Calgary teen behind online learning project helping Chinese immigrant kids learn English

·4 min read
Peng’s 12-year-old sister, Emma, leads an online session teaching English and math to a newly arrived Chinese girl.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Peng’s 12-year-old sister, Emma, leads an online session teaching English and math to a newly arrived Chinese girl. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Peng says her tutoring project starts with her own parents' story.

They arrived in Alberta 20 years ago, struggling with the language barrier, and financially. There was no money for private tutoring to help with learning a new language.

Peng says she had difficulty with English herself in her early grades at school as a result of the issues her parents faced as newcomers to Canada.

Now she's helping other immigrant families by offering free online tutoring so they can settle faster and with fewer problems at school.

Peng started volunteering through a YMCA tutoring program for a year before tutoring two children who had recently arrived in Alberta from China.

"Their kids were struggling. They had ESL programs at school but they needed extra help outside of that," said Peng.

Then, more families in similar situations started reaching out.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"That's when I started realizing there's a demand for this and I want to be able to help these families," said Peng.

She reached out to friends, mostly from immigrant families themselves, sold them on her vision and started recruiting them as volunteer tutors. Even her 12-year-old sister, Emma, is now tutoring kids online as part of the project.

Peng says fellow immigrants and children from immigrant families understand what other families are going through as new arrivals. That helps them connect.

"My own parents struggled, they weren't well off and couldn't afford a good private tutor to teach them English, and that hindered them a lot in trying to adjust to life in a new country," said Peng.

"I wanted to help these kids have better experiences than I did."

A way to give back

Peng, who attends Webber Academy, says she now has 13 tutors teaching 15 young kids English and math online. She says that's helped her time management and leadership skills, as well as giving something back to families in need.

She's learnt how to set up schedules, organize folders and balance her own school work.

"I've just got to keep myself organized. I have things set up to make sure I have time allocated for everything," she said. "If I ever feel overwhelmed my parents can help me."

"It's also fulfilling to be able to see these students improve and that I was able to make an impact on their life," said Peng.

Pena's friend Julie Yu started teaching this summer. Yu arrived from China with her family when she was in Grade 9.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"My English was kind of bad and I struggled a lot. I couldn't make friends and socialize or understand teachers. I didn't understand anything and my grades were not good so that's why I really wanted to join the program and help other kids," said Yu.

Yu currently helps a Chinese girl in Grade 2.

"At the beginning she can't really read or recognize words so it was tough. Then as time goes on her reading skills got a lot better and she can read a paragraph all by herself," said Yu.

Helping kids improve their education

Steven Chen arrived in Calgary with his family in September 2021. His 14-year-old son is currently a student with the program.

"His teachers told me he needs to improve his English and recommend some extra work," said Chen. "It's a very big challenge for all of us."

Chen says the pandemic meant exploring online learning, which led him to Ivy Peng.

"We didn't expect that the tutoring would help us so much. It turned out to be a very good option and my son says he felt very safe, comfortable and relaxed in that online environment," said Chen.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Watching from the sidelines as his daughter's vision quickly became reality is Ivy's father, Peter Peng.

"I'm really proud," said Peng.

"I'm proud that my daughters started this so we can help new kids, new immigrant families, to get a better education. It's easier for K-to-2 kids to have these tutors because they understand each other better, and my daughter learned a lot by doing this," said Peng.

"It's good and as parents we will do our best to support this project," he said.

"This is a better way to help society. This is their own way to help society."