A study in frustration Many newcomers, already tasked with learning in a language not spoken at home, are struggling to keep up with schoolwork without in-person supports and technology

Imagine attempting to complete a worksheet printed out in a language as unfamiliar as an advanced algebra problem is to a preschooler.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/05/2020 (941 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Imagine attempting to complete a worksheet printed out in a language as unfamiliar as an advanced algebra problem is to a preschooler.

That’s the reality for hundreds of newcomer students in Manitoba.

In the classroom they have a teacher, support staff and other students to explain English instructions. At home, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Google Translate might be the only resource available.

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Physical matter’s properties are typically taught in a lab with scientific flasks, safety goggles and burners.

But Abdikarim Abdi has to make do at the kitchen table with e-learning modules in the morning during the pandemic. After lunch, the 16 year old turns his attention to his siblings’ math, reading and writing.

Born the fourth of nine children, Abdi has always been a role model to his younger siblings.

After his family settled in Winnipeg in 2016 — after years of life in refugee camps in Djibouti and Ethiopia — he picked up English and became the family’s informal translator.

In recent weeks, he’s taken on a tutor role for his siblings, all of whom are navigating distance learning in a language they have spoken for fewer than five years. His parents, who continue to work during the lockdown, don’t understand their children’s homework. They speak Somali at home.

“Before, my younger siblings could get help from their teachers. Now that we’re all stuck at home, it’s my job, as a big brother, to help them. I have so much more work to do, not just my own assignments. It’s also harder because I’m not familiar with using the internet very much.”
– Abdikarim Abdi

“Home-schooling has been a little bit stressful, to be honest,” says Abdi, who attends the University of Winnipeg Collegiate.

“Before, my younger siblings could get help from their teachers. Now that we’re all stuck at home, it’s my job, as a big brother, to help them. I have so much more work to do, not just my own assignments. It’s also harder because I’m not familiar with using the internet very much.”

As newcomer families such as the Abdis learn from afar, coursework has become increasingly difficult. Learning is now taking place in multi-student family homes with both limited study space and internet-connected devices. There’s also a critical item missing from a lot of kitchens and dining room tables across the city: in-person language support.

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In Manitoba, 10 per cent of residents don’t have enough English knowledge to conduct a conversation in the language.

But literacy goes beyond being able to introduce oneself and comment on the weather outside. The percentage of residents who aren’t confident in their ability to read, write and comprehend English, a category in which newcomers are overrepresented, is far greater.

The average literacy score among Canadians age 16 to 65 was “significantly above” the international average in a 2016 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development review of data from English and French surveys completed in 2012.

A closer look reveals disparities in Canada’s scores between recent immigrants, established immigrants and Canadian-born residents. In the Prairies, Canadian-born respondents outscored both groups by at least 20 points.

The difference is the ability to read complex texts and disregard irrelevant content to answer questions.

Improving English literacy skills requires patience and practice. Abdi, who arrived in Winnipeg without any English knowledge — let alone any formal schooling — has immersed himself in the language by reading, attending school and visiting Peaceful Village, an after-school program for adolescent newcomers.

He’s articulate, but still counts on instructors to contextualize new concepts. With classes suspended, he’s been communicating with educators online when he isn’t sharing the laptop he borrowed from school, one of two devices the family shares.

“Most of our students really need lesson context,” says Daniel Swaka, executive director of Peaceful Village, which operates in five city schools and one community hub. “That definitely needs some hours of work, some hours of contact.”

Upwards of 730 students rely on the program to practise English with peers, use computers and eat dinner before heading home. The program has been in limbo since March.

Swaka worries about the poverty many of the students face, as well as the remedial learning that will be required when classes resume, whenever that might be. English learners need in-person interactions to practise, he says.

For some students. that’s not possible. Like Abdi, newcomers are often better versed in English than their parents.

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MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sukhy Mann, program director at LiteracyWorks, with packages of schoolwork to mail to students. Newcomer families across the city are facing a tough task of staying on top of schoolwork without in-person tutors and English support.

Overlooking Portage Avenue, this downtown classroom usually hosts adults who want to upgrade their literacy and numeracy skills. It’s been empty for the last five weeks.

LiteracyWorks adult learners, some with Grade 2 comprehension levels, are normally seated at the classroom’s lime green tables. Enrolment this year was 22 students, who planned to dedicate nine hours a week to upgrade their schooling.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sukhy Mann puts together packages of schoolwork to mail to students .

When in-person learning was put on hold, program director Sukhy Mann says “the key support” disappeared. Students no longer tackle worksheets collaboratively or receive vocal encouragement from their instructor. Without affirmation, Mann says students will lose confidence.

Since many of the LiteracyWorks students live in low-income households without laptops or, in some cases, phones, virtual learning hasn’t been an option.

Instead, Mann has been mailing out packages with simple instructions and basic literacy and numeracy exercises inside. Participants have been asked to return the packages to track their progress, but Mann acknowledges everyone is juggling stress, finances and family concerns right now.

Two weeks after sending out the first batch, she has yet to receive any responses.

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The demand for English-learner support is ever-present, if not higher than before. While teachers are at the ready, they may not be able to translate concepts in a student’s mother tongue. They also have dozens of students to check on.

At Arthur E. Wright Community School in the Maples, staff who speak Punjabi have been deployed to set up new students on e-learning platforms. It’s not uncommon for staff to be fluent, according to principal Anna Mangano, who says children with English as their first language are in the minority at the K-8 school.

The loss of community and routine have been tougher challenges, Mangano says, noting many parents continue to work during regular school hours.

“The school day ends at 3:30, but in this COVID-19 form of learning, our teachers are tapping in at 5, 6, 7, 8 o’clock at night. We’re trying hard to accommodate some of the shiftwork that our newcomer families are facing because we know that it’s a tough time,” she says.

Newcomer students in the Seven Oaks School Division can also access online tutoring. As for their parents, the division is hosting virtual and phone call support groups.

“The school day ends at 3:30, but in this COVID-19 form of learning, our teachers are tapping in at 5, 6, 7, 8 o’clock at night. We’re trying hard to accommodate some of the shiftwork that our newcomer families are facing because we know that it’s a tough time.”
– Arthur E. Wright Community School principal Anna Mangano

Divisions across the city have deployed intercultural-support workers to translate COVID-19 response information, explain home-learning packages and refer families to community resources.

In the Winnipeg School Division — the province’s largest, with nearly 33,000 students — there are 11 such employees. About 17 per cent of the student population requires English as an Additional Language support.

These resources aren’t new; staff and support services have simply shifted along with the school day to meet growing needs.

“School divisions need to be the community and the gatekeeper to help the families stay educated,” says Mathew Joseph, who organizes an after-school program at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba. As far as Joseph is concerned, teachers have a responsibility to check in with newcomer students by whatever means possible.

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Dressed in a pink long-sleeve top and cheetah-print scarf, Christina Beyene greets all the students who join her livestream on Instagram with a smile. She wishes one user a happy birthday, reminds viewers Peaceful Village’s soccer season has been postponed and introduces a guest from the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, who has appeared on the bottom half of the split-screen to lead a video wellness workshop.

Welcome to Live at 5 — one of the ways Beyene, a team leader at Peaceful Village, is connecting with students.

During the stream, students are asked to share their home-school experience in the chat box. One feels “awkward” without school. Another dislikes online courses.

“For many newcomer students with varying levels of English, adjusting to school is very challenging. Now those challenges are really being compounded,” Beyene says before going “on the air.”

Peaceful Village has pivoted programming to social media and phones. Tutors are offering virtual one-on-one sessions, but they can’t reach the same number of students they did before. Connectivity challenges aside, Beyene says food insecurity and child-care responsibilities are getting in the way of effective learning.

“For many newcomer students with varying levels of English, adjusting to school is very challenging. Now those challenges are really being compounded.”
– Christina Beyene

“I’m worried about catch-up across the board,” Beyene says. “A lot of our kids are in (English as a second language programs)…. We already feel like we’re behind, in terms of our language abilities, but when we come back, where are we going to be?”

IRCOM staff echo those concerns.

Executive director Dorota Blumczyńska says English literacy and reliable internet make distance learning “very far out of reach” for many newcomers, the 100 families who live in IRCOM housing included. Wi-Fi, she adds, is the first thing to go when families are in financial distress.

Approximately 200 youths are registered in IRCOM’s after-school homework and recreation program. Like Peaceful Village, tutors are connecting with students and adapting to respect social distancing; they’ve started hosting weekly “Zoom parties.”

Joseph, who runs the program, says they’ve been reaching about 15 students each day with tutoring; on a regular pre-pandemic weekday, more than 40 students drop in.

Drawing on personal experience, he says youths learn English best in social settings where they can feed off each others’ energy.

●●●

Nyat Birhane thought she had already overcome her most difficult school year yet.

In 2017, her family moved to Lethbridge from Sudan. All of a sudden, her courses were in a foreign language.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Nyat Birhane, a grade 11 student at St. John's High School, at her home in Winnipeg.

Last summer, the family moved from Alberta to Winnipeg and, with some confidence in English, Birhane, 17, enrolled at St. John’s High School.

Six months later, her Grade 11 classes, rugby practices and IRCOM sessions were suspended. Now, she stays up until 3 a.m. watching YouTube videos and sleeps in until 1 p.m., when she starts her typical distance-learning day. There are few study-space options at home, so she stays in her bedroom. She shares a laptop with her sister, so she often completes assignments on a tiny phone screen.

“English is not my first language. It’s always hard to do online (work). There are some sentences that I don’t even know, like, ‘What does that even mean?’ It’s so confusing,” she says.

“If it was in school, I would ask my teacher and he would explain it and everything.”

If those challenges weren’t enough, she’s found distractions are abundant in her Brooklands home. Conversation in Tigrigna or Arabic is non-stop among her five siblings and text messages from friends often interrupt her studies.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Nyat Birhane, a grade 11 student at St. John's High School, poses for a portrait in her home in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Nyat and her older sister do their schoolwork in the bedroom, where they also share a laptop.

Birhane says her brain feels fuzzy because she’s spending so much time on the computer. She misses life before the pandemic — her friends, her teachers and even the mundane: the school bell, which separated her day into structured segments.

“For some students, school is a second home. They feel safe, it’s a place they can work. There’s no problems (compared to) their house situation,” she says.

Birhane is one of those students.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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Updated on Friday, May 1, 2020 7:20 PM CDT: Fixes photo captions

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