Sarah Gagnon’s (BSc/BEd '11, MEd '20) credits a love of language which began early in her Francophone upbringing, that has fueled her academic and teaching career.
“I go back to Quebec, and my French doesn’t have the Quebecois accent,” she says. “Yet in Alberta, I’m not English either. There’s this feeling that I don’t really belong to one or the other. Imagine the tension and the culture shock other students feel when they come from much farther away."
Gagnon taught French Immersion to grades 7-12 for six-years and noticed difficulties students experienced with language comprehension and how that struggle impacted their performance in other subject areas.
“Those literacy skills weren’t transferring between subjects,” she says. “They might know the science or math, but if they can’t read the question or understand the vocabulary, how can they be accessed?”
Gagnon saw this as an opportunity to champion change and enrolled in Multiple Literacies in Canadian Classrooms, a Master of Education program at the University of Lethbridge that focuses on the evolving nature and diverse literacies of Canadian classrooms. “For so long, we’ve put literacy into the box of reading and writing,” she says. “Literacy is not a Language Arts classroom; literacy is in all subjects.”
In 2018, Gagnon took a position teaching English Language Arts to Grade 9 students in Fort McMurray, a northern community with a diverse population. “About 20% of the entire school speaks a language other than English,” she says, noting that in her classroom alone, 20 countries and 49 languages were represented.
Gagnon’s research interests lie in developing effective assessment practices for English language learners. “Most ELL students already have literacies; they’re just not in English,” she says. “If we can access what they know and transfer those literacies to the classroom, even if we don’t speak their languages, it makes for better assessment of where they are in content subject areas.”
Gagnon is also interested in studying the experiences and perceptions of second language learners in Alberta. She encourages her ELL students to talk and write about their lives. “They’re going to succeed much better in English if we hear and make room for their stories, language, and culture,” she says.
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