Princess Margaret Secondary School SD#36 Surrey

School Name: Princess Margaret Secondary School

School District: SD#36 Surrey

Inquiry Team Members:Cynthia Weldon;
Sandra Hogg;
Gillian Swartz;
Maggie Lee;

Inquiry Team Contact Email:

Type of Inquiry: AESN (focus on Indigenous learners or Indigenous understandings)

Grade Levels: Secondary (8-12)

Curricular Area(s): Not applicable

Focus Addressed: Social and emotional learning

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? We decided to focus on learning more about Social Emotional curriculum to help our Aboriginal students be in a place of “readiness to learn.” We decided to also accompany this learning of our own with learning about SEL through an Aboriginal paradigm. Our hope in doing so was that through approaching our students with these understandings they might have more of a sense of belonging within our school community. We also decided to do this in the hopes of sharing our new knowledge with our colleagues and peers with the additional hope that they too, might be able to approach our students with their new understandings.

Scanning: For our scanning process, we took four key questions and divided our students among us and interviewed each of them independently. The questions we asked them were:
• Can you name two people in this school/setting who believe that you can be a success in life?
• Where are you going with your learning?
• How are you doing with your learning?
• Where are you going next with your learning?
While most of the Aboriginal youth could name at least ONE adult who believed in them, we were concerned that they all couldn’t name two adults within our learning community. Of more concern, was the five or six students who couldn’t name anyone. As a new Aboriginal support team, coming together only this September, we hoped to utilize this information so that when we interview them at the end of the year, they may think of more adults who do believe in them. We were also concerned that several of the students couldn’t articulate what they were learning, how they were doing and how to remedy or improve from that point.

Focus: Our focus this year was to make ourselves more aware of the components of Social Emotional Learning. Part of our reasoning is that the new B.C. Curriculum’s Core Competencies include Personal and Social Responsibility which encompasses some of the key underpinnings of the new SEL research. More important, however, is the overwhelming quantity of new research illustrating that this is one of the prerequisites for success in learning. If children do not have emotionally safe learning environments where they feel nurtured, safe, and accepted, they find it very difficult to learn.
As this is the case for all learners, we felt it would be even more important to know about the key components of SEL when interacting with and engaging with our at-risk learners, many of whom fall within our Aboriginal caseload. For the above reasons, our two main areas of focus were:
• Learning the five key components of SEL: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision Making, Relationships Skills, and Social Awareness).
• Researching traditional Aboriginal ways of teaching and learning and learning about how these approaches enhance the emotional and intellectual learning of aboriginal youth. In other words, we hoped to find out more about how Social Emotional Learning happens through an Aboriginal lens.

We were all familiar with the First People’s Principles of Learning, but we wanted to learn more about how these manifested in traditional aboriginal approaches to teaching within traditional aboriginal cultures. Our hope was to then compare the new SEL curriculum with any Aboriginal systems/curriculum we could find.

Hunch: Quite a few of our most at-risk aboriginal students have chronic attendance issues and/or school avoidance issues. We often find that when we book interviews with these families, we experience a parental reaction different than what we expected. Our hunch was that we didn’t know enough about the underpinnings and belief systems regarding their approach to parenting. We even suspected that, at times, we might have been unintentionally judgemental of these parenting approaches due to our competing values systems or lack of understanding. Our hunch was that in learning more about how aboriginal people traditionally viewed learning and teaching, as well as parenting, we might be able to work more efficiently as a team with the aboriginal families (parents) within our community to support their children.

New Professional Learning: We decided that the most effective way to begin our learning was to start by studying traditional aboriginal paradigms towards the dignity of the child, the approaches to mentoring and learning that they used, and how these paradigms have evolved for today’s approaches. To do this, we went to Dr. Lee Brown, an expert on emotional education, at the Justice Institute. His whole lecture was on creating emotional competencies from the perspective of First Peoples. He argued that there is a long history of western thinkers who teach that emotions are not part of the acquisition of knowledge, dating back to Aristotle, and that this, combined with the culture of Christianity, has resulted in a system that approaches childhood education that believes that we must educate the “bad” impulses out of people. In opposition, to this is the Aboriginal perspective that people are born good and that it is the teacher or mentors’ obligation to find the potential and facilitate the individual’s development of the gifts they were born with. He continued with a review of recent Western psychological research that supports the Aboriginal paradigm. Citing Antonio Damasio and Carolyn Saarni, as well the new generation of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience research, he demonstrated that educational experts are finally endorsing that emotion is a part of learning. His thesis is that the presumed opposition between emotion and reason can no longer be accepted without question if we are to educate students with the best results or their best interests in mind.
Our team found this lecture very fascinating, and it confirmed our hunch that we were on the right track. From there, we decided to begin a book club where we read the following for discussion:
• Reclaiming Youth at Risk: Our Hope for the Future (Dr. Martin Brokenleg)
• The SEL curriculum (CASEL)
• First Peoples: Perspectives on Urban Belonging
*We also kept Spirals of Inquiry for consultation and Peace Pipe Dreams (Darrell Dennis).

Taking Action: We met several times (not as many as we had hoped as one of our team members was in a severe car accident resulting in a concussion) for a book club/study group discussion on what we learned (mainly from Dr. Brokenleg’s book).

Checking: It is early days in our learning. Therefore, most of the differences we have made are in our own learning and understanding of our aboriginal students’ needs. We do believe that at this point in the school year (April), we have better understanding of the social/emotional needs of our Aboriginal learners and why their parents sometimes interact with us in the ways that they do. Through reading Brokenleg’s book, and checking it against facts and data in Perspectives on Urban Belonging (a book on Surrey’s urban aboriginal population), we have had a few key epiphanies:
• In opposition to Western society’s emphasis on discipline as a social order and safeguard, First Peoples all over the world had a traditional paradigm that was in opposition to this. Native child-rearing is strongly influenced by the principle of guidance without interference. It is grounded in a respect for all persons. Thus, role-modelling, not obedience, discipline or punishment, is at the center of learning in traditional Aboriginal cultures.
• Dr. Brokenleg analyzes the Western history of education and where it is currently falling apart for all, but particularly, Aboriginal youth. He cites Kurt Hahn, who described “modern youth as suffering from the misery of unimportance”. In earlier times, he argues, they were indispensable to the survival of the family unit. Brokenleg demonstrates that obedience was never a part of Aboriginal culture or education. He argues that the belief is grounded in the understanding that all are responsible for their own destiny and the children will develop with positive nurturance in contrast to imposing our will on them.
• Like all students, Aboriginal students, are disconnected and disengaged with the “historical” and typical Western approaches to teaching and learning.
• While all students need Emotional Competency (Dr. Lee Brown), due to a variety of factors, our urban, at-risk aboriginal students need it even more acutely.
• If we are going to embark on a path of teaching Emotional Competency, we need a system or model. Dr. Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage seems to be a very good model. He suggests a model of 4 traditional First People Philosophies based on the 4 winds of the traditional Medicine Wheel. He names it the Circle of Courage and it contains 4 components:
 The Spirit of Belonging
 The Spirit of Mastery
 The Spirit of Independence
 The Spirit of Generosity
• We found ourselves having to have a very honest discussion about our prejudices and values. Sometimes when we have met with Aboriginal parents, we have expected them to be more authoritarian or stronger in their approach to student truancy, lack of effort or achievement. We realized that some of the reactions we were seeing as permissiveness or apathy, may instead, have been coming from a very Aboriginal value system and one that is very different than our own: a system embedded with the value approaching children with dignity and autonomy as persons, not children. This has been an important epiphany for us and one that we feel we need to do careful planning around and sharing of with our colleagues in professional development workshops.
b) Were they enough?
To be very honest, we don’t think we have had time to make a huge “difference” in our school at this point. However, we do feel that we have learned a lot and that we first had to analyze our school and gel as a new team. We also feel that together, we needed to learn and shift our paradigms before any difference could occur. One positive result is that we have been putting to use our new understandings as we hold discussions with our Aboriginal youth and their families. We feel this is extremely important in developing relationships of trust with them and is the first step in moving forward with further study and work in the area of Emotional Competencies (to use Dr. Lee Brown’s term).
c) Were you satisfied?
We are satisfied with our learning at this point, and at the success of our relationship building with our students and in some cases, their families. However, it is too early to have had a large scale effect on chronic truancy at this point. We are unsatisfied with this aspect, and hope that through continued study in this area, and its resulting changes in our work, we can do more work on this area of support for our Aboriginal students. We are also hoping to share our new learning with our colleagues of the larger teaching staff.

Reflections/Advice: We have learned that:
 Social Emotional Learning (CASEL/B.C.’s new Curriculum) and Dr. Lee Brown’s emphasis on Emotional Competencies are an important part of the new curriculum for all learners, but particularly our aboriginal youth who are marginalized and at risk.
 The modern western research findings on the symbiosis between emotions and intellect and it’s importance for learning and academic achievement, has been known and practiced in traditional Aboriginal societies for millennia. Western research in neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience is only now confirming what traditional aboriginal societies always knew.
 We are on the right track of learning more about Emotional Competencies, how to role-model them and didactically teach them.
 It is useful to do this through the Circle of Courage.
 This knowledge should be shared with all staff supporting youth.
 As educators, we must always challenge our own values and assumptions when working with people from other cultures.
Where We Will Go Next:
 In April, we are hosting an Aboriginal Family of Schools Night at PMSS for the families within our Aboriginal community. We are going to subtly role model the competencies we have learned through the way we invite, advertise and conduct the event. We are constructing a puzzle for the community to do with a picture of Dr. Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage in the hopes that it will initiate informal discussions so we can share with parents some of the wonderful ways to reclaim our youth. We will not be doing this through formal presentations but through quiet, individualized discussions and role-modelling (in the way of First Peoples).
 We hope to share a presentation of our findings within our school, first with the Department Heads, and then in another format, with teaching staff.

Our Advice to Others Interested in this Topic:
We believe that the best advice we can offer is to not be in too much of a hurry. We spent the whole year just learning. To truly learn, honestly and courageously share your findings with one another, and then to challenge your own assumptions, takes time and patience.

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