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The Language of Empowerment: Engaging ELL Students with the Charter

The Language of Empowerment: Engaging ELL Students with the Charter

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, 40 Years of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Special Issue, 2022

By Aleksandra Trivan Johnstone

For many newcomers to Canada, learning is often steeped in urgency. Learning a new language, navigating a new community, and understanding the customs and expectations of a new culture can feel critical to survival. But it is important for our students and their families to do more than just survive this transition. We want them to thrive, and to feel empowered to become active and engaged members of their communities.

This is why I love helping my newcomer students learn about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and why I think it is so critical that we take the time to engage actively with the Charter’s contents in our classrooms.

Stage 1: Interpreting and Annotating the Bill of Rights

Before my students delve into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we always start by looking at the Canadian Bill of Rights (1960). As a legal landmark in its own right and the precursor to the Charter, the Bill of Rights has the added benefit of being much shorter. This makes it a great starting point for introducing English Language Learners (ELLs) to concepts and vocabulary relating to human rights.

As a class, we read and discuss the meaning of each article. We not only translate key terms where needed, but find synonyms in both English and the students’ home language(s), to help them better understand these new words and concepts. Wordreference.com is a great resource for this stage of the task.

Next, we make our learning visual. While there are a number of ways to approach this, my favourite method is with sticky notes. After discussing each right, students draw a picture or symbol on their sticky note that they feel best represents it. They then choose a key word from the article and write it somewhere on the sticky note, along with the most useful synonym they have identified (in any language).

Once we have discussed every article, students place all their sticky notes on our “rights wall.” They can then review the notes of their classmates, and add some of these new terms or drawings to their own master note sheet. The collection of visuals and synonyms gives students the opportunity to see different representations or “applications” of the rights that they may not have considered themselves.

Stage 2: Analysis and Creation

After we have interpreted the Bill of Rights and discussed its importance, I ask the students my favourite question: “What is wrong with this bill?”

I am inevitably met with a room full of shocked faces every time, with a few exasperated arm raises or outbursts added in for greater effect. “Why would you tell us it’s good if there’s something wrong with it?” is a question I usually hear some variation of.

“Why do we edit our writing, even once we feel we have mastered the format?” I ask in return.

“To find mistakes and make it better.”

So I encourage them to look at the Bill of Rights and see what mistakes may have been made, or if there is something that was not included but they think should have been. Some years, hands fly up quickly from students eager to share their ideas. Other years, the silence lasts so long it is almost painful.

Depending on a student’s background, experience, or cultural upbringing, they may feel reluctant to criticize the government (even as a theoretical exercise). For others, their education may have consisted solely of memorizing information shared by “experts” (i.e. the teacher or textbooks), with the practice of questioning that information—either to clarify or criticize—being considered highly disrespectful.

Sometimes, students may just need some help getting the ideas ball rolling, and in that case I find tying the task to their immediate surroundings is often most effective. As our ESL classes typically include a variety of ages, one of my favourite prompts is to ask for some responses “from the oldest students only. They know better.”

Cue chaos. As the students debate about whether or not my approach is fair, I follow up very casually with: “Who says I can’t pick based on age?” There are usually a few students who catch on quickly and notice that there is no protection against age-based discrimination in the Bill of Rights.

I give them time to look for other “missing pieces” in the bill (rights they believe should be included, forms of discrimination needing to be recognized, etc.) and to craft suggestions for new articles on their own or with peers. This task is also a way of making predictions about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Students research the correct term they should use for their idea, appropriate synonyms, and create a symbol. They add these to a sticky note, and then are given the opportunity to share their ideas with the class, explaining why they are important to include before adding them to the “additions” section of the wall.

For many students, this can be a very liberating and empowering experience. Those who come from countries with strong human rights laws can be eager to participate and share examples of policies in place there, describing what this looks like in practice. Other students—particularly those who moved to Canada to escape conflict, persecution, or marginalization—may draw on their own experiences to highlight freedoms or protections that they feel should be offered to all. While teachers should be mindful that these conversations can often be difficult for some students, such opportunities can also provide them with an avenue for participating in conversations that they may not have felt confident in contributing to otherwise.

For all students, regardless of background or experience, discussions like these are important in validating perspectives and opinions, and developing not only an understanding of human rights, but building students’ vocabulary and confidence in advocating for themselves and others.

Stage 3: Examination of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

After we have completed our discussions of the Bill of Rights, we move on to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). As a longer document, it can take more time to review, but by now students may have the confidence to tackle interpreting sections of the Charter on their own in small groups. This is a great way to scaffold the lesson, giving teachers the chance to circulate and gauge understanding, while also providing additional opportunities for ELLs to work on their skills in reading, summarizing, oral speaking, and collaboration.

I like to have students share their work through a class slide deck (these can easily be made using Google Slides). Each group edits a single slide, adding key terms, doodles, or found images relating to the information. An oral explanation can be provided “live” in class, or through recorded voice notes that students can listen to outside of class time. This slide deck has the added bonus of being a useful study resource when students are preparing for evaluations.

As findings are shared, we identify which of our proposed additions to the Bill of Rights have been reflected in the Charter, moving the sticky notes from the “additions wall” to the “rights wall.” New articles that we had not predicted also get jotted down on sticky notes and added to the “rights wall.” We take time to discuss what these mean, the benefits they offer, and how we see these rights reflected in our school or community—or more significantly, how they are not.

If time permits, a great final step in studying the Charter is a “take action” component, which allows students to take an active role in advocating for their own rights and those of others in their community. This ties in particularly well with the Civics curriculum, but is a great task for any class studying the Charter. Individually or in small groups, students identify a right that they feel is important, but is not being upheld well either in the school or their community.

Students choose the audience they think can best make meaningful change (fellow students, school administrators, community members, town council, etc.) and select a format appropriate to this audience through which they can share their suggestions. Students can send letters or emails off to their recipients, share flyers or posters around the school, or use a multitude of other formats.

Final Thoughts

By engaging critically with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, newcomer students develop more than just a broader vocabulary or sharper analysis skills. Allowing students to interact with the Charter, and use it to take action in their own lives, helps them see they have a voice in their new community, and empowers them to use it.


Aleksandra Trivan Johnstone is a secondary ESL teacher in the Halton District School Board.