Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

§ 4: Intrinsic Case Study 1: Arrow Lakes

4.0 Intrinsic Case Study 1: Arrow Lakes

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In this section of the report we include the three case studies completed: Arrow Lakes, Prince Rupert and the AESN Case study assessment. We begin with the intrinsic case of Arrow Lakes.

4.1 General description of the district

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A great description of the Arrow Lakes School district was extracted from the Arrow Lakes Community/District Literacy Plan found on the district website. Several sections from this report are duplicated below:

The Arrow Lakes school district is situated in the Kootenay Region of southeastern British Columbia. Geographically, the region covers approximately 8000 km2 with an estimated population of 3500.

4.1.1 Demographics

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There has been an Indigenous presence in the Arrow Lakes region for 3000-5000 years – the Shuswap people, the Colville, and the Kutenai are identified as the earliest inhabitants of the area. The Sinixt people – (translated to People living in the Place of the Bull Trout) an interior Salishan band inhabited the area for at least 1500 years. Their numbers were estimated in the tens of thousands prior to European contact, however, in 1956, the Sinixt people were declared “extinct” by the Canadian government. The remaining Sinixt dispersed widely across their traditional territory, and when the Columbia River Treaty (which granted the US water rights on traditional Sinixt territory in exchange for cash to the Canadian government) was signed in 1964, the “extinct” Sinixt people received no compensation. Their lack of official status resulted in a gradual erosion of any knowledge of the existence of the Sinixt people (SD 10 – Arrow Lakes Community/District Literacy Plan, 2012, pp. 8, 10).

The Arrow Lakes school district is comprised of 6 schools with an approximate student population of 543 students – 11.2% are of Aboriginal ancestry. Economically, the region fares worse than the BC provincial average, with annual (2006) family income of $20,712, and approximately 20% of residents living below the cut off designated for low-income status. Educationally, the population is also somewhat marginalized with 23% of the population having less than a grade 12 education. Graduation rates for Indigenous students as in the table below indicate higher completion rates than in many districts around the province. In 2010-2011 54% of Aboriginal students in the province completed within six years of starting grade 8 as compared to 83% of non-Aboriginal students.

Figure 1: Arrow Lake Graduation Rates

2002- 03

2003- 04

2004- 05

2005- 06

2006- 07

2007- 08

2008- 09

2009- 10

2010- 11

All Grad 95

88

95

93

98

91

87

94

100

95

Aboriginal

100

n/a

100

88

100

100

100

Grad Rate

As a potential corollary to this, youth unemployment in the region sits at a substantial 40.7% (SD 10 – Arrow Lakes Community/District Literacy Plan, 2012, p.10).

4.2 Vision

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Situated within this vast yet sparsely populated area of the province, the Arrow Lakes school district has committed to ensuring that its official vision is reflective of both its population and its location. As its website indicates, the district promises to “provide all students with an equal opportunity to achieve academic excellence to the utmost of their abilities, to learn to manage change, to learn to live and work in harmony with others and their environment and thus to grow into caring, intelligent and productive citizens.” The district clearly values both its local context and the role its students will play in the larger world as it aims to deliver “global education in a rural setting.”

4.3 Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement

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The Arrow Lakes Aboriginal Education Enhancement Council (ALAEEC ) was formed in 2007 to determine purpose and vision for an Aboriginal enhancement agreement. The ALAEEC is a partnership between School District #10 staff, the Circle of Aboriginal Women and Friends, the Nakusp and District Museum, community members and interested parents of Aboriginal students. The ALAEEC recognizes that School District #10 falls within the traditional territory of the Sinixt people and as such, has committed to acknowledging Sinixt heritage while embracing the diversity of Indigenous peoples who also inhabit the region.

The ALAEEC has a four-point vision that emphasizes a holistic educational approach for educating all Arrow Lakes students to “improve the knowledge, understanding and awareness of Aboriginal culture throughout the school district” (p. 3). This first vision should be articulated through “educational programs that are broad-based and reach out to all students of Aboriginal ancestry as well as non-Aboriginal students” (p. 3). The ALAEEC sees these programs and services rendered by increasing “Aboriginal cultural content in all sections of study by incorporating cultural content lesson plans to all students to enhance awareness, respect and appreciation of Aboriginal culture” (p. 3). Lastly, the ALAEEC recognizes its responsibility for Aboriginal student success and supports “targeted educational support for at-risk students of Aboriginal ancestry” (p. 3).

The ALAEEC and School District 10 set forth six action steps designed to support the realization of the ALAEEC vision. These concrete steps provided the foundation upon which the initial Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement (AEA ) was built. The AEA for School District #10 has two performance goals and objectives each designed in such a way as to ensure measurable outcomes and increase accountability. The goals of the AEA are a concentration of the six purposes outlined by both the School District and the ALAEEC . The theme of holistic education for all learners can be traced throughout.

  • To ensure that all students of Aboriginal ancestry achieve academic and social success.
  • To honour and acknowledge the histories of our students and families of Aboriginal ancestry.
  • To enhance the sense of belonging of Aboriginal students within their communities through shared knowledge and experiences with all students in their school communities.
  • To enhance all students’ understanding and appreciation of First Nations culture, history and spirituality.
  • To provide an opportunity for healing through understanding and creating a sense of community.
  • To be sensitive to the needs of our students and parents of Aboriginal ancestry and embrace the whole child – intellectually, culturally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, in the context of the greater community. (p. 4).

The purpose of the AEA ties in quite succinctly with the School District’s mission statement that emphasizes students learning to live and work in harmony with others and their environment to develop into socially responsible, productive citizens.

The initial AEA was signed in June of 2010. The three-year process of crafting the AEA resulted in two goals, each with specific, measurable indicators of success:

  • Goal #1: Enhance the Aboriginal student’s sense of belonging and improve self-esteem.
  • Goal #2: To improve Aboriginal student achievement.

The rationale for the first goal is intimately tied to the continued realization of Goal #2: “We believe that increased awareness, knowledge, appreciation, and respect for Aboriginal culture and history will improve students’ sense of belonging and self-esteem” (p. 5). As is evidenced from data collected from the focus group and interviews conducted with various educators from School District 10 (summarized later in this section of the report), educators strongly attest that student engagement with learning increases substantially when the inclusion of their Aboriginal heritage and ways of knowing are reflected in the pedagogical structure and content of their educational programming. More will be said about this observation later in this case report.

An examination of annual reports produced by the school district show that Aboriginal learners in School District 10 achieve at a rate that exceeds many other Aboriginal students in districts across the province. This can be attributed to the continued vigilance of both the ALAEEC and School District officials who have devoted significant human and financial resources to realizing the goals of their AEA for all students of Aboriginal ancestry within the Arrow Lakes School District, ensuring they will have the opportunity to graduate from the public school system with “dignity, purpose, and options” (Halbert & Kaser, 2013).

4.4 The role of the AES Network in School District 10

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Arrow Lakes School District has had an affiliation with the Network originating back to 2005 when they became a part of the inquiry-focused Network of Performance Based Schools (NPBS ) now called the Network of Innovation and Inquiry (NOII ). A three-year inquiry into the impact of Online Literature Circles (which included Aboriginal authors and texts) on student performance in Reading and Writing segued in 2011 into incorporating Aboriginal Literature Circles and Information Circles in First Nations 12, English Language Arts, and Social Studies classes at both the elementary and secondary level. During the 2010-2011 school year, educators in School District 10 were involved with seven NOII , AESN , and Healthy Schools projects across four of the five schools in the district. Additionally in 2010-2011, seven teachers based in four of the five schools were involved in district-based Aboriginal Education learning projects where Aboriginal education was woven into a wide range of curricula and across grade levels. In 2011-2012, 7 of 35 teachers in the district were involved in four NOII and AESN projects which showed improved student learning and engagement as evidenced through the application of the BC Ministry of Education Social Responsibility Performance Standards as well as the use of School District 68’s (Nanaimo) Aboriginal Understandings Learning Progression rubric. In May of 2012, 4 Arrow Lakes district teachers partnered with 6 schools/teachers in School District 51 (Boundary) to pilot an online Aboriginal Information Circles project – the success of which has called for expansion and research into its impact in the 2012-2013 school year. Three AESN projects in 2012-13 are connected to the Online Aboriginal Issues and Culture Information Circle.

Figure 2: AESN Projects in Arrow Lake School District

Year

Projects

Teachers involved

2007-2008

2008-2009

2009-2010

Online Literature Circles (NPBS ) which included Aboriginal texts

1 teacher in SD 10 partnering with teachers in SD 8, SD 41, and SD 20

2010-2011

Aboriginal Issues and Cultures Documentary Film Project

2 teachers (SD 10)

2011-2012

4 AESN , NOII projects including archery, ethno-botany, & Aboriginal film project

7 teachers

2012-2013

3 AESN projects, 3 NOII : Online Aboriginal education circles (circle of courage)

Ethno-botany (continued)

Archery (expanded to additional school)

Aboriginal carving

7 SD 10 teachers plus 19 other teachers in Boundary, Haida Gwai and Gold Trail districts

3 in 2 schools

3 in 3 schools

2 in 2 schools

Terry Taylor holds the positions of Arrow Lakes School District Literacy and Aboriginal Education Coordinator as well as District Principal of Learning. She described the seamlessness between Network based inquiry projects and inquiry based projects at the district level. In essence, the structural components of the AESN have been taken up by district personnel and woven into the work the district is doing around Aboriginal Education. As such, there “aren’t dividing lines, silos, between Network questions and the rest of the work, so what is evolving, is the links and crossovers and segues and bridges in between.”

As the above descriptions and summary of the projects taken on in Arrow Lakes illustrate, the AESN has been embraced in a big way by this small but dynamic school district, under the leadership of its Superintendent, Denise Perry and Terry Taylor, the district principal. This is made even more remarkable by the small size of the district level support staff; in a district with a small student population, district personnel must take up multiple roles and are stretched in many directions. For example, the Superintendent also serves as the Secretary Treasurer, and their District Principal of Learning, Terry Taylor, coordinates Aboriginal Education, Online and Distributed Learning, Professional Learning, Literacy, and Special Education. In addition to this she also was a .6 classroom teacher and school counselor up until January 2013.

Despite these pressures, what we learned during our visit to this school district was how closely knit and committed this small group of professionals are. In the sections that follow, we highlight some of the key themes that emerged during our focus group with AES Network members (5 individuals), our observation of their work during a Network meeting in which they shared their current inquiry work, as well as through individual interviews with the Superintendent, two school principals and the District Principal of Learning. These themes include: shifting community and school mindsets; experiential learning; cross-curricular integration; the importance of leadership; and catalysts for educational change.

4.5 Shifting school and community mindsets

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As the earlier discussion of the demographics and Aboriginal history of the Kootenays makes clear, this is a region of the province where Aboriginal peoples once lived in abundance, but their history and presence is at best, minimally acknowledged. Despite this, in our discussions with district personnel, we learned that there are quite a number of Aboriginal/Metis peoples who in live in the region; it became equally clear that many students with Aboriginal heritage or ancestry do not choose to self-identify. Teachers, principals, vice principals and district leaders all suggested that this is a shifting dynamic, and that more students are beginning to self-identify, largely as a result of the deliberate focus on Aboriginal histories, cultures and knowledges being integrated into both elementary and secondary programs offered at the district level. They suggested that the work of the school district—including the work of the teachers and leaders involved in the AESN —with their concomitant recognition of Aboriginal peoples contributions to Canada and the region were shifting the culture of the school and the culture of the community. This could be characterized as a movement from tolerance for difference to an acceptance and inclusion of diversity.

There were also general impressions shared about the level and nature of acceptance of Aboriginal peoples in the community. While there were no openly negative discussions about the community, participants expressed that the community at large generally lacked knowledge about Aboriginal peoples in BC , and in their region in particular. This expression of a ‘lack of knowledge’ often serves as a polite way of acknowledging racist or marginalizing practices in the area. While we certainly heard no overt anecdotes of racism, the stories of how students were beginning to openly identify themselves or family members as Aboriginal/Metis/ or First Nations suggested that self- identification was becoming more acceptable and less of risk. As one teacher said:

“This collaborative thing [the AESN ], makes the entire topic [of Aboriginal education] presentable in a way where we can start mending the racism, the discrimination, the pictures we have had in our heads and [about the] culture, about Aboriginal people. If we can keep going and being positive and trying to heal the wrongs, there is a huge thing that will… solve some serious issues.”

Other teachers affirmed this statement, nodding in agreement.

Teachers also expressed their own need to learn more about Aboriginal histories and cultural knowledge. They spoke about the need to engage in collaborative ventures with local Indigenous knowledge holders to more accurately include Aboriginal knowledge/perspectives. They spoke about their efforts to learn more about aspects of Indigenous culture that had application to their own teaching areas and they discussed their own learning at some length, openly describing their efforts to learn as their students were learning.

During our visit to this community, one teacher openly self-identified as a person of Aboriginal ancestry from Quebec; this self-disclosure and subsequent discussion with his inquiry colleagues about the commonalities between Indigenous peoples from across Canada, struck us as providing even more evidence of the willingness and openness on the part of this small group of teachers to embrace their own status as learners within the context of Aboriginal education and to include Aboriginal knowledge as a part of their professional repertoire and teacher identity. This story illustrates another feature of this school district; that its teachers seem willing to take professional and personal risks and become vulnerable in acknowledging that they too are learners. One could possibly attribute this willingness, at least in part, to an increased acknowledgement of the validity of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It could also be a sign of shifting beliefs: a move away from the more dominant, historically situated Eurocentric discourse where Aboriginal Peoples were deficit, to one that accepts the values, life stories and contributions of culturally different others.

In sum, although this district could be described as having a largely homogeneous teaching population there is considerable good will and desire to effect changes in teacher practice to reflect the diversity found in other locales throughout the province. In other words, there was a general readiness among the professional staff to embrace new approaches to teaching their students and a willingness to engage in practices that would extend to the community at large. This desire to shift local mindsets was evident throughout our interviews and conversations and is worthy of additional discussion.

4.6 Education beyond the classroom walls

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After examining the cases and listening to teachers and other members describe their experiences within the AESN , we noted how several of their projects had included what were described as “community showcases” or knowledge sharing events. While celebrating the achievements and learning of the students could be assumed to be the primary focus of these events, it was also evident from teacher conversations that this also served as a means of educating families and the broader community. For example, one project profiled during our visit was a cross-curricular English 8/9/10, Socials 8/9/10 and First Nations 12 class where students were asked to produce documentary films. Because of the focus on local Aboriginal histories and events, several of these films addressed the historical and contemporary contexts for the Sinixt peoples of the area. One film focused on the historical actions of the Federal Government who declared the Sinixt people extinct; another profiled the form, function and purposes of pit homes typically constructed by the Sinixt peoples. The films provide a snapshot of how students were engaging critically with stories from both past and present that had a goal of re-educating themselves, their classmates and community. Participants in our focus group reported on student responses to the film project. The sponsoring teacher described it thusly: “My kids were so inspired by that experience… the recognition of the use of the lands by Aboriginal peoples… the kids’ inquiries were thoughtful and deep.” She also reported on how her student’s reflected on the significance of the inquiry projects they had completed. One student said: “This is the best thing I have ever done in my entire education.” A second publically acknowledged his Aboriginal ancestry, and stated: “I am Indian and I’m proud of it.” In summarizing her comments, this teacher shared her belief that these projects had led to profound, deep and significant learning that she described as “life altering”.

We viewed each video and saw that students were engaged in inquiry questions that sought to unpack stereotypes and to “right” what they saw as historical injustices. On their own, these films demonstrate the impact of introducing Aboriginal themes into the English, Social Studies and First Nations 12 classes and how beliefs among student populations can be shifted when the local context is used to make connections to student experiences and understandings. The combination of personal engagement is also better enabled through the application of new learning technologies: the use of documentary film provides a powerful medium through which to tell these new stories. In sum, it is clear that the learning of these students was significant and made even more impactful as a result of the efforts to link learning to local contexts, the use of inquiry methods and the use of engaging pedagogical methods such as film production.

4.6.1 Extending the impact

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However, there are other impacts of this particular inquiry project as described to us by the teachers and leaders of Arrow Lakes during our site visit. The teachers and students involved in creating these films ended their study by hosting a community film festival for family and community members in the Silverton Gallery. A second event was held in Nakusp at the Bonnington Arts Centre, where a different group of students’ films were shown and traditional foods served. Teachers and district staff alike commented on the impact the showing of these films had on parents and community members. They described how parents expressed great interest and in some cases, surprise about their own local histories. They suggested that this event served as an important catalyst, one that is creating the conditions necessary for greater acceptance and inclusion in the community. As the District Principal of Learning, Terry Taylor expressed: “I was sitting in the audience, being amazed at the respectful engagement that people in the community demonstrated; it was such a contrast to the racist attitudes that had been present.” These observations about a shift in community thinking to one that was more culturally inclusive of Aboriginal peoples was also substantiated during an interview with a newly hired school principal who described what she saw as a notable and tangible “shift” in the attitudes, beliefs and acceptance towards Aboriginal peoples since her arrival in the community three years earlier.

What is evident from the examples included here is how the efforts of the district are extending well beyond the classroom and are having impacts upon their student population and the broader community at large. While the stories provided here are anecdotal in nature, they add to the overall evidence of how the work of the AESN and Aboriginal education initiatives are enabling broader cultural and community acceptance of Aboriginal peoples and making their community a safer and more inclusive space for diverse cultural identities.

4.6.2 Experiential learning

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An important theme that emerged during our study of this school district was the emphasis placed on experiential and place-based learning. As was noted in the literature review in this report, experiential learning (that is, learning by doing/enactment) and cultural immersion experiences are foundational ways in which dominant paradigms and beliefs can be challenged through shared, enacted experiences. In this next section we highlight the ways in which the AESN projects in Arrow Lakes have emphasized experiential and place based learning as a primary means through which to integrate Aboriginal content into the school curriculum through SD 10 inquiry projects. We describe three AESN projects that have this focus: the Ethno-botany inquiry project, the Archery inquiry, and Aboriginal woodcarving.

4.6.3 The ethno-botany inquiry project

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As in many rural districts across British Columbia, teachers in the Arrow Lakes School District are responsible for teaching multiple grades and multiple subjects. This provides a dynamic opportunity for teachers and Network members to explore cross-curricular/cross-discipline teaching and learning in an effort to enhance student engagement and success. Experiential, hands-on learning is a key component of the work teachers are doing in School District 10: students are actively engaged in exploring connections between their prescribed curricula and Aboriginal ways of knowing and being.

A teacher involved with the AES Network since 2010 has incorporated Aboriginal pedagogy into both her junior and senior Science classes as well as her Social Studies 10 course work. Situated at a local high school, this teacher collaborated with local elementary school teachers as well as a local Metis woman to develop a unit that explored ethno-botany – in this case, an Indigenous connection to the land. Students engaged in foraging and harvesting local plants, learned of their various uses, and processed their harvest into rose hip tea, syrup and elderberry jam. The unit culminated in the creation of a cookbook that highlighted recipes – both traditional Aboriginal and contemporary, derived from locally accessible plants. The teacher underscored the benefit to students of getting outside and developing not only an appreciation of what was available to them, but also an appreciation of how much work was involved in the traditional Aboriginal modes of collecting and preparing food. For her Aboriginal students, the connections to their heritage – to participating in activities their ancestors had engaged in only served to increase their sense of pride and belonging as noted by this teacher: “Any of the projects where the students have learned traditional Aboriginal knowledge and non-Aboriginal students see and appreciate this, it really shows value for traditional knowledge, this builds self-esteem among Aboriginal students. The Aboriginal learners have a personal investment and this improves student achievement…” There are plans to continue this project in the spring of 2013 as “students appreciated this opportunity to get outside, beyond the traditional classroom. They were more engaged. When they made the personal connections the engagement was huge.” The opportunities provided for students to engage with their learning outside the four walls of the classroom are mirrored by this particular teacher’s experience with the AESN : she perceives the Network as providing not only an opportunity to work with other people and to see what others are doing in their classrooms – to make connections and contacts, but also as an opportunity to bring more community members into the school and to explore new methods of reaching all students through her own pedagogy: “The collaborative aspects, the stuff that comes to the teachers and what it offers our students. It’s professional development, the best professional learning.”

This marriage of curricula and culture reflects explicitly both goals of the District’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement; as noted by this teacher, student achievement increased as a result of understanding that their Aboriginal culture and heritage were being validated and honoured through the formal, prescribed learning outcomes.

While the fieldwork for this particular inquiry project was completed prior to the onset of winter, the school-based component was carried on through another AESN inquiry project, the online Aboriginal Information Circles, an exemplar of the potential for innovation in teaching and learning for 21st century education within a rural context as described by the District’s motto: “Global learning in a rural setting.”

4.6.4 Aboriginal art & woodcarving

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Another AESN initiative was undertaken by a teacher who wanted to incorporate Aboriginal art and culture into his woodworking class. Although he has wanted to bring Aboriginal elements into his teaching for a number of years, he expressed the view that the support of the AESN has helped to bring his ideas to fruition. His students have engaged in a unit that blends the symbolism and meanings of Haida art with hands-on woodcarving. He researched and collated resources that explained the process and purpose of Haida carving and shared those with his students who were encouraged to make personal meaning for themselves based on the symbolism inherent in Haida culture. We heard about a Metis carver scheduled to visit the school two days after our focus group was held. The Metis carver was to share his knowledge and skill with this particular teacher and his students as well as with another teacher and his students at another school. A key component of this teacher’s inquiry centered on creating opportunities for Aboriginal students to make personal connections to their own heritage as well as for non-Aboriginal students to grow to understand and appreciate Aboriginal culture. As the teacher noted:

“I am always looking for ways to enhance what students are doing in my shop and to [create student projects] that make it meaningful to self. What do you need? What can you make that means something to you? How can you personalize it to make it meaningful for you? A couple of examples, where students put some of the (Haida) images right on their (carving) projects; it really personalized it for them”.

It was very obvious that teacher learning also played a significant role in undertaking this inquiry project: “For me, I didn’t know much about the art or anything, so I am learning. It’s a big learning experience for me, and as far as teaching is concerned, I am learning there too.”

The Network connection and inquiry focus has allowed both teacher and student learning and understanding to flourish as teachers use the Aboriginal Information Circle (which will be described in greater detail in a subsequent section of this report) to share knowledge and resources across and beyond School District #10. Again, this carving/wood shop teacher speaks to this:

“I put some ideas on how to carve (on the Aboriginal Information Circle) but I will be getting some real insights from the carver who is coming, I need to learn it as I hear and watch him too. The texts (used as resources) are being put online, and students who might not normally work online use this as a resource too.”

The parallelism between teacher and student learning is important to highlight here. As this teacher has eloquently expressed, both teachers and students are learners through the inquiry approach, and each can, through shared experiences led by community mentors and Aboriginal knowledge holders, develop an appreciation for and deeper knowledge of traditional Aboriginal practices.

As for the structure of his AESN project, the teacher commented on the significance of inquiry to the process of learning: “Inquiry itself is like planting a seed and seeing what is happening…how can you say this is the result you want? It’s about exposure, and seeing how the students take to it…” This is an important characteristic of inquiry; investigations can go in different directions and this accommodates diverse student interests and needs. It also provides a space in which culturally diverse students—in this case local Aboriginal students—can explore topics that enable them to feel connected to the school curriculum as their traditional practices are seen as having value and relevance for themselves and others. As has been noted in earlier discussions about the Arrow Lakes context, these approaches seem to have created a safer space in which Aboriginal students, who had previously remained silent about their ancestry, to feel able to self-identify. In the case of the carving study described here, the teacher discussed with us how some of his students have similarly responded by more openly self-identifying with their ancestry. It provides evidence again of how the goals of their Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, specifically that which identifies “increased awareness, knowledge, appreciation, and respect for Aboriginal culture and history will improve students’ sense of belonging and self-esteem” is being realized for many of their students.

4.6.5 Archery – Outdoor Education

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A blended NOII /AESN collaborative inquiry project undertaken by two teachers at different schools highlights and underscores the potentiality of experiential learning in awakening and deepening students’ understanding of Aboriginal culture and history. The joint inquiry project centered on an archery unit that focused on both sport and skill and provided a stepping-stone for understanding First Nation culture through “doing.” The six goals of the project hinged on enhancing student self-esteem and participation while also providing opportunities for students to assume leadership/mentorship roles in peer tutoring both adults and other students. We were quite taken with the summary provided by one of its sponsoring teachers who suggested the inquiry was designed to “Increase student self-esteem, one arrow at a time.”

At the core of the unit is the notion of connectedness: connecting elementary and secondary students and teachers to others and connecting all to an appreciation for and practice of traditional Aboriginal practices. As a part of their inquiry process, the originating AESN members shared their project with others in the district. This resulted in connecting their high school students involved in the Outdoor Education class/Archery club with grade 5 students at the elementary school as archery coaches/peer-tutors. This particular project has important and meaningful carry over and spin-off effects: due to its popularity and success in improving student engagement and self-esteem, it will expand in the spring of 2013 to involve grade 6 and 7 students and teachers. An equally important spin-off is realized in the cross-curricular integration that is possible in small districts such as Arrow Lakes: students in shop classes are designing and building archery equipment storage boxes to maintain the integrity and longevity of the equipment. While students engaged in the archery project have come to recognize it as both a skill and a sport, students are also very aware of the historical significance of traditional Aboriginal use of bow and arrow as a means of survival. As one of the teachers involved put it:

“playing with others in competition [allowed students] to gel on a similar skill set – it translates to more than just the obvious [it leads to] the collaborative encouragement for the individual and the group. Two hundred years ago the better you got the more food you put on the table. This contributes to school culture; an understanding of First Nations culture in the past, the present and possibly the future.”

This is an important feature to highlight: while studying traditional practices may build appreciative knowledge of past cultural accomplishments, it is when the historical is linked to the current context that learning is most meaningful and helps illustrate the continued contributions of Aboriginal peoples to communities.

According to the other teacher involved in the inquiry, students in the Outdoor Education class have developed a growing appreciation of the challenges faced by Aboriginals in the past who worked with handmade tools in order to create the stuff of survival. Students are taught the art of “knapping” – chipping rocks to make arrowheads – a skill the teacher himself had to learn before teaching his students. As the teacher explained: “We give them antler and bones and use rocks and sticks so they can make an awl to sew or make an arrow…we give them a piece of buffalo hide, tanned by Aboriginal people in our community. They have to use the bone awls to make a pair of snowshoes…” This teacher goes onto credit the AESN for his involvement in integrating Aboriginal elements into his Outdoor Education course indicating that he wouldn’t likely have done so without the nudge from the Network. What was obvious from our meeting is that the initial exposure to Aboriginal ways of knowing and being, the support of and accountability to the Network, and the success in meeting the goals of the district’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, have translated into a heightened enthusiasm amongst educators to continue pursuing increased integration of Aboriginal content and learning into daily teaching practice. As another interviewed teacher stated: “There is a pretty broad thing happening here. Moving the Aboriginal focus from unconsciously to consciously aware: awareness, appreciation, self-esteem, becoming a valued member of the community – the relationship between the teacher and students…it’s all about relationships.”

4.6.6 Online Aboriginal literature/information circles: Technologically mediated Aboriginal learning

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While our study has shown that there are many engaging projects and inquiries designed to enhance students’ knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal ways of knowing, one of the most interesting and unique projects is the Online Aboriginal Issues and Culture Information Circles and Online Aboriginal Literature Circles co-created by a team of AESN members in the Arrow Lakes school district in collaboration with their colleagues in three other school districts. As was noted earlier in this case summary, this district has made online and blended learning a core component of their approach to educational service delivery. Teachers in the district began pioneering Online Literature Circles using Moodle discussion forums in 2005, and partnered students and teachers between SD 10 and a range of urban and rural districts throughout BC . This project, initiated originally by the District Principal of Learning, Terry Taylor, is an excellent example of how innovative practices grow from personal inquiry. This project’s genesis came from earlier efforts at online-literacy circles, and was then modified to meet the goal of better engaging Aboriginal students. It draws on a range of differentiated texts—including Aboriginal texts—to meet the diverse needs of a broad range of students from k-12 in 26 classrooms across 4 school districts (Arrow Lakes, Boundary, Haida Gwai and Gold Trail). More than 450 students “learn from one another” with up to 26 teachers working as a professional learning community engaged in deepening their own learning. The scope of the project is considerable; the online features of this project enable a much broader and potentially richer setting in which many schools and teachers can be brought into discussions about how to support their Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal student learners. For example, in our discussions with one Arrow Lakes teacher, we know that the circle was used to enhance knowledge sharing in a related project, the Carving inquiry. As far as we are aware, this is one of only a few AESN projects in which online technologies are being used as the primary means through which to engage students in discussions about Aboriginal knowledges, histories, and contributions of local Aboriginal peoples to the region.

To illustrate how the Online Information Circle operates, we focus on one of the themes that has been added to a 2012-2013 AESN inquiry: The Circle of Courage. This project draws from the work of Drs. Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve Van Bockern who developed a program they call “The Circle of Courage”. The philosophy of the program is described thusly on its website:

“Each quadrant of the circle of courage stands for a central value – belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity – of an environment that can claim and reclaim all youth. It represents the “cultural birthright for all the world’s children.”

“The Circle of Courage is a philosophy that integrates the best of Western educational thought with the wisdom of Indigenous cultures and emerging research on positive youth development… The central theme of this model is that a set of shared values must exist in any community to create environments that ultimately benefit all” (Circle of Courage website, n.d., Para 1-3).

The two teachers who have worked on this inquiry project within the Online Information Circle sought to answer the question “will our students engage in a deeper level of inquiry if we create a culturally inclusive, accessible way to engage students in learning?” The online discussion format sought to apply the principles of the Circle of Courage (with an emphasis initially on the power of generosity) and focus their students in critical discussions about the current Canadian context for Aboriginal peoples. This discussion was initiated by the inclusion of an online video created by well known Canadian Aboriginal rap artist and activist, Wab Kinew, of the Ojibway of Onigaming First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. The video served as a critical catalyst that engaged teachers and students alike in powerful reflections on the contemporary relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. In the words of Kinew, his goal is to create a dialogue so as to construct a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, one built on peace and friendship. A review of the video makes clear the purpose of including it was to challenge status quo thinking and commonly held assumptions about Aboriginal peoples that consistently constructs Aboriginal peoples as “deficit” and requiring charity from non-Aboriginal others. Students were asked to respond to a series of questions and to deeply examine their own biases and misconceptions around Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

One of the teachers involved in this project attended our focus group and spoke eloquently about the deep learning both she and her students had engaged in through this approach to thinking about relationship building between diverse cultures. The AES Network and this inquiry had an important impact on her practice: “The Network has given me the courage to focus on something new. If I didn’t have the support… I might not follow it as diligently. The Network gives you more of an onus to actually work on it.” This teacher also made an important observation about the ways in which this project created what she called “a critical coupling” between technology and experiential learning. Her comments suggest that the technological component provides an important catalyst or spark through which students in a range of diverse community settings can be enabled to explore personal inquiries into their own local contexts. The district principal, Terry Taylor, described this as an approach designed to holistically engage students in inquiry mindedness: that is, it focuses not solely on content knowledge, but making personal connections by deeply examining beliefs, understandings and stereotypes. This, she argued, is central to 21st century learning, ensuring students are equipped to engage in understanding their place in an interconnected world. This is fitting in a district that has as its vision “Global learning in a rural setting”.

We also know however, based on the comments from one teacher who participated in the Online Aboriginal Information Circles project, that such critical conversations are not easy. Discussions that challenge dominant forms of thinking and/or prejudices that have been maintained in public and personal discourses can be difficult, as is evidenced in the email from one of the project participants from another school district:

“It was great to see the enthusiasm that many of our students showed when engaging with the Moodle site and the questions. While there are very few written answers, the Moodle site was a weekly lesson which often did not move beyond the discussion phase. These discussions were lively and telling. It is interesting to note that those students who were the most engaged are confident, happy, healthy First Nations students with supportive families and quiet pride in their heritage. It was also interesting to see reluctance and resistance to the topic itself from some students who, in my opinion, were speaking words not their own, but comments and attitudes that seemed to have been learned outside of the school system. Tensions immediately accompanied the lessons and the division that I remember so clearly from growing up as a teenager in this community entered into our discussions. That is one reason why we did not post as I had planned. The resistance from some, even after lots of talking, was too strong. This was not what I expected and it changed my plans to have each student post a weekly response.

If anything, I learned many things about my students, for example, that prejudice and discrimination are seated deeply in some, while pride and an eagerness to share about one’s culture is ready to burst forth. The discussions we had were very powerful and raw at times.”

As this example shows, it is not easy to disrupt racist views; nor should any single event, lesson or discussion be expected to do so. As many anti-racist educators have documented, shifting to more inclusive forms of engagement and thinking require consistent and repeated engagement in dialogues designed to challenge thinking. Yet as this AESN project also demonstrates, some new ‘seeds’ of thinking have been planted and have the potential to root in an environment where inclusion and difference are becoming increasingly valued. This is, in our view, a critically important impact of the Network: it provides a safe, supported space from which teachers can work with supportive others to transform their own thinking and that of their students/community members.

4.7 Key features of the AESN in Arrow Lakes

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In this section we summarize the critical features of the AESN we observed in the Arrow Lakes School District.

4.7.1 A focus on building self-esteem and self-acceptance amongst Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students

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In our visit to the Arrow Lakes we were repeatedly struck by the ways in which teachers and district staff were able to able to provide evidence of how students (and staff) in their district were becoming comfortable with self-identifying as Aboriginal peoples. This parallels the stories of local Aboriginal people in the Arrow Lakes area, known by members of the community to have hidden their Sinixt ancestry for safety in previous periods where racism was more widespread. While some might question the veracity of such claims, there is well-documented research evidence that many Aboriginal peoples deliberately hide their identities and ancestry as a means of survival. Christine Welsh, a Métis filmmaker, is one of many people of Aboriginal ancestry who have sought to document and explore this phenomenon. In her film, Women in the Shadows (1990) she explores her efforts to know herself and her family as she re-visits communities and places of her childhood in order to reconstruct family and personal histories. In writing about this experience Welsh says: “The film records my struggle to understand the choices my grandmothers made—to recognize that, for many Native people, denial of their Native heritage and assimilation to the “white ideal” was largely a matter of survival” (1995, p. 28). Welsh also reflects on how the film making process was central to coming to these understandings; in other words, her attempts to story or give meaning to her family’s experiences was a critical feature of coming to know herself.

Welsh’s work helps to illustrate how creating safe spaces for exploring personal identity and finding value in one’s own cultural ancestry is a powerful tool for dismantling the assimilative culture that has persisted in Canada, including the Kootenay valley. In this School District, through the work of the AESN and the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement, teachers, district leaders, community members and students are all engaged in processes of inquiry designed to dismantle the fear, prejudice, and stigma attached to “being Aboriginal”. They are also incorporating many of the First Peoples learning principles (BC Ministry of Education, 2012) that were referenced in an earlier section of this report. While we do not suggest that their efforts have always met with complete success, the work they are doing is having a significant impact on the social, political and cultural contexts which enable (or constrain) the ability of students’ of Aboriginal ancestry to see and understand themselves as successful, valued, and contributing members of their communities. The efforts of this district, through their AESN work, are noteworthy in terms of the impact they are having on community beliefs and understandings; they are altering the conditions in the community that has made it acceptable to ignore or silence Aboriginal voices, identities and histories. They have done this by making spaces for different conversations to occur, ones that can permit a more inclusive and accepting stance towards Aboriginal peoples and their cultural perspectives.

As notable however, is the impact the AESN work is having on the Arrow Lakes school district teaching population: this too is key to effecting change for Aboriginal students, as the literature review completed earlier in this study noted. Teachers who themselves have engaged in cultural immersion experiences, or who have sought ways to dismantle bias or deficit ways of thinking about culturally diverse children and youth, and adopt culturally inclusive ways of teaching are most likely to effect changes in student success. We saw teachers profoundly interested in how their inquiry and integration of culturally responsive teaching practices were making an important difference to their students, and who were eagerly exploring ways in which they could extend these experiences in order to more fully accommodate the diverse needs and interests of their students. In this district we saw evidence of how these approaches are altering historical trajectories that had created different classes of individuals on the basis of their conformity with dominate “white” social norms. This is a powerful impact of the AESN .

4.7.2 Emergent evidence of nested, interconnected learning systems

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In exploring how the AES Network operates in Arrow Lakes what becomes clear is how the Network is nested within and amongst parallel systems of support for teachers and district personnel involved in educating youth in this diverse region of the province. While their history of involvement in the Network is relatively short, it is also evident that the notion of culturally inclusive practice has been embraced and incorporated into the diverse, yet connected forms of inquiry these teachers are choosing to participate in. A large number of existing teachers are participating in either Network activity or initiatives supported by their Aboriginal Learning Principal and other district leaders; the numbers of teachers currently involved is estimated to be about 30%. The success of these teachers’ AESN projects, the evidence of increased student engagement as a result of their efforts to incorporate Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives in their approaches to curriculum, and how this work has broadly impacted their community is clearly motivating for these teachers, and this is creating interest among others who are not yet involved as deeply. The district has also made clear that it values these teachers’ efforts, by providing resources and professional support for them as they engage in this work. Taken together, these provide evidence that the Network will continue to operate successfully in this district. While we cannot assume that such practices will necessarily continue over the longer haul, the level of passion shared by these teachers and district leaders as well as the level of engagement among a range of teachers of non-Aboriginal ancestry, suggest it is a district that will be transformed into a more culturally inclusive space that will nurture and deepen understandings of Aboriginal peoples in their region and in BC and Canada, while enhancing the successes of their students.

4.7.3 Innovative approaches to culturally inclusive education

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As noted earlier, we were impressed by the scope and interconnectedness between the AESN inquiries we heard about. There is a strong sense of community in this small district. Partly as a result of its size and partly because of its desire to breathe life to the district motto: “global learning in a rural setting,” the district has cultivated partnership with others in neighbouring schools/districts. In this way, they have found support and continued to develop approaches that work for their student population and extend the walls of their classrooms. We also saw however, that this district is using technologically innovative approaches to inquiry and culturally responsive teaching methods in ways not evident in other parts of the provincial AES Network . We know some of this comes of necessity, as many of the students in this district participate in online study due to limitations of course offerings. Yet it is also clear that these teachers are using creative and inventive content that is critically engaging students in ways that challenge status quo ways of thinking about Aboriginal peoples for both themselves and their students and to extend the limits of more traditional pedagogy and practice. Is it possible to say that the Network created this work? Perhaps not, but it is, we believe, possible to attribute the Network with creating the conditions necessary for such work and helping grow the work. By conditions we refer specifically to the goals of inquiry such as: puzzling through new approaches and ideas, acting on hunches, taking risks, doing research, sharing ideas with others in the Network, trying out ideas, and being unafraid of failure because it will help determine a path towards a more successful approach. The Network, and the district staff that support and embraces its work, has provided a space for teachers to broaden their scope of thinking, take risks and engage in inquiries designed to challenge their thinking in order to enhance their students’ success. As one teacher noted:

“The most important thing is how the collaborative process breathes life into the content we are bringing to the classroom. The energy and excitement and conversation helps us to move beyond the prescribed learning outcomes, into a realm of deeper learning. The conversations really enrich and expand our capacity in Aboriginal education.”

This is an important impact of the AESN : it creates the conditions that enable innovation and context specific approaches that work for teachers so they can focus on the deep learning of all learners.

4.7.4 Leadership

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As this case has made clear, this is a district where learning centered leadership is a core belief and practice; their small size suggests that there are challenges they face, particularly related to resources, but its size has also provided opportunities for innovation and creativity. We saw plenty of both in this school district. As the case above has outlined, the teachers in this district are using a wide variety of experiential, online and site based approaches to integrating Aboriginal content in their curriculum. The district and its community have successfully created a local Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement that is well on its way to being implemented throughout the district. Although senior leaders within the district acknowledged to us during our site visit the need to more explicitly link their AEA with the work teachers and formal leaders were doing to more fully incorporate Aboriginal understandings into their approaches to working with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth in their district, we certainly heard during our conversations that most district staff understood the goals of enhancing student success—for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners—implicit within that agreement. We also heard how the district has begun to develop important regional and local partnerships with Indigenous peoples and organizations and are actively sharing their learning with other teachers beyond their own borders and with the greater community: both of these are important indicators of how the Network has provided this district with important tools to effect broader scope changes. And as the Superintendent, Denise Perry points out, the district is embracing planning and resource allocation processes that put collaborative inquiry at the core of how they work to establish professional goals for principals and teachers alike, ensuring inquiry becomes embedded into their core activities.

It was also apparent that the leadership of District Principal, Terry Taylor, has had a central effect on change in this district; teachers and district leaders repeatedly mentioned her personal commitment to effecting change in the district’s approach to ensuring all students’ school success, how she modeled new approaches to working with Aboriginal knowledge and cultural practices, and gave teachers opportunities and resources to explore their own interests and passions related to Aboriginal education through the auspices of her district support role. In sum, while the Network itself enables much innovation, it requires district leadership to expand and extend such initiatives. Therefore supportive leadership at all levels is an important condition for effecting systemic change within a district.

4.8 Summary of AESN impacts

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We have attempted to provide rich detail about how the Network operates in the Arrow Lakes school district. When considering overall impact, we thought it could be useful to try and represent impact using a basic scale. For the purposes of our summary then, we consider impact in three categories: as sustained, initiated, and as potential.

Figure 3: Summary of Impacts, Arrow Lakes School District

Impact Category

Potential: the AESN has provided an inviting pathway through which to consider change

Initiated: the frequency of engagement is shifting context, process or practice

Sustained: the AESN has transformed the context, process, or practice

Leadership

Culturally inclusive education

 ✔

Nested, inter connecting learning systems

Integration of AEA into school & district practices

Building self-esteem & self acceptance among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students