4.6.6 Online Aboriginal literature/information circles: Technologically mediated Aboriginal learning
While our study has shown that there are many engaging projects and inquiries designed to enhance students’ knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing, one of the most interesting and unique projects is the Online Aboriginal Issues and Culture Information Circles and Online Aboriginal Literature Circles co-created by a team of AESN members in the Arrow Lakes school district in collaboration with their colleagues in three other school districts. As was noted earlier in this case summary, this district has made online and blended learning a core component of their approach to educational service delivery. Teachers in the district began pioneering Online Literature Circles using Moodle discussion forums in 2005, and partnered students and teachers between SD 10 and a range of urban and rural districts throughout BC . This project, initiated originally by the District Principal of Learning, Terry Taylor, is an excellent example of how innovative practices grow from personal inquiry. This project’s genesis came from earlier efforts at online-literacy circles, and was then modified to meet the goal of better engaging Aboriginal students. It draws on a range of differentiated texts—including Aboriginal texts—to meet the diverse needs of a broad range of students from k-12 in 26 classrooms across 4 school districts (Arrow Lakes, Boundary, Haida Gwai and Gold Trail). More than 450 students “learn from one another” with up to 26 teachers working as a professional learning community engaged in deepening their own learning. The scope of the project is considerable; the online features of this project enable a much broader and potentially richer setting in which many schools and teachers can be brought into discussions about how to support their Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal student learners. For example, in our discussions with one Arrow Lakes teacher, we know that the circle was used to enhance knowledge sharing in a related project, the Carving inquiry. As far as we are aware, this is one of only a few AESN projects in which online technologies are being used as the primary means through which to engage students in discussions about Aboriginal knowledges, histories, and contributions of local Aboriginal peoples to the region.
To illustrate how the Online Information Circle operates, we focus on one of the themes that has been added to a 2012-2013 AESN inquiry: The Circle of Courage. This project draws from the work of Drs. Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern who developed a program they call “The Circle of Courage”. The philosophy of the program is described thusly on its website:
“Each quadrant of the circle of courage stands for a central value – belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity – of an environment that can claim and reclaim all youth. It represents the “cultural birthright for all the world’s children.”
“The Circle of Courage is a philosophy that integrates the best of Western educational thought with the wisdom of Indigenous cultures and emerging research on positive youth development… The central theme of this model is that a set of shared values must exist in any community to create environments that ultimately benefit all” (Circle of Courage website, n.d., Para 1-3).
The two teachers who have worked on this inquiry project within the Online Information Circle sought to answer the question “will our students engage in a deeper level of inquiry if we create a culturally inclusive, accessible way to engage students in learning?” The online discussion format sought to apply the principles of the Circle of Courage (with an emphasis initially on the power of generosity) and focus their students in critical discussions about the current Canadian context for Aboriginal peoples. This discussion was initiated by the inclusion of an online video created by well known Canadian Aboriginal rap artist and activist, Wab Kinew, of the Ojibway of Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. The video served as a critical catalyst that engaged teachers and students alike in powerful reflections on the contemporary relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. In the words of Kinew, his goal is to create a dialogue so as to construct a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, one built on peace and friendship. A review of the video makes clear the purpose of including it was to challenge status quo thinking and commonly held assumptions about Aboriginal peoples that consistently constructs Aboriginal peoples as “deficit” and requiring charity from non-Aboriginal others. Students were asked to respond to a series of questions and to deeply examine their own biases and misconceptions around Aboriginal peoples in Canada.
One of the teachers involved in this project attended our focus group and spoke eloquently about the deep learning both she and her students had engaged in through this approach to thinking about relationship building between diverse cultures. The AES Network and this inquiry had an important impact on her practice: “The Network has given me the courage to focus on something new. If I didn’t have the support… I might not follow it as diligently. The Network gives you more of an onus to actually work on it.” This teacher also made an important observation about the ways in which this project created what she called “a critical coupling” between technology and experiential learning. Her comments suggest that the technological component provides an important catalyst or spark through which students in a range of diverse community settings can be enabled to explore personal inquiries into their own local contexts. The district principal, Terry Taylor, described this as an approach designed to holistically engage students in inquiry mindedness: that is, it focuses not solely on content knowledge, but making personal connections by deeply examining beliefs, understandings and stereotypes. This, she argued, is central to 21st century learning, ensuring students are equipped to engage in understanding their place in an interconnected world. This is fitting in a district that has as its vision “Global learning in a rural setting”.
We also know however, based on the comments from one teacher who participated in the Online Aboriginal Information Circles project, that such critical conversations are not easy. Discussions that challenge dominant forms of thinking and/or prejudices that have been maintained in public and personal discourses can be difficult, as is evidenced in the email from one of the project participants from another school district:
“It was great to see the enthusiasm that many of our students showed when engaging with the Moodle site and the questions. While there are very few written answers, the Moodle site was a weekly lesson which often did not move beyond the discussion phase. These discussions were lively and telling. It is interesting to note that those students who were the most engaged are confident, happy, healthy First Nations students with supportive families and quiet pride in their heritage. It was also interesting to see reluctance and resistance to the topic itself from some students who, in my opinion, were speaking words not their own, but comments and attitudes that seemed to have been learned outside of the school system. Tensions immediately accompanied the lessons and the division that I remember so clearly from growing up as a teenager in this community entered into our discussions. That is one reason why we did not post as I had planned. The resistance from some, even after lots of talking, was too strong. This was not what I expected and it changed my plans to have each student post a weekly response.
If anything, I learned many things about my students, for example, that prejudice and discrimination are seated deeply in some, while pride and an eagerness to share about one’s culture is ready to burst forth. The discussions we had were very powerful and raw at times.”
As this example shows, it is not easy to disrupt racist views; nor should any single event, lesson or discussion be expected to do so. As many anti-racist educators have documented, shifting to more inclusive forms of engagement and thinking require consistent and repeated engagement in dialogues designed to challenge thinking. Yet as this AESN project also demonstrates, some new ‘seeds’ of thinking have been planted and have the potential to root in an environment where inclusion and difference are becoming increasingly valued. This is, in our view, a critically important impact of the Network: it provides a safe, supported space from which teachers can work with supportive others to transform their own thinking and that of their students/community members.