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Paper Airplanes English Program: An Interview with Stephanie Cannon

by Giada Santana

English as a work language is globally recognized as crucial, with over two thirds of employers saying that English is important for their business. Especially in the case of refugees and conflict affected individuals, language barriers leave them facing struggles to rebuild their lives, integrate and access the labor market. Paper Airplanes developed its English program with this issue in mind to provide the skills young (and not so young) students might need to thrive in their host communities.

I had a chat with Stephanie Cannon, a former tutor and now English-speaking class coordinator of the program. We discussed the program in detail and what it brought to her work experience. Firstly, she explained to me how her background played in her choice to join the organisation:

“There is a city in Georgia called Clarkson, which is one of the most multicultural in the country and has a consistent refugee percentage. Me being close to this city pushed me to work with Paper Airplanes. Besides that, when I first joined university, I was looking for ways to volunteer. Paper Airplanes was perfect for me! There is a lot beyond teaching, as you get the chance to create close bonds and strong relationships in the community. In 2019 I became tutor coordinator to know more tutors in the community, in April I applied to be conversation groups coordinator and I’ve been doing that ever since. I kept tutoring as well and both jobs have been really rewarding.”

Stephanie told me about how the program has expanded:

“Originally, we had conversation groups as a side project for the English program. It used to be about fifteen groups with 3 – 5 students per group meeting once a week to discuss different topics based on the students’ interests. After the pandemic, we had a huge increase in the number of applicants. We actually expanded to ninety groups during the summer. It was quite a growth! 2-4 tutors in each group, 2-4 students in each group. We wanted to create a more structured curriculum - that’s why we transitioned to speaking class groups.”

Many students attending English classes come from the Middle East:

“A lot of them still live in [Syria], others live in the Northern part, many live in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon…”

Paper Airplanes’ tutors live all around the world, making Paper Airplanes’ English classes very multicultural. In this sense, Stephanie highlighted how important it is to clarify ground rules around listening and communication when managing debates and conversations with students coming from all over the world.

“If you disagree with someone, you can vocalize it without saying “you’re wrong”, but rather asking for clarification questions or saying “I have a different view”. If someone is in the middle of expressing a thought, it is forbidden to interrupt them, because a lot of the time confusion and disagreement arises when you’re cutting someone off. Especially when learning another language, there’s the risk that students get misinterpreted or the person themselves might not understand the full significance of what they said. We try to elaborate methods to ease and prevent tensions from happening. If tensions do rise, we address them individually, but honestly I’ve found students really appreciate the different views they have”.

When I asked what students were more interested in, she had a surprising reply:

“What I found interesting when I was working as a conversation group facilitator in spring is that students wanted to discuss quite controversial topics! I thought my students would have been interested in learning about food, music… but they asked instead whether they could have debates on topics as adoption, abortion.... I found out especially more advanced students love to discuss issues they would have a strong opinion on!”

She went on to describe the details of the educational program:

“This semester we’re going to have a hundred groups. After the intro, there’s a rotating schedule for the next 13 weeks. We alternatively choose between social science subjects and scientific ones: one week is a business and the next week is technology. Additionally, we devote one unit to daily life, as how to order at a restaurant or do grocery shopping…. We have more work – related classes, for instance classes discuss how to pitch an idea for a company or discuss a project… discussion time among tutors for reflections, students also have a reflection section on their journals to put down their feedback about classes. In the final two weeks students are assigned with a final project, consisting in poetry slam. In the second to last week, they will be introduced to what spoken word is and then in the last week they will create a presentation and write their own poetry”.

She was both proud and cheerful when describing the assignment:

“I’m really excited for it! During the first 13 week of the course our main purpose is to empower the students to have confidence to discuss different topics… So, it is rewarding to think that in the final week they really get a chance to express themselves through the confidence they have gained”.

However, Stephanie explained that working online has definitely its struggles both in terms of students and teachers’ performance:

“I think that there are definitely challenges... When students sign up to classes online, they might not feel as committed because they’re not showing up in person. Especially people that recently joined the organization struggle to feel the sense of community and therefore are not as passionate as they could be. However, the fact that Paper Airplanes is completely based on digital communications has incredibly eased the transition. It has been really cool to see how an organization could function fully online before the pandemic. Everyone is figuring it right now, while PA has been doing it for years”.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has put a strain on the program:

“We have tutors from all around the world, so depending on the country teachers have been affected by the pandemic differently: some of them might be in lockdown, others might be able to travel.... The pandemic has definitely added more uncertainty. However, in some ways, the pandemic has helped our recruitment aspect because people are still looking for ways to volunteer. This is such a good way to volunteer: you can create such a positive impact, without having to leave your home!”.

Stephanie highlighted more perks of Paper Airplanes English program:

“One of the largest benefits is that both students and teachers are exposed to such a wide range of cultures: our tutors come from different English speaking countries, so they get the chance to know more about students’ cultures and understand some of the misconceptions they might have. At the same time – there’s something very unique about our program - our students get to interact with native English speakers coming from different parts of the world: the US, Australia, South Africa… Tutors in different countries can speak to their individual experiences, as even within a country there are different slang or dialects, which opens up chances to talk about culture”.

About the author: Giada Santana

I am an Italian - Dominican student majoring in Philosophy, International Studies and Economics. However, I spent my final year abroad focusing on International Development at the University of Sussex. Here at Paper Airplanes I collect interviews, write for the blog and help with social media posts. When I'm not doing that, I love practising yoga, reading and creating playlists on Spotify.

The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members.

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