Virtual Program Connects newcomer high school students

By: Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic
High school students new to English  and to rural PEI have the opportunity to connect through redesigned  virtual English language classes.
“It’s  connecting rural PEI,” said EAL (English as an Additional Language)  program director, Janet Perry-Payne. Through the virtual class students  from across the Island have the opportunity to join a teacher online to  learn English together.
“If I’m  from a different country and I go to Montague, I may not know the other  kids who don’t look the same as I do or talk the same language. Now,  all of a sudden there is another world opened up,” Ms Perry-Payne  explained.
Teacher Stephanie MacNeill spearheaded the move to offer virtual courses alongside Ms Perry-Payne.
Ms  MacNeill said students who have moved to different areas of PEI from  the same country light up when they meet each other through the virtual  class.
“They are able to have a  conversation they wouldn’t necessarily have with other students like,  ‘what exact city are you from?’” she said.
Ms  MacNeill has seen students appreciate opportunities to express with  peers in their first language. The students have also helped each other  learn the local lay of the land by talking about everything from local  sporting events to the school lunch program.
“I think meeting through this class helps new students adjust and settle in.”
This  is the first school year the English as an Additional Language courses  have been offered through a combination of virtual and in-person  teaching on PEI.
Aside from  creating a hub for students to meet, the virtual learning component has  increased rural students’ access to courses and in-person teaching.
The  Island program set out for high school students new to English includes  two language courses. One focuses on writing and reading, the other on  conversation. Both are intended to be led by a teacher every day.
“For years this hasn’t been happening at rural schools,” Ms Perry-Payne said.
Last  semester, 10 Westisle Composite High School students enrolled in EAL,  four or five enrolled from Montague, two from Souris and one from  Kensington.
Because of the  small number of EAL students spread across rural PEI, a teacher would  travel to offer one course at each school every second day.
“We’ve been feeling bad about this for many years and talking about, is there a way we could go virtual?”
Obstacles with technology always seemed to pop up.
When COVID-19 hit and there was a push to enable comprehensive online learning options, the conversation changed.
“We started saying, ‘Gosh, we could really make this work,’” Ms Perry-Payne said.
Ms MacNeill had a handle on the available technology and was determined to succeed.
She  set out continuing to meet students in-person on a rotating schedule  and invited students from all the other schools to join the classes  virtually.
“It takes a bit of juggling,” Ms MacNeill said.
But students caught on quickly and now they are able to access both recommended courses daily.
Ms Perry-Payne said this increased opportunity to learn is important for students’ well-being.
“When  you don’t know a language you are vulnerable. Language is used to  interpret everything around you so it’s so important for these students  to have a good chance to learn.”
She  added the trusting and personable relationships students were able to  build with their teacher and peers re-affirmed this model could continue  to be successful in the future.
“Good learning has happened here,” Ms Perry-Payne said.
This  semester an additional teacher has been added to offer the classes and  students from Colonel Gray, Three Oaks and Morell will join the online  classes.