Local school the first in the world to offer Gaelic literature course

ANTIGONISH: The local high school is the first school in the world to offer a Gaelic literature course.

Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional High in Antigonish has been recognized internationally as the first to offer a self-taught Gaelic literature course as part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

StFX student Emma Smith is the first student in the world to complete the course.

Smith said the Gaelic culture always had a strong impact on her life, coming from a family of Highland dancers and pipe band members. In Grade 5, she was given the opportunity to take Gaelic instead of French, and fell in love with the language and history of the Gaels. She said she took every opportunity to learn more about it, noting she has been involved with The Gaelic College since Grade 7 and took Gaelic immersion courses.

“With IB, you have the opportunity to learn on your own,” she told The Reporter. “I had to read higher-level text in Gaelic, and then write a paper, and give an oral presentation on the text.”

Because of the nature of the program, Smith had to learn to read, write and speak Gaelic at an academic level, by herself.

“I went from reading Gaelic children’s books in Grade 10, to reading Shakespeare, and very high-level poems in Grade 12, all in Gaelic,” she said.

To have the course recognized, the Strait Regional Centre for Education (SRCE) said the school was required to develop a prescribed reading list of nine literary works, a timeline for the student to study the course that included 150 hours of course time, provide tutoring, and schedule time for the student to study.

To offer the program, the SRCE said requirements to be fulfilled by the school were: a minimum of two works studied linked to each of the areas of exploration of the course; coverage of at least three of the four literary forms (poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction); coverage of at least three literary periods; a minimum of four works originally written in Gaelic being studied, by authors on the prescribed reading list; a minimum of three works translated into Gaelic, originally written in a different language than Gaelic, by recognized authors on the prescribed reading list; and works from a minimum of three places as defined by the prescribed reading list, covering at least two different continents.

Darrell LeBlanc, director of programs and student services for the SRCE explains that following a two-year process and a great deal of preparation, in June 2018, the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) approved the course as an additional option to fulfill the language requirement of the IB program.

“This recognition is a testament to the significant efforts of school staff including Lindsay MacInnis, IB coordinator, and Mairi Parr, Gaelic teacher, who worked diligently to make this course a reality…” said LeBlanc.

MacInnis said the philosophy of the IB program is to preserve culture and language, which is being done in the province.

“It’s worrisome to think this is how languages could potentially disappear,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of work done in Nova Scotia to preserve Gaelic and IB were very supportive of us doing that.”

Even though there are universities and schools in Scotland and Ireland, there are no self-taught Gaelic courses, so MacInnis had to create a booklet.

“They had markers from Scotland that could mark Gaelic but they didn’t have a booklet so they encouraged me to create one, which I did. I think it was more of an oversight than anything that it wasn’t being offered.”

MacInnis consulted with several Gaelic experts including Sabhal Mor Ostaig at The Gaelic College, Beth Ann MacEachern from Halifax Regional Centre for Education, and Mairi Parr to create the prescribed reading list. The IB Gaelic course reading list was organized around several concepts including culture, communication, transformation, perspective, creativity, representation and identity, the SRCE noted.

“It took about a year to get together an academic-level booklet, because Gaelic resources are somewhat hard to find, if you’re not in touch with the right people,” MacInnis explained. “The first time I submitted to IB, they said, ‘no, it’s not academic enough.’ So I had to go back and find some more resources.”

MacInnis said one of the benefits in offering the course is that it has made the program more inclusive for students. As a result of the change, Grade 10 students can now take the IB program and continue with their Gaelic studies, MacInnis said.

“What they had to do before was jump ship from Gaelic and start taking French because that is what was offered here in the building for language,” she explained. “Now the kids that have come through the core Gaelic program since Grade 4 can continue to study it at a very academic level in Grade 11 and Grade 12, while taking IB.”

Not only is Smith the first student to take this on, MacInnis said “she aced the work,” scoring a 6 out of 7 on the IB scale, which is equivalent to 97 per cent.

“She’s a remarkable kid, this is all her. She pushed to have Gaelic and she inspired me to get it available to the IB kids.”

A now a first-year StFX student trying to fit in as many Gaelic courses as possible, Smith added she feels a sense of accomplishment that other schools and other students now have the same opportunity she had.

“It just gives us the opportunity to offer it to other kids. I know after me, there’s more kids that are expressing interest in taking the program,” she added. “I’ve always been passionate about Gaelic and I’ve always tried to create awareness and show people how awesome the language and the culture, so for me, it was just really awesome to be able to take this opportunity to open the doors for other kids. I know I’m not the only that who feels this passionate about the language and culture.”