Learn, Connect, Soar: My Experience Teaching English Online with Paper Airplanes
It all started with a FaceBook post.
Maybe this automatically strikes you as suspicious. But allow me to explain.
In my freshman year of college in 2017, my best friend liked a post for Paper Airplanes, a non-profit organization that serves students (18+) affected by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Having recently returned from an academic year abroad in Southern Germany at the height of the so-called migrant crisis, I was looking for a way to get involved with refugee populations. Due to the virtual nature of Paper Airplanes, I was amazed that I could use Skype to volunteer from the comfort of my dorm room in Arizona (This was pre-COVID!) I filled out the application, completed the tutor training, and was soon matched with my first student, a Syrian refugee who lived in Jordan.
And that’s when I discovered my passion for English language education.
But first, some background about Paper Airplanes.
Paper Airplanes was founded by Bailey Ulbricht who, while volunteering in a small town in Turkey, began tutoring college-aged Syrian refugee students in English over Skype. Word soon spread about her virtual English lessons, and more students reached out requesting assistance. With ten tutors, the Paper Airplanes English Program officially started at Carleton College in the U.S. in 2014. In 2016, Paper Airplanes was registered as a 501c3 non-profit organization, and its growth has been tremendous.
Presently, Paper Airplanes offers not only English, but Turkish, Youth Exchange, Women in Tech, and Student Advising programs. All programs are high-quality, accessible, culturally-sensitive, and, most importantly, free. Staff members come from around the globe, and the majority of students are located in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. Needless to say, the Paper Airplanes community is incredibly diverse as well as inclusive.
How is Paper Airplanes unique?
Paper Airplanes distinguishes itself in many key ways. The first is its high retention rate. Another is its partnerships. For example, all English program and Youth Exchange Program graduates receive a Duolingo English Test voucher to take the test and use their scores to apply for higher education or employment opportunities.
In addition, all educational content used across the Paper Airplanes programs are developed internally by education specialists, so students can track their progress and tutors can work to support them. Lastly, Paper Airplanes offers internships as well as professional development opportunities for staff, such as language exchanges–my Arabic language partner, who lives in Jordan, ended up becoming a close friend of mine!
Why I love Paper Airplanes
Since the very beginning, I always felt supported by Paper Airplanes, whether it be during one-on-one lessons or speaking classes (small conversation groups). One of my favorite aspects of Paper Airplanes is the freedom I have had to create original lesson plans for my conversation group.
By tailoring content to my students’ interests and goals, we have covered topics ranging from American slang, health, and beauty standards to analyzing short stories, podcast episodes, and TedTalks. I am especially proud of a two-part lesson plan I developed about Fiddler on the Roof and the open, inquisitive discussions we had about the characters and themes in the musical.
Paper Airplanes’ global impact
Beyond teaching, I am always humbled by my students’ honesty, curiosity, motivation, and resilience. I consider many of my students as friends, and we strive to keep in touch. For example, one of my students just adopted an adorable new kitten and another started his Master’s degree.
The connections we’ve been able to build exemplifies why organizations like Paper Airplanes are so important. As our world becomes more integrated, cross-cultural communication and competence is essential to nurturing tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding.
To learn more about Paper Airplanes, check out the links below!
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Bianca Navia was a Paper Airplanes tutor in the English Program for over three years. She also served as a tutor coordinator and a facilitator for speaking classes (small conversation groups). Bianca is most passionate about international affairs, migration, foreign language study, and education. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and check out her blog posts for ESL youth audiences at America House Kyiv, an educational hub overseen by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.