Faculty launches web series focused on needs of refugee students

By the time Niga Jalal landed in Canada with her family in 1999, she had survived three wars in Iraq and a year and a half of living as a refugee in Turkey. Arriving in her adopted homeland, the once straight-A student wanted nothing more than to go to school. 

What she encountered was not what she expected. Jalal was placed in a Grade 6 class, and her initial eagerness to learn turned to isolation and a sense of being disconnected. First, she was shocked by the big, long hallways in her school. Then, as the only person in her school who couldn’t speak English, she found herself thinking that she was “not very smart” and could only do well in math “because it didn’t require any language, at all.” 

While Jalal’s classmates seemed to look forward to the lunch hour, she recalls feeling a rush of dread and anxiety when the lunch bell would ring, because she would think to herself, “What am I going to do? I have no friends.”

Jalal’s story is unique to her, but there are currently thousands of young refugees across the country facing similar challenges and fears as they try to adjust to life in a Canadian school. 

Hence the need for Creating Welcoming Learning Communities, a twice-monthly online broadcast from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education with a timely goal—supporting school teachers, staff and other professionals focused on the successful integration of refugee students in Alberta’s K-12 classrooms.

The free interactive webinar series, which had its first episode in early September, was conceived in response to requests from Alberta teachers who reached out to Faculty of Education professors Sophie Yohani and Anna Kirova and to community organizations serving the needs of refugees, asking for resources to help them better support the new students in their schools.

“There have been more than 1,000 new students from Syria alone across Albertan schools,” says Yohani. “Given that they are newcomers from the same geographic region, it does create a situation where teachers are wanting to know the best way to integrate them.”

A place to feel safe and welcome

“We know teachers do a lot of work creating that welcoming space where these children can learn. The children have come very recently from trauma, displacement, their families are still in transition, so school becomes a very important place for them to begin to reestablish that sense of safety and stability and belonging,” Yohani adds.

Given the significance of school in helping refugee children adapt to a new environment, Yohani says it’s important for teachers to have support for integrating English-language learners into their classes and to have resources, practical advice and insights into cultural differences, potential barriers to integration, and the sorts of experiences refugees may have had prior to arriving in Alberta.

Jalal, who is now in her mid-20s and a program coordinator for the Syrian Support Office of Edmonton’s Multicultural Health Brokers, agrees. “All students come to school with their own unique story and life experiences—some of them are traumatizing, others are empowering. It is very important for teachers to take the time to get to know each student and where they come from, to have a better understanding of how to support the student.”

An online classroom for teachers

Recognizing that not all working teachers would have the time or the means to attend a symposium with this type of information at the University of Alberta, Yohani and Kirova decided to take the information to them by presenting a series of interactive webinar sessions where different guests discuss issues teachers may be facing daily.

By holding the sessions over the lunch hour, they’re trying to reach as many teachers as possible. Every webinar will also be recorded and uploaded to the Creating Welcoming Learning Communities website so teachers can go back and revisit particular topics.

“We do realize there are many resources out there, but this is an opportunity for teachers to hear live from academics, community representatives and teachers—to see those different perspectives interacting—and to have a chance to ask questions live,” says Yohani.

Embracing diverse perspectives

At the first session, interim Dean of Education Randy Wimmer spoke enthusiastically of his support for the initiative and challenged educators to ask themselves, “What can we all do to ensure that every student feels welcome and supported and that we are meeting their needs?”

Yohani, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, took on the role of moderator, and Jalal, Kirova and Sarah Lees, an English language teacher from Queen Elizabeth High School, were the speakers. 

Kirova, a professor in the Department of Elementary Education, picked up from Jalal’s personal narrative about feeling fear and confusion when she first went to school in Canada, and looked at it from a researcher’s perspective, providing useful, classroom-tested strategies for teachers. From fire drills and school lunch-hour routines to vending machines and cafeterias, Kirova explained that what seems mundane and obvious to the majority can be perplexing to newcomers.

“It’s essential to understand which of the many places that exist in the school can be frightening [for children],” Kirova said. 

Since refugee students can be marginalized by language barriers, Kirova emphasized the importance of communicating with them through images and visual cues as well as the spoken word. “Research shows that in selecting the most appropriate approaches, educators need to keep in mind that most newcomer students who are learning English as an additional language need opportunities to convey their experiences and feelings through visual narratives, using a variety of media including photographs, drawings, and collages,” said Kirova.

Lees cautioned that however much a group of students has in common, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to integrating newcomers. As a teacher in a school with a long history of serving a diverse student body, she finds that having access to different kinds of expertise and being exposed to a number of approaches is particularly advantageous in successfully supporting refugee students.

“Individual differences trump cultural group differences,” Lees said. “Even if people are coming from similar circumstances or have had a shared traumatic experience, how that feels and what that looks like for one person is going to be different for somebody else and their family. I think we have to keep going back to the individual. Different people find different things helpful.”

What’s up next?

New episodes in the webinar series will air every two weeks throughout the fall and winter terms and will cover topics such as creating welcoming learning spaces, understanding refugee experiences, communicating about school culture, building partnerships with families and communities, and assessing refugee children’s learning. (See list of topics.)

The series is free and will be broadcast live using Adobe Connect. The next webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, September 21 at 12 p.m. Edmonton time. For upcoming webinar dates and topics and to watch archived episodes and access related resources, visit welcominglearning.ualberta.ca

Register here to receive a link to join the live webinar, as well as a link to the recorded episode once it’s uploaded.

Feature image: Professors Sophie Yohani (l.) and Anna Kirova (r.) discuss their new webinar series in the Education North Atrium, September 2016.