Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

§ 7: Network Impacts

7.0 Network Impacts

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I became involved in the Network of Performance Based Schools about nine years ago. I was inspired by the passion and knowledge of the presenters and by the dedication and curiosity of the others participating in the Network. My level of involvement changed over the years, sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing depending upon available time and resources, but I continue to be inspired and challenged by the leaders and participants of the Network. I get some really clear messages from the Network; we (teachers) CAN do a better job, we MUST work together and we MUST learn from each other.

It was through my participation with the Network that I became aware of and learned to apply Assessment for Learning (AFL ). Although I was a seasoned teacher AFL took my practise to a new refined level. My participation also taught me that I wasn’t alone in challenging current believes and attitudes and thus gave me the courage to continue to ask important questions and explore “better” ways of doing things. As I grew in my understanding of inquiry, unknowingly I was bringing some of my colleagues along with me. Through informal conversations they were witnessing my practise and inspired to examine their own. We were no longer evaluating methods or approaches as good or bad but instead were wondering, tweaking, applying, revising, sharing and wondering some more.

In this section of the report, we summarize the evidence presented to us through the multiple focus groups and interviews we completed for this impact study. As was noted in the methodology section of this report, we visited a range of school districts and communities and conducted interviews with a number of individuals and groups asking them to describe their work as members of the AESN , and to consider how they would characterize the features or activities of the Network, with particular attention to tracing the impact the Network has had on their work, their students/learners, their school districts and communities. The AESN advisory group and the researchers conducted an initial thematic analysis of the data collated from focus groups; additional analysis was conducted by the researcher McGregor and research assistant Fleming in a subsequent phase of the research process. The emergent themes from both processes mirrored closely those themes extracted from the literature review and will be elucidated in detail here.

Each section will be introduced using a story or narrative; the goal is to illustrate how impact is perceived and described through the stories members have told about the AESN . Subsequent data is selectively included as a way of providing detailed evidence of the scope, depth or breadth of impact; where appropriate, promising practice evidence from the literature review is provided to bootstrap or reinforce the claims being made by research participants.

7.1 Network features

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“It’s a place of gathering, the personal and emotional connection. It’s unconditional support. There is no competition; no question is better than another, no hierarchy. It feels so powerful, trusting and not judgmental at all—it’s about improving student learning, that’s the key… What other body or entity is allowing and supporting people to talk about our work? It’s respectful of our vulnerability, and allowing teachers to wrestle with these questions safely. I don’t know where Aboriginal education has a spot for this… it has brought us together. There was no venue before this structure to bring us together, to push our thinking forwards. We are moving away from silos and isolation and instead of [the work] falling to only those who are funded through Aboriginal funding tools, it is allowing us to take up this work among the broader community. It gives us the ability to ask our colleagues the question, “What are you doing to make a difference for our kids?” And it is really growing.”

This introductory quote captures the passion and commitment many AESN members expressed about the value, importance and opportunities the Network provides for many of its members. It encapsulates what will be discussed in greater detail later in this section, including the issues of purposeful inquiry, the value of collaborating and shared learning, and how this effects change in professional practice. Perhaps most notable however, are the ways in which the Network creates a safe and accepting environment for members to do their work. How is this accomplished?

This is not a simple matter to trace, however we believe one component that assists in this is the structure of the Network itself. By structures, we are making reference to the basic protocols that members are required to comply with if they wish to participate in an AESN inquiry. As outlined earlier in this report, this includes: creating a team of inquirers, including a formal school leader; requiring conscious links to the AEA in their district; a willingness to hold and participate in multiple school team and scheduled district meetings; to ask questions that get behind the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the inquiry; to collect data to show how change in student learning has been effected; and to write a summary report that can be shared. The structure has been described by some participants as “a ‘flexible container”, implying that its structure gives a framework that keeps people on track and focused, but doesn’t restrict what may be accomplished because it is open enough to permit wide ranging, teacher directed and initiated inquiry. As another participant said, “I value the meeting structure, its flexible. It keeps us on task, so we don’t forget to focus on what we are doing.” A third described it in this way: “The strength of the Network is being flexible and structured all at the same time.”

One of the most important impacts of my participation in the Network has been the many opportunities to collaborate and network with colleagues from various areas of BC . I feel our rich conversations, their skillful insight and perceptions are a fantastic support system and provide me with the confidence to continue creating my own learnings as I engage in my teacher inquiries. My Network colleagues are my anchor throughout my teacher research. Listening to colleagues’ suggestions authentically empowered me to determine what I was relating to and perhaps what I was not. I find the colleagues at the Network continually challenge my thinking, fill me with knowledge and provide the necessary guidance as I continue on my roller coaster learning journey. The new ideas I gain from our meetings help sustain me on a daily basis in my teaching and give me the courage to continue learning about myself both personally and professionally.

7.1.1 Telling a story with data

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Yet it is more than creating a structure for meeting and reporting, the Network has credibility because it integrates into the structured meeting schedule tools that have value for helping teachers to ‘see’ progress. We liked how one participant reported on this phenomena: “I might really connect to the story personally and emotionally but if I add in the quantitative data, I can draw in others to this story… A habit of formally reporting will get us into the habit of thinking and reflecting and following up on the cycle of inquiry.” Her description of reporting data inquiry as a ‘story’ struck us as an important way of illustrating how teachers in the Network have learned to construct and share ‘learning stories’ as ways of verifying their claims of success. This could also be described as “showing your work”—a form of accountability that is structured into the Network—and a primary means through which impact on student learning can be demonstrated and measured.

Data collection is important and is built into the Network inquiry process described earlier in this report; but it is the case study summaries teams are required to complete that provide written documented evidence of change. In another section of this study we summarize selected cases of AESN inquiries completed, and showed extensive examples of how learning was measured and reported. However, it is not simply the data from each inquiry completed that can be used to ‘show impact’ of an individual inquiry. Case studies were also being used to amplify their effect. How is this accomplished?

We heard throughout the study that Network members disseminate and share information all the time. They do this at the structured events of the Network (such as the regional showcases) but they also use each other’s completed work as ladders or levers through which to advance thinking in related ways. So what goes on in one district or school is often drawn upon and read by other members of the Network, and this sparks new conversations driven by the questions “Could that work here?” or “Could we apply parts of that approach to our inquiry?” As one AESN leader suggested in her discussion of how cases are used as catalysts for deepening their own inquiries, “Our focus might be on reading performance of Aboriginal students; in other districts, their focus might be completely different, and it is a way of drawing in those ideas that could inform what we are doing. What better way to pull in exemplars that work with different groups?” In this way the effect of one inquiry amplifies, builds on, or creates a new space through which to innovate and apply new ideas to existing practices. In the literature review, this type of network connectivity was described as having weak ties; by drawing across diverse approaches teacher learning is enriched and extended. This builds on the already strong ties that exist locally as information is shared among inquiry teams and between linked schools. Mitchell and Sackney (2009) argue that successful networked organizations need to have elements of each if effects are to be amplified or extended. The network structure, and the sharing of cases in particular, provides a means of supporting both types of knowledge sharing so that the activities of members in the Network can effect greater change.

The world has narrowed due to technology, but I believe that the face-to-face meetings allow us to examine our thinking thoughtfully, slowly, and create connections both in learning and community. I think that we need to create more opportunities for people to meet, talk, share – and grow as learners. There is abiding and deep respect for Judy and Linda. They create a sense of accountability in each of the members of the Network. It is hard to explain – it is not a personal sense of accountability to them, it is a sense of accountability to the Network and the learning that takes place in the Network. It is a sense of urgency, of importance, that this is work that needs to happen. They make you feel the need to create change for the students. When I walk away from a Network meeting my mind is churning – what can I take from this and implement? what do I need to think further about? what is going to create the best opportunities for my students to learn? Being with like minded people is a gift. I talk about giving voice to our students, I believe that the Network is giving voice to the members. I have been in the Network for 10 years. It was the first time that I thought I was hearing an authentic message about learning. Not what someone wanted me to hear, but a real assessment by members immersed in this learning community.

7.1.2 The Network supports and enables

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We heard many different individuals talk about the opportunities the Network provided to help them extend their thinking and take risks they would not have otherwise taken. This was true of districts where there were large numbers of Network members as well as in districts where there were smaller numbers. For example, we heard from one participant from Vancouver island who talked about how she didn’t have much support in the beginning of her involvement in the AESN , but described how “the Network became my support. It gave me contact with other like-minded people; it helped me work through professional issues… I have a lot of support here [in the Network]; I am not just sticking myself on a limb.” The literature reviewed for this study highlighted how professionally focused learning is enhanced through collective, rather than only individual effort. The Network, in this example, adds additional voices that enhances or deepens individual teacher inquiry and concomitantly, their learning through the process of inquiry.

Risk taking isn’t only about finding others who can help you work your way through an inquiry and serve as a critical friend or as a supporter to someone working in isolation, it’s also about giving teachers a space to explore their desires to effect changes in educational settings so their Aboriginal students can succeed. As one teacher said “The AESN gave me the vehicle and a place to do the work that was near and dear to my heart, it kept me going. You need a place to be validated where you work… I am motivated because the AESN validates me in a way that I haven’t been validated in my own district.” A similar comment was made by a teacher in a more northern school district who said “The Network has given people permission to learn about Aboriginal education; it wasn’t in our sight lines prior to this.” And a third participant who said that through the Network “I found an extended family… It doesn’t matter that we are in different sites, we can support each other. I’ve got my team, my sisters… It’s really grounded me.” We found it particularly striking that the issue of validation was raised most consistently by Aboriginal educators in the AESN . We surmised, based on the data we collected for this study, that many Aboriginal educators have felt marginalized in the work they have been doing to support Aboriginal learners, and have found both voice and strength of purpose through their work with the AESN . We also saw how these educators used the Network as a lever for taking leadership in Aboriginal education. We will return to this topic later in this discussion.

Throughout all the inquiries we have used performance standards and AFL [assessment for learning] strategies. Inquiry based learning has allowed us to remove the boundaries from our learning. Participating in the AESN has allowed us to think not only about what we are teaching, but why, how, where, when and most importantly WHO we are teaching. The importance of knowing our students, and helping them find their voice has increased each year.

The Network has helped me see and hear my students.

My own learning has been:

-the importance of using AFL strategies

-importance of social-emotional learning and students feeling safe and secure in their learning environment

-research and theory – having new ideas available that I can adapt

-relying on the work of others to influence what I am doing – I often read or hear about the work of co-members that I immediately adapt and adopt and use

-being able to share with others the borrowings I do

-the importance of community. I have strong connections with other members of the Network. I communicate at least monthly with a number of Network members. We share ideas, problems, solutions, laughter – we have built a community of learners.

-that there must be change in Education. What is happening in most classrooms around the province is not meeting the needs of the learners. We must examine, on a daily basis, how our learners are doing – do they know where they are going with their learning – how are they going to get there – how will they know that they have learned what they needed?

-innovative and creative initiatives need to be examined by all – not necessarily adopted, but we need to know what is being thought of

7.1.3 Permission to be a learner

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“Looking at what the student needs, how are we going to meet their needs? The Network made me ask for each child, “Who are you as a learner?” It made me understand who I am as a learner. It was an ‘aha’ moment. “Wow, I don’t even know how I learn”. That emphasis on the learner and learning is critical. That changed me, I was always a good teacher, but we moved from being good to excellent. That’s because we focused on who that learner is in each child… [so it’s a shift] from knowledge holder to learner.”

We learned a great deal from our participants about how the Network enables a shift to thinking about themselves as learners. In another Network interview a participant said “The inquiry process lends itself to learning… [it focuses on] the evidence base for learning: how do I know what they know?” Following threads of evidence leads teachers into knowing more deeply what will make a difference for learners. Another teacher said:

“If we are going to be professional, and thoughtful teachers, then we have to ask, challenge, and question: How do we do this better, make it better for kids? In our discussions, we’ve also come to understand that what is good for aboriginal students is good for everyone… but it took all of us challenging the status quo to finally figure it out.”

In these comments we can hear reflected how teachers themselves learned throughout the inquiry, but had to struggle with unpacking their own beliefs, approaches or ways of teaching that had been built on assumptions that all learners were the same, or that singular approaches work for all students. This is the hard work of inquiry, particularly for non-Aboriginal teachers who have lived and worked their entire lives in the Eurocentric world of education. But it doesn’t lay the blame with others—it centers their efforts on how they, as the teaching professional, need to approach their work differently. Another northern teacher put it thusly: “Inquiry brings it back to what am “I” doing—not just the data—which makes it more student focused, [but to] always keep coming back to “What am I doing to effect changes in student learning?”

We often heard participants use the term “inquiry mindset” and we think the comments here encapsulate what Network members and leaders mean when they use that term. It is at the center of how they approach their work with students in schools. Having an inquiry mindset is an important and powerful shift as the discussion above indicates. But how does the AESN structure enable this? It flows from the idea that the AESN is a Network devoted to asking personally and contextually situated questions that emerge from AESN members thinking about and examining the successes and failures of their own students. It seeks to answer the question “How can I/we better support student success?” While seemingly simple in its approach, it works well because it frames the effort of the Network as focused on the everyday work of teachers who have as their core purpose the engagement of students in practices of learning. It simultaneously places the teacher as an expert in learning facilitation, while constructing their primary work as an investigator and researcher rather than content or pedagogical knowledge expert. There is a strong appeal to this approach; as our interviews with teachers during our impact study made evident, teachers see this as a ‘natural activity’ they engage in all the time, everyday. It is also non-threatening because it does not ask teachers to investigate others’ promising practices or questions; it asks them to think about their own efforts as a teacher, but through the eyes/experiences of their learners. In other words, it moves the focus from thinking about teaching and the teacher, to thinking about learning and the learner. It feels natural and normal, because, at the heart of every teacher’s work is the task of bringing success to their learners. It also focuses on the incremental or the possible—with a focus on a single question—rather than on programmatic or systemic level changes that can often seem large, complex or difficult to implement.

From the perspective of the educational scholars reviewed earlier in this study, putting the learning of one’s learners at the center of one’s efforts to improve practice will enable deeper, more sustained learning among teachers who collaboratively engage through “reflection in and on practice” (Cochran-Smith et al, 1999, p. 276). The focus on context specific questions forces a way of considering how practices work as they emerge in classroom applications, rather than thinking about strategies others have generated that might be applied to a classroom situation (an example of knowledge of practice). When added to the cycle of meeting to talk about and reflect upon progress during their inquiry, it becomes more apparent how the Network structure impacts these teachers’ efforts at reforming and innovating in their classrooms.

My big learning – as long as the adults are engaged in learning in a supportive, deep, rich environment – as long as adult learners are given support student learners can move forward. The Network has led my learning. Before my involvement I was a good teacher – I am still a good teacher but I am a better person in the classroom because I have a deeper understanding about learning. Each day I am learning, and I am thinking about what I am learning. Experiencing metacognition makes me more tolerant of my fellow learners, whether young or old! I am more connected to my students.

Teachers need to know the current research and theories. We need to be able to be trusted to take that knowledge and turn it into practice, that works for us, in our classrooms. Belonging to the Network has not told me how to teach – it has expanded my thinking around teaching. The best part of being a member of the Network is that what I need to know is not sifted by the school district personnel. Having current knowledge around education practices, theories, research, etc. allows me to be a better teacher. I need the space and time to develop my understanding.

7.1.4 Catalyst for change

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Another theme identified in our review of the data collected was how the Network served as a catalyst for change. Earlier discussions about how the Network enables the sharing across and between school districts and how such sharing scales up change initiatives is one part of this conversation. So too are the comments shared earlier about how the Network enabled risk taking because it provided support to teachers who were interested in pursuing personal passions for effecting change for aboriginal learners. In what other ways does the Network structure act as a catalyst for change? One aspect of AESN activity we heard both members and school principals discuss is the pressure to respond because of the ways in which the Network provides a more public profile of its members and the work they are doing. For example, one Network member from an interior school district described how the Network inspired him into thinking more deeply about his own teaching and how to work with Aboriginal learners in his mathematics class. Working with both another teacher and the aboriginal support worker in his school, he re-designed a series of math problems to more directly show how mathematical concepts (such as surface area or fractions) could inform and be used to access local Aboriginal cultural knowledge. He spoke about the ways in which his learning had been developed as a result of his participation in the Network, much like other AESN participants described in this report. But he also emphasized that involvement in the Network can act as a form of positive peer pressure:

“When you are in the Network with people who are passionate about what they do, they really ‘up’ your game. So I need to respond in kind: it forces you to be a better teacher. It brings you up to the next level… to crank it up a notch. If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, you stand out like a sore thumb. I’m competitive, and I take this as a positive thing. The Network has forced me to do more with what I’ve learned. I’ve presented at the BC association of math teachers. And at UBC with a conference of aboriginal educators. It’s given me permission to blow my own horn, people need to know about it. But I have also sweat buckets before presenting in front of people.”

So his engagement in the AESN was driven not just by his own desire to learn and enhance the learning of his students, but as a result of his own desire to be measured as a ‘good’ and ‘successful’ teacher like his similarly minded peers.

We heard a similar thread from a school principal, who expressed some concern for teachers who are busy and may feel too overwhelmed to become part of a Network question, particularly when they are confronted with many other competing demands. For example this individual said:

“The Network gives focus and accountability, but it also puts pressure on teachers. Some teachers say I can’t do it this year, even if they are already doing inquiry in their classes… We shouldn’t do good work just because of the Network; we need to do it in a way that makes more sense for us… They all want to do a better job, but its still pressure.”

The Network is a voluntary model so there clearly is no requirement for any teacher to participate. But it appears from a reading of this principal’s comments that the work of the Network is sometimes understood as an “add on” to the regular work of teachers. The value and benefit of the work is still acknowledged, but there is a belief that the Network adds to workload, and is an external stressor rather than an enabling process through which one’s work as a teacher benefits.

7.1.5 Parallel and/or competing structures

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We also learned, as our study progressed, about how the structure of the Network (providing time for teachers to meet and collaborate on inquiry questions, providing small financial incentives for teachers who completed and filed written reports about their final inquiry projects, hosting of regional or district showcases) inspired several school districts to embrace the framework of the AESN and apply it to related district efforts. This approach is best captured in the two case studies included in this report: in both Prince Rupert and Arrow Lakes, district leaders lend additional district supports to teachers who are involved in AESN activities and inquiries by providing small incentives such as release time, sharing time, or travel grants to attend Network events in the region or at the provincial conference. In these districts, leaders talk about the way in which recognizing this work fits within their own district philosophies of inquiry based learning and in particular, support their goals for enhancing the success of Aboriginal Learners. They believe these approaches will effectively amplify the impact of efforts for improving the success of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners. We describe these districts as having inquiry “embedded and nested within” their district culture. Our findings, on the basis of an intense look at these two school districts, is that there is far more innovation and successful efforts at broad scale impact at the district level overall when the district takes up a parallel structure for its work. It also helps, we contend, with the concerns raised by the principal who was concerned with teacher overload. When district initiatives have common conceptual threads—such as inquiry for enhancing student success—then all efforts whether they deal with literacy, numeracy, social responsibility, or student engagement—feel connected and one serves the other. The agendas don’t compete; they complement one another. Connections between ideas are naturally enhanced, and teachers don’t distinguish between whether an activity is related to the AESN or their other district learning programs. They simply focus on “how do we make learning better for our students?”

This common moral purpose proved to be a uniting force among district staff and school leaders, teachers, non-teaching support staff, and community members alike. While we may not be able to credit the AESN itself with enabling such district wide learning centered cultures, it was certainly a model that leaders understood as having a powerful effect through which to implement change, and they have modified and adapted the structure as a means to achieving system wide change. In other words it is having a lasted and embedded impact on practice.

Conversely, we also saw evidence of what happens when a school district culture is not particularly supportive of the work of the AESN . In one northern district in particular, we heard evidence from Network members and leaders that the district structure sought to limit the scope of Network activity in their school district. In this case, the Network membership has been reduced over the last two-three years as the district has put in place policies that have promoted individual school initiatives that meet established district priorities; these activities follow a district developed program model that does not emphasize inquiry based learning. In this district a Network leader described it as a power struggle: “The Network was perceived as a threat [by senior district leaders]… Quite clearly at the board office the message is: we don’t need the Network, we are doing this work for ourselves, district level only. So there isn’t going to be any promotion or support of the Network.”

Despite this, members of the AESN in this district have done some excellent work that is highly regarded by other Network participants around the province. We infer from the descriptions provided to us that the work of the Network has succeeded because of the status enjoyed by the teachers or principals who initially participated in the Network in this district. However, we also believe that the sustainability of these initiatives is in jeopardy as the involved teachers retire or leave the district. Given this, the AESN inquiries we heard about from this team of AESN members—which were important and significant ways in which to better enable non-Aboriginal educators to work with on Reserve and community members as educational partners—will have only limited, site specific effects.

In summary, what this discussion about district culture has made clear is that there can be both enabling and constraining features of local contexts where AESN members work. While there are ways in which connectivity is enhanced because of the design of the Network as a provincial initiative and its emphasis on sharing across jurisdictions, it operates more coherently, and has greater impact, in some regions or districts than in others. It highlights how context can be a significant factor in measuring impact.

I started working with the Network when a friend asked me to collaborate on a new writing technique to see if it would enhance the learning of children in my early primary class; specifically the aboriginal learners. Once I began this challenge in 2007 I realized it wasn’t just professional growth I was experiencing but for more importantly I really began a new chapter of personal growth.

Despite course work in special education I have mainly taught in main stream public education settings. I separated the person (half Cree raised in the North) I grew up as, from my professional self. Professionally I thought this was how things were done. But something was missing from my teaching – being genuine and honest with myself and my class and school community. As soon as I started really opening up and sharing, and really enjoying this interaction I could feel my teaching start to really blossom. Even though I am isolated from other Aboriginal teaching staff at my own school, this link, this camaraderie that started with one project gave me a whole new network and staff to work with. I sit in on staff meetings at our school district Aboriginal Education department and work directly with a small team on literature projects, theme based work not only to support Aboriginal learning outcomes but also our district’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement. I feel have an added voice and share the learnings of my childhood on a northern reserve but also the aboriginal ways of knowing of the Cree and prairie peoples (my district is very good about honouring the protocols of the local first nations and now I feel I have a role in educating fellow educators about other First Nations perspectives.) My proudest moment was when I was introduced as a champion of Aboriginal Education for my district.

I am part of a core team of three which often expands as we bring other people in on our projects. I feel like part of the three musketeers. With advanced communications and technology we all work at different sites but communicate very effectively and work to bring about change in our fellow mainstream teachers. We help them understand how to interweave Aboriginal learning outcomes and ways of teaching into every subject area by asking the deep questions, looking for the big ideas. Working with Network and district based professional partnership grants is a way we can challenge our own thinking and teaching and model for others how to think more deeply about the learnings of our most fragile learners.

As a teacher with over 20 years experience I feel motivated to get to school each day and keep on trying new things ( I have piloted Smartboards and tablets in my classroom and currently am leading our district into creating outdoor classrooms). I feel supported by my AESN team and enjoy the challenges we see in getting Aboriginal teachings incorporated into everyone’s everyday teaching style. My colleagues at my own school see a confident teacher who strives to do her best and help them with “tricky” curriculum – really it is about de-mystifying Aboriginal cultures. Since I am able to share my personal self and my journey from small “rez girl” I feel fulfilled and peaceful about my heritage. I also feel I am far more able to reach out and support struggling Aboriginal families and help de-mystify the education system for them, or at least offer support with groceries and school supplies. Although I have added a whole new layer of meetings and staff responsibilities by attaching myself honourarily to the Aboriginal education department I feel have gained so much personally. Professionally, I am impacting the knowledge base of my district by adding a voice of other First Nations beliefs, teachings and protocols. Working with the Network on improving Aboriginal student learning and awareness of our district’s Enhancement Agreement has led me to rich personal growth.

7.2 Leadership

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In earlier discussions, the notion of leadership was introduced; we noted how Aboriginal teachers in particular, have used the AESN structure as a tool for enabling their own efforts to lead within the field of Aboriginal education and in creating an enhanced focus on effecting change to better support Aboriginal learners. The focus on Aboriginal student success and inquiry as a means of effecting change both locally and provincially has created an important new space through which Network members—both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—have had their work and leadership recognized and valued. Certainly the mandate to create, adopt and implement Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements in each school district has been an important lever through which both the AESN and other Aboriginal education initiatives have been given priority attention. However, the Network structure itself also encourages and nurtures leadership among its members. Identifying innovation and creative, impactful AESN inquiries and members who have led or supported these inquiries has been a deliberate activity of the Network principals, Drs. Halbert and Kaser. Using Network structures and mechanisms—such as its website and its annual provincial networking event—the work of different teacher leaders have been profiled. Specific cases are highlighted on the website; regional leaders are encouraged to highlight these in their local and/or regional meetings with other teachers. In other words, promising practices are shared and individuals who have developed personal and professional knowledge related to their inquiries are invited to share these in public forums with other members of the Network.

In many cases, these individuals have been promoted into district leadership positions; for example, during our focus group on Vancouver Island we saw evidence of the career progression of some AESN members who had been teachers within the Network and who are now serving as formal district support leaders. In their new roles as district leaders they have been able to use their inquiry-based mindset to extend inquiry approaches into district initiatives in Aboriginal Education more seamlessly, while broadening their capacity to effect change and influence among an even larger pool of educational personnel. We will share two specific examples to illustrate how this growth has been afforded by focusing on two AESN leaders: Debbie Leighton-Stephens and Laura Tait.

I have been working at a Vancouver Island high school since 2001 and at an elementary school for the same amount of years too. I have worked as an Aboriginal support worker with my name changing but the same problems continue to exist mostly. My main goal over the years was to help Aboriginal students achieve cultural, academic , and personal achievements. Also to help increase the self-esteem of vulnerable Aboriginal students.

I have always asked myself how can I help students to connect to themselves and feel proud of their Aboriginal ancestry when society has mostly looked down on Aboriginals. Lots of youth want to be anything but Aboriginal and avoid anything that looks like Aboriginal culture at school. I know when things are working by how many Aboriginal youth say where they are from and the ancestry they are. I try to do things that help all students feel proud of who they all are and where they all are from.

By me talking about who I am and the Elders that have given me teachings I try to teach all students that we all have important teachings passed down to us. Every year for the last 7 years I have a celebration of who you are at the elementary school with Aboriginal cultural games with 100 students. Every student brings one small favourite family dish of their favourite food each student likes the most. Every student feels like they have contributed to that day and has helped make the celebration successful. Students ask me all year “are we going to have our celebration this year?” and “what day are we going to have it on?” I try to help all students I work with to become a leader. I play a lot of leadership games with all students.

I have a leadership group of secondary students that I bring to the elementary school every week to work with all the grade 7 students. This is my older students helping with grade 7 transition to grade 8. Older students model how to be successful using their life experiences how to work with teachers they do not like, how to navigate the hallways respectfully and how to be successful with older students’ own codes of conduct at school and how to behave with older students respectfully. This will help grade 7 students have a better experience here at the high school by not getting older students angry about their behavior. I try to teach them the importance of being a life long learner and always asking yourself “what can I learn from others at school?”

Students that are spoiled come to school thinking they already know everything and are entitled to do what they want to do with no respect for the teacher. Students that think they are entitled disregard the things teachers and staff try to teach students about. Students that think they are entitled are not open to any new learning because they know everything. A lot of the time students that act like they are entitled to do what they want look a lot like defiant disrespectful students only doing what they want to do.

I try to help address entitled students by learning about how to be respectful and the importance of learning to respect the position adults represent in their professional roles in the community. I talk about how life can get harder on them when they do not show respect to people they do not like that are teachers, R.C.M.P or any other professional adult they may come across in their life. I work a lot on helping students make better choices for themselves. I teach students to look at where they are now, where do they want to be and what things do they need to do to get to where they want to be. Set goals for themselves they can do.

The earlier case study of Prince Rupert provided substantial evidence of how Debbie Leighton-Stephens has taken on a role of leading with Aboriginal communities to enhance opportunities for Aboriginal student success. In the case we describe how she is using the inquiry-based model with all district support staff, including work with teachers (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) as well as non-teaching support staff. We described her work as essential to the learning centered culture that is strongly evident in the district. We also referenced how her work has been profiled at Network seminar events: her thoughtful and respectful modeling of Aboriginal principles of learning including how to “walk slowly” has become an important touchstone for the BC educational community as they learn how to enact inclusive and engaging practices which give Aboriginal students a way to connect to their schooling experiences.

We also want to profile the work of Laura Tait, District Principal of Aboriginal Learning in Nanaimo. She is taking a strong leadership role in her district’s efforts to negotiate a third Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement in her district; she is modeling it following the inquiry cycle she learned as a member of the AESN . She described for us, during her interview, the importance of this shift in thinking about how one could develop a more effective and inclusive and respectful agreement between Aboriginal community members and the district. She stated:

“We want to frame the big ideas [about Aboriginal student success] into rich inquiry questions that have some depth, rigour, and with no easy answers…[In taking this approach] I hope our intention is communicated thusly: No, we don’t know the answers for you, but we are hoping that this approach will invite you to consider these questions in your context… A big piece of the intention is to grow healthy inquiry work and to approach these big ideas in Aboriginal education and society in a way that is more curious, respectful, and less judgmental. Inquiry by nature is curiosity and opening ourselves up to vulnerability… it’s a more respectful and curious approach.”

In other words, the AEA won’t necessarily list or name the ways in which outcomes will be achieved for students or communities; nor will it state the problem in terms that construct Aboriginal students, their families or communities as deficit, or needing to be ‘supported’ or ‘helped’. Instead it will emphasize the ways in which the educational partners can inquire together in order to learn and implement new, locally situated approaches and methods that work with and for Aboriginal students.

We saw this approach to the negotiation of a renewed Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement as an exciting impact of the AES Network : it has pushed the model of inquiry well beyond that of the classroom to a place that shifts the approach of the entire community towards one of problem solving and shared, collaborative knowledge building. We believe that this approach is one that will be modeled in other districts as this particular agreement will lay out a constructive and inclusive approach that others will want to follow. In the same way as the Network itself operates to connect innovators with like minded leaders and innovators in other jurisdictions, this leader and the broader Aboriginal community with whom she works will influence and shift the focus of policy makers, school districts and provincial authorities alike. Again, returning to the thoughts and expressions of Laura Tait:

“If [inquiry mindedness] doesn’t impact leaders, it won’t have staying power. You can look at this both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal growth is important, but it has to reach up to those in formal leadership roles.”

She also expresses why this work is a moral imperative for her and for educational leaders across Canada:

“If you look at the pain and anguish Aboriginal people have experienced in this country, and what [the Network] is doing to change those conditions, this [inquiry model] should be valued for its contribution and the model it provides. A lot of this comes down to the work of Judy and Linda, they are all about truth and reconciliation.”

We find these words incredibly profound; it captures the essential work of the AESN and its participants as a decolonizing event. By decolonizing we mean that it seeks to reveal the truths about the experiences of Aboriginal learners in schools while it dismantles old belief systems about the deficits or deficiencies of Aboriginal communities and makes visible their strengths. It gives voice to Aboriginal teachers—both traditional community teachers and teachers within the formal school system—both of whom are legitimate knowledge holders and have important perspectives that will enrich approaches to working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. It recognizes their contribution to the work and places their expertise at the center of how we approach what needs to be shared work. It also emphasizes the relational nature of such work: again, referring to Laura’s characterization of how this work needs to be done, she emphasizes a “side by side approach” in which learning together is invitational, respectful, and always supportive. It also echoes Debbie Leighton-Stephens call to “walk slowly” together to construct shared pathways through which all learners can be supported and who can walk the stage with “dignity, purpose and options” (Halbert & Kaser, 2013).

7.3 Tracing inquiry mindedness as evidence of impact

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I have really appreciated the message that bigotry can manifest itself as low expectations for our First Nations students. As a First Nations woman, having this message stated clearly by non-First Nations educators has been very powerful. I have witnessed educators examine their practise and ask themselves if in fact they have perpetuated this destructive pattern. I have also walked alongside teachers as they begin the journey to doing things differently. These teachers are all good, hardworking, well intentioned teachers. “One of the hardest things teachers have to learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice.” (Steven D. Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher)

I believe “we are smarter together”. I have benefitted greatly from networking with others. I want to be a part of the community of teachers working on the common goal of getting our learners to “cross the stage with dignity, purpose and options”. Networking is a vital part of this community and I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate.

The AES Network provides the foundation upon which educators build inquiries into improving outcomes for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. It is structured in such a way that professional and personal mindsets and identities, beliefs about professional learning and long held colonial beliefs about Aboriginal peoples can be challenged, supported, critiqued, and, sometimes re-forged in a commitment to the moral imperative implicit in ensuring the holistic success of all students. The work of the Network is about courage, curiosity, risk-taking, safety, justice, fairness and equity. It is about transforming educators, students, families and communities. It is about recognizing the potential in students rather than weaknesses; it is about reconnecting Aboriginal youth proudly to their history and heritage and culture; and it is about honouring, valuing and revering the historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples by acknowledging their rightful place as founding Nations in Canadian society.

“If we are going to be professional and thoughtful teachers, then we have to ask, challenge and question…how do we do this better, make it better for kids…It challenges the status quo and makes it more personal, and I can work on a passion – not just outcomes, that’s too sterile. I get revved up with the inquiry question, it gives me energy, it’s about our kids’ lives, our community… Inquiry asks: “what am I doing to effect change in student learning? It creates links to other people, creates new questions, we meet others to see what they are doing. It’s confidence building. We are a little school, not lots of money, but we are doing great things.”

Inquiry is not something you do; it is who you are as an educator and as a human being. This message was communicated to us over and over again as we conducted interviews and focus groups for this study. There are however, some core attributes we were able to trace. First, the core of any form of inquiry is a sense of curiosity – an attitude described by one AESN member as “I wonder if…” This curiosity coupled with a deep sense of moral purpose provides much of the impetus for AESN members to pursue inquiry projects in support of improving the success of Aboriginal learners. As we referenced earlier, this type of curiosity was often described as a “mindset”. For those involved in the AESN , this mindset is an outgrowth of how they see themselves as professionals – their professional identity – and in turn, a reflection of personal identity – who they are. For these educators then, the personal is the pedagogical. Why they devote themselves to improving aboriginal education is part and parcel of how they engage professionally in inquiry processes. An inquiry mindset seated in deep moral purpose prompts educators to see themselves as change agents and allies, as learners rather than authorities, as responsible for effecting change and improvement while holding a deep commitment to justice, fairness and equity.

AESN has become a yearly endeavour for members of our staff; it has become a way for us to organize our efforts to become culturally responsive. Our district has been making a push for teaching to reflect all things local and membership in AESN helps.

Food has been a focus in our school and across the district. I know that community members get sick of hearing us talk about how we should do it, and wish we would just do it. We are doing it, we keep talking about it because it is when we stop talking about it that it will stop happening.

This is why networks of professionals are important to me they fuel our talk. I live and work on Haida Gwaii; professional development opportunities that are commonplace to teachers in other parts of the province are hard to get to. The Network allows us to feel connected, gives us ideas, gives a place to organize our thoughts, a place to shape our vision, and energizes our practice doing work that is relevant here.

Being culturally responsive means embracing island life, and clam digging is a big part of island life. I started clam digging not really knowing what to do. I knew they were down there in the beach, I knew I needed a shovel. I am not proud to admit that my first attempt involved a garden trowel, much to the delight of students who enjoy comparing rookie digger stories. Most of my modest skills I have learned from my students, whose teachings have brought me a long way.

Our first clam-digging trip with students was in response to our inquiry that year, continuing those trips and increasing the number has been a natural progression that is in keeping with our inquiries. Last year I went clam digging with students 4 or 5 times. The school now has a set of shovels and each year the clam digging has brought more into the school. Last year we served clam fritters at a dinner sale that accompanied a community concert organized by the same students who also worked to hold a plant sale in our new greenhouse.

For a couple years I didn’t know what it was like to have clams put away but as you progress with clam digging you improve, you get more, you eat chowder. I still go elbow deep, but my shoulder has been off the sand for a couple of years; I have learned to expend my energies more efficiently. Keeping a record of how you have expended your energies increases efficiency; the Network provides teachers with an opportunity to create a record, to share it with others, to learn from others, and to increase efficiency.

Our inquiries with AESN have much in common with clam digging. I knew it was there and I knew if we kept digging we would get something good. But the digging isn’t easy, and by the end of the year it is easier to start summer vacation than to write a report for AESN . I don’t attend the meetings or celebrations (travel), I have been to a conference once; but every June I write our report and staff at my school are able to reflect on the year that was and celebrate our successes. These are what we build on; this is what creates a path we will follow next year.

7.3.1 Dissonance, discomfort and irritation

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Shifting to, or engaging in an inquiry mindset is tough, often difficult work. An educator whose professional identity is founded in an inquiry mindset is highly cognizant of the fact that for transformation of their own and others learning to occur, they must approach their practice with humility and authenticity. They must be open to the dissonance, discomfort and irritation involved in the shift in self-perception from expert knowledge holder to vulnerable learner – willing to admit their knowledge is incomplete, while simultaneously giving themselves permission to learn. They must move from being reflective practitioners to reflexive practitioners; modifying, adapting, changing, questioning to better meet students’ learning needs.

This is an important difference: reflection asks you to consider and examine, but reflexivity invites you to make this change a part of who you are as an educator. It means acknowledging the complicity we share in having constructed the contexts in which Aboriginal learners have been labeled as unsuccessful, deficit or problematic. In other words, these individuals must be committed to making the invisible visible, to making the unsaid heard, to build capacity for shared responsibility for student learning. As mentioned, such work is difficult and discomfiting. Earlier we highlighted this idea by canvassing Kumashiro’s (2000) calls for an anti oppressive education; this type of reflexive practice moves educators and students out of the comfort and safety of resting assuredly in their existing knowledge into a space unfamiliar, or “queer” where we “unlearn” and work to “relearn”. He argues that stepping into the unfamiliar or uncomfortable is difficult as teachers are “often invested in the status quo” (2009, p. 54) and “find comfort in the repetition of what is considered to be common sense, despite the fact that commonsensical ideas and practices can be quite oppressive” (p. xxxviii). He posits that our comfort levels – even our sense of self is maintained when we learn only that which reinforces our previously held beliefs about ourselves, our position in the world, our position vis a vis “other” and about the structures, institutions and modes of being with which we are familiar. For educators, discomfort occurs when they refuse to retreat from exploring the controversial – when they acknowledge the emotional and political nature of issues such as racism and yet proceed to explore them anyway, and where disruption of dominant discourses can result in crisis – existential or otherwise (Kumashiro, 2009, p. 31), and where they are aware of the “partial” nature of their knowledge, and continue to turn their lens not just outward, but inward to interrogate their own unconscious complicity “with different forms of oppression” (p. 31). A shift in thinking that embraces the dissonance, the discomfort of not knowing requires a concomitant shift in recognizing that having only partial knowledge does not make one deficit; nor does it absolve educators from tackling the problems faced by marginalized populations in schools and society. A moral and philosophical commitment to equity, justice and fairness precludes the maintenance of the status quo.

I have a basic fundamental belief about teaching that was supported by my inquiry data and that was,


We all want our students to hit targets. But if we are not considering if our students have their eyes open when they shoot or what direction they are shooting in or what tools we have given them to hit the target or how far back from the target they are starting, how can we accurately assess?

What they come in knowing matters and race, gender, poverty, etc. all affect that initial ability to connect. It is not a matter of accessing prior knowledge, it is about providing prior knowledge for our students most at risk.

I think the most significant finding involved the distribution of power. I have a journal entry from January 11th, 2010 that I would like to quote…

“I hoped that the impact on writing would improve if Native students saw themselves within the content and it did, significantly. But I was surprised at how many other impacts that this question would have outside of the obvious answer or data collection. I did not fully think about how giving the power of understanding certain concepts (especially those that non-first nations students might not have encountered), would put my First Nations students at an advantage for talk, reading, and writing…the same advantage that we usually afford other students. Racism is when one group has power over another.

I know that racism is a very powerful word. It does imply some negative intention, which I do not believe teachers foster. I believe that teachers are involved in education to make the world a better place. It is important however, once we become aware of a practice that does not promote that agenda, to change the way we think and act. Being part of the Network helped me to understand that in order to change the way we think and act, we need the support of others; a network as it were, where collaboration and change are part of the learning cycle.

This learning mindset was evident in a number of situations that we heard about over the course of our data collection. One district leader discussed how the AES Network provided a safe space for educators to have conversations about Aboriginal students, the diverse cultures and heritage values within those cultures and their families as well as the impact of inquiry on Aboriginal student learning. The courage to engage in those types of conversations – the dissonance of not knowing all of the answers was summed up by this leader: “As a teacher in the early 80s, the mindset was, if you’re a teacher, you are supposed to know all, be all, and we are finally getting to a shift to say ‘I am a learner’ to actively engage with students in learning.”

A district principal from northern BC echoed this idea: “We are all learners. We know lots of stuff, but there are areas that we need help with. The inquiry gets us to learning and learning from each other. It’s safe. It’s safe to say I don’t know about this, can you help me?”

My involvement in the Network, particularly my Aboriginal focus, keeps me aware and awake to the Aboriginal culture in my community, nationally and internationally. In my quest to honour, recognize and integrate Aboriginal culture on a daily basis I find myself continually looking for opportunities within the school day. This has led to the creating of an Aboriginal logo and an Aboriginal garden at my former school. The students and I worked together to shape, plan and establish the garden. The students took responsibility for their work as we co-created, co-problem solved and co-reflected as we learned from and with each other. As a result there have not been any incidences of vandalism. Each day I strive to be a facilitator of learning when working with my students and encourage them to guide their own learning. The Network has helped me aspire to situate myself in a transformation orientation to my teaching. I now strive to teach in a holistic manner which is quite different than my previous teaching practices. Adopting a more holistic approach to my practice allows me to continually stop, reflect and be culturally aware of the needs of all my students. I feel I would not be engaging in inquiry if I did not continue to be an active participant in the Network and for that I am truly grateful. I try to instill in my students to be the best they can be and the Network allows me to strive at being the best I can be.

As our case study of the Arrow Lakes district revealed, teacher learning plays a significant role in the efforts being made by educators to engage their Aboriginal students in the learning process. Forming an inquiry around weaving Aboriginal ways of knowing and being into the existing Woodwork and Outdoor Education curricula required the teachers involved to pursue their own learning: while the overt skills that they gained were apparent in their teaching, a less overt yet equally significant shift in their understanding helped to deepen their appreciation for Aboriginal peoples.

“My Aboriginal unit in the Outdoor Ed class isn’t so much about culture and the stories of Aboriginal peoples or the spirituality side. I make them do things in the environment. Picture yourself as an Aboriginal person in the field…you have a stick, an antler, now try and survive. So I have the students try this out. I had to learn about knapping – how to chip rocks to make arrowheads. Then we get the kids to do it…The archery equipment we use is standardized; the Aboriginal people didn’t have that. No two arrows shoot the same no two bows shoot the same. They see how difficult it is/was. So it’s an appreciation thing.”

The “expert-learner” tension can be alleviated to a certain extent through a supportive network of like-minded individuals. A district leader from Vancouver Island discussed how the structure of the Network provided an avenue for educators to explore their own learning:

“It gives adults an accessible way of accessing First Nations agreements and goals without feeling they don’t have enough information. The AESN gives them a structure and an approach to be successful; where they don’t have to feel like they are the experts about the content, the history, the protocols, etc…In many ways as teachers we are more at ease talking about ancient Egypt that our own Aboriginal cultures, so building this level of comfort for the adults is critically important. Inquiry provides a far deeper way of learning; you have to reach into the areas of teaching and learning where you don’t know what to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be investigating it. This is what makes it most powerful; it asks you to take a risk, examine what you aren’t doing so well or could learn more about. Yet it does it in a safe way; framed as professional growth and focused on learning for kids.”

Framing the integration of Aboriginal ways of knowing and being as both professional growth and moral responsibility might help to mitigate some educators’ concerns about their lack of knowledge. As an administrator from Vancouver Island noted:

“It’s very difficult; teachers are very busy, it’s a busy profession, the best intentions you have, to want to introduce a new curriculum, and sometimes it doesn’t happen. A lot of teachers who openly say they don’t feel they have the expertise or knowledge to present – a sense of reticence, hesitation. You can understand that…I had that feeling when I presented on Métis peoples, I don’t have that background. Is this legitimate? It may not be your expertise, but you have to do it…That sense can often accompany many teachers who are hesitant to teach Aboriginal history or culture.”

Another educator from the interior of BC expressed his initial fears about integrating Aboriginal content into the curriculum: “I had concerns at the beginning; I am going to have calls from non-Aboriginal parents anticipating they would be troubled by the inclusion of Aboriginal questions. That they would say ‘okay, great to include local culture, but what about our culture?’ But there hasn’t been that response.” Dispelling his fears gave him the confidence to move forward and the courage to continue making concerted efforts on behalf of Aboriginal students: “A lot of times what happens is we see a need, and we just do it. If people or administrators or district people want to support it…we are going to do it anyway, it has to be done.”

During my third year teaching English at a Secondary School, I began working on an inquiry for the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network. In our district at the time, thirty percent of our students were Aboriginal, and many were having difficulty transitioning successfully through secondary school. I collaborated with another English teacher and together we explored how we could better meet the needs of our at-risk Aboriginal learners. WE wanted to explore the reasons why they were having difficulty and hopefully be able to make changes in our teaching that would positively impact Aboriginal student learning.

We decided that before we could meet the needs of these learners, we needed to understand exactly what their needs were. With the support of the AESN , we began research into the area of Aboriginal education. We were drawn to the work of Russell Bishop, whose work explored Maori student success in New Zealand. He gathered information by interviewing several Maori students. Hearing students speak passionately about their own learning was powerful. The results of this study suggested that Maori student success was highly influenced by a classroom context where caring relationships can be developed to support learning. The impact of Bishop’s study had a significant impact on teachers in New Zealand; as a result, many embarked upon changes in their practice to better meet the needs of Maori students. Inspired by this new knowledge, we created our inquiry question: Will consistent positive, personal interactions with Aboriginal students and their families have an impact on Aboriginal student success?

We created a plan for our inquiry. In very deliberate and explicit ways, we were going to engage in consistent, positive personal interactions with Aboriginal students and their families as a way to create trusting and authentic relationships. We then wanted to interview our Aboriginal students so that we could gain insight into their educational experiences. Our purpose was to illicit honest, unbiased information from our Aboriginal students on their experiences in school.

We began our inquiry in our grade 9 English classrooms. Throughout the year, we built authentic relationships with our Aboriginal students, engaging them in conversation and creating positive interactions whenever possible. We also worked hard at establishing a positive relationship with their families, calling home regularly with updates and information. After a few months, these conversations became longer and more comfortable. Many families started asking me questions about their child’s learning, and some even started calling me for updates.

At the end of the term, we wanted to hear from our Aboriginal students and get their perspective in their own words. We asked them three questions:

  1. What sorts of things hold you back in school?
  2. What helps you do well in school?
  3. If you were able to coach a teacher so that what the teacher did meant you would do well in school, what would you say to them?

Many common themes emerged. First of all, many students believed that negative relationships with teachers inhibited their success. They felt they couldn’t succeed if they felt a teacher did not like them. Secondly, they believed it was important for teachers to make them feel comfortable, welcomed, respected and encouraged. These factors would help them be more successful in school. Lastly, Aboriginal students stated that extra help, clear expectations, and fun and innovative lessons would have a positive impact on their learning.

We were profoundly touched by the candid responses of our Aboriginal students. It was validating to hear how much they appreciated positive relationships with teachers and how much they valued engaging and respectful learning environments. We also were struck by how simple their learning needs were. They wanted to feel cared for, welcomed, and respected. They wanted to learn in new and innovative ways. They wanted to learn relevant and meaningful material. This inquiry taught us that making the effort to connect with our Aboriginal learners makes a difference and is well worth the effort. The spirit and structure of an inquiry-based learning community such as the AESN gave us the inspiration, support, and knowledge necessary to make real and lasting changes in our practice.

7.3.2 Innovating and “possiblizing” together

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The strength of collaborative inquiry is measured in both its potential and in its outcomes. Educators engaged in transformative work recognize that professional learning happens both individually and collectively, but that practice rooted in “possibilizing together” is far more dynamic and powerful than anything accomplished alone. An important component of this form of shared engagement is relationality. The AESN members we interviewed recognize that all learning is relational; that others need to be invited into learning and that knowing their learners contributes to a personalized educational experience that potentiates student success. A transformed/ transformative professional identity/inquiry mindset understands that in order to reach all learners they need to engage in culturally responsive teaching practices, as it is part of their moral imperative. Culturally responsive teaching practices invite others to be part of the learning circle: it recognizes that others, such as Elders and community members, are part of learning team that will support Aboriginal learners become engaged with their learning. Recognizing the inherent strengths, not deficits of Aboriginal learners shifts mindsets to envisioning positive futures for all students:

“We are investing in the future. These kids, they have a huge skill set. And we are not tapping into that, and part of the reason is self confidence; they need the confidence to show what they know….we need what I know and what they know. We need to give them the skills and the confidence to show and share what they know. Reading, the writing component – not just on paper. It’s about relationships, schools, classrooms, First Nations communities – it’s all about relationships.”

Another poignant example of the relational aspect of learning is described by a Network leader in the northern interior:

“We had moved beyond having our Indigenous learning as a ‘unit’ that we parachuted in and out of, Aboriginal learning was more authentically integrated throughout the year. Local Elders involved students and adult learners in traditional ceremonies that they hoped would help build an understanding of the importance of the land and the gifts that the land gave. The students moved from passive learning to active learning. Older students made traditional welcoming gifts for the new kindergarten students joining the learning community. The Elders in the community stated that they felt valued and respected. The school heard their voices. One member of this learning community stated that when we are in the presence of Elders, whether it is in or out of the classroom, the pace of our busy lives slows down; our ears begin to listen more carefully; our eyes begin to see more broadly; our minds and bodies become quiet and still; and our hearts begin to value the beauty and richness that is shared with us in the moment. Voices are being heard.”

When I think about the impact that the Network has had in our district, I think about not only the impact on our Aboriginal students, but also on our entire community. For me, it’s all about stories – sharing stories, connecting with people, students, elders, community people. If people don’t feel they are valued and belong and that their previous knowledge isn’t recognized they don’t respond and learn. When they feel welcomed, they will move mountains for you. I have invited Elders into the school who wanted to tell their stories. They aren’t necessarily experts, just regular people who wanted to tell their stories. Here’s one example: There were two women, both raised in residential schools – they had not been into a school since then. They were very anxious about coming into the school; I had to do a lot of work to make their immersion more gradual, to make it safe for them. I invited them into the school for tea or coffee, just short visits to begin with. They came in finally to talk to the students who did an interview with them. These ladies wore traditional blankets and after the interview, they started to dance. They were crying…at first, we didn’t understand why, but we later learned from them that this was their first time being allowed to dance in a school since they weren’t permitted to do so when they were in residential school. These women are in their 70s or 80s…it was a very emotional moment as we watched them dance. And as we watched, one by one, each of our students got up and danced with them. It was a hugely moving experience. You can’t imagine what this experience has done: those people now come in regularly because they know they are welcome and valued; but for our kids, they saw that that people can survive very difficult things in their lives. They have suffered from abuse, been taken away from their families, suffered health issues, but the lesson is that you can survive; there are people to support you. The support of the AESN has given me permission to take risks. If I had been told “no” and followed the rules these visits could have been cut so quickly. Instead the attitude from my AESN family is “Go for it!” And I can tell you, on the days where we have community visitors, we have 98% of our students show up, they’re interested in what’s going on. These events often make them consider what they can do – they say: “I want to know more about this, this is my culture, my history…” It’s an incentive for them, a real wake-up call. I’m 62; I haven’t finished what I need to do. I am passionate about what I do, I am enthusiastic about positive changes that we’re making for our Aboriginal kids and I’m enthusiastic about changes that are possible through the AESN . I am totally committed to making changes in our district and for our students. It’s all about relationships and making connections.

In summary then, educators who are imbued with the characteristics noted above are perfectly situated to engage in pursuing inquiries focused on improving the success of all students. The hallmarks of an inquiry approach require a dominant and persistent focus on student learning. It challenges deficit and colonial ways of thinking about Aboriginal peoples, and in action, it engages with and extends the learning of others. Those involved in inquiry seek learning opportunities with supportive others and recognize that taking an inquiry stance results in emergent and organic context specific sense making. An inquiry approach to learning seeks gaps in what is, and looks for what might be – “possibilizing”. Because of its recursive nature, inquiry is ongoing and sustained, always shifting, modifying adapting to meet contextual realities. These approaches to inquiry minded, learning centered professionalism are what the research scholarship has identified as “promising practices” for enhancing student learning and creating “impact”.

To further trace the impact of the Network, we looked to our data again to find ways that AESN members described their projects within the Network, how they worked with learners and community members, and what strategies, approaches or ways of thinking they used that could be used to provide evidence of their ongoing application of these promising practices.

7.4 Cases that illustrate adoption of promising practices

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To further trace the impact of the Network, we looked to our data again to find ways that AESN members described their projects within the Network, how they worked with learners and community members, and what strategies, approaches or ways of thinking they used that could be used to provide evidence of their ongoing application of these promising practices.

7.4.1 Case 1

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Because AESN inquiries are based in teacher interest they are necessarily context specific and are framed in such a way as to reflect the particular circumstances in which educators find themselves. For example, a small school located in north-central British Columbia based their inquiry on whether working with their local Aboriginal community would improve relationships between the community and the school. In this particular instance the inquiry revolved around building Aboriginal cultural awareness and understanding amongst the largely non-Aboriginal student population, however, it evolved beyond a simple cultural “add on” approach, and instead wove in Aboriginals’ relationship to and stewardship of the land through student involvement in local ecological sustainability projects. Pre-test surveys revealed a high level of student ignorance about Aboriginal peoples and their experiences, yet as their immersion in the local Indigenous context and Aboriginal culture deepened, students understanding, awareness, and appreciation of historical and contemporary Aboriginal ways of knowing and being saw a concomitant shift. A related part of the project created the opportunity to have a local Elder come into the school twice a week to read Stoney Creek Woman (by Bridget Moran and Mary John) to students who were then required to work on projects that showed what they had learned.

The scope of these projects showed a distinct understanding of Aboriginal experience that extended beyond simply “bannock and beads”: students addressed topics such as discrimination, residential schools and traditional versus modern ways of Aboriginal life. The projects culminated in student presentations to local guests, including the Elder who had read the novel to them and her extended family. This form of showcasing learning mimics the AES Network requirements where the results of inquiry is not kept to oneself, but shared in order to move forward the learning of others.

The results of their post test revealed substantive changes in student understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing and being: “We did see lots of kids change their awareness, it’s not what you see on TV, it’s not Clint Eastwood, these are things people do now. Fishing, smoking, scraping a hide. They ice fish. They still do that. A chance to see that and be a part of it, it opened their eyes. It was an awakening for a lot of them.”

7.4.2 Case 2

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Similarly, a project conceived between teachers at a Secondary school in the Thompson-Okanagan region wove local content into the prescribed math curriculum in order to better reflect students’ experiences and realities. An increase in the number of Aboriginal students at the school prompted the teachers to form an inquiry centered on improving Aboriginal student success in the more academic Principles of Math course – a pre-requisite for entry into some post-secondary programs. Incorporating local and Aboriginal content into the curriculum supplemented by visual images of local spaces provided by the school’s language teacher resulted in increased student engagement as they recognized themselves in the course material. An assessment tool developed to measure the impact on student learning revealed an improvement in student test scores over a two-year period. The actions taken by these teachers is indicative of another feature of inquiry approaches to learning: They were able to identify a gap in the ways in which students were responding to traditional presentations of curriculum and modified their materials and approaches to teaching in a culturally inclusive and responsive way in order to better meet their students learning needs. In addition to showcasing their work at the district and Network level, the teachers shared their findings and resources at a UBC symposium with 130 educators involved with Aboriginal math who were very interested in seeking more information about the inquiry, the work the teachers had done, and its results.

7.4.3 Case 3

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A Vancouver Island middle school infused Aboriginal inquiry into their grade 7 programming. At the heart of the inquiry was raising awareness and understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing. All grade 7s took a six-week exploratory course designed to expose students to the “big stories” – an overview of Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia and Canada. In the four years the program has been offered, approximately 700 students have taken the exploratory course. Its mandatory nature makes it a unique feature of the educational landscape and it was partly this feature that led a neighbouring school district to seek permission to borrow this approach (having heard about it at a regional Network presentation). The neighbouring district has a significant on-reserve Aboriginal population and suffered some struggles with racism in their schools between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. This district has now implemented the course in all of its schools and have extended the model to include Elders and Aboriginal language instructors working with students to help raise awareness and understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing and to start to eradicate some of the systemic racism apparent in their school district.

The programs described above have helped shift the conception of Aboriginal students and peoples as “deficit” towards a more positive perception. As this AESN member noted:

“The inquiry process lends itself to learning. At times working with Aboriginal kids in the school and district, we often get to the specifics, like ‘why doesn’t Jimmy get to class?’ Sometimes you can’t seem to pull yourself out of the detail, can we focus instead on the positive – ‘what can we do so Jimmy will come?” This viewpoint is echoed by another AESN member: “The deficit approach is often the approach taken by teachers and districts in working with Aboriginal kids, populations. The AESN (inquiry) is a strength based approach, ‘how do we get better, will this help our kids? It’s about moving all of our students, not just picking on Aboriginal students. The level I work at, you are always working with a problem…this is more about making things better, that’s why I latched onto it. School learning, system learning, kids learning…”

7.4.4 Case 4

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For one Network leader, the attempts to disrupt deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples prompted her to pursue an inquiry that reached beyond the school walls:

“For me personally, I have a strong sense of wanting our society to acknowledge what has happened in the past, and that has created what we see now, we’ve ignored it as a nation. And we haven’t done anyone a service by ignoring Aboriginal issues. I see this as giving us potential to be so much better as a society, it’s not just about schools, it’s about strengthening our connections with community, with Aboriginal people who live beside us and it’s starting to change my life as a person, not just in the work world. It gives me more confidence as an educator, more confidence to speak to parents and parents feeling more confident to reach out and advocate for their kids because we have stronger relationships. We’re paying attention, we’re noticing and we’re trying to value people for who they are and what they bring to the table rather than thinking about kids as having deficits, communities as having deficits. I hear more positive language now like ‘that mom loves her kids and she wants them to do well…how can we help those kids and their families be successful in this world?”

Her inquiry question was focused on working with Aboriginal moms as part of her job involved work in community literacy. She wanted them to come to Strong Start for the benefit of their children, but they weren’t coming. She recognized that she couldn’t just burst into these women’s homes as a district representative and implore them to come to the program; she needed to build a relationship of trust with them before she could convince them of the benefits of Strong Start. It started with going for coffee and segued into creating a learning community with Aboriginal mothers who were looking to get involved in something they were interested in. In making connections to what the community valued, and with the desires of the Aboriginal mothers at the forefront, the group began making memory books, scrapbooks and crafts. Child minders were provided so that the moms could work. Over time, the moms started to use the group as a physically safe place where they could be away from alcohol and drugs. Outreach included providing food for every meeting, which took place at the local food bank – a trusted space amongst the Aboriginal women. The local Reserve allowed the group the use of its van to pick up mothers – it was driven by one of the mothers, a Band Counselor who stayed with the group for meetings and took part in activities but who also shared her wisdom with the group. She was able to offer advice on how to reach out to some Aboriginal mothers – just listen, just ask. Three years into the project, the relationships were sturdy enough to prompt the AESN member to ask whether any of the mothers would be interested in coming into the school to participate in a volunteer reading coaching program. Four mothers were paired with kids in the school and worked with the students, coaching them on their reading. While the logistics of arranging and executing the program proved difficult in some instances, the payoff was worth the investment: the mothers who had participated shared their goals for the reading program, their hopes for the children they had worked with and the pride they felt in having participated. The offshoot of this particular inquiry was that the Aboriginal mothers indicated their interest in pursuing their own educational interests. As the AESN member noted:

“They are now talking future, so we’re holding a fundraiser to try to raise money to support the career and educational aspirations of these moms. Those moms now are more confident in talking to the schools. We’ve decided to strengthen our relationship with another mom, she has six kids, three of whom are in school, one has developmental difficulties and we couldn’t get him to school. The mom designed a plan where his cousin would ride the bus with him, she would get him a Leap Pad because he loved technology and they arranged a pediatric support visit and we got him to school! I think without that group we got going we would not be having these conversations, they’d still be on the defensive, we’d still be at the blame stage and because we had that focus of looking at strengths, things are starting to change for kids in a direct way.”

In many ways, this particular story reflects all of the characteristics of both a transformative/inquiry mindset and the features of inquiry itself. This AESN member recognized within herself the role of change agent and ally and worked with the community to effect positive outcomes for not only Aboriginal students, but for their families as well. The opportunities created through outreach resulted in empowering Aboriginal women to recognize their potential and their strengths; they became partners in the learning process for themselves and their children.

7.5 Aboriginal education for all: Integrated content, engaging, relevant learning

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I am an experienced teacher and I have been involved with inquiry and the NOII for over 7 years. I use inquiry as an instructional strategy and as a vehicle for professional development on my own and in teams.

This year, we have many forces driving extraordinary learning for staff and students: AESN Inquiry team, NOII inquiry team, School District Inquiry Team and my Humanities 9 Inquiry question, “What can the canoe teach us about who we are as Canadians, where we live, how we express ourselves and who we want to become as Canadians? What aspect of the canoe will guide your future?” This question caught the imagination of our Aboriginal support educators. Each felt that they could support student learning by: attending classes, presenting on topics such as: Residential Schools, Harper’s Apology from Canadians, paddles, and art project on paddles and decorating, and an Elder to tell us more about the canoes of the west coast. We are a team! Each of us has connected with various students as they each learn about local Indigenous art, culture, geography and issues around sustainability. Without the formal AESN and NOII inquiry, I wonder if we would have had such an engaging way to work together.

It starts out slowly, with each of us finding out who we are and why we are doing what we do; and, once we see our students connected and open to discussing Aboriginal history in Canada, boundaries and suspicions leave and we each simply work to learn more. Our district supplies resources such as: literature circle novels, picture books with lesson plans, and other resources. Each of us often says that we do not know. Each of us is searching for more information and students see us modeling learning and grieving at what has been lost – and yet searching and finding other resources.

Students are searching out our Aboriginal educators to learn more about culture (many students are aboriginal and have asked to learn more and others are from other heritages and want to learn more). The Aboriginal Educators have sent emails about how when students search them out for learning support, they feel that much more successful than if students either hide in the resource room or are sent there.

“Idle no More” is in the news and students yesterday asked a visiting Elder about the movement after learning about canoes and paddles. He talked of how the movement is for everyone because each of us is connected to the land – that is how we survive and what will we leave behind!

Today, we looked at our Chapter Nine in our text which starts with an original journal written by a manager at an HBC outpost in 1850. Students said that not only was it biased and written from one point of view but because of the racism, they did not feel it appropriate to study. They felt the whole chapter unworthy of their time.

Students have spent their time on projects: video making, aboriginal art and paddles, story writing, and mind mapping. We hear students saying things like: “I’m going to talk to my dad about carving, we used to carve but I stopped. I want to try again.” “If the diamond mine in Attawapiskat has so much money, why are those people living in such poor housing?” “Can you tell me more about smudging?” and a mother writing a letter, “Thank you for sending sweetgrass home with my son, I appreciate you explaining and supporting such important learning.” One very moving conversation was with a 14 year old girl who said that she was Christian and she had confessed to her mother that she honoured the spirituality and everyday life of aboriginal culture because it focused on community and working together to help each other in difficult times and that she felt Christians or her experience with her Christian community could do more for her if this kind of spirituality was in place.

We are pulling together in our canoe and learning about: who we are, where we live, how we express ourselves and what we want to become! As educators, we will use the aspect of inquiring together to learn more about ourselves, our students and our aboriginal culture.

We are not able to meet and discuss our inquiries as much as necessary and our NOII inquirers have not yet formally met with the AESN inquirers; but, this process creates the dynamic!

It was very apparent from the data collected that student learning and engagement was deepened significantly in instances where educators had embedded or woven Aboriginal education/ways of knowing/being into their pedagogy. One young teacher in Arrow Lakes School District described her experience with both her own inquiry and with using inquiry with her students through Aboriginal education:

“What’s good for Aboriginal students is good for all students. I think I basically started with myself; I have a Sioux grandmother that I didn’t even know about. I shared it with my students, I just talked about it with the class and some of them responded ‘Hey, that happened in my family’…They know what Nation they were from. In my own life, my uncle married a woman in the Dakotas who was Sioux…this is how I start fostering respect for my students and the need to have Aboriginal knowledge for everyone…If you are going to teach students anything, it should have some kind of real application to the world around us. It should be real, and applied in a real way. This is real, not about sympathy or empathy, its respect for all peoples and the heritage of our area. [Student inquiries ask] how can we respect it, reintegrate respect for the land, how can we reintroduce what should be there…one culture was dominant over another and that’s how we fix it. If we integrate this knowledge into our curriculum, it is pure respect for all people.”

This particular teacher and another who took part in the Arrow Lakes focus group are graduates of WEKTEP – the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program offered through UBC Okanagan. Their teacher education program was centered in an inquiry approach that has resulted in these two teachers approaching their own teaching from an inquiry mindset:

“I was taught very well in my teacher ed. program and I was taught to think that way [inquiry] from that time, so I have always used it. And just because of that training I set up all of my courses and units that way. Because my class, many of them are kids with Aboriginal heritage, as we began talking about it at the beginning of the year and what they do and don’t know. They generated their own inquiries. That’s important, students are naturally inquisitive and should generate their own inquiry.”

As a result of my involvement with the AESN , I learned that inquiry and evidence-seeking mindsets are not about seeking evidence that will look good on a résumé. Doing a research question for the AESN allowed me to see that learning is not easily measured and that learning for students needs to be from the student’s perspectives and from their families not from the perspectives of the vocal (non-Native) professionals who have nothing invested in the community and stay a very short time. I also learned that when we have non-Native teachers (I am not Native) the teachers need to learn to take a wider perspective on learning not just a focus on aspects of academic learning that are easily measured, look good, sound good so the non-Native educator can leave. In the four years and six months I was at the rural First Nations School I had two Superintendents, two directors of Special Education, four Principals and I worked with twenty-three teachers. Over the time I was employed at this school the enrolment of the school was between 40-60 students from kindergarten to grade 12, with a teaching staff of four to five teachers per year. If I had not participated in the AESN I would not have focused on a specific aspect of student learning. By focusing on a specific question I had my eyes opened to the injustices that are still happening in our small rural schools that enrol First Nations students. I personally believe that the lack of support our governments are giving schools enrolling mostly First Nations students is equally to that of Residential Schools. After working at a school that enrols mostly First Nations students I wonder if our government’s hidden objectives are still to remove and isolate the First Nations children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate these caring, children into our dominant culture? While I was at this mostly First Nations School I noticed that the most first-year professional outsiders that came and went all demanded their own teacher autonomy, this caused a yearly whirlwind of changes for our learners, every year these extreme changes had to be learned by the students and support staff and took valuable time away from the students learning. In my four years and six months at this school I only saw the professionals try to assimilate these students into the non First Nations culture. It is my personal opinion that almost all these Professionals never wanted to be connected to the school or community. Without the AESN inquiry and evidence seeking mindset perspective, I would not have seen and felt this concern.

7.6 Learning Aboriginal pedagogy and principles of Aboriginal learning

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Yet educators like the individual profiled above are not in abundance in BC schools. The majority of teachers are non-Aboriginal and as a result have particular biases and ways of thinking about schooling that need to be unpacked. This effort to unpack and dismantle colonial mindsets is part of what we have already highlighted in our earlier discussion as necessarily reflexive; that is, it is more than applying inclusive pedagogical practices to what one does, but more about how one thinks and enacts a self that is more inclusive and accepting of all learners.

We certainly saw evidence during this impact assessment that teachers are engaging deeply in this work; but we also believe that we can say with some certainly that not all teachers are yet at this point of embracing and integrating such ways of thinking into their core teaching and personal identities. On the basis of our observation and analysis, we believe there may well be stages in how such teachers’ thinking evolves over time as they become immersed in and work through their AESN inquiry process. It is these stages of thinking or approaches to working with Aboriginal learners that we want to describe next.

Earlier in this report we offered an analysis of more than 50 cases of AESN inquiries completed between 2009 and 2012. In this summary it was noted that about 27 inquiries were focused on academic success and 16 more focused on Aboriginal student life opportunities and a sense of belonging. This seems to indicate an emerging pattern. We will look carefully at two of these cases to consider how they might illustrate a pattern of professional learning and growth among AESN members.

7.6.1 Tracing student learning outcomes: From academic performance to pride and acceptance

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Early AESN inquiry questions were structured in ways that carefully mimicked the earlier NOII process. In NOII inquiries, performance standards in academic subject areas were the primary focus. So one of the effects this had was that performance standards for Aboriginal students in literacy and numeracy were often selected as starting points to explore how teachers might better enable deepened learning. Many of the rubrics used to measure inquiry impact then involved employing pre and post inquiry tools that used standard performance measures, such as “meeting” “exceeding” or “not yet meeting” performance expectations.

An example of this kind of inquiry was conducted at an elementary school in 2008-2010. As their case study highlights these teachers were “determined to engage our learners and believe that a greater emphasis on Aboriginal knowledge and wisdom will help our learners meet both our school goal and the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement goal of reading at grade level. Our primary teaching staff took a keen interest in our Aboriginal focus area and made it a priority for the reading program for all of our learners. Our school as a whole had a week-long literature based unit focused on the book Secret of the Dance, culminating in an Aboriginal Celebration”. Their inquiry question asked “Will the use of Aboriginal content improve reading for our primary Aboriginal students as measured by the PM Benchmarks?”[2] Three rounds of assessment were conducted throughout the inquiry to measure students’ performance as a guided reading approach, using the Aboriginal text as its core resource. The summary of this inquiry discusses how there were significant improvements made in Aboriginal students reading performance, with a 31% increase in those learners “approaching” or “meeting” expectations for grade 2, and later in 2010 how “90% of grade 2 and at risk grade 3s were meeting or exceeding expectations, a 64% improvement”. They summarize their next steps as wanting to integrate even more “Aboriginal texts” in subsequent inquiries as they sharpen their focus to thinking about improving writing performance as well.

In this example, the focus of the inquiry is on those aspects of the AEA that focus on “improving reading success in Aboriginal students”. We can infer from the work of these teachers that they understand that Aboriginal content and knowledge, when inserted into mainstream curriculum, shows a value and respect for different ways of knowing and being in the world: when this is incorporated into curriculum activities, it will better engage Aboriginal students in relevant and meaningful texts which in turn become a useful tool through which reading performance can be enhanced. This is an important aspect of culturally responsive teaching practice and is reflective of the Aboriginal learning principle “Learning recognizes the role of Indigenous knowledge”. Yet as our discussions about transformed and inquiry mindedness have suggested, it requires more than this to fully incorporate a culturally responsive approach. In sum, it is not yet evident from this particular example that the teachers are engaged holistically in understanding the inter relationship between Aboriginal student achievement and the valuing of cultural practices, intergenerational learning, or the ways in which their own beliefs and approaches to teaching reflect a privileging of dominant beliefs about what constitutes success. The inquiry, as it is structured, retains the role of the teacher as knowledge expert, the one who facilitates and delivers learning, rather than one that sees learning as a shared, collaboratively constructed process. We can infer from this framing of the inquiry, and approach to the process of learning (teacher centered) that these teachers’ professional identities remain firmly tied to the formal role of knowledge holder. Their level of knowledge about the importance of cultural texts has grown, but this has been largely a reflective rather than reflexive activity.

Another case from 2010-2011 in a different school district provides a much different example. In this school all 86 students are of Aboriginal ancestry. AESN participants describe their context thusly: “Our students bring cultural capital and a varied understanding of their traditions to school. We want to enhance their knowledge and increase their level of school connectedness… We want to develop the whole child and integrate a First Nations worldview in our teaching. Educators need to become sensitive to and knowledgeable about the First Nations cultures within their school community and elsewhere. The district agreement also acknowledges the need for informal opportunities for teachers to build relationships with families and to celebrate with parents and community ways that demonstrate the importance of the relationship between the school and the community.” The question they posed was: “Will the integration of traditional First Nations resources and activities across curriculum areas result in an improvement in the social responsibility and self regulation of our students?” In describing their inquiry, the AESN members reference cultural and informal events between teachers and community members, cultural language initiatives, the presence of Elders in their school, as well as experiential cultural program elements (such as a beading and drum making project) and place based activities such as visiting salmon streams and historic cultural sites. Community mentors from among its Indigenous population involved in trades are also highlighted, but traditional practices including drum making by local artisans are referenced. In other words, they describe a very complex, multi faceted and intergenerational approach to building an enhanced commitment for all learners in the school—with an emphasis on the need for teacher learning to understand how they can support and enhance their students sense of self and identity as a proud member of their cultural community. In this second case, the teachers clearly have a much deeper awareness of Aboriginal pedagogy and the principles of Aboriginal learning, drawing upon 6-8 of these in the approaches they are using to work across the school site and within the community. One can infer from the words and approaches taken here that teachers are deeply examining their own beliefs and expectations for students, and that they themselves are gaining a deeper appreciation about the ways in which what we do reflects who we are as teachers.

As a result of the AESN my thinking changed. When I first went to this school, I was like the other white professionals, I wanted a good résumé, and I wanted to move somewhere where I could live with others like me. I did not care that teacher autonomy created non-connected classrooms and I did not care if the students were successful after they left my classroom. As I looked at the community, students and the families and thought about the Network’s main goal “Every student has the right to: graduate with dignity, purpose and options.” I started to wonder and challenge what was happening in the school I was working at. I have now moved, but I have many friends from this small First Nations community and I respect this First Nations group’s determination to have the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures respected by the non First Nations culture that migrates through the school. I have a better understanding of the struggles of our First Nations people. I now feel strongly that these small districts should be amalgamated with larger districts so that white Professionals that work in this community can be connected to seasoned professionals picked from a large group of trained teachers and these professionals can learn about the First Nations culture and move someday back to their home community and share the knowledge they learned. We do not send student teachers to work in these challenging environments so why do we allow first year professionals to work there? Maybe some would stay. I might have stayed if the turnover of staff and whirlwind of ideas from the non-connected classrooms had not drained me.

I still work in the same small school district, but in a larger school. This school has a much smaller population of First Nations students but I see many of the same issues. The First Nations families, traditions and cultures do not seem to be respected. First Nations language is not a priority, but the teachers do try to teach French. (I am smiling.) The First Nations students do not see themselves reflected in the material the school provides and the white culture does not understand many of the ways of the First Nations. For example, when someone dies in the First Nations community the students take a week of two off school. Through inquiry I have learnt that during this time away from school the First Nations students are learning more about life and less about educational hoop jumping. Through inquiry I have learnt that when the students are away because of a funeral the students are learning through modeling, cultural practices and traditions.


[2] PM Benchmarks is a widely used standardized set of reading assessment measures designed to determine students’ independent or instructional reading levels. The levels of reading are used to measure students’ ability to meet or exceed grade level expectations.

7.7 Emergent patterns of teacher learning?

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While it is not possible for us to know with absolute certainty on the basis of our interviews and the cases we’ve reviewed in this and other sections of the report, there appears to be sufficient evidence to support a claim that the AESN inquiry method develops, for many teachers, an evolution towards deeper, more culturally inclusive teaching practice. We think this is enabled in a number of different ways. Our earlier discussion promoted how the structure of the AESN encourages the sharing of teacher learning, and this is part of how this is accomplished. We also believe that the requirement to engage teachers with the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements is another important context that enables teachers to think more about the approaches they are using to engage Aboriginal learners. Certainly how Aboriginal education principles are reflected in some of these Agreements is another means through which teachers can more fully engage in thinking about and implementing more holistic approaches to Aboriginal education; and in particular when teachers focus on those goals that emphasize belonging and creating enhanced life opportunities. But it is also because the Network principals, Drs. Halbert and Kaser, continually profile the work of lead AESN members who are taking ever deeper, more collaborative and pedagogically inclusive approaches to their inquiries. These members often become teacher leaders in their own districts existing inquiry teams, and can be asked to share their work in regional meetings. And because they model their own explorations as learning and continue to ask new questions of themselves, their work is not viewed as a challenge to others’ practice, but rather a model that can be shared, used, re-created and/or reinvented. The learning is the gift they share as they bridge from one stage of learning to another.

Since the English 12 First Peoples resources were purchased in the alternate school that I used to work at, I have watched the First Nations students with whom I work become more engaged. We not only offered this new course, but I also provided all of my students in every other English course the option of readings designed for the English 12 First Peoples course. When given these options, most of the First Nations students would choose them. I would often watch students who rarely completed readings to complete the readings and the assignments. I realized at this time how vital course content relevant to First Nations students is.

This year I have moved to a new school. I was disappointed to learn that none of the English First Peoples courses have had enough students sign up to make the courses viable despite a population that is thirty percent First Nations students. My administrator gave me the task of increase the First Peoples resources and helping other teachers integrate them into their courses. I began this year feeling my way in what felt like the dark. The school had purchased lots of English 12 First Peoples resources but had stopped there. Armed with the English 10/11 Resource list and some suggestions from teachers in other schools, I began to search for and purchase both student and teacher resources. Some of the teachers, especially the Communications teacher in my school, have been open to the new resources and have experienced the success of using resources that are relevant to their students. However, many of the staff are entrenched in using the older, more standard resources.

Attending the AESN meeting this fall was a turning point for me. Listening to the presenters instilled more strongly the importance of making it easy and desirable for my staff to integrate these resources. In addition, it renewed both mine and my vice-principal’s desire to get enough numbers to run the English First Peoples courses within our school. We have both been promoting this course with the upcoming grade nine students and may reach our goal of thirty enrolled students which would enable the course to run. Since the meeting, I have polled the English department teachers and asked them if they would be willing to make a point of increase First Nations content into their programs in hopes of increasing engagement. All of the members are willing to do this. To date, not all have, but as I continue to collect and create teaching guides that will make this easy, I believe they will. The meeting also gave me new contacts and, in turn, these contacts have given me other contacts for resources and recommendations. I know that our school is in its infancy in regards to increasing its aboriginal understandings, but I believe that the growth will now continue, especially if we maintain our connection to AESN .

7.7.1 Sharing is the gift of the Network

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We were struck again by the idea of sharing as a gift when we reviewed the transcripts of our discussions with teachers in the Nanaimo focus group. On this occasion, one AESN and district leader, herself an Aboriginal educator said:

“In Aboriginal cultures across Canada we get together for celebrations, and part of the protocol is sharing and cultural gift giving. I was sitting next to an Elder today; she was talking about that kind of sharing. The Network gives us access to shared learning. Linda and Judy say sharing is the gift. We all have access to the case studies people have done, and we acknowledge this, like an Aboriginal protocol. But sharing, giving it away is what we do; we don’t hold onto anything. That’s a good way of thinking about the Network. The cases and the work are great resources because as professionals we are always learning and learning from each other.”

We think this idea of sharing as a gift is a powerful one; but we also think that the traditional forms of learning practiced in many Aboriginal cultures (and recognized in the principles of Aboriginal learning and the culturally inclusive pedagogical practices we’ve highlighted in our report) informs this idea significantly. It speaks to how the sharing of knowledge benefits not self, but others. That the purpose of teaching and engaging in deep learning is so that the benefit spreads and is used by those who take it and make it their own. Learning in this way is integral to the cyclical and emergent process emphasized through the cycle of inquiry promoted by the Network and in some cases, in district structures and processes (such as in Prince Rupert and Arrow Lakes).

7.7.2 Aboriginal teacher leadership

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We also saw evidence during our study that the process of decolonizing the thinking of non-Aboriginal educators is being sparked by many of the Aboriginal educators who are involved in the Network. Earlier in this report we discussed how Aboriginal teachers have found the Network to be particularly helpful because it gave legitimacy to the work they were doing as educators working with Aboriginal learners and as advocates for effecting changes in schools so that Aboriginal learners could experience greater success. It also however, has provided a venue through which their inclusive approaches to teaching and learning can be more frequently and effectively profiled. And as we have described in this report, in some school districts powerful Aboriginal leaders have emerged, such as Debbie Leighton-Stephens in Prince Rupert and Laura Tait in Nanaimo.

The focus we’ve placed on the positive leadership these women provide might suggest that the climate in school districts is incredibly transparent and that all districts and non-Aboriginal educators are fully open to engaging in and learning from their Aboriginal colleagues. But this leadership, even when formally recognized by some, isn’t always recognized or valued in every district.

For example, we interviewed one teacher who spoke at some length about her work in building bridges between her school and the broader Aboriginal community in which it was located. Her inquiry, while profoundly deep and transformative in scope – earning her recognition from Network leaders and from leading instructors at a BC University because of how it models giving voice to Aboriginal learners, has failed to capture even the slightest interest from principals, vice principals or district leaders within her own school district. She also described how the local teachers involved in NOII and AESN have largely ignored her successful work with Aboriginal students. She tried to explain in her interview why this happens:

“I have a large voice, I’m Aboriginal and I stand with my community. A lot of people find this very intimidating. So [when these Network members exclude me] it’s not deliberate, it’s culturally engrained in their place in the community. It’s a tough position to walk in. I need to speak louder than most, and be knowledgeable; I needed to prove my credentials by getting a degree. I have to do a dog and pony show everywhere because I am Aboriginal. I am used to that; and I will always do it because it’s for the benefit of children, to benefit their learning. All student learning, of course, but I have been working with Aboriginal students. It is time that their learning be just as important as all the other students. And that’s what I am here to do. If I use a big voice, it’s their voice. It has to be that way. And if that means I’m still excluded, I’m OK with that… now I am working on provincial projects and now I am moving to a district where I can effect learning.”

We understand that it took considerable courage for this individual to name her colleagues as essentially practicing their white privilege in ways that excluded her and other culturally identifiable peoples from their deliberations and ongoing work. We cannot say that this feeling is widespread, but it reminds us that the work of decolonizing the education system is emotionally charged and will have bumps along the way. Such work is difficult but necessary, and it will require powerful Aboriginal voices and non-Aboriginal allies—leaders who can and will draw attention to the truths of our settler histories, including our colonial and racist mindsets—to continue to push and challenge educators, leaders and Network members alike to make a spaces for the learning of Aboriginal students, their families and communities.

7.8 Size and geographic location

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As we near the end of our analysis, we want to discuss one additional matter that does not emerge directly from the data we’ve collected for this study, but instead represents an observation about the impact and scope of the AESN in effecting change in the BC educational landscape. We looked carefully at our participant list to see if we could determine the extent to which our study represented the diversity and sizes of the school districts across BC . As a part of our study we met with teachers and leaders from: Nanaimo, Sooke, Comox/Courtney, Prince Rupert, Smithers, Prince George, Vanderhoof, Kitimat, Ft. St. James, Fort Fraser, Ashcroft, Nakusp, New Denver, and Hartley Bay. As is evident from this list, the school districts and regions on this list are generally small and more rural and remote. Prince George is the more obvious outlier in this group as it is a larger, more urban region. However, we wondered the extent to which our observations should be framed through the lens of district size.

As our data shows, many individuals credit the Network for providing them with the tools and strategies for effecting changes in their teaching practice. One of the ways this was frequently expressed was in conversations that described the limitations of working in more remote or rural parts of the province. For example, in both of the case studies of school districts (Arrow Lakes and Prince Rupert) district leaders and teachers alike spoke to the lack of access they had to professional development opportunities, or how long distances over diverse geographical terrains often make travel and connecting with other teachers difficult. They sometimes spoke with envy of the availability of resources ‘down the coast’. Despite these stated drawbacks however, what we saw was an expression of the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention”: in other words, teachers, leaders and community members alike did what needed to be done in order to find a way to make things work despite obstacles. And there was certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that this effort paid off in big ways as they have accomplished much over the years they have been involved in the Network, even if this involves working in more isolation or depending on less frequent visits to external professional learning opportunities. Districts also fill the gap as best they can by providing forms of financial support: we heard about teachers carpooling to make travel dollars stretch farther, or how a principal would provide internal support to assist with travel and/or professional development plans. We saw much creativity as individuals struggled to use what resources and strengths they had and put them to good use. And we saw how these districts embraced the AESN model deeply into their existing structures and processes, making a much more seamless and integrated delivery system devoted to improving Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal student learning. These districts also took great advantage of the supports offered by the AESN principals, Drs. Halbert and Kaser. They visited these districts frequently over the years of their involvement as a way of providing on site professional support.

Could it be that smaller districts more avidly embrace the Network because of their size and perceived lack of resources? While we cannot be certain this is the case, we believe this observation warrants additional investigation. If this is true then it may be that the Network principals and its Network leaders should redouble their efforts to effecting changes in districts that are described as more rural and remote as the bulk of BC school districts fall into this category. We believe that any subsequent investigations into the effects and impact of the Network might want to target what we would call “mid sized” school districts—Nanaimo might be a good example of this category—to see how well a larger, more resourced district supports the work of the Network. It would also be useful to see how larger school districts – such as Surrey, Vancouver, or Victoria – use and/or promote Network activities in their districts. This would enable its principals to make informed decisions about how to continue to grow and support the AESN , and consider the extent to which its model might require modifications or enhancements.