Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.3.2 Innovating and “possiblizing” together

The strength of collaborative inquiry is measured in both its potential and in its outcomes. Educators engaged in transformative work recognize that professional learning happens both individually and collectively, but that practice rooted in “possibilizing together” is far more dynamic and powerful than anything accomplished alone. An important component of this form of shared engagement is relationality. The AESN members we interviewed recognize that all learning is relational; that others need to be invited into learning and that knowing their learners contributes to a personalized educational experience that potentiates student success. A transformed/ transformative professional identity/inquiry mindset understands that in order to reach all learners they need to engage in culturally responsive teaching practices, as it is part of their moral imperative. Culturally responsive teaching practices invite others to be part of the learning circle: it recognizes that others, such as Elders and community members, are part of learning team that will support Aboriginal learners become engaged with their learning. Recognizing the inherent strengths, not deficits of Aboriginal learners shifts mindsets to envisioning positive futures for all students:

“We are investing in the future. These kids, they have a huge skill set. And we are not tapping into that, and part of the reason is self confidence; they need the confidence to show what they know….we need what I know and what they know. We need to give them the skills and the confidence to show and share what they know. Reading, the writing component – not just on paper. It’s about relationships, schools, classrooms, First Nations communities – it’s all about relationships.”

Another poignant example of the relational aspect of learning is described by a Network leader in the northern interior:

“We had moved beyond having our Indigenous learning as a ‘unit’ that we parachuted in and out of, Aboriginal learning was more authentically integrated throughout the year. Local Elders involved students and adult learners in traditional ceremonies that they hoped would help build an understanding of the importance of the land and the gifts that the land gave. The students moved from passive learning to active learning. Older students made traditional welcoming gifts for the new kindergarten students joining the learning community. The Elders in the community stated that they felt valued and respected. The school heard their voices. One member of this learning community stated that when we are in the presence of Elders, whether it is in or out of the classroom, the pace of our busy lives slows down; our ears begin to listen more carefully; our eyes begin to see more broadly; our minds and bodies become quiet and still; and our hearts begin to value the beauty and richness that is shared with us in the moment. Voices are being heard.”

When I think about the impact that the Network has had in our district, I think about not only the impact on our Aboriginal students, but also on our entire community. For me, it’s all about stories – sharing stories, connecting with people, students, elders, community people. If people don’t feel they are valued and belong and that their previous knowledge isn’t recognized they don’t respond and learn. When they feel welcomed, they will move mountains for you. I have invited Elders into the school who wanted to tell their stories. They aren’t necessarily experts, just regular people who wanted to tell their stories. Here’s one example: There were two women, both raised in residential schools – they had not been into a school since then. They were very anxious about coming into the school; I had to do a lot of work to make their immersion more gradual, to make it safe for them. I invited them into the school for tea or coffee, just short visits to begin with. They came in finally to talk to the students who did an interview with them. These ladies wore traditional blankets and after the interview, they started to dance. They were crying…at first, we didn’t understand why, but we later learned from them that this was their first time being allowed to dance in a school since they weren’t permitted to do so when they were in residential school. These women are in their 70s or 80s…it was a very emotional moment as we watched them dance. And as we watched, one by one, each of our students got up and danced with them. It was a hugely moving experience. You can’t imagine what this experience has done: those people now come in regularly because they know they are welcome and valued; but for our kids, they saw that that people can survive very difficult things in their lives. They have suffered from abuse, been taken away from their families, suffered health issues, but the lesson is that you can survive; there are people to support you. The support of the AESN has given me permission to take risks. If I had been told “no” and followed the rules these visits could have been cut so quickly. Instead the attitude from my AESN family is “Go for it!” And I can tell you, on the days where we have community visitors, we have 98% of our students show up, they’re interested in what’s going on. These events often make them consider what they can do – they say: “I want to know more about this, this is my culture, my history…” It’s an incentive for them, a real wake-up call. I’m 62; I haven’t finished what I need to do. I am passionate about what I do, I am enthusiastic about positive changes that we’re making for our Aboriginal kids and I’m enthusiastic about changes that are possible through the AESN . I am totally committed to making changes in our district and for our students. It’s all about relationships and making connections.

In summary then, educators who are imbued with the characteristics noted above are perfectly situated to engage in pursuing inquiries focused on improving the success of all students. The hallmarks of an inquiry approach require a dominant and persistent focus on student learning. It challenges deficit and colonial ways of thinking about Aboriginal peoples, and in action, it engages with and extends the learning of others. Those involved in inquiry seek learning opportunities with supportive others and recognize that taking an inquiry stance results in emergent and organic context specific sense making. An inquiry approach to learning seeks gaps in what is, and looks for what might be – “possibilizing”. Because of its recursive nature, inquiry is ongoing and sustained, always shifting, modifying adapting to meet contextual realities. These approaches to inquiry minded, learning centered professionalism are what the research scholarship has identified as “promising practices” for enhancing student learning and creating “impact”.

To further trace the impact of the Network, we looked to our data again to find ways that AESN members described their projects within the Network, how they worked with learners and community members, and what strategies, approaches or ways of thinking they used that could be used to provide evidence of their ongoing application of these promising practices.