Fourth-year York University student Amorin Amello had been looking forward to this year since getting into the school’s concurrent education program while still in Grade 12.

Amello, who comes from a family of teachers and wants to teach high school history and geography, was eager to spend one day a week in a classroom for her first real-world placement.

But then COVID-19 happened, and last week, those placements were cancelled as teachers and school boards scrambled to make in-person classrooms safe and set up online equivalents for those working at virtual schools.

“I was so excited for this year to come, so I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of sad that it’s all online,” Amello said in a phone interview. “Online you're just sitting in your pyjamas during class, and it's not the same experience or level of engagement that I'm used to.”

To get certified as a teacher in Ontario, teaching students must log 80 practicum days, which for Amello and her peers will all be jammed into the second year of the education component, which starts in 2022.

But for now, Amello’s getting credit for teaching her mother how to move her classroom online through an award-winning community engagement program that emerged out of Toronto’s Regent Park in 2010 and now boasts several international chapters.

Amorin Amello made an avatar for her mother to use in her TDSB virtual classroom. Photo supplied by Amorin Amello

Shifting gears

The Youth Empowering Parents (YEP) program has also adapted its methods to the pandemic, adding a more academically rigorous post-secondary component to help fill a dearth of available community placements.

It has proven popular, with 260 York U students (one-third of Amello’s cohort) and roughly another 100 post-secondary students taking part in a nine-week online course that began last month.

Teaching student @MissAmello waited years to get into a real-world classroom when COVID-19 hit. Now, @YEPeducation is helping her help her mother set up her virtual classroom.

The students join a Zoom training session run by a longtime teacher about different aspects of teaching, which they must then apply and demonstrate by tweeting with the hashtag #LetsTeachAdults.

Amello said last week covered the need to break down lessons into three to five steps, and this week was on differentiated and scaffolded learning — how to make lesson plans to target the average student and modify both for those needing more of a challenge and those needing more support.

“I get to make lesson plans every week, I have to meet with my learner, I get to post actual things on her Google classroom and show her real skills that I’ve learned in class, so honestly, I’m really enjoying it. It’s a really good experience,” Amello said.

“She was my first teacher, she’s my mother, and she has been on my educational journey along with me, so it's cool that the gears have shifted and I get to teach her something that I know more about,” she added.

Amorin Amello (right) says she's glad she can return the favour to her first teacher, her mother. Photo supplied by Amorin Amello

YEP also shifted its primary focus, which enables mostly elementary and secondary students to provide volunteer one-on-one tuition largely to strangers in the low-income area east of downtown. Now they are having them help their parents and other relatives navigate the new reality.

“They’re not just teaching basic tech or English skills, they’re also teaching how to apply for government supports, how to isolate safely, proper mask usage ... how to order groceries online or how to do online banking,” said Agazi Afewerki, YEP’s co-founder and executive director.

A group of young people who volunteer with the Youth Empowering Parents charity pose for a photo in July 2019. Photo supplied by Youth Empowering Parents

Other popular topics of the learning sessions include English as a second language and learning to play a musical instrument, he said, noting that a child who has logged 500 hours at the piano can teach it with help to structure their thoughts and explain it clearly.

Soon after starting the program, YEP won a UN innovation award (one of 10 winners from around the world, Afewerki said, “where almost every other group that won it had former presidents on their board or had been running for decades”).

Attention from the award led to an expansion to Spain, and chapters have since also been opened in Ethiopia, Niger and Poland.

Back in Regent Park, the program usually works with underachieving schools and students who are struggling to keep up or are acting out, and Afewerki says that giving them that responsibility to teach often changes their mindset.

“There’s an instant gratification of seeing that the adults have learned something,” he said.

In order to make it all work, YEP has created some 1,000 pages of curriculum delivered with simplicity akin to Ikea assembly instructions.

The approach is time-consuming, with an instructor at the entirely donation-driven charity spending 40 hours to prepare one hour of instruction (versus a typical two hours of prep per hour of instruction), but Afewerki said it means thousands of kids can then take that same lesson and teach it.

“You don’t have to be a trained carpenter to put together Ikea furniture,” he said. “We take that same approach and apply it to literacy.”

Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer