by Adrienne Castellon, EdD
Assistant Professor and Stream Director for Masters of Educational Leadership, Trinity Western University
One key challenge faced by Canadian teachers today is the need to Indigenize the curriculum. In Canadian history, education was used as a tool of assimilation to extricate children from their culture and language. Commissioner Murray Sinclair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) stated that, “We have to start addressing the way that we teach our children about Indigenous people.”
Educators have been called to address the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, particularly the call to “integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms” (clause 62) and “build student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect” (clause 63). By moving towards incorporating understandings of the land, Indigenous history, and environmental stewardship, educators will play a central role in decolonizing education. As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday in 2017, we need to realize our moral responsibilities to relate accurately and acknowledge fully our regrettable past. Accepting these responsibilities will help us reimagine our future as a place of peaceful coexistence where together we can make new stories.
I have been thinking critically about my personal understanding of an Indigenous worldview and how this understanding applies to my role as an educator who teaches pre-service teachers and teachers in graduate studies. Through honest self-reflection and assessment, I realize my strong personal commitment to justice tempered by mercy allows me to engage wholeheartedly in this effort. However, a lack of understanding Indigenous ways of knowing and concrete implementation strategies makes me feel at a disadvantage and not knowing where to begin.
Aside from a button blanket project I did with grade nine students and an appreciation of Indigenous art which led me to working with Kwantlen artist Brandon Gabriel to create a ceremonial drum, I have a basic understanding of our First Peoples gleaned from my own studies, museum visits, and informal reading. My knowledge of residential schools before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) efforts were publicized in the media was, admittedly, cursory. To address the call of the TRC, I immersed myself in the restorative justice literature. I have come to comprehend more clearly Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies or ways of knowing.
Different ‘ways of knowing’ means that we approach learning and knowledge in different ways and use different methods to learn. The differences are clearly outlined in two helpful charts from the Alaska Native Science Commission (n.d.) and in more depth in the poignantly titled article by the same group: What is traditional knowledge? When an elder dies, a library burns (n.d.). Integrating restorative principles and Indigenous ways of knowing into my classes enables me to be a transformative educator who claims a part in social change mobilization.
If as teachers we believe all areas of our own practice should engage in social justice, what should be our next steps in Indigenizing our own practice as teachers? How might we become action researchers who engage in changing the culture of our own practice? Joe Desjarlas, Metis scholar and community activist, has encouraged my own work with the suggestion to: “Start where you are with what you have” (personal communication, March 29, 2017). As I consider his invitation, for me, I believe this means:
a) reaching out to local Indigenous communities and starting a dialogue that privileges place-based education – the stories and history of the area;
b) noticing the problems, disparities, and injustices in my own community and facilitating inquiry-based learning to respond to them;
c) acknowledging the role of intergenerational trauma and engaging appropriate processes such as Circles that encourage deep and respectful listening and give voice to each student;
d) not over-generalizing so that the diversity of First Nations and Metis in Canada is respected; and,
e) having the courage to step into the messiness of the challenge knowing we do not have the answers and may be unsure of the way forward.
I believe this learning journey is ongoing: like the circle, it continues and never ends. It is a call to a community of practice seeking ways we might all engage in social justice and inclusion for all students.
This Indigenization of the British Columbia curriculum requires new constructs for leadership, Indigenous pedagogical practices, perspectives and content, and a vision for changing paradigms. A process such as Halbert and Kaser’s (2013) spirals of inquiry can help educators realize that learning is not linear but recursive. With respect to Indigenization, they suggest consideration of the following questions:
a) Does every learner have genuine opportunities to develop a deeper understanding of and respect for Indigenous ways of knowing that are such an integral part of our Canadian cultural landscape?
b) Do all learners have the chance to teach someone else and through doing so contribute to the community as a whole?
c) Do Indigenous youngsters see themselves reflected in the curriculum on an ongoing basis and not just as a 'one off ' or as a special unit?
d) Is deep listening a part of learners' every day experience?
e) To what extent are learners expected to do the best they can on all tasks while keeping an eye on how they can help others?
f) Does every learner feel his or her voice is valued?
g) What are the opportunities for learners to express themselves in a variety of ways?
h) Is oral storytelling valued?
i) Are young learners connected to senior members of their communities?
j) Do learners respect the knowledge and experiences of elders?
Some ways educators can approach answers to these questions are through experiential learning, shifting paradigms, intentional resource selection, cultural responsiveness, and restorative principles.
As mentioned briefly above, in addition to formal university studies, I sought experiential learning and enrolled in a drum-making class with Kwantlen artist and community activist Brandon Gabriel. This experience gave me privileged access into the mental life, convictions, and perspectives of our instructor; and, in a powerful way, it led to deeper knowledge and understanding. While our drums turned out beautifully, and the process was indeed challenging (the elk hide snapped on me a few times and I had to start over), the meaning that came from Brandon Gabriel’s teachings greatly enhanced the value I ascribe to my drum.
Brandon taught us much more than the logistics of drum making. Using video, music, and story, he shared his worldview as he related the history of colonization and resurgence among his people. This kind of experiential learning is also available to students through artist in residence programs he and other artists offer schools (Van Driel, 2016). As they develop artistic works, these artists engage the community in dialogue, workshops, events, and activities.
Recently I was honored to witness a beautiful example of experiential and place-based learning at K-7 Environmental school where the students and educators learn outside every day – whatever the weather. This engagement with nature certainly builds resiliency and a connection to the land and the elements in a deep way. The school does not have a building, but they have a trailer for all their school equipment and they go to different locations each month to learn from that place, in that place, and about that place. A public school of choice, and not a specifically Indigenous school, there is a close relationship with a local elder, the children have made their own drums and were also making their own paddles and canoe. They also follow the provincial curriculum for all the subjects. When we talk about place-based education, this school is the epitome; however, every school can incorporate elements of place-based education.
Critical pedagogy is pivotal when addressing Indigenization of the curriculum; for, at the core of the process is the art of challenging assumptions. As Maori professor Linda Tuhiwae Smith demonstrates (2008), there is a Western-centric dominance of research theory and praxis. If this is the education system experienced by teachers, it is not surprising that an inhospitable environment for Indigenous perspectives is often transferred to our K-12 classrooms. These assumptions must be challenged for change to occur.
Brookfield (2012; 2013) describes creative critical thinking as the ability to identify and challenge our assumptions, then change our actions accordingly while also seeing and communicating from multiple perspectives. The Humanities classroom is an excellent place for such exploration and discussion. Nussbaum (2010, p. ix) reminds us that “educators understand how the arts and humanities teach the critical thinking that is necessary for independent action and for intelligent resistance” to classroom resources or media representation that may be biased. I believe this ‘intelligent resistance’ is founded on the ability to imagine the situation of another person, resulting in greater understanding.
Sandlin, Redmon, Wright, and Clark (2011) similarly argue that educators should create transformational learning experiences and stronger critical media literacy “through critical dialogue deconstructing popular culture” (p. 12). Such deep reflection occurs at both professional and personal levels, as learners critique representation in the public sphere or their own biases. As writer, lawyer, and intellectual Chelsea Vowel (2016) writes: We “have situations where Canadians are accustomed to seeing Indigenous peoples only within very narrow circumstances: as urban homeless, struggling with addictions/mental illness or within the context of cultural celebrations” (p. 68). An example of an application of critical pedagogy is an online discussion forum I facilitate with the following prompt:
Reflect for a moment on the words and images that come to mind when you hear the terms Indigenous, native and Indian, and also where in your life you think those words and images came from. In what ways might those words and images affect the way you think about and relate to Indigenous people in your everyday life? (Etherington, 2014, p. 210)
Espiritu and Budhrani (2014) further note, “through the incorporation of new information, [students] will begin to reframe their view of the world and their role in the world. Once [they] reach a stream of ‘aha moments’, they are on the path of transformation” (p. 2).
Resource selection is of primary importance and contemporary educators committed to incorporating an Indigenous worldview need to know that textbooks have long misrepresented Indigenous peoples. The First Nations Education Steering Committee and First Nations Schools Association have undertaken an extensive process to vet resources using the following criteria:
Authentic First Peoples texts are historical or contemporary texts that present authentic First Peoples voices are created by First Peoples or through the substantial contributions of First Peoples and depict themes and issues that are important within First Peoples cultures (e.g., loss of identity and affirmation of identity, tradition, healing, role of family, importance of Elders, connection to the land, the nature and place of spirituality as an aspect of wisdom, the relationships between individual and community, the importance of oral tradition, the experience of colonization and decolonization), and incorporate First Peoples story-telling techniques and features as applicable (e.g., circular structure, repetition, weaving in of spirituality, humour) (2016, p. v.).
This extensive guide of annotated resources is available to “help educators make appropriate decisions about which of these resources might be appropriate for use with their students... [and] that meet provincial standards related to literacy as well as a variety of specific subject areas” (p. 1). It is encouraging that resources being published now include a greater amount of content about Indigenous peoples and issues than previously. More importantly, these inclusions are integrated into the main text. A relevant example of a textbook that integrates Indigenous and western science is Snively and Williams (2016) Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science. This open textbook is available from BC Campus OpenEd. Another helpful science resource is from the First Nations Education Steering Committee and First Nations Schools Association Science First People Teacher Resource Guide (2016).
There is a need to be culturally responsive in the classroom, even if students of Indigenous heritage are not present. This effort will hopefully foster greater understanding outside the classroom and increased appreciation for the impact of residential school experiences. Students should be encouraged to understand how First Nations elders living today were taken from their families and experienced psychological, emotional, and often physical abuse – the effects of which are far-reaching in our contemporary society. A helpful, free-to-download resource that gives voice to Indigenous people who survived the residential school system is Speaking my Truth (Rogers, Degagne, Dewar & Lowry, 2012). This collection of essays “stems from a shared desire to renew Canada’ and, as such, is a hope-filled collection grounded in truth and seeking reconciliation” (p. 5). The impetus for the book is described in this statement from the Indigenous Healing Foundation:
No other population group in Canada’s history has endured such a deliberate, comprehensive, and prolonged assault on their human rights as that of Indigenous people. Yet, despite growing recognition of past wrongs, many Canadians remain unaware of the full scope of these injustices or their impacts. (p. 8)
Every teacher has a moral responsibility to ensure that their students do not remain ignorant of the history of residential schools.
In the broadest sense, restorative principles are integrated throughout this effort of Indigenization. Morrison argues that the aim of restorative justice is “to build positive affect (empathy, interest, and excitement) and discharge negative affect (anger, humiliation, fear, and disgust)” (2007, p. 140). Empathy and compassion are fostered. In a restorative school community, responsibility is addressed without shaming and relationships are respectful, engaging, caring and nurturing.
Restorative justice can begin with each individual teacher making a choice to be intentional about incorporating Indigenous voices into their curriculum. One of the most practical applications I have found to build community is classroom circles; a particular practice that honours the individual in community through an experiential process that teaches restorative concepts. The process is described clearly in the Amos Clifford Center’s resource for Restorative Process (n.d). Facilitating circles in the classroom aligns well with the personal and cultural identity competencies outlined in the redesigned curriculum. Circle Forward (Boyes-Watson, Carolyn, & Kay Pranis, 2015) is another resource that describes using the Circle process in the classroom for a variety of purposes including vocabulary development, transition times, getting acquainted, and sharing pieces of writing.
Empirical studies have shown that Circles are an effective tier 1 intervention that supports social and emotional well-being. Tier 1 refers to the Response to Intervention method first appearing in the literature in the early 2000s (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). Response to Intervention began as intervention responses addressing student outcomes for special education students and quickly emerged as a general education initiative and integrated system. Circles have been linked to a reduction in suspensions, office referrals, and narrowing the racial gap (International Institute for Restorative Practices, 2014; Warner, 2017).
Educators have an important role in the truth and reconciliation efforts in Canada. We can envision a more hope-filled future and work with the individuals in our care to increase awareness and foster relationships with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Eventually, I believe such processes will eradicate the systemic racism and cultural bias experienced by First Nations. As Canada celebrates 150 years, we will do well to remember that Indigenous peoples have been here much longer and to be intentional about keeping them at the centre of the story of this land now called Canada.
We are all on a journey in regard to incorporating Indigenous pedagogy. Senior English teacher and helping teacher on the Indigenous Education Team in the Okanagan Skaha School district Nancy Searcy says:
Incorporating Indigenous pedagogy into [my] classroom was transformative. I consistently tried to create a holistic learning environment that emphasized contextualized learning connected to each student’s life or identity – an environment where learning is understood to be rooted in the community and the land, is collaborative and focuses on relationship (2016).
Following Searcy’s lead and others like her, we need to pursue the moral purpose in Indigenization of curriculum and look beyond the sometimes over politicized mandates. By so doing, we become servant leaders who see potential in all our students, see their humanness, and find our capacity to love. Social science thought leader Robert E. Quinn gives an inspirational illustration from a teacher he interviewed:
You know, I went to the school of education, and they taught me how to teach, but then, I went to the first day of class and found 30 strangers looking at me. Every child in that room was unique and different. They all had different needs and interests. If I was going to be a good teacher, I had to learn all those needs and interests, so I did, and I think I became a good teacher. Then I went to the next level. I discovered that they were all the same. Once you come to understand them deeply, you realize that no matter what they say or do, every child wants to be respected, wants to be loved, and wants to succeed. When you discover that, you break the code (Schuyler, Baugher, & Jironet, 2016, p. 63).
For teachers to learn from each other in a community of practice we need to connect in a spirit of learning, knowledge sharing, and collaboration. One way to answer the call to personal research is to get involved with other teachers in this effort. If there are other educators in your school you might consider forming a Professional Learning Community or, if you are connecting with educators beyond your school you might consider a similar initiative though referred to as a broader term, Community of Practice (COP) because it reflects better inter-organizational professional collaboration and learning.
In British Columbia a great example of a COP focused on Indigenous integration is The Networks of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII). This voluntary, inquiry-based network of schools in British Columbia is designed to improve the quality and equity of education in BC through inquiry, teamwork across roles, schools and districts, and a focus on applying coaching forms of assessment to help learners take greater ownership of their learning. Because humans are social by nature, we naturally seek community. In the book Deepening Community, Born (2014, p. 49) states, “being human is defined as individual and social but precisely as belonging to one another.” This common sense belonging leads humans to seek community, which begins by caring for one another and working together (Born, 2014). A COP can satisfy this human need as well as contribute to positive organizational results. Within a COP, one can enjoy relationships with others who share common interests and provide support. These relationships increase resiliency and confidence and lead to more innovation, personal efficacy, and even joy!
It is ideal to involve an elder from the local area to provide teaching as well as assurance and encouragement and support. The personal research and engagement with others in a sense of collaboration toward a shared purpose helps remove the fear of ‘doing it wrong’. There is a sense of hesitation in many educational arenas with respect to how to proceed with embedding Indigenous ways of knowing because either people are ignorant (they don’t know what they don’t know) or they desire to respect Indigenous peoples and don’t want to say the wrong thing, in the wrong way.
I believe we can be allies with Indigenous peoples in reconciliation and restoration efforts if we follow the advice of Joe Desjarlas, Metis scholar and community activist, who suggests: “Start where you are with what you have.”
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