Reframing ‘Story’ in 7/8: Indigenous Perspectives

Last week, after exploring our mental models of Canada and considering why Indigneous knowledge doesn’t appear on those maps, we took time to honour Orange Shirt Day. I would like to express deep gratitude to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation who’ve created outstanding resources to help Canadian teachers and children learn about Indian Residential Schools and their long-lasting impact. Reconciliation through Education is key to addressing the Calls to Action from TRC. Learning about Indian Residential Schools, however, is only a first step. IRS are situated within a larger history; it is incumbent upon educators like me to learn that history and in so doing reframe how we approach teaching and learning. It also means developing deeper understanding of complex, rich, and varied cultures that see the world differently and have thousands of years of expert knowledge about the land we inhabit. It is not a dutiful obligation to open ourselves to that knowledge – it’s an exciting opportunty! What I am realizing is that to teach Indigenous Perspectives means to be informed by a worldview and that worldview will alter the content, work, and interactions in the classroom.

What has changed this week is how we are exploring and thinking about ‘Story’. When we looked at the map of Canada pre-contact, the students learned that the Anishinaabe refer to North America as ‘Turtle Island’. This prompted some wondering as North America is clearly not an island. Having taught grade 6 history for many years, Indigenous origin stories are not new to me. We generally began our Canadian history unit, with western scientific origin theories, such as Beringia. Students would then learn about different Indigenous tribes and their creation stories – Turtle Island being one of them. In the past I would have introduced the story as a myth or a legend that Indigenous people might tell to explain how earth was created. Students would then write their own creation stories – riffing on the idea. The stories were always quite fun to write and create art for. Cringeworthy – truly! I know better now. Once again, Dr. Tracy Bear’s ‘Indigenous Canada’ MOOC has helped me reframe the learning.

What was missing from my understanding, was how Indigenous people might actually use that story. Dr. Bear states, “In Indigenous cultures, stories are powerful pedagogical tools that help learners understand their history and the environment in which they live. The teachings from stories allow listeners to come to their own decisions and conclusions. They help demonstrate that there are many different ways of looking at problems, and solutions to those problems.  Storytelling has been, and continues to be, a central part of Indigenous identity as people and as nations.”  A listener is meant to derive important insights from the story. The teller will not tell the listener what’s important in the story. The listener is meant to figure out signficance on their own. Insights might change each time they hear the story. The story of Turtle Island is not just a myth or legend – it’s a tool. This is not unlike work we do with learners to help them infer meaning; what’s different is that those inferences should help learners become more closely connected to and appreciate their environment.

We began the learning outside as inside, students sit facing forward in socially distant rows. Outside, students formed small groups and I provided them with discussion topics. I wanted them to think about and articulate the role stories played in their own lives. Discussion questions included:

  1. What is a story you remember from childhood?
  2. What is your favourite book?
  3. What is a story your family tells every time they get together?
  4. What is a story your family tells about you?
  5. Is there a family story that is told because it teaches an imortant lesson?
  6. What is something that happened in an earlier grade that everyone remembers? (That time in grade 2 when …)
  7. and so on.

There’s was much talk and laughter. When we returned to class, I told students they would be writing on how stories have influenced their lives. This is a fairly abstract task. Many thought they’d be writing stories, not about themselves and their connection to stories. They began generating ideas, some right away, some struggled and needed to talk through their thinking. This is not easy during covid-19. We can’t form small groups when inside so support is one on one – very time consuming and inefficient. This also deprives students of peer interactions that support learning.

The next day, more formal instruction began. I introduced students to Dr. Tracy’s explanation (above), first addressing vocabulary, then content. It is so important that students hear directly from Indigenous people rather than through my interpretation of the significance. To help students understand the concept of a personally relevant conclusion, though, we turned to Ancient Greece and read one of Aesop’s fables, The Crow and the Pitcher. I asked students to write down what they thought the message was. As expected, there was a range:

It’s about:

  • helping explain buoyancy
  • persistance
  • use objects around you to solve problems, you don’t have to get special equipment
  • think outside the box
  • you can solve any problem, you just have to be creative
  • animals are as smart as humans

If I was to do this again, I would also ask them to consider what is going on in their lives at the moment that prompted them towards a particular conclusion.

We then returned to the Introductory Video from the MOOC starting at 4:38. Students listened to the more fulsome explanation of the role of stories in Indigenous cultures. We were surprised to learn that some stories can take weeks or even years to tell. We then enjoyed what is clearly a simplified version of the story of Turtle Island. After, they had to derive two important messages from the story. It was surprising how many landed on “Pay attention to warnings, because things can go terribly wrong.” – an interpretation for our times!

Tomorrow, students will return to their personal writing piece.

I write this from my perspective as a non-indigenous teacher, teaching during Covid-19. Students will have a different point of view and assessment of how things are going. Please visit previous posts to understand the foundation upon which we are building our knowledge. As always, feedback is appreciated, particularly if I have misconceptions.

Have a great day!


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