By Mike Foster
Megan Cotnam-Kappel says it would have been easier for her to switch to an English high school when she was growing up in Orillia, Ontario.
Instead, she chose to continue studying in French, bucking a trend that sees some 10 to 15% of pupils leave French-language schools each year when they transition from Grade 8 to Grade 9.
“I realized that it was too easy to switch out of the French-language system. It was a conscious choice to go to the smaller school in Barrie that was 35 kilometres away and focus on having that French-language education, rather than going to the school right down the street with all of my friends from sports,” says Cotnam-Kappel. “That was my moment of awakening, where I became more engaged in French-language education. I chose two years later to pursue my post-secondary education in French at the University of Ottawa.”
Cotnam-Kappel’s personal experience growing up as a native French speaker in an extreme minority language situation informed her PhD doctoral thesis: a comparative study of what causes children in minority language schools in Ontario and Corsica to choose their schools.
Her thesis, entitled Une étude comparative des paroles des enfants sur le processus de choix scolaire en milieu minoritaire en Ontario et en Corse, was completed as a co-tutelle project between the University of Ottawa and the Université de Corse Pascal Paoli, in Corsica, France.
Three out of the four years of her PhD research, which included a year observing and interviewing pupils at a school in Corsica, were funded by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in 2011, which provided $50,000 a year.
Initially, Cotnam-Kappel set out to complete a comparative study on student retention in minority language schools in Ontario and Corsica, but then decided to shift her focus slightly.
“I found that most of the previous research on school choice focused on parents’ perspectives and not on the youth themselves,” says Cotnam-Kappel. “I realized that there was a real gap in the literature about how students experience the choice process, whether they participate in the choice or not, and whether that affects their motivation and education.”
In a telephone interview from Boston, Massachusetts, where she is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cotnam-Kappel explained that schools in Ontario and Corsica did not offer much information to students about the choices on offer, viewing this as something for families to decide.
“In choosing a French-language school in Ontario and a Corsican-language program in Corsica, the most determining factor for students themselves was not culture, which is usually the most-determining factor for parents, and it also wasn’t their level of confidence in the language itself, which was also one of my hypotheses. It was actually the strategic or financial gains that they can get out of that choice. That’s a big finding.”
Students in both urban locations, which must remain anonymous to keep the identity of these students confidential, also expressed a desire for more support as they made their choice, she added.
Cotnam-Kappel completed her PhD in Education in 2014 after she earned a joint Bachelor of Arts and Education (specializing in Lettres françaises and in French- and English-language teaching) in 2008 at uOttawa. She is currently conducting research at Harvard in “new civics”, a field that examines how youth are involved in new models of civic engagement and participation rather than the traditional models of voting or joining a political party.
“I am doing research right now with a group at HGSE’s Project Zero, looking at social media and civic participation among youth. We are examining what it means to be tweeting, or posting a status, or changing a Facebook picture, related to a social justice issue, and how this is a new form of civic participation,” she says. “I am hoping to learn as much as I can about this new civics field and bring it back to Canada. My idea is to conduct research on Francophone youth and what civic engagement looks like for them in relation to their minority community and the issues that they care about.”
Whereas her doctoral thesis found that the main reason students gave for continuing to study in French was because they believed they would profit from that choice, Cotnam-Kappel would now like to study how French-speaking youth strategically engage with their communities and with wider social issues.
To this end, she is applying for various grants and research chair positions in bilingual or French-language settings, which could see her return to uOttawa.
Cotnam-Kappel has had some success in applying for scholarships and grants. Her current postdoctoral fellowship is supported by La Fondation Baxter et Alma Ricard, which provides scholarships to Francophones outside Quebec who are pursuing graduate studies.
Cotnam-Kappel says she realized early on that the best way she could actively contribute to her own community and to the cause of preserving minority languages was through academic research.
“Many of our rights and our place in minority-language contexts are through the institution of schools,” she says. “Every choice that I made to study in French at the post-secondary level was a strategic choice to improve my French. It wasn’t the easy choice. It was a political choice. I was choosing this minority situation to keep up my minority language. Now I am interested in contributing to research about French-language education in minority contexts because of my own experiences.”
She adds that she had moments of “linguistic insecurity” as a result of her upbringing in a minority community.
“Some people were not accepting my register of French, the type of French that I was speaking, whether it was students from Quebec or students from a majority Francophone context within Ontario. Even some professors suggested that my accent was a little bit different, and that I might be better off studying in English. But I have persevered.”
Indeed, with a PhD in Education and a doctoral thesis written in French, any doubts about her grasp of the language have been put to rest.
“The research I have conducted does defy the conventional because it looks at youth themselves, empowering them to want to choose their school, instead of looking at the issue of school choice from a traditional adult or institutional perspective, which tends to focus on keeping pupils in schools,” says Cotnam-Kappel.
Securing the Vanier scholarship allowed Megan Cotnam-Kappel to focus on her research and to attend national and international conferences. She also found time to give back to uOttawa by holding one-on-one meetings and larger mentoring workshops in conjunction with Vice-Dean and Faculty Secretary Nick Gazzola to help Faculty of Education students apply for grants. She has served on several committees, including as a student representative on the Canadian Committee of Graduate Students in Education (CCGSE) from 2012 to 2014, and as Francophone graduate student representative on the Faculty of Education’s Faculty Council from 2011 to 2013.
“I had the Vanier bursary so I had the time to give back. When you are a member of the academic community, you realize that the more you contribute, the more you and others benefit. I have had some success in applying for funding so I wanted to share that with others, to make sure that they have the best chances of success.”