Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

4.6.3 The ethno-botany inquiry project

As in many rural districts across British Columbia, teachers in the Arrow Lakes School District are responsible for teaching multiple grades and multiple subjects. This provides a dynamic opportunity for teachers and Network members to explore cross-curricular/cross-discipline teaching and learning in an effort to enhance student engagement and success. Experiential, hands-on learning is a key component of the work teachers are doing in School District 10: students are actively engaged in exploring connections between their prescribed curricula and Aboriginal ways of knowing and being.

A teacher involved with the AES Network since 2010 has incorporated Aboriginal pedagogy into both her junior and senior Science classes as well as her Social Studies 10 course work. Situated at a local high school, this teacher collaborated with local elementary school teachers as well as a local Metis woman to develop a unit that explored ethno-botany – in this case, an Indigenous connection to the land. Students engaged in foraging and harvesting local plants, learned of their various uses, and processed their harvest into rose hip tea, syrup and elderberry jam. The unit culminated in the creation of a cookbook that highlighted recipes – both traditional Aboriginal and contemporary, derived from locally accessible plants. The teacher underscored the benefit to students of getting outside and developing not only an appreciation of what was available to them, but also an appreciation of how much work was involved in the traditional Aboriginal modes of collecting and preparing food. For her Aboriginal students, the connections to their heritage – to participating in activities their ancestors had engaged in only served to increase their sense of pride and belonging as noted by this teacher: “Any of the projects where the students have learned traditional Aboriginal knowledge and non-Aboriginal students see and appreciate this, it really shows value for traditional knowledge, this builds self-esteem among Aboriginal students. The Aboriginal learners have a personal investment and this improves student achievement…” There are plans to continue this project in the spring of 2013 as “students appreciated this opportunity to get outside, beyond the traditional classroom. They were more engaged. When they made the personal connections the engagement was huge.” The opportunities provided for students to engage with their learning outside the four walls of the classroom are mirrored by this particular teacher’s experience with the AESN : she perceives the Network as providing not only an opportunity to work with other people and to see what others are doing in their classrooms – to make connections and contacts, but also as an opportunity to bring more community members into the school and to explore new methods of reaching all students through her own pedagogy: “The collaborative aspects, the stuff that comes to the teachers and what it offers our students. It’s professional development, the best professional learning.”

This marriage of curricula and culture reflects explicitly both goals of the District’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement; as noted by this teacher, student achievement increased as a result of understanding that their Aboriginal culture and heritage were being validated and honoured through the formal, prescribed learning outcomes.

While the fieldwork for this particular inquiry project was completed prior to the onset of winter, the school-based component was carried on through another AESN inquiry project, the online Aboriginal Information Circles, an exemplar of the potential for innovation in teaching and learning for 21st century education within a rural context as described by the District’s motto: “Global learning in a rural setting.”