Masks on and preparing for the next lesson.
May 4, 2022
-by John Gillis
For the past year or more, a group of parents and community members have been active in establishing a new independent Gaelic immersion school in Mabou.
Speaking with Kenneth MacKenzie last Thursday, The Oran learned more about what it took to establish the school and how things have been progressing to date.
“It’s been somewhat of a challenge given that it’s coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re moving along,” MacKenzie noted.
The school opened in September 2021 and it currently has nine students who are grade primary and grade one. The school has one teacher, Emily MacDonald, and there is a teaching assistant as well, Stacey MacLean.
MacKenzie says the school operates independently of the provincial as a stand alone, non-profit organization.
“The initiative comes from a priority stated at the community level and finds in-kind support from Comhairle na Gàidhlig (The Gaelic College), along with other key organizations and stakeholders,” it was noted in the school’s May 2021 launch.
The school plans to add a grade in each successive year until it reaches its goal of having a primary to grade four (P-4) system within five years.
The school is influenced by the Montessori method which “focusses on a child’s innate desire and ability to learn and where balanced attention is given to the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual development of all children.”
It was evident to this reporter visiting the school that the children were very active, were enjoying themselves, and were very engaged learners.
Along with the regular learning outcomes prescribed by the Province of Nova Scotia, Gaelic culture and local knowledge will be at the core of what and how students learn at Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide (which is the Gaelic name of the school) which is located on the edge of the Beinn Mhàbu campus of Colaisde na Gàidhlig/The Gaelic College.
For those familiar with the Mabou Campus, the site of the former St. Joseph’s Convent, Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide is operated out of the former home of the late Fr. Sears behind the convent.
Asked how this initiative came about in Mabou at this time, Kenneth MacKenzie responded:
“There’s been a resurgence of interest and learning the Gaelic language and culture over the past 15 or so years. A group of parents and community members felt it was an opportune time to get our youth more involved given the resurgence of interest that has been happening,” he said.
Emily (MacKinnon) MacDonald of Ainslie Glen is the teacher at Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide. She’s thrilled to be working teaching Gaelic to the youngsters. She is a graduate of the Celtic Studies and Education programs at St. F.X. and she has had some practice speaking Gaelic to her own two children, who are ages eight and five at home.
Emily says while there have been some challenges presented with teaching in the first year, she is so glad to have help in the classroom from Stacey MacLean who is also a fluent Gaelic speaker.
“I’m loving the work. It’s a year of firsts. It’s the first school of its kind in North America and we are learning a bit as we go with a multi-age classroom. Gaelic was the first language of my grandparents and my grandmother was a singer. I feel it’s been leading up to this for me for some time now. I was happy to have some Gaelic courses while I was attending (high school) at Dalbrae Academy. I just see so many opportunities here with the proximity to the Gaelic College and the community as a whole,” MacDonald added.
“Gaelic is offered as a core language program in several schools across the province and Gaelic medium education has been available in Scotland since 1985, with over 4300 students enrolled in 2018. Small class sizes, multi-age groupings, catering to diverse learners and being a part of a sustainable and meaningful community are core features of the school. Gaelic has been spoken in the Province of Nova Scotia for nearly 250 years and has seen a resurgence in recent years, in part due to the popularity of community-based learning,” Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide notes on its website.
The school is largely privately funded with an ongoing fundraising drive underway through the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia. Further information can be obtained at www.taighsgoile.ca.
“They will issue a charitable tax receipt to anyone who wishes to donate. Hopefully, we will also be able to mark a return to some of the more traditional fundraising opportunities as the restrictions and impact of COVID-19 change. The school is a separate entity from the Gaelic College and operates as a private, non-profit school. Our finances are open and available and our board is working to increase donations so that tuition for young families can be as reasonable as possible,” MacKenzie added.
Heather Sparling, PhD, Professor, Ethno musicology, Cape Breton University, recently made some insightful comments on the state of the Gaelic language and the new school.
“It is essential that we empower and support those who are willing to put in the thought and work required to reverse language shift. Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide is putting in that effort, and their proposal – based on evidence-based research – is achievable. I cannot wait to see the results,” Sparling wrote, noting that, nearly half of the world’s languages are in danger of disappearing over the next century if nothing is done.
“Unfortunately, Gaelic is fragile in Nova Scotia. It is endangered even in Scotland. In fact, given my research interests in language revitalization through music,” Sparling added.
MacKenzie says a drive continues to attract a new cohort of primary students for next year and that he has heard interest from parents who don’t necessarily have a connection to Gaelic language or culture that are interested in sending their children (as some parents already have) or, in moving to Mabou so that their children can attend.
Parents of the school children have been supportive and pleased with the school as noted in various testimonials to date:
– “I absolutely love sending my children to Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide and they love it too. They hop and dance out of the school with so much joy that, most days they do not want to leave. The teachers have created a caring, fun, and attentive class setting,” said one parent.
– “Having our son attend the Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide has been an unbelievable opportunity for our family. It’s an incredible opportunity for our child to start his schooling in a small, dynamic classroom with a style of teaching that fosters creativity, exploring, and a rooted-ness in a community’s culture. Having a Montessori-inspired school is something that you’d only expect to have in a big city, and now it’s right down the road from us!,” another parent added.
– “A small class, lots of one-on-one teacher time and all the beautiful aspects of Gaelic culture (that felt so foreign in our old school) are built right into the curriculum! The kids are quickly becoming bilingual and we catch them singing Gaelic songs under their breath at home. A wonderful school and a beautiful school community,” parents Hilary and Chris of Hillsborough, Inverness County, stated.
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