Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.1.5 Parallel and/or competing structures

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.