Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.3 Tracing inquiry mindedness as evidence of impact

I have really appreciated the message that bigotry can manifest itself as low expectations for our First Nations students. As a First Nations woman, having this message stated clearly by non-First Nations educators has been very powerful. I have witnessed educators examine their practise and ask themselves if in fact they have perpetuated this destructive pattern. I have also walked alongside teachers as they begin the journey to doing things differently. These teachers are all good, hardworking, well intentioned teachers. “One of the hardest things teachers have to learn is that the sincerity of their intentions does not guarantee the purity of their practice.” (Steven D. Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher)

I believe “we are smarter together”. I have benefitted greatly from networking with others. I want to be a part of the community of teachers working on the common goal of getting our learners to “cross the stage with dignity, purpose and options”. Networking is a vital part of this community and I am grateful to have the opportunity to participate.

The AES Network provides the foundation upon which educators build inquiries into improving outcomes for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. It is structured in such a way that professional and personal mindsets and identities, beliefs about professional learning and long held colonial beliefs about Aboriginal peoples can be challenged, supported, critiqued, and, sometimes re-forged in a commitment to the moral imperative implicit in ensuring the holistic success of all students. The work of the Network is about courage, curiosity, risk-taking, safety, justice, fairness and equity. It is about transforming educators, students, families and communities. It is about recognizing the potential in students rather than weaknesses; it is about reconnecting Aboriginal youth proudly to their history and heritage and culture; and it is about honouring, valuing and revering the historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples by acknowledging their rightful place as founding Nations in Canadian society.

“If we are going to be professional and thoughtful teachers, then we have to ask, challenge and question…how do we do this better, make it better for kids…It challenges the status quo and makes it more personal, and I can work on a passion – not just outcomes, that’s too sterile. I get revved up with the inquiry question, it gives me energy, it’s about our kids’ lives, our community… Inquiry asks: “what am I doing to effect change in student learning? It creates links to other people, creates new questions, we meet others to see what they are doing. It’s confidence building. We are a little school, not lots of money, but we are doing great things.”

Inquiry is not something you do; it is who you are as an educator and as a human being. This message was communicated to us over and over again as we conducted interviews and focus groups for this study. There are however, some core attributes we were able to trace. First, the core of any form of inquiry is a sense of curiosity – an attitude described by one AESN member as “I wonder if…” This curiosity coupled with a deep sense of moral purpose provides much of the impetus for AESN members to pursue inquiry projects in support of improving the success of Aboriginal learners. As we referenced earlier, this type of curiosity was often described as a “mindset”. For those involved in the AESN , this mindset is an outgrowth of how they see themselves as professionals – their professional identity – and in turn, a reflection of personal identity – who they are. For these educators then, the personal is the pedagogical. Why they devote themselves to improving aboriginal education is part and parcel of how they engage professionally in inquiry processes. An inquiry mindset seated in deep moral purpose prompts educators to see themselves as change agents and allies, as learners rather than authorities, as responsible for effecting change and improvement while holding a deep commitment to justice, fairness and equity.

AESN has become a yearly endeavour for members of our staff; it has become a way for us to organize our efforts to become culturally responsive. Our district has been making a push for teaching to reflect all things local and membership in AESN helps.

Food has been a focus in our school and across the district. I know that community members get sick of hearing us talk about how we should do it, and wish we would just do it. We are doing it, we keep talking about it because it is when we stop talking about it that it will stop happening.

This is why networks of professionals are important to me they fuel our talk. I live and work on Haida Gwaii; professional development opportunities that are commonplace to teachers in other parts of the province are hard to get to. The Network allows us to feel connected, gives us ideas, gives a place to organize our thoughts, a place to shape our vision, and energizes our practice doing work that is relevant here.

Being culturally responsive means embracing island life, and clam digging is a big part of island life. I started clam digging not really knowing what to do. I knew they were down there in the beach, I knew I needed a shovel. I am not proud to admit that my first attempt involved a garden trowel, much to the delight of students who enjoy comparing rookie digger stories. Most of my modest skills I have learned from my students, whose teachings have brought me a long way.

Our first clam-digging trip with students was in response to our inquiry that year, continuing those trips and increasing the number has been a natural progression that is in keeping with our inquiries. Last year I went clam digging with students 4 or 5 times. The school now has a set of shovels and each year the clam digging has brought more into the school. Last year we served clam fritters at a dinner sale that accompanied a community concert organized by the same students who also worked to hold a plant sale in our new greenhouse.

For a couple years I didn’t know what it was like to have clams put away but as you progress with clam digging you improve, you get more, you eat chowder. I still go elbow deep, but my shoulder has been off the sand for a couple of years; I have learned to expend my energies more efficiently. Keeping a record of how you have expended your energies increases efficiency; the Network provides teachers with an opportunity to create a record, to share it with others, to learn from others, and to increase efficiency.

Our inquiries with AESN have much in common with clam digging. I knew it was there and I knew if we kept digging we would get something good. But the digging isn’t easy, and by the end of the year it is easier to start summer vacation than to write a report for AESN . I don’t attend the meetings or celebrations (travel), I have been to a conference once; but every June I write our report and staff at my school are able to reflect on the year that was and celebrate our successes. These are what we build on; this is what creates a path we will follow next year.