Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia educator uses cameras to teach English in Ethiopia

Stephen Pellerine's interest in photography and education has taken him around the world. His research into teaching English using the visual arts could help migrant populations more quickly learn the language.

Stephen Pellerine using visual arts to teach literacy to migrant populations

Stephen Pellerine said people want to share their experiences and when they have pictures to help illustrate part of it, the language skills are easier to pick up. (Stephen Pellerine)

A Canadian educator whose interest in photography and education has taken him around the world has been researching how to teach English in Ethiopia using cameras and drawing, work that could have implications far beyond the African country.

The research by Stephen Pellerine, who is originally from Lower Sackville, N.S., could potentially help migrant populations grasp English more quickly, and he's been invited to further his work at two prestigious British universities.

Pellerine has been teaching overseas for more than 20 years and is now based in the Middle East city of Dubai. It was when he started teaching photography classes in Dubai that he noticed his students picked up English quicker than during traditional language classes.

"I was thinking, 'Oh wow this is really interesting,' I would like to take it to the field and see if visual arts can act as a springboard to help facilitate the acquisition of literacy skills for particularly migrants," Pellerine told CBC Radio's Mainstreet.

Reading and writing through art

Stephen Pellerine uses water colours to help teach English. (Stephen Pellerine)

Pellerine travelled to Ethiopia to research literacy in the capital Addis Ababa. He handed out cameras to a small group he was working with and asked them to document a day in their lives. He also had the group sketch six important moments in their lives to later paint.

"At the end of the day we would just sit back and look at all the art they created and lo and behold, people that have never spoke English, people who have never written English are starting to communicate through the written word," said Pellerine.

The teacher said he thinks the reason it's easier to learn English this way is because people want to share their experiences and things that matter to them.

Stephen Pellerine uses cameras to help people learn English. (Stephen Pellerine)

Sharing the teaching method in the U.K.

Pellerine has been invited to Cambridge and Oxford universities in the U.K. to continue his research on teaching English through visual arts.

He is still filing paperwork, but expects to be there by October. He said traditional methods of teaching English to migrants coming from North Africa and Syria aren't the most effective.

"There are a lot of calls in academic literature to reach out and to find alternatives, so that's where my proposal kind of made a certain vibe they like the sound of," said Pellerine.

English language breakthrough

Pellerine is also helping a young Ethiopian girl named Samite get an education. He met her when she was selling watermelon gum outside his hotel. He said when he gave the girl the money, she didn't have enough change. She promised to come back with his change and when she did moments later, he was struck by her honesty. 

"She was so glad she could make the sale. I just saw something in this kid, I mean that was so honest," said Pellerine.

When the teacher posted the story on social media, there was feedback from Americans who wanted to help the girl. Pellerine was able to track her down again and paired her up with a tutor. He said when he spoke to her three weeks later, she was already speaking English.

"It was very basic and very broken but we're talking five weeks before that she had never spoken a word in her life, so wow what we're doing is actually making some impact," said Pellerine.

Pellerine said he plans to travel back to Ethiopia in July to see if he can get Samite into summer school. The ultimate goal, he said, is to get her into the regular school system.

"We're doing what we can to try to get her off the streets and give her some choice in life," he said.

Stephen Pellerine with some of his students. (Stephen Pellerine)

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet