Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

4.6.4 Aboriginal art & woodcarving

Another AESN initiative was undertaken by a teacher who wanted to incorporate Aboriginal art and culture into his woodworking class. Although he has wanted to bring Aboriginal elements into his teaching for a number of years, he expressed the view that the support of the AESN has helped to bring his ideas to fruition. His students have engaged in a unit that blends the symbolism and meanings of Haida art with hands-on woodcarving. He researched and collated resources that explained the process and purpose of Haida carving and shared those with his students who were encouraged to make personal meaning for themselves based on the symbolism inherent in Haida culture. We heard about a Metis carver scheduled to visit the school two days after our focus group was held. The Metis carver was to share his knowledge and skill with this particular teacher and his students as well as with another teacher and his students at another school. A key component of this teacher’s inquiry centered on creating opportunities for Aboriginal students to make personal connections to their own heritage as well as for non-Aboriginal students to grow to understand and appreciate Aboriginal culture. As the teacher noted:

“I am always looking for ways to enhance what students are doing in my shop and to [create student projects] that make it meaningful to self. What do you need? What can you make that means something to you? How can you personalize it to make it meaningful for you? A couple of examples, where students put some of the (Haida) images right on their (carving) projects; it really personalized it for them”.

It was very obvious that teacher learning also played a significant role in undertaking this inquiry project: “For me, I didn’t know much about the art or anything, so I am learning. It’s a big learning experience for me, and as far as teaching is concerned, I am learning there too.”

The Network connection and inquiry focus has allowed both teacher and student learning and understanding to flourish as teachers use the Aboriginal Information Circle (which will be described in greater detail in a subsequent section of this report) to share knowledge and resources across and beyond School District #10. Again, this carving/wood shop teacher speaks to this:

“I put some ideas on how to carve (on the Aboriginal Information Circle) but I will be getting some real insights from the carver who is coming, I need to learn it as I hear and watch him too. The texts (used as resources) are being put online, and students who might not normally work online use this as a resource too.”

The parallelism between teacher and student learning is important to highlight here. As this teacher has eloquently expressed, both teachers and students are learners through the inquiry approach, and each can, through shared experiences led by community mentors and Aboriginal knowledge holders, develop an appreciation for and deeper knowledge of traditional Aboriginal practices.

As for the structure of his AESN project, the teacher commented on the significance of inquiry to the process of learning: “Inquiry itself is like planting a seed and seeing what is happening…how can you say this is the result you want? It’s about exposure, and seeing how the students take to it…” This is an important characteristic of inquiry; investigations can go in different directions and this accommodates diverse student interests and needs. It also provides a space in which culturally diverse students—in this case local Aboriginal students—can explore topics that enable them to feel connected to the school curriculum as their traditional practices are seen as having value and relevance for themselves and others. As has been noted in earlier discussions about the Arrow Lakes context, these approaches seem to have created a safer space in which Aboriginal students, who had previously remained silent about their ancestry, to feel able to self-identify. In the case of the carving study described here, the teacher discussed with us how some of his students have similarly responded by more openly self-identifying with their ancestry. It provides evidence again of how the goals of their Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, specifically that which identifies “increased awareness, knowledge, appreciation, and respect for Aboriginal culture and history will improve students’ sense of belonging and self-esteem” is being realized for many of their students.