This year I am primarily teaching grades 7 and 8 Language, Art, History, Geography. Our return to school during the pandemic learning experiences have so far focused on well-being, socializing, and the Arts which I will write about later. This post is about our introduction to History and a fundamental shift I have made in my practice as an educator on Turtle Island and in Canada at this moment in time.
The socio-political-economic upheaval during this pandemic has not left me unmarked and has been the undercurrent as I’ve considered how to approach teaching this year. The biggest change I feel I need to make is how I address Indigenous people and Canadian history. I have spent a great deal of time over the past 6 months reading, listening, viewing, observing, informing, and addressing personal knowledge gaps about Indigenous people of my region and most of all about how to teach an Indigenous perspective in ways that are accurate and respectful.
Many Canadian educators have made progress in addressing some of the Calls to Action from Truth and Reconciliation. We have made efforts to teach the history of Residential Schools, for example. That, however, is only a starting point. There is so much more that Canadian children and educators need to learn and many shifts I personally need to make to support student learning. I now realize that a next big step must be helping Canadian children gain a solid grasp of the relationships and commitments made through Treaties with Indigenous people. That will be our focus this year.
My journey began several years ago when I was teaching grade 6 Social Studies and European exploration was a major topic. I began with Origin Stories – scientific explanations of how people came to North America and then delved into European explorers and first contact from a Western point of view as I had always done. Something I squirm about now. I was fortunate enough to have a Métis student in my class that year, whose mother was an educator. She reached out and helped me reshape the learning so that an Indigenous perspective was privileged. A few years later, I undertook a secondment at the Ministry of Education at a time when some exciting work in Indigenous curriculum and supporting Indigenous learners was underway that I was lucky enought to cross paths with. I learned so much and am forever grateful for that experience. In my own pratice though, even with all that knowledge, I flailed about when I returned to the classroom. What did it actually mean to teach an Indigenous perspective?
This summer I found an entry point. I signed up for Dr. Tracy Bear’s mooc from the University of Alberta, Indigenous Canada. It is excellent so far and has given me insight on how to shift learning design for my intermediate history classes. Today the 7/8 class launched. I began with vocabulary: world view, interconnected, and hierarchy. What do those words mean? Most students pictured a globe for world view and drew blanks on ‘interconnected’. A few had a vague understanding of hierarchy. I know by now that whoever is doing the thinking and talking is doing the learning, so I avoided direct instruction. Instead I drew a series of pictures that prompted them to think and make observations.
I intentionally began with a (loose) representation of the world view of those who have been in North America for thousands of years, but did not mention the word ‘Indigenous’. I just drew. I drew a circle, wrote ‘Creator’ in the centre and then wrote air, land, women, men, birds, water, fire, animals, fish, earth … around the edge and drew connecting lines across the circle. By making that world view primary, anything that comes next will be in reference to that one. I asked students to explain the world view. No one was willing to venture a guess.
Then I drew a loose representation of a Western world view, again, not using the identifier.
The students got my point right away and began to make observations which I noted on the board.
They noticed one was about equality and one was about rank. The saw that one valued everything equally and one valued people and nature differently. They also made interesting observations.
- One person felt that their generation is shifting from hierarchy to interconnected and gave reasons why. That student felt that the hierarchy represented an older world view.
- All felt they would prefer living in the interconnected model. They saw unfairness in one person having so much privilege and power over others.
- Many felt that they are living in the hierarchy but that shifts are being made toward interconnected.
- One recognized and named a current hierarchy – prime minister, presidents, and economic hierarchies.
- One felt shifting to interconnected would be very difficult for a hierarchy. Why would a king give up power?
I then named the world views and gave them a year 1492; the year Indigenous people on Turtle Island experienced the first arrival of a modern European explorer. I asked students to predict what would happen when these world views met.
- Most thought that there would be clash, conflict, some predicted war.
- One predicted trade.
- Some thought the king in the hierarchy would try to insert himself into the centre of the interconnected model and take it over.
- Some described it as the circle being flattened and overtaken by the hierarchy.
- Many felt angst and saw that there would be miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Then I asked them to predict which worldview would prevail once contact occured. That was an interesting discussion! One student made an interesting observation – he felt the hierarchy that viewed the natural world as a resource to be used would ultimately end itself because it didn’t seem to respect the resources and would end up depleting them.
One student pointed out that there are other world views. I addressed that by saying I could speak confidently to the Western hierachical world view as I have more knowledge on that subject. I made clear that I am not Indigenous and can only speak with some degree of confidence because I have tried to learn but they would need to learn directly from Indigenous people to avoid misconceptions; finally I informed them that I cannot speak at all to Asian world views, for example, because I know very little about those perspectives. My aim is to help them become comfortable framing the limits of personal knowledge and be able to state they are not informed enough to offer explanations on things they know little about.
By the end of the lesson students understood worldview, interconnected, and hierarchy (without direct instruction) and I had met my goal of centering our learning on Indigenous people first. This, of course, is only a starting point as we learn to grapple with difficult concepts and challenge our thinking and conclusions about the world.