Transitioning to Ontario’s School System


Language skills and translation

In Ontario, Low German families will have varying degrees of English skills depending on how long they have been here. Students who have recently come from Latin America may be able to converse in English at a basic social level (e.g. Good morning. How are you?) but may not have an understanding of classroom instructions or vocabulary. Those who have been in Canada longer may know how to read and write in English. As a teacher, you may find this list of Low German educational words and phrases helpful.

Your school board may have names of approved translators, though some may not be certified.  Other professionals (e.g., Child and Youth workers, outreach workers, nurses) are sometimes able to provide translation services. When asking someone to translate, it is important to consider both whether they have the necessary vocabulary for the topics to be discussed and whether they will recognize and understand the importance of confidentiality.

Parents will often need help reading and understanding newsletters as well as other school forms that are sent home with children. It may be necessary to use translators for parent interviews.

Students who have been educated in High German using books with Gothic text may have difficulty recognizing some English letters. Some letters look quite different. It is important to acknowledge that some Low German speaking students enter the Canadian education system with pieces of up to four languages (High and Low German, Spanish, English). Focusing exclusively on English can be difficult.

Suggestions for helping students adapt

Starting school: Low German parents are used to children starting school at age 6 at earliest. Even then, some parents struggle with sending their children full days, five days a week. Ontario’s Junior Kindergarten (age 3, 4) is therefore particularly difficult for both the parent and child to adjust to.

Classroom expectations: Children are used to being in the same classroom with their siblings and can be surprised and/or upset when they learn that they will be in separate classrooms. Providing a school tour where children are familiarized with the location of their siblings’ classrooms may help to ease their anxiety. Enabling children to meet up with siblings for snack breaks may also help with this transition.


It was 1980 and we had just moved to Ontario from Mexico. Life here was very different than what we were used to. I was six years old and had never gone to school. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from what my older brother Neil and sister Sarah had told me, I thought we would all be in the same classroom – just like in Mexico.

On that first day of school, my older brother, sister and I were brought all together to the first classroom. That’s when I found out I was the only one staying there.  It was all so strange. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak English and I had no idea what to do. I remember thinking that it wasn’t fair Neil and Sarah got to go together. Why did I have to be all by myself?

I found out later that Sarah and Neil did not stay together but were also in different classes. But in my mind, because they left together, I assumed they were staying together when they left my classroom on that first day of school.

Instructions: Children are often used to copying and colouring but may need additional instruction to complete other classroom tasks. English/Low German educational phrases

Clothing: Low German speaking children may be identifiable in school through their traditional clothing. Sameness is valued within many Low German communities; brothers often have shirts made of the same material and sisters often have identical dresses which they all wear on the same day.  The newcomer family may not be aware of the variety of clothing, such as boots and snowsuits, that is necessary for local weather.

Gym wear and school supplies: Children may not initially come prepared for gym class as they may not have gym clothes. Some girls may also be reluctant to wear shorts or sweat pants. A possible solution for this is to ask the parents if the girls can wear these items under their dresses for physical activity. Supplies such as backpacks, indoor shoes and lunch boxes may also be unfamiliar.


LunchesIt may be important to acknowledge that Low German student’s lunches often look different but that they contain foods familiar to everyone (such as bread, cheese and slices of sausage in a dish rather than a sandwich in a plastic bag).

Homework: Some families will welcome homework while others will find it too difficult to manage. Be flexible and open minded, remembering that some students find homework challenging due to daily chores, family size, space, and an understanding that school is for academics while home life involves other tasks.

Funerals: It is common for entire families, including toddlers and preschool children, to attend funerals. Parents will keep their children home from school to attend funerals.

Seasonal labour: Low German Mennonites from Latin America are often not well off economically. They come from rural areas and work together on family farms. In Canada, the spirit of collaboration and support remains important within the family. Families often continue working in rural agricultural work and therefore require the assistance of their children, especially during busy times such as seeding and harvest.

“Being in school is hard work. My school is a good school because I never usually see anyone getting bullied who is a Mennonite.”  -7 year old girl.

Curriculum concerns


Canadian curriculum incorporates a much more broad range of subjects than the Low German schools in Latin America do. Music, Art, Science and Physical Education are a few of the subjects that will be unfamiliar to Low German students upon their first entry into the Canadian education system. Subjects that discuss the formation and history of the universe, biology, and human reproduction may be considered inappropriate for a child’s education. Some parents will be concerned that their children are exposed to these topics at too young an age, or even at all. Teachers should therefore be mindful of the topics that guest speakers will cover in their presentations and should work to ensure that the presentations do not address these culturally inappropriate topics.

Engage parents in what their children are learning. A parent council that has a say in what their children are being taught empowers families and helps service providers understand the parents’ needs. Try to be open to parents’ concerns in an understanding, non-judgemental fashion, as this will build trust and rapport between parents and teachers.

“We are very willing to adjust our curriculum in order to meet the needs of families. We have made many adjustments over the years and parents have been appreciative of it.”  -Teacher at an Alternative Learning program 

Schooling options

In addition to ministry funded schools, some Low German Mennonite children are educated in parochial and homeschooling systems.

Religious holidays and Grant days

•             Christmas – December 25

•             Epiphany – January 6

•             Good Friday and Easter

•             Ascension Day – the 6th Thursday after Easter

•             Pentecost – the 7th Sunday after Easter

Christmas, Easter and Pentecost celebrations are often continue over 3 days and are referred to as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd day of the holiday. These are important times for church services and family gatherings. For this reason, Low German individuals may miss school, work and other appointments. It may be helpful to recognize these days as Grant (“G”) days on the attendance register like one would with holidays for other religious groups.

Medical concerns


Parents may address medical referrals from the school through a chiropractor or naturopath given that this is how medical issues have traditionally been attended to. Parents sometimes need support in understanding how to deal with common communicable diseases and infestations such as head lice, impetigo and Fifth Disease; they may not be aware that their traditional resources will not be effective against these sorts of concerns. Additionally, due to the time it takes to complete settlement documents, some students will not be eligible for health care coverage.

Students may have gaps in their immunizations and parents may express hesitancy in updating these because they will be of the understanding that medical appointments require payment. To avoid difficulties that may arise regarding immunizations at school, when the consent forms are sent home to the parents, it is imperative to communicate that these immunizations are a free service regardless of health coverage but that they do require written consent. If a student is absent or has not provided a consent form on the day that immunizations are administered at school, parents may not have access to a family doctor or be aware of public health services where these immunizations can be administered. It will therefore be difficult for parents to follow through on the expectation that they take their children to a clinic to receive the missed immunizations. It is beneficial to directly communicate with the parents (phone call) and inform them of immunization options that will not incur fees. Suspending students for incomplete immunizations is counterproductive.


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