Development of language classrooms in Ontario

Zeta Laurene Graham-Nurse


Teaching English as a Second Language in Ontario began in “church basements and spare rooms in some far-flung corner,” chronicles Robert Courchene (1997) in a personal retrospective about the past quarter century of TESL development in Canada. In this essay introducing what the first classrooms and the first ESL classrooms in Ontario were like, schoolteacher Zeta Laurene Graham-Nurse(1913-1988) takes us on a historical tour of the homestead properties where she was raised. Community and religion have greatly influenced education in some parts of Ontario, so Graham-Nurse (1988) identifies herself asa Wesleyan Methodist Church Presbyterian regularly “involved in community organizations.”

The first classrooms in Ontario

When the survey of 1819 was completed it meant the township of Esquesing, in Halton County, was ready to receive settlers. A new community was launched in 1820 around asawmill and gristmill on the Credit River. It was named Stewarttown, after two brothers, John and Duncan Stewart, who arrived in 1818. Education had to wait until the forests were cleared, andsettlers had acclimatized to the new environment, food, isolation, and sickness.

Since children were scattered and the road conditions poor (mud in spring and fall, and deep snow in winter) the first lessons children received were given by parents. As time passed, some educated persons living in the community, such as the church minister, would be called upon to further teaching ofthe English language by reading from the Bible. Ashcroft Methodist Church provided a haven of rudimentary education. The Methodist Episcopal preachers were known as the “saddlebag preachers,” men of zeal and adaptability who moved from town to town in the frontier teaching from the Bible. Pioneer homes contained few luxuries that could be used as material for teaching. The Bible was the only book commonly available. There was little in the way of writing material, no school texts for teaching, no newspaper, not even a calendar. Each child used a slate and slate pencil for writing. Even in 1845, an early school might have only three texts: the Manor Spelling book, an English Reader and the New Testament.

The firstschool in Stewarttown was a log cabin built by the men of the settlement. There were plank benches to write or work on, and blocks of wood for seats. The wood stove for heating worked best when stoked with dry wood. Outdoor toilets were the rule. Drinking water was carried into the school in pails from a pump at a well in the schoolyard. A small dipper witha handle was used for drinking. Also on the bench with the water pails were a washbasin, soap, and a towel. The schoolteacher usually boarded at the home of one of the settlers, or lived in a small room in part of the school. Wages were close to nothing. This was the beginning of education in one of the many small towns in Ontario, Canada.

History of education in Ontario

The history of education is a central theme in Canada’s social, economic, and political development. During the 18th century in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), the home was the usual setting for education. Local communities were uninterested in providing education to theirresidents, preferring that learning be conducted in the home rather than the classroom. However, the concept of schooling in classrooms as an agent of cultural change became more attractive to social leaders during the 19th century. American influence and Irish immigration pressured British authorities, politicians, churchmen, and educators to consider educational financing, control, and participation. In Quebec and among the First Nations, education was usually an informal process in which skills and values were passed from one generation to the next by parents and siblings. The process of learning was integrated into everyday life. Prior to the conquest of Canada in 1759-60, the French government supported the responsibility of the Catholic Church for schooling. To this day informal learning is an important adjunct in Quebec and First Nations territories.

As early as the 1840s, the structure of the modern school system,including the provision of classrooms, became an official government responsibility. In 1846, Egerton Ryerson began to make some improvements in Ontario’s education system. The first development was an authorized “English Reader.” One book was provided for each class. Ryerson, the founding editor of the Christian Guardian, lead Methodists to establish education policy in Ontario. Methodists demonstrated their commitment to education by establishing several high schools, colleges, and universities in Ontario.

In the 19th century, Upper Canada formal education for immigrants of non-European ancestry was segregated. German sectarians relocating from the United States, such as the Mennonites and the Pennsylvania Dutch, chose Ontario as their final destination. A large Polish community was established in Wilno, Ontario. Separate schools were also organized for people of color who formed sizable settlements as freedmen and fugitive slaves. Until 1901 the pace of immigration was slow: only 8 percent of the population was of ethnic origin other than British, French, First Nation, or Inuit. During World War II, Canadians of Japanese origin who were living in British Columbia were forced to relocate to Toronto. From 1946, vast numbers of Europeans, particularly Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese,settled in the towns and rural areas of Ontario. Larger numbers of immigrants from Asia started to enter the major cities from 1965. There were about 8,000 Japanese living in Toronto at that time, and this is when opportunities for teaching English as a Second Language began.

Support materials and technology were in short supply for these new Canadians. Classes were held in church basements and community centers. “The greatest challenge was to find material to illustrate the grammar point being taught and then to find interesting ways to practice it” in a room where there might be only chairs and possibly a blackboard (Courchene, 1997, p. 16). The choice of textbooks was limited to British or American labels. The content of ESL lessons helped students meet their daily needs: shopping, speaking to landlords and getting children off to school.

Today, teachers at a language center such as Georgian College in Barrie, located notfar from the first log cabin classroom that was built in the township of Esquesing, have access to language laboratories, e-Learning centers, special classroom acoustics, and various textbooks with Canadian examples. In these well-equipped language classrooms, teachers are encouraged to use special lighting, put up colorful posters, play music, throw away lesson plans, handouts, and overheads at the end of the day, and to bring things from home and encourage students to do the same to make the space more comfortable, inviting and resourceful (Sweet, 2009). With increased concern for the environment and sustainable development, however, some teachers are already working with engineers on new designs for future classrooms that salvage and recycle materials such as paper and lumber.


Courchene, R. (1997). A quarter century of TESL in Ontario. TESL Contact, 23(2), 13-19.

Graham-Nurse, Z. (1988). Graham family register: The beginning of education in Stewarttown, Esquesing Township. Halton County: Graham Family.

Sweet, M. (2009). Ten steps to a fascinating teaching career. Canadian Teacher, 9(5).