Challenging “Alternative Truths”

“Honesty is the best policy” is an adage that has been kicked to the curb openly of late.  The “alternative truth” is the actually emerging as “a thing”.   I was brought up with several “alternative truths,” but even as a young child I identified them as nothing more than lies.  I also knew that championing the truth was futile in some cases.  It was better not to ask questions.  However the question “why” didn’t disappear.  The people that I most trusted and respected were the people who told me the truth.

The ability of the “alternative truth” to survive, depends largely on the power of the person or institution serving it up as the truth, and how desperately they strive to sustain it.  However the quest for truth  is an long established practice.  The imagery of light is also used to explore the notion of truth, throughout many religions and social justice groups.  If something can bear scrutiny, we can hopefully re-emerge better – more just, more empathetic, more inclusive, more willing to identify similarities and more willing to value differences.

The study of history and political science in university taught me how to adopt a position, create an argument and then switch sides.  The facts and arguments you chose to expound or omit, allowed you to take both sides.  Yet, sometimes the facts were significant enough to define the truth or reality of that time in history.  There is no alternative truth.  Sometimes there are just fears and insecurities that allow people in power to manipulate with Machiavellian intent.  Our minds easily shift to south of the border, pre-World War II Germany or apartheid in South Africa.  Our minds don’t as easily shift to our reality as Canadians.  The Chinese Head Tax, the internment of the Japanese and treatment of our Indigenous people are all examples of that same Machiavellian policy that grew out of fears and insecurities.  Yet, if we never explore our history, we can never understand our current realities or a path to move forward based on understanding rather than ignorance.


I had an amazing week of professional learning this week thanks to Brad Baker and his team of inspired educators from the North Vancouver School District.  My friend, Latash (Maurice) Nahanee, was the first person to ever help me begin to understand the legacy of residential schools and other forms of institutionalized racism.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada brought the conversation into mainstream.  People such as Martin Brokenleg, DeeDee DeRose and Don Fiddler  have done an amazing job of helping us to understand why Aboriginal Education is necessary for us to understand our own history and the importance of changing our relationship with Aboriginal families.

On Wednesday night, Brad Baker presented at a PDK dinner meeting for instructional leaders.  He explored some of the ways how we can move beyond tokenism and engage in meaningful Aboriginal education for all of our students throughout the year.  This can be a basic as including an acknowledgement that we live, work and learn on Aboriginal lands.  Yes, this does mean that we need to find out who were the Aboriginal people that first lived on the lands we now inhabit.  Although I grew up in Vancouver and studied history, I learned relatively recently that I grew up on the ancestral lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh.

On Friday at the Professional Learning Rep Assembly for BCPVPA (British Columbia Principal and Vice Principal’s Association), I participated in the Blanket Activity for a second time.  This activity is very powerful and includes excerpts from government documents and statements from Aboriginal people.  Participants begin standing on blankets that represent Turtle Island in Ontario.  Blankets are manipulated or removed as the story unfolds, as are the people on them.

I participated in this activity for the first time as part of district professional development.  I read passages both times, that reflected Aboriginal voice.  This made both experiences very personal.  However the first time I participated, I was removed from the group relatively early when land was encroached upon and my blanket was removed.  From outside the circle, it became more of a cerebral experience.  On Friday, I was never removed from the circle.  I watched as others were lost to disease, residential schools, placed on reserves or lost status because they left the reserve.  The experience remained very personal and the feeling of waiting for “my turn” ever present.  I can’t imagine anyone participating in this activity and not empathizing with the fate of these participants in our collective history.

Brad Baker emphasizes when he speaks that goal of Aboriginal Education is not to inspire guilt but understanding.  Laura Tait’s video about The Principles of Learning is on my repeated watch list to focus my attention on looking at the world through an Indigenous lens. The inclusion on these principles in the new BC curriculum provides a meaningful way to engage students in learning that has taken place over thousands of years.  There is no “alternative truth” to what happened in our history.  Let’s participate in Jan Hare’s MOOC at UBC – Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education , keep talking and and learning, and step away from judgments and thinking that obscure a respectful path forward.  Most of all, to quote Brad Baker – “Go Forward with Courage!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling Grateful

This December is my last as vice principal at Tecumseh Elementary School.  I have been at the school long enough to work, learn, play and share  experiences with enough children and adults to make leaving a hard thing to do.  Many Tecumseh students have heard my heartfelt speech that you choose everyday if you are going to make someone else’s life a little bit better or a little bit worse.  I just realized that I have missed an important element.  You have to understand that you impact others with the things you choose to do and the things you choose not to do.  During my time at Tecumseh, particularly this past December, the Tecumseh school community has chosen to show me that they care about me.  That choice has touched me deeply.

The cards, songs, poems, books and kind words show that you understand the things that are important to me and are grateful for our time together.  I love that I have been able to help someone learn to talk to people and make friends, make someone feel special by saying hi and smiling, make someone else feel like they can kick a soccer ball or code or blog or learn English or choose who they want to be.  I’m grateful to have talked and listened and laughed and learned with you.  I appreciate that many of you have learned that strength can be physical but also standing up for what is right and believing in yourself.

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Staff gave me a beautiful silver necklace with the wolf symbol crafted by Harold Alfred,  as my parting gift.  This symbol was also given to me on a card when I left Norquay Elementary School.  I love it.  As you well know, I am very interested in Indigenous ways of knowing and worked hard to further our collective understanding of our history and traditional indigenous teachings.  I take the selection of this wolf symbol as a huge compliment and inspiration.   The wolf represents great strength, is considered wise and powerful, chooses one mate for life and demonstrates strong loyalty to family.  Not a bad symbol to have chosen for you!

I’ve learned many things about strength of purpose at Tecumseh.  I love that staff signed me up for the Bike to Work Week and tested by ability to persevere until I could pedal up the hills from Kits to 41st and Commercial Street WITHOUT getting off my bike.  I love that so many in the school community invested in our We Welcome Refugees project to show the strength of our conviction that Canada is a welcoming country that demonstrates empathy and belief in what people have to benefit our country.  I love the enthusiasm that Tecumseh students bring to new learning and challenges.  I love that so many students have the strength to continue to try even when they fail or the task is really hard or maybe not even fair.   I also value that the families in our school community are so invested in creating a better future for their children, often in the face of significant challenges.  My Mom struggled raising two daughters and supporting her extended family as I was growing up.  I admire the same tenacity in our Tecumseh families.

Students, staff, parents and community partners have shown me in so many ways that they value the relationship we have developed over the years.  I cannot tell you how much it means to me that the relationships we have developed means as much to you, as they do to me.  I am so grateful for our time together and I wish all the very best for you in the future.

P.S.  I am also grateful to Harold Alfred for creating my very special and beautiful gift.  img_0355

The Science of Art

Dana Mulder, one of the Tecumseh staff members, gave us the opportunity to experience the Science of Art last week.  She has developed a considerable amount of background knowledge through her work providing programs at Van Dusen Gardens and provided an after school session for interested staff members on dyeing wool from natural materials.  My experience to date with dyeing anything has been Rit dyes out of a package.  It felt like a whole new world was introduced.

Dana not only taught us about the natural dyes used historically but also the stories and collection of the plants and insects that they were derived from.  The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay, Wild Color  and Quilt History also provide a plethora of information for further exploration.  We learned there are three types of natural dyes derived from three different sources.  There are natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained from minerals (ocher).

We used ALUM as the mordant to facilitate the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed and brightens the colour slightly.  Other common mordants are: IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken colors, bringing out green shades; TIN to brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns.  Some dyes like walnut hulls and lichens do not require mordants.

I chose the cochineal dye, not for the smell, but for the story and for the rich, red colour.  Historically cochineal was a valuable commodity, only beat out in trading popularity in Europe by silver and gold.  These dead insects, hence the smell, are ground with the mortar and pestle into a fine powder that is mixed with the alum for a beautiful colourfast dye.

As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers.  Knitting, crochet and embroidery projects were clearly enjoyable but also had a specific utilitarian purpose.  Creating clothing, decorating pillow cases and saving money were a driving force.  I learned to appreciate these endeavors and continued to pursue them and teach them to students as hobbies.  Dana’s session provided us the opportunity to consider the cross curricular connections implicit in the craft. Her dyes included crushed marigolds, dandelions, leaves and the cochineal insect.  Dana also provided information on respectful harvesting, although I have grand aspirations of our students stripping the ground of all traces of dandelions in spring to deal with this pernicious weed on our school grounds and use them for something purposeful!

The new curriculum in British Columbia gives educators the opportunity to consider the things that we do in schools through a new lense.  Dyeing wool no longer belongs solely in the realm of arts and crafts.  It becomes part of science, the stories of history and Indigenous practices, as well as outdoor education.  It also provides a high level of engagement that was able to keep educators at school after a week of parent-teacher conferences and preparing for professional development sessions the following day.  It continues to hold our attention as we shake our jars daily to distribute the colour and imagine the final outcome.  Special thanks to Dana for opening our eyes.  My Nanny Keenan would be thrilled .  She had fond memories of this long-haired sheep on the farm in Brandon, Manitoba.  I can only imagine what she could have done with these dyes!

 

Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine

imageInvestigating Our Practice Conference in the Faculty of Education on Saturday, May 14th.  The day was filled with poster presentations, talks and interactive experiences by undergraduates, grad students, faculty and alumni.  It was particularly exciting to see the level of engagement of the student giving up their very sunny Vancouver Saturday to consider a range of ideas and questions.  For those of you who are not Vancouverites, when the sun comes out in full glory, we go outside – never quite certain how long it will be around.

I had the pleasure of presenting The Outdoor Classroom:  Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine with Claire Rushton, Alli Tufaro and Ali Nasato.        We were pulled together by a common interest in the opportunity provided by outdoor learning.  This one interest was able to pull together so many elements that have been embraced as key ideas in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia, such as:

  • The social emotional benefits of engaging with nature
  • The natural way in which we can engage students in practicing and understanding the First Nations Principles of Learning, including:
    • experiential learning
    • patience and time required for learning
    • exploring one’s identity
    • everyone and everything has a story
    • history matters
    • there are consequences to our actions
  • Ways to engage students in cross curricular learning opportunities
  • Connecting classroom lessons to the larger world
  • Using resources in the classroom to answer our questions about observations made outdoors
  • Reporting back about the things we care about to authentic audiences

Of course, the list goes on.  Another interesting aspect of our collaborative group was the power of inquiry in developing our professional practice as educators throughout different stages of our careers.  Both student teachers have found a way to focus their  professional learning throughout the practicum experience.  Claire Rushton, as the coordinator of the Social Emotional Learning cohort has used the outdoors to bring  Richard Louv’s work to life and introduce the power of “nature … as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life..” by integrating the experiences in nature to frame discussions of social – emotional learning. I have engaged in a personal inquiry of how to use iPad APPS  (photos, Drawing Pad, Book Creator, Twitter) as a way to access information, document and share outdoor learning.  I’ve also been able to support the staff I interact with on a regular basis in their own inquiries.  Inquiry, as framed by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in Spirals of Inquiry, has provided a framework for beginning teachers as well as a school administrator and university instructor.  The learning has fuelled more questions and future inquiries.

 

I very much hope our collaboration continues…perhaps after the frenetic pace of the end of practicum, final observations and reports and end of year demands and celebrations!

Deborah Hodge Talks the Craft of Writing


There is nothing like the visit from a REAL author to bring to life the point that authors are real people, writing about their experiences or imaginings.  We are thrilled to welcome Deborah Hodge to speak to the Vancouver School Board.  Deborah Hodge will be joining administrators, librarians and two students from 55 Vancouver elementary schools at Shaughnessy Elementary School on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.

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Each year the Vancouver Elementary Principals and Vice Principals host an author to celebrated reading and writing with elementary students and educators.  Phyllis Simon of Vancouver Kidsbooks, is one of our keen supporters.  She selects a collection of some of the most wonderful picture books that have been recently published for the selection committee to peruse.  Of course, I love this committee and always manage to find birthday picks for my friends, family and my own collection.  It is also a source of inspiration for possibilities in the school.   From our shortlist of books, we then contact the authors to determine their availability during Canadian Children’s Book Week:  May 7 – May 14th, 2016 to share their book .

For 2016, we have selected a new publication by Deborah Hodge.  This author was born in Saskatchewan but lucky for us, she lives in Vancouver.  Deborah Hodge has written over 25 books for children, many of which provide a plethora of information about nature and history.  Her picture book , West Coast Wild – A Nature Alphabet, has been purchased for all of the elementary libraries in the district by the administrator’s association.   Several schools in the Vancouver School District participated in Wild About Vancouver Festival this year and interest in learning in the outdoor classroom is growing.  The First People’s Principles of Learning have also been highlighted in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia and have opened our eyes to the experiential and reflective learning of Indigenous People who have lived and learned in British Columbia for thousands of years.   Both of these factors, along with the engaging text and illustrations make this book a perfect choice.

Students throughout the district are excited about the chance to meet Deborah Hodge and have their questions answered.    Grade 3 students at Tecumseh have been writing alphabet books about topics they have been researching.  Maria got new glasses this year and has taken off with her writing.  She is wondering if Deborah Hodge saw all of the animals she wrote about in her book or if she did an internet search to find the animal that matched the letter she needed.  Victoria is writing an ABC book about the aquarium and is wondering how the author got so many good ideas for her book. Hopefully they will find their answers on Wednesday.

Special Thanks to  Vancouver Administrators for funding this project,  committee members – Maureen McDonnell and Maria Donovan, as well as staff at Shaughnessy Elementary School for hosting this event.

 

 

 

 

 

“We are story…”

Richard Wagamese calls it. It’s up to us to create “the best story we can create while we are here”. The celebration of relationships with the earth, family, community and spirits as well as the embedding of history and survival techniques in story is what sustained our First Nations people for thousands of years pre- contact. The importance of embedding story in curriculum has been explored extensively by Kieran Egan at Simon Fraser University and has become a mainstream truth. What is new, is the rediscovery of the fact that embedding memory and history in story to make it meaningful is part of the legacy handed down to our current society by First People’s cultures. Learning about and acknowledging and integrating these foundational truths from First Peoples cultures is how we can truly reconcile our relationship with Indigenous people that has been seriously compromised in the process of colonization and the subsequent quest for economic advantage.

The First Peoples Principles of Learning were written by fnesc (First Nations Education Steering Committee) and the British Columbia Ministry of Education .  Laura Tait did an amazing talkat The Changing Results for Young Readers Conference in 2013.  It’s well worth listening to her 15 minute presentation, complete with pictures and stories from her family and Tsimshian community to bring life to the words. image

For me, the concept that bounced out was the acknowledgement of more than one way of looking at the world. Imagine the wars based on religious intolerance that could have been averted if we had been able to grasp this concept. I think of all of the time it took me to grasp the concept of “sister- cousin” from my Indo-Canadian students.  And for me it should have been easy.  I grew up with a cousin who was more like a sister and even lived in the same house for a chunk of time.  When I finally “got it”, I had to tell Babita, the student who persevered and patiently explaining the relationship of “sister-cousin”.    She had persisted with the idea despite my insistent references to the definition of the word cousin. Her eyes were filled with the delight, or was it relief, of a teacher when a student finally understands the seemingly easy concept that has eluded them.  It didn’t just take my willingness to try to understand but her patience and perseverance in hanging in there with me on the journey of discovery.  We hold on to these little successes along the way.  To end where we began, with the words of Richard Wagamese:  “We change the world one story at a time.”  Babita changed mine.

Continue reading ““We are story…””

The Faces of Truth and Reconciliation 

Learning our own history and the racism and miscarriages of basic human rights and justice is important.  The United States has long grappled with the existence of slavery in its past and the tumultuous path of moving forward. Canada as a country has needed to step off its moral high ground and reframe our understanding of ourselves.  As we grapple with the existence of the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps, and now residential schools that existed for the purpose of cultural genocide, how can we move forward to a place of respect and appreciation?

The final presentation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa was met with skepticism or hope, depending on who you are.  I am a “cup is half full  kind of girl” and firmly in the hope camp.  I believe there is a path forward.  I attended the multi-faith service that brought United, Presbyterian and Anglican leaders and congregations together at St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church.  Jen was leading the children’s program and explained to the children that when Europeans first came to North America, they weren’t able to see the beauty in the people already living here.  Doug White, an inspirational and articulate former Snuneymuxw chief and Nanaimo lawyer, spoke passionately about how he wanted his grandchildren to be loved unconditionally not just tolerated.  Owning the tragedy and moving forward without bitterness is one face of truth and reconciliation.  Another face is learning about and embracing our collective history and celebrating what Aboriginal people bring to the table or as Jen would frame it, “seeing the beauty in the people who were here first”.

Our playground opening ceremony was a sight to behold.  Our dignitaries including student leaders, parents, community build volunteers from Overwaitea, our Habitat cheerleader and preschool families took their seats.  Primary students processed from the school carrying class paper chains and made a huge ring around the new primary playground ready for the honorary “paperchain cutting” by the PAC chairperson. Grade 5-7 students took their places on the field. The grade three and four students in divisions 9, 10, and 11 were the final students to process in.

Student led morning announcements include the acknowledgement and gratitude that we work and play on the ancestral lands of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh people. We are fortunate to work with Dena Galay, the Aboriginal School Support Worker, assigned to Tecumseh.  She has worked with students, facilitated programs and even shared 

stories, information and artifacts made by her mom with our students as they studied the contribution and experiences of Aboriginal people in Canada. For the opening ceremony, she brought cedar boughs for the playground and led three student drummers and the students of the three final divisions in a grand procession to make another circle around the playground and primary students. They chanted the words “hosiem” and “hatchka” from the Musqueam Haikomelen dialect, honoring and providing thanks for the space.  More than half of Aboriginal languages in the country reside in B.C., according to a 2010 report from the First Peoples’ Heritage, Languages and Culture Council.  There are only 278 fluent speakers of all three Halkomelem dialects.

 Ms. Galay also spoke the words she always uses when she finishes off a sessions with our students in Dene, Cree, Ojibway and Iroquois, languages from her childhood home in Saskatchewan.  The children responded with the English version: “All our relations”. Ben followed up with the familiar and well loved poem called “And My Heart Soars”, by Chief Dan George.   “The beauty of the trees…the softness of the air…the fragrance of the grass…the (view of the) summit of mountains…”  did speak to us.  And our hearts soared.  And yes, my hope for continued truth, understanding and meaningful reconciliation grows.

 

Book Review: Taan’s Moons A Haida Moon Story

By Alison Gear
Felt Illustrations by Kiki van dee Heiden with the Children of Haida Gwaii

mckellar & martin Publishing Group Ltd. 2014

This book made me want to go back to the Haida Gwaii.  It is a beautiful book and a celebration of the children of the Haida Gwaii who helped to make it.  The felt work is unique and a fitting representation of the BC Northwest coast.  Alison Gear has lived on the Haida Gwaii since 1996 and tells one version of the Haida moon cycle.  Each page has text in English with titles in both Skidegate Haida and Old Masset Haida.  It is very cool that there is a full written translation and audio recording in the Skidegate Haida dialect upon request.  Initially the book looks like a book appropriate for early primary but the poetry of text makes it just as appropriate for use with older students.  I shared this book with Grade 3/4 students.  They loved the artwork in the illustrations and how you could “almost feel” the texture.  They also liked how the animals that they know quite a bit about, followed the cycle of the moon.  The students currently researching British Columbia and the Haida Gwaii were also thrilled that they were able to garner information to include in the books they are currently writing using BookCreator on the iPads.  Taan’s Moons is an amazing way to consider Aboriginal ways of knowing and understanding that are evolving into written text after being passed down through oral traditions for centuries.

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Moving Beyond Half Truths and Innuendo

In The Vancouver Sun (Jan.3,2015 page A3), Daphne Braham did an OpEd piece: “A call for a return to rationality”.   Imagine the notion of proposing the checking of facts before forming opinions.   Brilliant!  What happened to the pause button, the one that use to be hit before uninformed criticisms intended to discredit, were lobbed into conversations or amplified via social media? How did we get to a point where we opted out of taking responsibility for what we popularize?   Negative statements or decontextualized comments are intimate incompetence, lack of the required cognitive skills or general untrustworthiness.  At times, even blatant lies are presented as fact and retracted after the damage is done or not.

How do we teach kids to care about fact?  How do we teach them that half truths and innuendo are neither reliable nor moral?   I am working under the presumption that we have a role to play as educators, parents and friends of the children under our care.  If we teach our children to scrutinize information and ask good questions, certainly it follows that there will be a higher degree of insistence on reasoned and fair decisions from themselves, as well as from friends, family and decision makers.

I recently went to see the Broadway musical, Into The Woods, that recently made it’s film appearance starring Meryl Streep.  Two classic lines jumped out of the movie:   “Be careful of the stories you tell, children will listen” and “I was brought up to be charming, not sincere”.  What are the stories we are telling our children with our conversations and treatment of others people and discussion of events?  Are we quick to jump to conclusions based on hearsay?  Do we give the benefit of the doubt to the person involved?  Do we place more value on charm than sincerity?  Do we ask enough questions to try to get a full picture of the situation or person.  Do we insist on factual information to make reasoned decisions?

The Grade 3 and 4 students that I work with two days a week are starting to do research projects on Canada.  How do we get children to understand history as a story involving real people with real stories at a specific point in time?  History by it’s nature is skewed by the person who is allowed to tell the story.  If children understand this at a young age, does it impact their quest to look at the story from a variety of viewpoints?  Does it define an insistence on looking at the facts?  Does it help them to look past the personality of the person telling the story?  My training in history insists that it must be true.  My social conscience hopes it is. The Grade 3 students in my class are each researching a province in Canada.  The Grade 4’s are researching Aboriginal Nations across Canada who are defined by geography.  I am very interested to be part of this conversation.  What will the questions be?  I’m hoping it is a spark that leads to insistence that rationality reins supreme in guiding perceptions and conclusions.  The beauty of being an educator, is we really do believe we can make a difference and create positive change.

The Power of The Talking Stick

Last weekend I came across a great tweet by Dr. Allen Mendler.  He did a nice job of articulating the need for educators to directly teach students how to have a conversation.  The last item on his list was recommending using a talking stick.  Last week I had one of many experiences, that have underlined the power of the talking stick. In the Vancouver Board of Education, there are several Aboriginal School Support workers.  We are fortunate to have Dena Galay assigned to our school to support our Aboriginal students and work with teachers to create a better understanding of past and present Aboriginal culture.  She has been working in my classroom of Grade 3/4 students and helping us to learn about Aboriginal people in our study of Canada.  She has shared her Metis heritage from Dene (Chippewayan) and French Canadian roots in northern Saskatchewan.  Last Tuesday, we did our first talking circle. Dena has a very special talking stick that was gifted to her by the first female carver in British Columbia, Nan Williams, from the Nu Chul Nuth ( Nootka) band.

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She introduced each of the symbols on the talking stick and its significance in Aboriginal Culture, especially to Indigenous people on the Northwest Coast of North America.   She did an amazing job of setting up a respectful context for the person holding the talking stick to speak and to be heard.  She encouraged the class to share their culture and the places their parents were born.  Many of the students in my class speak one or more languages other than English at home.   Some students are not familiar with participating in conversations at home or at school with adults.  A lot of encouragement is placed on joining conversations and participating in lessons at school to develop proficiency in English language skills.  This is very hard for some students.  I noticed two particularly interesting things during the circle:

1.  The students comfortable talking in a large group, looked up and talked to the group.

2.  Students that were more reluctant to speak, looked at the talking stick while they shared.

Dena posed one topic at the beginning of the circle for each student to respond to.  All of the students were able to participate without prompting, even the 3rd grader who arrived from China at the end of August and is just starting to speak English.  Once we finished the question about culture, students were anxious to go around the circle again.  The talking stick allowed all of the students to be successful in speaking during the circle.

Laurie Ebenal, principal of Suwa”lkh School in Coquitlam, presented at the Mental Health Symposium, sponsored by BCPVPA recently.    To introduce the circle, she handed out cards with symbols that are important in Aboriginal culture.  The task was to find the person with the same card and ask some questions to introduce your partner during the circle.  It was a very non-threatening mixer activity to get to know one another and to introduce the circle.  She had a pile of artifacts in the center of the circle such as an eagle feather, an abalone shell and a stone.  She is the principal in an alternate school named Suw’lkh which means “First Beginnings.”  This school supports Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students who are struggling to succeed.  When students arrive at the school, they are frequently reluctant to share their experiences and feelings.  She explained that the artifacts are a way to draw attention away from the speaker and establish a greater comfort zone for sharing.   It’s easier for some students to express their thoughts while looking at the artifacts.  It’s easier for some students to receive the information without making eye contact.  It provides another path into the circle.

When I was teaching Middle School in Coquitlam, I worked with Latash (Maurice) Nahanee who was an Aboriginal Support worker at the time.  We worked with a group of Aboriginal students from SD#43 and a group of Aboriginal students from Ottawa on a Youth Exchange initiative sponsored by the YMCA.  The talking circle was a regular part of our work with our students.  There was an expectation that honesty and respect would be part of the experience.  It was the vehicle for communication within the group, whether it was getting to know the group, processing experiences, or problem solving.  This was also a good space to build community and prepare for the more formal, ceremonial circles which we participated in during our visit to Ottawa.

I have experienced the talking circle as being a good addition to any educational context to build a sense of belonging.   The talking stick is an instrument of Aboriginal democracy that has spanned thousands of years.  It has a lot to teach us about past and present day Aboriginal culture.  At best, the talking stick is introduced by a person within the Aboriginal culture who communicates the knowledge, the pride, the respect and the honour that comes when we are gifted with this ancient tradition.   The development of oral language skills evolves as students grapple with the task of  communicating their thoughts and feelings to their peers.  It also helps students to develop active listening skills by tuning into the body language and words of the speaker in an undistracted context.  As my Grade 3 and 4 students got ready for recess, the most prevalent question was “When can we do that again?”

 

 

 

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-your-students-conversation-allen-mendler