Forced to adapt, cultural and language schools keep classes in session amid pandemic

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Sokrates Testempasis had reservations about sending his son Konstantinos back to his Greek classes this school year. However, the anxiety he and his wife felt disappeared the very first day.

“We saw all the precautions that the school took — just as in normal English schools — and we were quite comfortable,” said the Toronto father. 

“[It] was actually better than what we thought … There’re only six children in his Grade 1-Grade 2 class, and it’s basically tutoring for Konstantinos. He’s already learning how to speak and reading in Greek.”

For his part, the Grade 1 student admitted that his third year of Greek studies is “a little different because I have to wear a mask.” Still, he said, he enjoys learning Greek letters and reading different kinds of books for these extra-curricular lessons.

Like their peers at day schools, educators of cultural and language classes have had to adapt significantly for this unprecedented school year. While some challenges may sound familiar — when troubleshooting technology or connectivity problems for virtual lessons, for instance — other obstacles also emerged, such as navigating reduced access to classroom spaces or gathering restrictions. 

From revising teaching methods to implementing a host of new processes, these educators for school-aged children and teens tell CBC News how they’ve kept class in session amid COVID-19.

Offering in-person and online 

The small class size (capped at 10), spaced-out desks and masked students that Konstantinos sees each week are among the host of measures Greek Community of Toronto educators have introduced to go “above and beyond what Toronto Public Health is asking us,” said Kostas Flegas, the community group’s director of education.

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“We wanted to let the families know, [and] we want to reassure them that it is a safe environment.”

With the Toronto District School Board closing schools to outside visitors this school year — including extra curricular partners that typically rent spaces during after school hours — and in order to have a more easily managed location, Flegas and his team consolidated in-person Greek classes at the Polymenakion Cultural Centre in Toronto. 

“It’s just easier for us to maintain, to disinfect everything, to make sure that we’re controlling who’s coming into the building,”‘ Flegas said. “We’ve isolated that space, and that’s where we are operating all of our programs.”

WATCH | Smaller classes, shift to virtual help cultural schools keep classes going:

Language and cultural classes across Canada have had to reduce class sizes or move online to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, while still remaining open. 1:59

Having a sole location has unfortunately contributed to lower overall enrolment (about 400 students to the previous year’s 1,000) for the evening and weekend classes, usually held in multiple spaces around the city.

To extend their reach and support families wanting Greek school to continue virtually, the team also created an online version of its curriculum — which Felgas, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, and colleagues at a Greek university had overhauled in 2013. 

This year, about 150 students are learning online, including some from as far afield as Sudbury, with approximately 250 attending in-person across different days.

Greek school goes beyond just language instruction. It’s also about helping students build connections to family and the wider Greek community as well as to help that community survive, said Flegas, who grew up as a student in the program himself. 

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All that aside, however, students are the school’s best selling point, he said. 

“No matter what I say here … it’s that smile and a child saying, ‘I like Greek school. I have my friends there. Let’s go’ [that matters].”

Engaging the youngest students

Students having fun while learning is also core to Vancouver’s Crocodile Mandarin language school, which takes a play-based and musical approach to teaching the Chinese language. 

Mandarin is typically taught in a very academic way, but learning through play encourages students to be more active during class, can be less stressful for them and can make lessons easier to absorb, said Maple He, who started as an instructor at Crocodile Mandarin early last summer.

Vancouver language school Crocodile Mandarin emphasizes language learning through play, music, crafts and other activities. (Submitted by David Spaulding)

Teaching under pandemic restrictions has certainly had its challenges, whether in-person or online, she said. During in-person classes with a handful of children, masks have been an adjustment both for children unfamiliar with wearing them as well as for He in communicating with her students, who range in age from three to seven. 

“I tend to use a lot of facial expressions, and when I’m wearing a mask, they couldn’t really [see them] … or did at a slower pace,” she said. “I also couldn’t read [their faces] fast enough.” 

Still, slowing things down has helped them adapt “pretty well,” she said. For online lessons, though, everyone’s face is visible, but the challenge there is to make the lessons engaging from a distance.

“I would try to express a little bit more with my body language and also try to make their learning a little bit more interactive,” she said.

That includes preparing fresh materials for online activities and adjusting teaching on the fly to be more immediately responsive to students, He said.

Crocodile Mandarin instructor Maple He has had to tweak her methods both for teaching in-person classes (to deal with masks) as well as virtual ones (to be more engaging through a screen). (Submitted by Maple He)

A post-secondary student at the University of British Columbia who speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese as well as some French, He considers learning a new language a valuable life skill in a diverse country such as Canada. She believes it can help broaden cultural understanding of others. 

“I definitely find learning languages is a plus to help you to know your environment, to feel more [confident] and live in a more peaceful way.”

Being flexible ‘to get to our destination’

Being open to new technology and flexible for families are among the ways Imam Fayaz Tilly and colleagues have kept educational programming going at the Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre in Calgary. 

After the pandemic hit, the team shifted to virtual lessons in a variety of ways.

“Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Classroom — and we were able to initially get about 70 per cent of the students to come back to the regular scheduled programming and classes until the summer,” said Tilly, who said he also connects with community members via social media such as Instagram.

Educators use video conferencing software to host monthly story time sessions and lessons for children and to connect with students of all ages for Islamic studies classes. With so many parents concerned about what their kids face attending regular school, the mosque chose to stick with virtual to avoid being an additional bubble families would need to worry about, said Tilly, who is also an imam with the Muslim Council of Calgary and a chaplain at the University of Calgary.

Some classes have changed format completely during the pandemic. For instance, one previously saw parents bring their children to the mosque for a 90-minute session, during which kids would review lessons and get a short bit of face time with the instructor. Now, the instructor is scheduling much shorter, focused one-on-one virtual sessions to check in with and listen to each student individually recite lessons from home, no commute needed. 

“And if they are good to go, we would say, ‘Go watch the NHL game. Go watch the Flames beat the Leafs and go enjoy your Saturday evening,'” Tilly said with a laugh.

Educators at Akram Jomaa Islamic Centre in Calgary have been thinking outside the box during the pandemic, including changing the format of some classes to shorter, one-on-one virtual sessions, says Imam Fayaz Tilly. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Tilly is looking forward to when the community can once again gather at the mosque, learn and pray together in person but says it’s important in the meantime to have safe ways to keep the centre’s students engaged.

“We’re multidimensional human beings, and our children have the right to be nourished physically, spiritually and emotionally,” he said. “We can’t change the direction of the wind — nobody could have prevented COVID from happening — but we can definitely adjust ourselves to get to our destination.”

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