SD 91 Nechako Lakes Aboriginal Education Dept. SD#91 Nechako Lakes

School Name: SD 91 Nechako Lakes Aboriginal Education Dept.

School District: SD#91 Nechako Lakes

Inquiry Team Members: Leona Prince:, Lorn Kennedy:, Kathy Chmelyk:, Mia Moutray:, Amy Dash:, Michelle Miller-Gauthier:

Inquiry Team Contact Email:

Type of Inquiry: NOIIE Transitions (focus on Indigenous learner transitions)

Grade Levels: Secondary (8-12)

Curricular Area(s): Not applicable

Focus Addressed: Indigenous understandings (for example, Traditional Knowledge, oral history, reconciliation), Core competencies (for example, critical thinking, communication, problem solving), First Peoples Principles of Learning, Growth mindset, Indigenous pedagogy, Social and emotional learning, Transitions

In one sentence, what was your focus for the year? Our focus was to support grade 8’s learning about a variety of social justice issues through a course designed specifically for them, while still weaving Indigenous ways of learning into daily classroom practice as a means to help learners process new information, maintain strong, supportive relationships and a sense of belonging. (Creating spaces where Indigenous learners felt connected and valued instead of singled out).

Scanning: “Learning is … relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).” In the previous school year, the use of circle/crew/Fika as a method of building strong, supportive communities of learners, was having a positive impact for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners. Students and staff involved outwardly expressed appreciation for the practice of getting to know each other as being helpful in creating a sense of belonging.

Further scanning revealed that learners in the middle years need these types of supportive structures as they begin to deal with difficult topics. Overshadowed by a global pandemic and civil unrest in the US, our learners were trying to navigate their understanding of the unrelenting social justice issue dominating the media. Tension, confusion, and a desire to talk about these things were evident.

Focus: Our focus on a diverse range of social justice issues instead of highlighting Indigenous social justice issues, stemmed from previous equity scan interviews that revealed Indigenous learners’ uncomfortable feelings of being spotlighted. By also continuing to include the community building practice of circle time and adding the reflective practice of witnessing to the diversity learning, we had hoped the connectedness between learners would deepen and strengthen.

Hunch: Our Indigenous learners told us directly through surveys that an explicit focus on Indigenous perspectives was uncomfortable for them. We had hoped it would elevate its importance and ignite understanding and compassion. Some learners definitely demonstrated increased understanding, yet others resisted learning about these issues and voiced their thoughts in ways that harmed Indigenous learners’ sense of belonging and well-being.

New Professional Learning:

  • We continued to explore the resources put together for the Aboriginal teacher-lead cohort, and met to discuss these as a group virtually throughout the year. We can share the entire reading/viewing list if people are interested. Some readings from this extensive list that we found particularly impactful were:
    • “A Short History of Aboriginal Education in Canada”, Jerry P. White Julie Peters
    • “Braiding Sweetgrass”, Robin Wall Kimmerer
    • “This Book is Anti-Racist”, Tiffany Jewell
  • ICSEI Presentation: Some of our team members presented our journey alongside colleagues from Kamloops School District. This collaborative and reflective process took us outside our own district, and was one of the most powerful aspects of learning we engaged in.
  • NOIIE Symposium presentation provided more time for reflection on the actions since the ICSEI conference. The iterative nature of this year’s action, reflection, action and presentation, helped us create more support for each other as we experienced many challenges with our work this year.
  • For the online talking circle at Ebus, they explored the First Nations Pedagogy Online website for a model to use. For the online engagement portion they also looked at the following article: “Effects of social-interactive engagement on the dropout ratio in online learning: insights from MOOC”

Taking Action: Honouring Diversity 8 was taught as a stand alone course across all four high schools in our district. The content included learning about identity, diversity, power, privilege and oppression, alongside a range of social justice issues like racism, stereotypes, ableism, sexism, gender diversity and sexuality. The Indigenous practice of witnessing to help learners listen to each other and reflect on the learning was also implemented to varying degrees.

The District Principal of Aboriginal Education, Leona Prince, worked with the superintendent Manu Madhok to offer a virtual learning series for parents and staff. Experts in a variety of fields gave virtual presentations to address and clarify the content and learning processes the course involved. They also addressed parent concerns and misconceptions about things like ‘Critical Race Theory’, middle years brains and learning. The recordings are available to the public (request a password) and they are housed on the Honouring Diversity 8 website that Leona Prince created. Each session had a student and parent panel that asked questions they designed, and also had been submitted in advance by parents. Presenters included Indigenous leaders, as well as education and middle years experts, and will continue into the coming school year.

Schools also continued using the Indigenous practice of circle talks to engage, connect and build trust. For the first time our online school ,Ebus, used an online talking circle format to increase learner engagement and allow for relationship building. Ebus also chose two Indigenous learners (grade 10 and 12) and attempted to build an intentional connection and provide the support needed.

Circle or crew this year has been an anchor for some of the class communities and has been a place to explore safe vs. brave spaces. As they moved towards brave spaces, they also had to circle back to recreating safe spaces after experiencing cognitive dissonance and questioned trust during the Honouring Diversity 8 course. At Ebus, the online talking circle was not successful. There were very few learners interested in attending, and after two sessions, they put the talking circle on hold and created a survey to see what sorts of activities/topics learners would value.

The Ebus strategy of focusing on building relationships with two Indigenous learners resulted in one of them leaning into the support and completing their course in 5 months; they took advantage of extra teacher coaching sessions and stayed in constant contact. This learner is on track to graduate this year. The other learner has made some progress (28% since Sept. 2020) in the course and has been supported or offered support in the same ways. In addition, this learner was set up with a tutor. The learner communicates sporadically and is hesitant to accept the offer for a teacher coaching session.

Honouring Diversity:
In some of our schools, the learning in this course was powerful. Many students were able to move forward and deeper in their understanding of complex social structures and issues, as evidenced by their final reflections and projects. Some shared their learning via video for the ICSEI and NOIIE conferences.

We also learned that the content of the Honouring Diversity 8 course was extremely challenging to some of our communities to accept and understand (often parent driven), although many were supportive and grateful as well. It created tension and strong reactions in some families, to the point where some students were excused from class by their families. After a small pause, two teachers at the school that experienced the most tension, wove Honouring Diversity 8 content into a short story unit on what it means to be human and then into a Medieval unit.

An exit survey for Honouring Diversity completed by students in two of the four high schools (gr. 8) provided the following insights:
• 81% think learning about diversity amongst peoples is somewhat (34), very (36), or extremely (11) important
• 84% think learning about oppression and privilege is somewhat (35), very (39), or extremely (10) important
• 83% think knowing about multiple parts of classmates’ identity (race, gender, class, religion) is somewhat (40), very (32), or extremely (11) important
• 92% think schools teaching to prevent racism is somewhat (21), very (41), or extremely (30) important
• 92% think learning about the Aboriginal people of Canada is somewhat (31), very (37), or extremely (24) important
Where they have learned about Aboriginal people: In school (68%), Parent or family (38%), Social Media –TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter (38%) ….Other sources with lower numbers –books, news, TV/film
*It is important to note that the school community that had the most challenges or resistance to the course, did not complete the survey because the course was paused part way through.

The practice of witnessing was a challenge to implement effectively. Learning to listen without talking and then presenting the group’s process was not an easy task for grade 8 learners. We are likely going to embed listening skills and practice throughout many courses and even during times that are not academically focused, in the coming year.

Reflections/Advice: Strong relationships and circling back to the structure of circle talks to re-ground ourselves in loving, caring relationships through reflective processing and just plain fun activities were critical to maintain and regain a sense of belonging for learners. There were difficult times as some families and learners resisted the course content, but also many, many good times, and classes largely ended the year on a good note with many learners feeling connected and valued.

Embedding Honouring Diversity into other “less controversial” units was a lot more successful for one school in particular, and it led to deep conversation about gender, power, oppression, privilege and class. Even the learners who had left the room earlier in the year when these topics were discussed, were now engaged and asking questions.

The Honouring Diversity 8 course is undergoing a redesign based on our experiences this year.

We are beginning to discuss two next steps that seem promising in our work on honouring diversity. We are hunching that these will help our learners and ourselves move forward in strengthening our school and larger communities:

  1. Listening with three ears: mindful listening to each others’ perspectives and experiences without a closed mindset or the “winning mindset” (thinking they are wrong and I am right). We need to learn ways to practice listening with a learning mindset – listening to understand another person fully.
  2. Recognizing micro-aggressions: We need to learn what micro-aggressions are, why we use them, what we are trying to communicate with them, as well as ways to address them to still maintain relationships and community. How do we take this feedback if someone addresses our micro-aggressions? How do we maintain a learning mindset?

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