Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.5 Aboriginal education for all: Integrated content, engaging, relevant learning

I am an experienced teacher and I have been involved with inquiry and the NOII for over 7 years. I use inquiry as an instructional strategy and as a vehicle for professional development on my own and in teams.

This year, we have many forces driving extraordinary learning for staff and students: AESN Inquiry team, NOII inquiry team, School District Inquiry Team and my Humanities 9 Inquiry question, “What can the canoe teach us about who we are as Canadians, where we live, how we express ourselves and who we want to become as Canadians? What aspect of the canoe will guide your future?” This question caught the imagination of our Aboriginal support educators. Each felt that they could support student learning by: attending classes, presenting on topics such as: Residential Schools, Harper’s Apology from Canadians, paddles, and art project on paddles and decorating, and an Elder to tell us more about the canoes of the west coast. We are a team! Each of us has connected with various students as they each learn about local Indigenous art, culture, geography and issues around sustainability. Without the formal AESN and NOII inquiry, I wonder if we would have had such an engaging way to work together.

It starts out slowly, with each of us finding out who we are and why we are doing what we do; and, once we see our students connected and open to discussing Aboriginal history in Canada, boundaries and suspicions leave and we each simply work to learn more. Our district supplies resources such as: literature circle novels, picture books with lesson plans, and other resources. Each of us often says that we do not know. Each of us is searching for more information and students see us modeling learning and grieving at what has been lost – and yet searching and finding other resources.

Students are searching out our Aboriginal educators to learn more about culture (many students are aboriginal and have asked to learn more and others are from other heritages and want to learn more). The Aboriginal Educators have sent emails about how when students search them out for learning support, they feel that much more successful than if students either hide in the resource room or are sent there.

“Idle no More” is in the news and students yesterday asked a visiting Elder about the movement after learning about canoes and paddles. He talked of how the movement is for everyone because each of us is connected to the land – that is how we survive and what will we leave behind!

Today, we looked at our Chapter Nine in our text which starts with an original journal written by a manager at an HBC outpost in 1850. Students said that not only was it biased and written from one point of view but because of the racism, they did not feel it appropriate to study. They felt the whole chapter unworthy of their time.

Students have spent their time on projects: video making, aboriginal art and paddles, story writing, and mind mapping. We hear students saying things like: “I’m going to talk to my dad about carving, we used to carve but I stopped. I want to try again.” “If the diamond mine in Attawapiskat has so much money, why are those people living in such poor housing?” “Can you tell me more about smudging?” and a mother writing a letter, “Thank you for sending sweetgrass home with my son, I appreciate you explaining and supporting such important learning.” One very moving conversation was with a 14 year old girl who said that she was Christian and she had confessed to her mother that she honoured the spirituality and everyday life of aboriginal culture because it focused on community and working together to help each other in difficult times and that she felt Christians or her experience with her Christian community could do more for her if this kind of spirituality was in place.

We are pulling together in our canoe and learning about: who we are, where we live, how we express ourselves and what we want to become! As educators, we will use the aspect of inquiring together to learn more about ourselves, our students and our aboriginal culture.

We are not able to meet and discuss our inquiries as much as necessary and our NOII inquirers have not yet formally met with the AESN inquirers; but, this process creates the dynamic!

It was very apparent from the data collected that student learning and engagement was deepened significantly in instances where educators had embedded or woven Aboriginal education/ways of knowing/being into their pedagogy. One young teacher in Arrow Lakes School District described her experience with both her own inquiry and with using inquiry with her students through Aboriginal education:

“What’s good for Aboriginal students is good for all students. I think I basically started with myself; I have a Sioux grandmother that I didn’t even know about. I shared it with my students, I just talked about it with the class and some of them responded ‘Hey, that happened in my family’…They know what Nation they were from. In my own life, my uncle married a woman in the Dakotas who was Sioux…this is how I start fostering respect for my students and the need to have Aboriginal knowledge for everyone…If you are going to teach students anything, it should have some kind of real application to the world around us. It should be real, and applied in a real way. This is real, not about sympathy or empathy, its respect for all peoples and the heritage of our area. [Student inquiries ask] how can we respect it, reintegrate respect for the land, how can we reintroduce what should be there…one culture was dominant over another and that’s how we fix it. If we integrate this knowledge into our curriculum, it is pure respect for all people.”

This particular teacher and another who took part in the Arrow Lakes focus group are graduates of WEKTEP – the West Kootenay Teacher Education Program offered through UBC Okanagan. Their teacher education program was centered in an inquiry approach that has resulted in these two teachers approaching their own teaching from an inquiry mindset:

“I was taught very well in my teacher ed. program and I was taught to think that way [inquiry] from that time, so I have always used it. And just because of that training I set up all of my courses and units that way. Because my class, many of them are kids with Aboriginal heritage, as we began talking about it at the beginning of the year and what they do and don’t know. They generated their own inquiries. That’s important, students are naturally inquisitive and should generate their own inquiry.”

As a result of my involvement with the AESN , I learned that inquiry and evidence-seeking mindsets are not about seeking evidence that will look good on a résumé. Doing a research question for the AESN allowed me to see that learning is not easily measured and that learning for students needs to be from the student’s perspectives and from their families not from the perspectives of the vocal (non-Native) professionals who have nothing invested in the community and stay a very short time. I also learned that when we have non-Native teachers (I am not Native) the teachers need to learn to take a wider perspective on learning not just a focus on aspects of academic learning that are easily measured, look good, sound good so the non-Native educator can leave. In the four years and six months I was at the rural First Nations School I had two Superintendents, two directors of Special Education, four Principals and I worked with twenty-three teachers. Over the time I was employed at this school the enrolment of the school was between 40-60 students from kindergarten to grade 12, with a teaching staff of four to five teachers per year. If I had not participated in the AESN I would not have focused on a specific aspect of student learning. By focusing on a specific question I had my eyes opened to the injustices that are still happening in our small rural schools that enrol First Nations students. I personally believe that the lack of support our governments are giving schools enrolling mostly First Nations students is equally to that of Residential Schools. After working at a school that enrols mostly First Nations students I wonder if our government’s hidden objectives are still to remove and isolate the First Nations children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate these caring, children into our dominant culture? While I was at this mostly First Nations School I noticed that the most first-year professional outsiders that came and went all demanded their own teacher autonomy, this caused a yearly whirlwind of changes for our learners, every year these extreme changes had to be learned by the students and support staff and took valuable time away from the students learning. In my four years and six months at this school I only saw the professionals try to assimilate these students into the non First Nations culture. It is my personal opinion that almost all these Professionals never wanted to be connected to the school or community. Without the AESN inquiry and evidence seeking mindset perspective, I would not have seen and felt this concern.