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BÉNA: Welcome to newly arrived elementary students

(Bienvenue aux élèves nouvellement arrivés du palier élémentaire)

In COPA National’s role as Provincial Coordinator of Ontario’s Francophone network of Settlement Workers in Schools (TÉÉ in French), we have developed and implemented a successful model to facilitate the integration of newly arrived Francophone immigrant families into French-speaking school communities in the province.

ANNA is one of the programs in this model, and is offered by the TÉÉ to students in grades 9-12 who learn how to act as mentors and allies of newcomers in schools. The objective of ANNA is to widen the circle of allies within a school so that the school community becomes more welcoming of new arrivals, which of course aids their integration into that community. A version of this very popular program is now being offered to students in grades 4-6 as part of a pilot project in elementary schools. I met with Yollande Dweme Pitta, the director of the TÉÉ program to discuss how this program is being received. I was moved by her enthusiasm and joy in working with the children in this new program and felt deeply inspired. I would like to share some of her infectious enthusiasm with you.

Until now TÉÉ have only worked with parents of elementary students, but BÉNA (Bienvenue aux élèves nouvellement arrivés du palier élémentaire) is being rolled out in a few select schools in response to a robust demand for the program from students, parents, and educators. It was first piloted in Peterborough, ON in October, and four more schools are scheduled to be part of the pilot project - in Brampton, Mississauga, Ottawa, and Waterloo, ON. The workshop in Peterborough was a huge success. The kids were happy, the TÉÉ were positive, and the school was grateful. Yollande and her team were excited to see how enthusiastically the kids responded to the offering of “tools, not rules”. Tools and strategies empower and build capacity in kids and all people, and we hope that offering them to kids of this age will equip and inspire them to continue being allies in the future. The COPA National team had customized the workshops for this age group, incorporating the latest research in child development. They also adapted the content and activities to accommodate the dynamic energy and fun-loving nature of this age group. It was obvious how much these kids loved to learn by playing, and this is what made them such a joy to work with for Yollande and the TÉÉ. They spent the whole day with the COPA National team, starting out with a chat in the circle, playing games and doing a treasure hunt to learn how to help newcomers find their way around the school. The team modelled scenarios and strategies, and the kids practiced them and role played – one of their favourite parts of the day. Yollande says these kids are natural champions of their peers. The tools they were offered were put into practice right away, because they had such a strong desire to help and support others. They also had much to say about what they were learning and gave the team feedback in the moment. As Yollande says, we often underestimate the capacity of children to understand and care about the complexity of situations like this – where children coming into their schools need to learn and navigate so much change. But children are so very perceptive, and they understand, absorb what we do, and learn by watching us. And if we are cognizant of how much they bring, we in turn, will learn from watching them and listening to what they know and what they need. At COPA National, our approach empowers kids to tell us what they know – and this is how we all learn, as they have so much to share with us (and we with them).

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