Nova Scotia

Syrian refugee teens at Halifax high school get extra math help

Imagine moving to a new country and trying to learn the language — and then attempt fairly advanced math. That's exactly the challenge teens from Syria face.

'There's a lot of language in mathematics,' Halifax West teacher Nicole Whiteway says

New Syrian students learning math struggle first with English, teacher Nicole Whiteway says. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

Imagine moving to a new country and having to learn the language. 

Then imagine having to do fairly advanced math in that new language.

That's exactly the challenge teenagers who recently arrived in Halifax from Syria are facing.

To help them along, Halifax West High School in Clayton Park is now offering math tutoring to students twice a week for a couple of hours after school. Substitute teacher Nicole Whiteway has been hired to do the tutoring. 

"A lot of people think that math is the same wherever you go," Whiteway told CBC Radio's Mainstreet

"There's a lot of language in mathematics. Also, a lot of my students come from areas that use a different set of characters in working so the numbers that we actually write don't look the same."

Reading left to right instead of right to left has been one of the language challenges, Whiteway says. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

'I want to study in university'

The students are eager to learn, she said, including 19-year-old Mujtaba Sayed, who is in Grade 11.

"I learn math now and I'm very happy," Sayed said. "It's very good for me because I want to study in university or college, so I need math. It's very good that I take extra help — and the teacher is very friendly."

Sayed said he isn't sure what kind of career he'd like to pursue, but he mentioned engineering or becoming a pilot — two jobs that require math.

Student Mujtaba Sayed watches what's happening on the whiteboard at math tutoring. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

'Everything is different'

Many Syrian students have trouble reading left to right, since they're used to reading right to left, Whiteway said.

"Having the immersion and seeing it everyday — and seeing it more often — is helping them make that change," she said.

Grade 11 classmate Saja Hamid said she wants to study business after high school.

"I come to here and I see everything different for me. Everything is different," the 18-year-old said. "I like this extra help because it helps me toward my work next year."

Saja Hamid, left, wants to go into commerce. She sits next to classmate Robiya Ikromova. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

Struggle with language, not math

Educators at Halifax West said another reason the extra math helps is so important is that a student may struggle with the subject only because their language skills are weak.

If they're actually able to do a higher level of math, the school needs to know that, so the student can get the credits they need to graduate.

While attending regular classes, new students from Syria also attend an English as an additional language course. There's also an academic language class, which teaches the terminology of learning. 

Skills 'really, really weak'

Ha Pham, who teaches English as an additional language, said the Syrian students haven't been in school for anywhere between three and six years. Many only have up to Grade 4 or 5, she said.

"It's been challenging, to be honest," Pham said. "Their skills are still really weak, like in terms of math skills, writing skills.

"Not only now do I have to try to teach them conversation survival English, but I've got to try to teach them to write the letters like they're just learning it for the first time."

Ha Pham, who teaches English as an additional language, says many of the teens left school as children. (Diane Paquette/CBC)

Immersion 'key'

Halifax West principal Tim Simony said educators are trying to balance highly focused classes and immersion that, despite being stressful, is "one of the key ways of actually acquiring language."

"Segregation doesn't necessarily expedite it," Simony said. "It's one of those circumstances where I think doing what feels kind is not always doing the most helpful thing for somebody."

Principal Tim Simony says he's trying to balance extra help and classes with English immersion. (Dianne Paquette/CBC)

Education gives 'hope'

He compared the school's approach to teaching weightlifting.

If you stay in the corner and watch someone else lift weights, no muscles will be strengthened. But it's also unreasonable for someone to point to a 100-kilogram barbell and tell you "lift this."

The idea is to balance giving students an academic challenge, but not so much that they're completely lost, he said.

"Education is a charter right. It's a human right," Simony said. 

"One of the reasons they see hope is specifically because of education, so having a chance to be involved in that work, you can't have any more rewarding a job."


Diane Paquette is based in Halifax as a producer for Mainstreet Nova Scotia.

With files from CBC Mainstreet