Being the new kid at school can be hard. Being the new kid that’s recently moved to Canada can be especially hard.
That’s why Spencer middle school vice-principal Jennifer Nixon decided to start the Helping Hands Intercultural Homework Club.
“I was noticing a lot of our new Canadians, especially our Syrians … were sitting by themselves,” she said. “I thought it would be really good for them to have that social interaction.”
Working with Kay Otani from the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria, the group meets once a week for an hour. With almost 10 ambassadors – students who take a leadership role in helping their peers – and more than a dozen new Canadians, the club caters to a variety of needs.
“Some (students) are refugees, some are permanent residents, some are international; it’s a pretty diverse group,” Otani noted.
Students spend the first half hour participating in an interactive exercise and then finish with a half hour in a computer lab, where they can work on any homework or participate in an academic group project. While students are given class time by teachers to work on their homework, Otani noted, “a lot of newcomers can’t finish their work in that time.” This club gives them a little extra time, and help when needed, to get that work done. Students that have grown up in Canada also benefit from the club, he added, because they are exposed to new cultures and experiences.
“I’m also a newcomer myself,” Otani, one of the ICA’s settlement workers in schools, said proudly. His job is to help individuals and organizations connect across cultures. He assists with similar homework clubs at the ICA’s location in downtown Victoria and at Belmont secondary, where he’s helped out for the past two years. Expanding to Spencer just made sense, he said, as many of their students end up at Belmont.
“Spencer was keen to have this,” he said, nodding to Nixon’s dedication and the team of teachers and volunteers that keep the group running. “School District 62 is getting very diverse and has a very strong international program.”
With that in mind, Otani hopes to expand the program to more schools in the district and across the region.
Last week’s club meeting at Spencer started with a classic game that has many names and is played by children around the world.
“Do you know how to play telephone?” Otani asked the group of middle schoolers. Some nodded while others looked blankly until he explained the game, which sees a phrase whispered from person to person until it gets to the end of the line, where it has usually distorted into something completely different.
“Well, we’re going to make it multicultural … it’s going to be in some form of a different language,” Otani explained, as the students shuffled into two groups. He gave one person in each group a phrase to repeat to their peers. One translated into a way of saying hello in Arabic, while the other was a form of goodbye. By the time the phrases got to the end of the lines, they were both unrecognizable.
“We hear different languages in different ways and the same (goes) for newcomers,” he said. “It’s more difficult when you have to pass on the information.”
The goal of the exercise was to encourage students to ask for information to be repeated or written down if they didn’t get it the first time.
Otani told them a story about his father learning English. He was speaking with a doctor who told him to take a Tylenol. Otani’s father didn’t understand and didn’t ask the doctor to write down the instructions for him. Instead, he said, his father ended up in a bar ordering a drink, thinking that was what the doctor told him to do.
After the discussion, the students played another round of the game but this time both teams were successfully able to repeat the phrase at the end of the line.