drobot didn’t make any. He knew the words “by heart.”

We met on one of the coldest days in December, in the basement of a United Church at Yonge and Sheppard, but all I could feel was the warmth with Grigori, 19, surrounded by classmates, his father Konstantin, and beloved teacher, Edda Mindriau, the strongest supporter in his decision to compete.

Grigori came from Belarussia only eight months ago, with his parents and unexpected two year-old brother, born during the family’s plans to immigrate. The parents don’t speak English well. The father has to work and the mother stays home, taking care of the little one. Grigori was diagnosed with mild autism at the age of ten

What is considered an obstacle for many, turned out to be strength for Grigori. He is sociable and sensitive. Even Edda didn’t notice his special condition when he began attending class. And it was never an issue for anyone. It’s quite the opposite.

“Every day we were doing the spelling bee in class [to train Grigori for the competition], separating the students in two groups, and everybody wanted to be in Grigori’s group!” Edda recalls.

It’s no wonder. Grigori has acute hearing and advanced knowledge in spelling. He loves music and does well in classroom exercises but what he wants to be is a landscaper. He likes flowers, the “blue ones.”

Asked how long he prepared himself for the contest, he purely replied, “All my life.” He had English classes before coming to Canada and it was clear in his mind that had been part of his preparation.

In fact, P-R-E-P-A-R-A-T-I-O-N was the word that gave Grigori the victory.

Now, his plan is to compete at a higher level in 2008. He is addicted to winning.

So is Maria Teresa Arcos, winner of the high level competition, held on November 22. She studied English in the Philippines, but was too shy to speak in Canada, her home for many years. “People don’t understand you because of the accent…it’s hard.”

She is caregiver for a full-of-life 94 year-old lady, who helped her to get ready for the contest. “Next day after the competition she was anxious to know if I had won,” recalls Maria.

Maria says her confidence has increased since then. “I feel I can do something now.” It’s inspiring to see a smile of victory brightening her face.

The winners in each category were awarded with $100 prizes; the runners-up $60 and $40. All contestants received a framed certificate for their participation – another kind gesture from Channah.

If you are a good speller and want to participate at the 2008 Adult ESL Spelling contest, check in your ESL or LINC school in the middle of next year for information.

But, watch out, because the only down side of this competition is that it leaves its contestants with an addiction, but a good one: an addiction to win.

CNM