A newcomer’s guide to the social aspects of school
By Russul Sahib
Posted on January 22, 2021
Starting life at a new school can be stressful for anybody. Many students feel frightened when trying to find their classes or making new friends at lunch. Yet, these situations become even more difficult when the student is also a newcomer. While teachers and school staff assist newcomers with the educational aspects of school, newcomers must often learn the social aspects of school by themselves. Here are five social aspects of school explained as well as some strategies to make these parts of school easier for newcomers.
In Canada, school dances usually start in Grade 6 and continue into the high school years. Typically, dances take place during the school day, usually after lunch, though some occur after school too. During school dances, students dance and talk to other students as well as enjoy free and tasty snacks. Many people view school dances as a fun way for students to spend time with each other, and many students are excited about and enjoy attending school dances. In fact, school dances can be so popular that one high school in Nova Scotia held six dances in the 2015 to 2016 school year, one of which was attended by 240 students.
Aside from the fun one may have at school dances, there are also some parts of dances that may cause students to feel uncomfortable. Many school dances include at least one slow, oftentimes romantic dance where a student asks another student to dance with them. Many students may not feel comfortable with this type of dance, and it is OK to politely say “no” if asked to slow dance or to leave the dancing area completely. Some students may feel pressured to join the slow dancing if other students are doing so, but it is not a “must.” If a newcomer is uncomfortable or not interested in going to a school dance, they can choose to be signed-out of school that afternoon by a parent or guardian.
Lastly, students may choose not to attend school dances or be unable to attend. For many newcomers, the idea of school dances is something brand new or perhaps something they are not fully comfortable with. This can be because newcomers may come from countries where dances are not part of the school system. It is important that newcomers’ cultural differences and personal choices are respected, and that they feel encouraged and supported to make decisions about their participation in school events.
Overnight trips are another reality of Canadian schools. Like many Western countries, Canadian schools also offer day trips to the museum or science centre, among other places, as well as overnight trips. Overnight trips, usually last for a few days, and they are typically available for students aged 12 years or older. Overnight trips can be a fun way for students to explore new activities with friends, while also learning new skills. Yet, for many newcomer students, overnight trips are not easily available due to high costs. For example, a camping site in Ontario, named Camp Kawartha, charges students between $135-180 for a two-and-a-half-day overnight trip, depending on the month. Many newcomer families may not have this extra money to spend. While they may receive financial help by explaining their situation to the school board, this is not always guaranteed.
Overnight trips are also seen as a chance for students to feel what it’s like to be away from home and be independent. This type of thinking does not consider many newcomers’ culture. For many, going on trips away from home without the rest of the family is unheard of or an uncomfortable thought. Newcomers may also find overnight trips challenging if they are not completely familiar with the English language and have to rely on camp counsellors for any questions or concerns they may have while away from home. Overnight trips can make any student feel nervous or even homesick, but these feelings may be even stronger for newcomers who may already feel lonely or who find it difficult to leave their families behind.
School Clubs and Teams
School clubs and sports teams are a great way for students to get involved in school while making friends with similar interests as them. There are many different types of school clubs, including art clubs, language clubs, subject-area clubs, homework help clubs, and many more! School sports teams can include anything from basketball, volleyball, soccer, and much more. For students who are interested in these activities, school clubs and teams can be a fun and rewarding experience. Yet, for many newcomers, it may be hard to learn about these activities while they are still learning English. A great way for newcomers to find out more about these types of school activities is by asking a trusted friend, teacher, or even student who may speak their first language.
According to the Community Foundations of Canada, newcomers often face difficulties in joining sports activities due to costs, lack of time, and not knowing how to register. School teams offer a free option for newcomers to get involved as well as a simple sign-up process. School clubs and teams can also be a great place for newcomers to make new friends and practise their English. Yet, it is also important to mention that clubs and teams can also create feelings of rejection and nervousness if newcomers struggle to speak with other students or understand what is happening. Newcomers should not feel pressured or forced to join clubs and teams, as many students are still becoming familiar with key parts of school, such as understanding classwork or building their language skills. While clubs and teams can provide great chances for newcomer students, it is important to remind them that they can also join teams and clubs the following school year when they feel better prepared to do so.
Group work is probably one of the most feared parts of school for any newcomer, but according to interview responses of newcomer high school students by two researchers in Alberta, the contact between newcomers and other students is often limited to mostly classroom activities. That means that while group work is seen as the “learning” part of school, it is also one of the most social aspects of school. Newcomers are expected to speak to their classmates, share ideas, and become a part of the discussion. For many newcomers, this is a very hard and scary task. It asks newcomers to get out of their comfort zone and participate in a discussion using a language that they may not yet be comfortable with. They may fear that their classmates will laugh at them or completely ignore their ideas.
Instead of expecting newcomers to join group discussions and share ideas, it is better to understand how to support them in joining these discussions. For any newcomer trying to participate in group discussions during class, here are two tips! Firstly, if a newcomer has difficulty understanding the group work, they can always try to translate the work being discussed and see if they understand it better. If not, it is also completely OK for newcomers not to connect with their classmates every time. Other students and staff need to be patient and understanding towards newcomer students, as they may not be able to join every class discussion, and recognize that they are trying their best to become part of the class community. Secondly, newcomers are especially encouraged to participate in group work if they feel they are very talented and confident in a specific skill needed for the project. For example, if some group work requires artistic talent and a newcomer happens to be an art lover, then it is a good idea for them to participate and show other group members some art tips and tricks! This is also another great chance for newcomers to take on a leadership role as well as bond with their peers by helping them with tasks they may not be strong at.
Graduations and Prom
Graduations for students in Canada occur at least twice, at the end of Grade 8 and Grade 12. When a student finishes Grade 8, families, teachers, and students gather to celebrate that the students have successfully completed their time in school. After the graduation ceremony, some schools offer a graduation party, where students enjoy a fancy dinner and then dance. It is not required that students attend both the ceremony and the party.
The second graduation ceremony happens when students finish Grade 12. The ceremony is followed by a dance called “prom.” Like the Grade 8 ceremony, the high school ceremony recognizes the students’ completion of their high school education. Around the time of the graduation ceremony, high school students can choose whether or not to attend prom. Proms typically take place anytime between the end of May and mid-June. Prom is usually a themed, formal party that includes a fancy dinner, dancing, and professional photography as a fun way to celebrate the end of one’s high school life.
While prom may be a fun way to end a student’s high school time, it can also be a costly expense for newcomers to even think about. In 2015, a telephone survey by Visa Canada showed that parents were typically willing to spend around $424 on their daughter’s prom outfit and around $278 for their son’s. In addition to the outfit costs, parents also have to consider additional prom costs. For example, an article by CBC showed how a British Columbia high school student could buy her prom dress for $350 but then spend double that amount of money to get her hair, makeup, shoes, and also pay for a $120 prom entry ticket. Although some schools offer discounted tickets to students who need them, many newcomers may still be unable to afford the costs of prom. This becomes another part of school that newcomers may feel left out of.
There are several social aspects of school that are not often explained or discussed, leaving students no choice but to figure it out on their own. Cultural differences and the high costs of many of the school activities, which are sometimes seen as a “must”, can make newcomers feel excluded. Instead, it is important for teachers, staff, and peers to help newcomers take part in these activities, while still respecting those who may not feel comfortable doing so. There is no right and wrong way to be a student in the Canadian school system.