It doesn’t take a crystal ball or even the latest census data to see that Alberta has become more culturally diverse in the last few decades. The province’s two major cities have become truly cosmopolitan, and cultural diversity has also been increasing in smaller communities. To reflect these changes, Alberta Education has made multiculturalism a key element of its philosophy.
"Our school is a microcosm of the political and social structure of Alberta and Canada," says Janice Holloway, a teacher and assistant principal at Calgary’s Connaught School. "Our school motto is ‘We all belong’ and we approach all curricular and school activities in an inclusive manner."
Holloway describes the school’s inner-city neighbourhood as a first stop for many of the immigrant families whose children attend K–9 at Connaught. "Currently, our students come from 25 countries and represent 34 different language groups," Holloway explains. "Most of our pupils are new immigrants. Student turnover is ongoing as families improve their economic and social status in Calgary, and integrate and move to other neighbourhoods."
To deal with this difficult learning environment, the school has developed a number of practices and projects, including a large map titled "We all belong in Canada," which identifies the countries from which the student population comes. The map is used at all school assemblies to help celebrate the arrival of new students. The school encourages parents and students to meet and share ethnic dishes at a family potluck day.
The school’s library collection includes materials from a host of diverse cultures, and teachers at Connaught modify existing materials by adapting and personalizing books and learning units. The teachers also make use of the Internet, Holloway notes. English literacy is embedded in the school’s total curriculum, which follows provincial guidelines but is adapted to the school’s special needs.
"Our students take the same Grade 6 provincial exams as other schools, and most of the students pass," Holloway says. "The school is very strong on experiential learning. We have lots of field trips and interactive learning. We also sponsor three arts residencies at the school. It’s very rare that you’d see a teacher just standing in front of the classroom lecturing. Everyone is actively engaged, even in the hallways."
Holloway says that some of the school’s students are quite knowledgeable about life, even though some of them have never been in school before and can’t read or write in any language. "We begin with students’ strengths and build from there. I’m a strong believer in inclusive learning for all students, regardless of whether they have special learning needs or special physical needs. We have capable teaching assistants, and the students help one another."
Holloway believes that all schools should promote the concept that a diverse society is a healthy society by opening discussion and by accepting people with open hearts and minds. "People from all races have more commonalities than differences," she notes. "They love their families and friends; they have similar wants, fears and needs. People need to understand that newcomers to Canada tend to socialize and live near people from similar backgrounds, not to exclude other people, but for support and comfort. We need to respect the courage and resiliency of these people, in our schools and in society."