5.4.1 Exploring one school’s inquiry journey: Conrad School
As an exemplar of the work of AESN members, we interviewed the teachers and school principal involved in one of the Prince Rupert inquiry questions. Conrad school’s inquiry began in 2007, prior to the official launch of the AESN . However, as has been described in this case, Prince Rupert was a lead district in initiating the AESN as a subset of educators within NOII , so documenting their initial work provides strong evidence of the emergence of the Network, while also illustrating critical components of the AESN process that would become central to the thinking of the wider AESN community.
Conrad elementary school enrolls approximately 300 students from kindergarten to grade 7. About 75% of the students enrolled in this school have Aboriginal heritage/ancestry. The school also serves about 25 students from the village of Metlakatla, a small community on the coast of Prince Rupert. Other initiatives this school engages in that support its Aboriginal student population include: StrongStart (a provincial early childhood education initiative), Sm’algyax Language Programming, and all day kindergarten programming.
The Conrad staff chose to investigate the question “Will using Aboriginal content literature improve reading comprehension for Aboriginal students”? Their case study documentation as well as their interview transcripts describe an organic, emergent process through which the AESN participants came to narrow their focus from that of reading comprehension to making connections, questioning and visualizing as tools for enhancing comprehension of texts. They spent considerable time compiling and testing different local and regional Aboriginal literature sources as a part of their inquiry. The teacher team worked with different age groups of students in the school; and while it was clear that their original work was focused more on the resources they had gathered, they soon started to understand that it was in effort to establish deeper connections with their students as they read these texts that they became more aware of the ways in which Aboriginal content could and did transform their students’ learning experiences. At this point in our conversation one teacher said simply: “Content isn’t enough, we want to make this [inquiry] bigger.” There were enthusiastic nods all round. This need to re-define, deepen and engage with their own approach to working with their Aboriginal and non Aboriginal students might be described as a kind of turning point. It is certainly clear from the conversations we held that they had a great enthusiasm and eagerness to share what they had learned. But it also demonstrated the ways in which working together had provided them with scaffolded learning opportunities, opportunities to develop skills in learning focused leadership, and strong inter personal and professional relationships created, as they built an inquiry together around a common purpose. We also heard these teachers describe the ways in which they used the Wap Sigatgyet education center as a physical site for their ongoing work. As its name suggests, they used this site to “build strength” together: they held not only AESN planning meetings here, but actually shifted one of their regularly scheduled staff meetings to this site in order to become more aware of how they might integrate the resources from the Wap Sigatgyet into their current and future work. The school has plans to continue this process of using the Center as a site to enable their continued learning. Finally we noted that these individuals were all non-Aboriginal teachers; it was particularly interesting to hear how they characterized their shifting understandings about the relationship between Aboriginal content, culturally responsive teaching practice, and their own beliefs about their role as educators.
As a result of this turning point in their inquiry, the team decided to trace their continued efforts and go more deeply into exploring their question by extending their study. They created a cohort of students and sought to refine and re-develop their question over the subsequent two years. Their report was reviewed for this case study; this report also emphasized their efforts to collect pre and post data about their students’ levels of comprehension, which were reported to have increased substantially over the course of their inquiry. Yet while their written report suggests that teachers were significant learners throughout their process of inquiry, it was the deeper oral reflections on their learning journey that captured the ways in which the inquiry process altered their trajectories as teachers, learners and learning centered leaders.
In the next section of this case study I want to elaborate on five observations identified within the Conrad Elementary school case study described above in order to tease out how the Network provides the context for engaging teachers in deeper learning. This includes: inquiry as a mindset, the role of leadership, shifting teacher beliefs about Aboriginal learners, networked teacher learning, and the role of conceptual/big picture thinking.