Learning and reconciliation

Creating curriculum rooted in Indigenous knowledge

Abstract sketch of people sitting reading on oversized books

At KPRDSB, an integral part of learning about Indigenous histories, cultures and perspectives is learning from First Nation, Métis and Inuit people when possible. We encourage teachers and schools to invite Indigenous resource people into their schools and classrooms to provide more depth of understanding as well as to foster positive relationship-building. Through these visits, a deeper and more authentic learning opportunity may provide increased insight and foster understanding that books, videos and internet searching just cannot provide. Encouraging the inclusion of authentic First Nation, Métis and Inuit voice and presence in our classrooms and schools by inviting people who are recognized Knowledge-Keepers and Elders is fundamentally important in our steps toward reconciliation and helps to create conditions where all of our students learn from Indigenous people in schools. This learning and knowledge has been lacking historically, and with respectful inclusion in our school environments, lasting positive impacts
can result.

—Sheryl Mattson, K-12 First Nation, Métis & Inuit consultant

To even mention the word, “initiative,” to high school teachers is a risky endeavour these days. Many a discussion has taken place around the union table focused on how to juggle all of the initiatives created at the local or provincial level and how to effectively sift out the nuggets of educational gold from each of them without getting too bogged down. Luckily, the latest program that I have been fortunate enough to be involved in has been properly supported through the release of a curriculum writing team, adequate funding for new classroom materials and moneys set aside from ongoing, teacher-driven professional development, all in response to a professional call to action that has become a deeply personal one.

In District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge (KPR), many teachers have played an active role in reconciliation for a long time. Most schools have approached reconciliation by trying to incorporate Indigenous content into a variety of courses, but there has never been a whole-board concerted effort to shift a compulsory course to its Indigenous counterpart. Last fall, Jack Nigro, Superintendent of Education: First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education and Equity and Diversity, approached the Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School (TAS) English department to pilot a new Indigenous English program. John McGee, long-serving Lead Teacher of English and Languages, reflected, “TAS is an ideal school for this initiative for several reasons, the first of which is the already-existing relationships with the two local reserves. TAS has a long history of working with Hiawatha First Nation and Lakefield District Secondary School has a similar history with Curve Lake First Nation. Now that the two schools are combined, with those connections already in place, a positive and inclusive environment has been created. The fact that TAS has a relatively high percentage of students who are First Nations is also part of this. TAS is also a comprehensive school, both in terms of its wide range of courses available in all streams, and in its makeup of students—some rural, some city, some ELL, some integrated arts, some tech, some athletes. It’s also an accepting school with a long history of GSA groups, a variety of ethnicities, and a wide range of religious beliefs. I think this culture of acceptance makes a good foundation for the new courses.”

Several meetings took place with our school’s admin team, local union leaders and members of the English Department to discuss how we could create and implement a fully-Indigenous Grade 11 English program (replacing all ENG (English) with NBE (English: Contemporary Aboriginal Voices) and the feasibility of a September start date. There was much discussion over the merits of developing strong units at each grade level vs. a fully-Indigenous Grade 11 program. Which would be best? In the end, we decided on both. “I feel it is imperative that all students are exposed to Indigenous based literature so they can more fully understand the history and culture of the First Peoples on our continent (and beyond), so that we can move forward, better equipped to tackle deeply ingrained racism and inequities that have been the norm for too long. It’s about changing the narrative so that different perspectives are respected and enjoyed,” stated Marianne Donovan, English and foods teacher. A fully-immersive program is necessary to tackle the complexity of Indigenous writing and the ideas it explores.

Having always incorporated Indigenous literature into my English courses and having just finished a stint as an Indigenous Re-Engagement Consultant for KPR, I was very excited to be part of the pilot program. Greg Barraball, English teacher, was also keen to spend time on this project. “Having had a chance to work with a small group of First Nations students in the ‘Beliefs, Values and Aspirations’ course the year previously woke me up to just how much I didn’t know about First Nations culture,” said Greg. “Having met these students, and having had a chance to learn a bit more about the history of our country, I began to realize how important the truth and reconciliation dialogue is. I wanted to work with people who would stimulate my professional thinking and support my learning in this area. I had access to a lot of that in this process and it was really valuable.”

In the end, Greg and I were assigned a period during second semester with a mandate to select texts and write material for all three Grade 11 English pathways to be presented to staff at the end of June. A whole period per day to read books and work closely with a colleague I highly respect? What could be better?

Of course, then second semester started and the full weight of what we were about to do hit us. Day one: Greg and I started out with only a snippet of an advanced copy of the new NBE curriculum, a box of books suggested by GoodMinds, and a rapidly growing list of major considerations. After much discussion that first week, we realized that there was no clear starting point. Simultaneously, Greg and I started reading extensively, finding the intersections between the ENG curriculum, the new NBE document and Growing Success, and, most importantly, structuring our work around the tenets of Truth and Reconciliation, honouring and incorporating local Indigenous voices and laying the groundwork for appreciation, not appropriation.

Developing new material is both daunting and energizing. Greg is a highly organized planner. Everything is built into complex, eye-catching and engaging PowerPoints. My planning it a hot mess of sticky notes and notepads covered in writing going every which direction, and scraps of paper frantically written upon as I try to capture that great idea I had in the middle of the night or on my morning jog. While both very thoughtful, Greg and I approach course development differently; he focused on the skills and I focused on the big ideas. We had brief daily check-ins and a weekly meeting to share what we had been developing and to brainstorm where to go next. Structured collaboration allowed us to work both individually and bring our strengths to the table. Working with a colleague who teaches and plans very differently is an excellent way to develop a course that will meet the needs of a variety of teachers.

Writing for colleagues is challenging. We wanted to make sure that we provided them with a helpful structure with all the curriculum links included, a variety of tasks, interesting reading material and the ability to feel confident that they could use our material exclusively the first time through the course, or to tweak or redesign as they saw fit. As part of the pilot, our superintendent put money aside to provide ongoing PD in the coming year and our department is keen on using it so we can regularly check in, discuss the material already developed, identify and fill the gaps and then collaborate on our final 30 per cent culminating activities/exams. To really launch this program well, ongoing PD that is responsive to the needs of our specific department and students is essential.

It has often been said that knowledge is power. It stands to reason then, that education is power. No other statement rings with more truth when speaking of our FNMI students. Western style education is a necessary product of our modern world. It is this western view that will allow our FNMI students to make their way through the world. It will allow them a lifestyle that they can achieve through their own hard work and diligence. This education is something FNMI have wanted for generations. Having Indigenous Knowledge in the curriculum provides an opportunity for FNMI students to connect with their heritage and culture. This is a very different style of education. Indigenous knowledge provides a base for FNMI students to build on. Indigenous Knowledge is based on Bimaadiziwin, living life in a good way. This is very different from western style learning.

Bimaadiziwin is land-based knowledge that has been taught and handed down through the generations. Bimaadiziwin encompasses those skills needed to find balance in life. That balance gives us strength through connecting with culture, traditions, ceremony and heritage. Our language, Anishinaabemowin, holds all of that knowledge.

When our youth have the opportunity to learn who they are through this style of learning, they understand how important that path is to finding out about themselves.

With all of the concern about reconciliation, Indigenous Knowledge in the curriculum is the single most important thing the western world can do for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Nations. Allowing our youth to connect with Bimaadiziwin will save our Nations.

—Anne Taylor, Cultural Archivist, Curve Lake First Nation


Knowing both the teachers and the students would be learning together, we created an introductory unit that covers everything from what First Nation, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) stands for to the present-day echoes of residential schools. This cultural groundwork, not usual in an English course, will provide the context for us to move forward as a community of learners; it was a humbling task to put the introductory unit together because it afforded us the opportunity to fully realize how many gaps we needed to fill and assumptions we needed to test. Then, each course was broken up into units centred around a core text, the inclusion of an Indigenous knowledge holder and a variety of lessons and tasks that linked specifically to the NBE curriculum. We decided on using Google Drive as our platform so teachers could easily collaborate digitally. “I was really grateful for the amount and variety of curriculum put together. It is great that we can tackle the actual teaching without scrambling for resources. There is a lot to choose from and a diverse range of assignments that will fit many teaching styles while, at the same time, will address the learning strands outlined by the Ministry. I really appreciated the plethora of Canadian content,” reflected Joanne Hipkin, English and Teacher-Librarian. As the pilot school, we had a certain budget to purchase new materials. We chose a few anthologies that would work for all pathways, then chose a core novel, play and created book-box style independent study unit (ISU) so that we would have enough copies of texts if a teacher wanted to use an ISU book as the core novel instead. We wanted to provide as much opportunity for teacher-choice as possible.

Finishing up the courses, Greg and I felt good about our reading selections and lessons. Our learning curves were steep. “There was so much I didn’t know about First Nations culture when I started,” Greg commented. “I am still very much in that position. I think I will always feel that way, but the learning is fun. I learned a lot about systemic racism, things that had been invisible to me, but that are as real as the tables we sit at and very much in the way of many members of our communities. Finally, I learned a little bit about another set of symbols that were not ‘Western’ in nature. ‘Western’ culture, like every culture, has long-standing representations or symbols that act as a shorthand for large multifaceted ideas. When you shift cultural symbol sets and conventions in communication the dialogue becomes really interesting.”

In late June, squeezed between finishing report cards and final-day activities, we met as a department to review the broad strokes of the new curriculum, how we organized the course material and our rationale for selecting the texts we did. Then, we broke into smaller pathway groups and reviewed each unit together. Our goal was to send teachers home with a fully-developed program to look over, if they wanted to, in the summer. There were two main teacher concerns that emerged from our roll-out day.

To teach or not to teach. The omission of Shakespeare in any university-stream course is always a lightning rod for debate. Greg and I presented a fully-Indigenous roster of writers and felt that the critical analysis skills our students will be honing will put them in good stead for any 4U study of King Lear or Hamlet (the plays we tend to do). Other teachers who will be teaching 3U discussed the inclusion of The Tempest as a means of introducing postcolonial theory and preparing them for a Grade 12 Shakespeare unit. As a department, we did not come to any formal conclusion. Some classes will study Drew Hayden Taylor’s, Dead White Writer on the Floor and other classes will study a dead, white writer. Whether a teacher teaches Shakespeare in their class or not, our discussion was very meaningful in challenging us to consider our own perspectives, blind spots and ways to teach themes and narratives that we ourselves might not have studied in our own formal education.

The second concern centred around being able to confidently teach the material. As a department, we are asking ourselves to do what we ask our students to do every day: learn. While reconciliation may be an increasingly trending buzzword, it is not eduspeak; it is a deeply personal journey that all Canadians have been called on to make. As English teachers, we are expanding our department’s reading repertoire and brushing up on historical and contemporary issues and elements of literary analysis. Teachers’ concern about doing or saying something ‘wrong’ or not having an answer to a question is natural; the way I approach this is to remind myself that avoiding Indigenous content out of concern for doing it wrong looks and feels the same to a student as avoiding Indigenous content because of a misperception of its value. Our solution is to work as a team and really support each other’s efforts; we are all, after all, at different places along the path. “Indigenous perspectives, issues, cultural norms, etc. are still a little-explored area of the Canadian social identity. This class will hopefully continue the process of allowing non-Indigenous students to simply gain perspective. Indigenous culture doesn’t have to be mysterious and scary. It is simply another side of the Canadian perspective. It also allows Indigenous students to explore their own cultural literature, to share their own experiences, and to lose the label of ‘different.’ Knowledge is the only weapon we have against fear, the stem of racism, division, apathy, and misunderstanding. This course will benefit all students towards that end,” reflected English teacher Dave Kaushik.

Sheryl Mattson, our K-12 First Nations, Métis & Inuit consultant has also been instrumental in supporting teachers’ concerns about appropriation by connecting local Elders and knowledge holders with our program. While we cannot turn back time, we can capture the spirit of the early silver covenant chain by incorporating sustained Indigenous community involvement in our exploration of FNMI voices in literature. We plan to have guest speakers who will speak to several Grade 11 classes at a time in our auditorium, and engage students in small group activities both on and off the school grounds, and through other opportunities to connect with the land in an authentic way.

While teaching Indigenous literature is the right thing to do for reconciliation, it is also the right thing to do for our students. Indigenous lit is evocative, edgy, witty and heartbreaking. It gives our students an opportunity to broaden their contexts and their understanding of archetypes, symbology and philosophy, to challenge the literary narrative they have studied and help them to explore the Canadian experience more fully.

TAS students know that Grade 11 will be different in the coming year. Several of the Indigenous students I spoke to are both nervous and excited. One student shared that when his mother heard the news, she cried. She had not imagined that such a shift could take place between her own educational experiences and that of her son. However, this program does not just benefit Indigenous students. NBE is just as important for non-Indigenous teachers and students as Indigenous ones. “I’m excited for students seeing themselves in the rich stories, poems, plays and media we bring into class, and to be highlighting the talents of writers close to home and becoming a better and more balanced educator,” reflected Greg.

Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is very clear: “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out.” At first glance, the statement seems straightforward, simple even. While Sinclair’s comments were directed at a much larger audience than Ontario teachers, the question becomes how do we, as teachers, rise to the challenge? At its best, public education in Ontario affords students the opportunity to learn, to grow, to question and to think critically, to be inspired, to inspire others and to engage in their communities; therefore, we need to do what we do best as OSSTF/FEESO: listen, learn, collaborate and lead with humility and integrity.

About Ellen Hinan
Ellen Hinan is a teacher in District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge.

1 Comment on Learning and reconciliation

  1. Well done forum

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