Canada, Community and Classrooms



I am married to a Canadian. My husband Michael was born in Canada. His parents are Canadian, and even though he was raised in Michigan, he ended up attending university (or “attending college” for those of us from the States) in Toronto, Canada. He is a U.S. citizen, but is also just as proud of his Canadian background.

Prior to us meeting and dating, I rarely heard any mention of “Canada” in any way. After we started dating and especially since we’ve been married, we hear our Northern neighbor mentioned seemingly all the time in movies, tv shows, the news, conversations we hear in grocery stores, etc. He delights in pointing this out to me. The list of Canadian accolades he gives, about once or twice a month, range from famous comedians, actors, tv shows, poutine (a.k.a “a heart attack in a bowl”), butter tarts (especially his mom’s), Maynard’s Wine Gums, Tim Horton doughnuts, sense of humor, cleanliness, politeness…The list almost endless. He says to me, “It’s a Canadian thing…you wouldn’t understand.” To which I reply, “Oh I wouldn’t, eh?” 🙂

Recently, my husband and I went on visication (a visit and a vacation) to Ottawa, Canada to spend some time with our oldest two children (my stepdaughter Anjelika and stepson Kaleb) and granddaughter for several days. This was the second time we’ve visited them since last summer and the longest amount of time that I’d been there, so I was able to absorb a lot more, ask different types of questions and learn new ways to observe the city, the culture and the country.

The last night we were there, we all attended a very cool holographic light show at the capital’s Parliament building. Anjelika had been a few times, and I was eager to see it as well. To put it simply, it was not something to merely just see, but to experience. It was spectacular! The entire face of the Parliamentary building was carefully illuminated to tell the story of a nation, a land, a people. Spanning eras of time, territories and historical highlights, the lights, sounds and images of the presentation drew this South Florida girl into wanting to learn even more about this mosaic Canada claims to be.


No nation is perfect, because imperfect groups of people make up and create nations. And Canada–where guns are prohibited, where many still leave cars and houses unlocked, and where the preservation of natural resources is a priority–is no different. It’s had its share of wars, territory disputes, racial discrimination, and other types of disparities like most other countries. And I’m sure it continues to have its own set of problems. But toward the end of the light show, one theme struck me as a common chord running from this young country’s inception to present day: Canada’s goal is to be a community. A community that promotes and represents peace.

Google’s dictionary defines community  in several different ways. One is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. Another definition is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”. As with many countries, there are many different types of people in this Canadian community. In fact, you don’t have to go too far in Ottawa to notice the diversity of Canadians from the First Nation (Native Americans), India, Lebanon, Thailand, the United States, Africa, Haiti, China, Italy, France and other European nations. (I’m sure I’m missing others as well.) And given the history of the vast country, both French and English are considered to be the official languages. While it is not a perfect place, as no country is, there seems to be an agreed upon ethos that governs how people interact with each other and work together. There is a framework with an intentional focus on building community, because community-building does not just happen on its own.

So all of this got me thinking about what a community is or can look like…in the classroom. The last few years at work, our principal has been clear that the first two to three weeks of school, we teachers are to focus solely on helping our students understand the classroom procedures, norms and expectations. Many of us use Kagan-type of activities or other team building strategies to get the students to connect with each other and with their teachers. The aim is to create a classroom embedded in community, not content. I know to some, this sounds very backward and anti-productive. Besides, don’t kids go to school to learn content? Isn’t that the point?

Teachers want students to learn the content, of course. But teaching is changing. The classroom is extending outside of the four walls. The student experience is varied, diverse. School, as I knew it over twenty years ago, is morphing. We don’t want students to regurgitate facts and pieces of information. We want students to become thinkers, teachers, developers, strategists, communicators, inventors, problem-solvers…We want individuals who will be community leaders. But how can this happen if they never learn how to be in community with their peers, with people different from them or with people with different perspectives altogether? Learning to discuss issues with each other and disagree respectfully. Developing camaraderie and collaboration. Finding common ground and building consensus. Sharing ideas, listening to opposing opinions and translating concepts. When these characteristics are present in the atmosphere of the classroom environment, a community develops…A community infused by learning, led and developed by learners.

Frog dissection

I woke up the last morning in Ottawa, still mentally engaged by this community concept from the Parliament presentation. My mind was racing with new ways to infuse community into my own classroom this upcoming school year. It wasn’t a new idea to me. But it has given me a new awareness of just how important this is for students and teachers alike. What we see in the classroom, either resembles or will shape the world on the outside.

One of the last lines in the presentation asked “If Canada was a body part, which would it be?” One citizen replied, “The heart. Canada would be the heart.” When I consider all of the ins and outs of all that occurs in schools, the lifeblood of learning starts with the connections made between and among all groups involved who are aiming for common “attitudes, interests, and goals”. It starts with the community.



4 thoughts on “Canada, Community and Classrooms

  1. I so enjoyed this post! My mother is Canadian, but I grew up in Michigan. I was always impressed by the education system there (especially in Ontario).
    I also agree strongly with your thoughts about community and the need to prepare our students to be responsible and respectful citizens of communities. Learning how to discuss and debate important ideas, while still seeing the value of the persons who hold ideas different from our own is an essential skill to become such citizens.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my post! I was really embraced by community concept in a new way, and I had to share it. Simultaneously, I was hoping to bring two audiences–my fellow Canadians (I’m starting to consider myself an honorary Canadian, at least by marriage) and teachers– into one common mixing bowl. I could not write about community without blending my inspiration (Canadian ethos) and my passion (teachers and students) into one piece. Your comment helps me know I’m on the right track.

      I’ve been teaching almost 10 years, and I admit, I have not been as intentional about community-building as I’d like to be. This trip has given me the impetus to see my “learning lab” (as a teacher renamed “classroom” on #whatisschool chat) in a fresh light…one that represents the best a community can be.

  2. Thanks for your post. For me, the biggest difference between Canada and the US is also community. It’s the difference between what’s good for the individual and what’s good for the collective. I say that with live,since I have a brother in Florida.
    I also agree that content is not that important. Learning how to learn is. And if in a community, all the better.

    • Thank you for your comment. As an outsider looking in to Canadian culture, there are differences. Some of which are very subtle. But the intentional community aspect is there.

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