Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Transforming our Relationships

I believe in Aboriginal Enhancement agreements.  For some, they represent a token of political correctness which can be limited to lip service.  For others they focus our attention on something that matters not only in terms of facilitating basic human rights, but developing a culture of kindness and respect that we as Canadians have built our identity on.

John Hattie points to a large body of research that informs us that the largest predictor of health, wealth and happiness is not grades achieved by students, but the number of years spent in school.  Low graduation rates of indigenous students have meant that part of our job as educators is to create a learning environment in which all students find something to stay for.  Obviously we want this for all of our students.

Daniel Wood wrote an article in the travel section of The Vancouver Sun newspaper (Apr.28, 2018) on Easter Island:  “And once the last tree was chopped down, there was no wood to make a boat and leave.”  The habitat once plentiful with fish, birds, palm trees and fertile lands was left an archeological site on grassland.  Like those who inhabited and devastated Easter Island thousands of years ago, we too have much to learn.   The FNESC materials give us with tools and insight into how we can draft meaningful goals to incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our curriculum.

What is frequently lacking is a clearly articulated learning intention so we can determine if we are making an impact.  From this intentional stance, we are able to devise a plan that serves the needs of all of the students in our care:

  1.  To create a culture of kindness and respect.  For our indigenous students, it means listening to the stories and rather than rewriting history.  It means finding a way to move forward together.
  2.  To create a learning environment where students are engaged in learning.
    • How can we support students in their ability to self regulate so they can learn?
    • How do we incorporate student choice and provide clarity and high expectations into our learning contexts?
  3.  To incorporate indigenous ways of knowing into our lives.
    • What does it look like when we understand the First Peoples Principles of Learning and incorporate them into our lives and stories?

In response to stereotypes of indigenous culture that have pervaded our culture, and appropriation of cultural items to gain profit, we are left unsure of truly what is respectful.  Anthropologist, Aaron Glass states in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee ( March  2011):  “Totem poles, he says, have been added to the stereotype of the North American Indian, along with the teepee, the tomahawk and the feathered headdress.”  If we are earnest in our intention, this fact makes us wary when we see these images and concerned that we may be perceived as a part of the system that perpetuates negative stereotypes and gets in the way of developing respectful relationships.

The Tomahawk Barbecue was the first drive-in restaurant in Vancouver started by Chick Chamberlain in 1926 just off Marine Drive.  Chick learned to cook in the early 20’s when he opened a small coffee shop in a cabins to rent business with his brother.  The drive-in part of the restaurant wasn’t a huge success because of the dust from the unpaved roads.  It did evolve as a community hang-out.  One of the patrons of the restaurant mounted a big tomahawk over the door and the name stuck.  It managed to stay open through the “Dirty Thirties” largely because Chick would accept payment in curios, hand made pots, drums, cooking utensils, large and small totem poles, masks and other beautifully carved objects from those who couldn’t afford the food.  He started to purchase indigenous art long before it was recognized as valuable.  “Tomahawk’s famous hamburgers are named after some of the Indian chiefs Chick had known over the years, as a sort of memorial to his friends: Skookum Chief, Chief Capilano, Chief Raven, Chief Dominic Charlie, and Chief August Jack.”  Chuck Chamberlain is Chick’s son and has maintained his father’s legacy.  Chuck was happy to share stories of the his Dad, his restaurant, and his friends over the years when I came for breakfast on a rainy Saturday morning.  A painting of Chief Simon Baker graces the wall when you enter.  Chuck is proud of this friendship and was honoured to be a pall bearer at Chief Baker’s funeral.

The story that was most powerful was the story of the Wild Man of the Woods Mask used in the Squamish ceremony of boys moving into manhood.  When the mask is needed for a ceremony, it is taken down from the special resting spot in the restaurant, and once it’s purpose is fulfilled, it is returned to a place where it rests with the spirits of the ancestors.  This is so different than the experience of another friend of mine who is a member of the Squamish Nation.  He took a special basket made by his grandmother to the Museum of Anthropology with an inquiry about how best to preserve it.  The Museum of Anthropology explained they could help.  When my friend and his family returned to request it for use in a special ceremony, they were denied access.  Two similar scenarios with the biggest difference being the respect demonstrated and the dynamic of power and control.

I remember going to the Tomahawk Restaurant for breakfast as a very little girl, one weekend when my aunt and my Mom ventured over the Lion’s Gate Bridge to go to Capilano Canyon with my sister and cousins.  My husband remembers not being able to finish the Skookum Chief burger, nicknamed The Hulk burger, when he was a little boy.  Yet, I paused to return because of the name – Tomahawk.  As a student of history and an educator wanting to rectify past wrongs, I had many questions.  Was it respectful?  Was it appropriate?  Was it a remnant of past uninformed representations of indigenous culture?  Tomahawks were from the prairies, weren’t they?   It wasn’t until I did some internet research, listened to an interview and did some the reading, that I gave myself permission to return for a visit and a questions to ask.  And yes, I was dying to see the art.  While I was there, chatting with Chuck, I kept thinking of the First Peoples Principle of Learning:  Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.  Listening to the stories always needs to proceed formulating the judgement.  What I heard on Sunday, was pride in respectful relationships and families that have become intertwined over many years.

Recently I cited Byrd Baylor’s book, Everybody Needs a Rock in reference to an Indigenous sharing circle of large boulders that we are installing in our playground.  The intention is to help students understand the very beginnings of the concept of democracy in giving everyone a voice.  One of my respected colleagues, questioned my reference to a non-indigenous author.  Again I did some internet research to discover that she has maternal Native American decent but grew up in a largely non-indigenous culture.  However I went back to the First Peoples Principle of Learnings:  Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).   Ultimately, isn’t our intention for all people to embrace these principles because it represents universal learning that matters.  And isn’t it our intention for all people to share the stories that come to form their understandings.

Anthropologist, Aaron Glass also stated in his interview with Heather Ramsey of The Tyee (March  2011):  “What we argue in the book is that the totem pole has been a constantly evolving form, so there was never a moment when “it” almost died. It kept changing, migrating, transforming. This is not a story of death and rebirth it is a story of continual transformation.”  As with the totem pole, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people will continue to evolve and transform as we open ourselves to new learning.  Hopefully this time we get it right, and that relationship will be based on respect, honesty, shared power, and a willingness to be open to learning from each other.

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7 Habits +1 to Empower

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Betty Boult was the keeper of the knowledge when it came to Stephen Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when I first started teaching in Abbotsford.  She had done the facilitators training and she facilitated with flair.  We had animated discussions and were committed to engaging with the ideas and doing the work to complete the workbook meticulously.  I can still play out some conversations that resonated and remember my queries around some of the habits.  Those were the days when “sharpening the saw” was just a part of daily life and took much less deliberate effort.   Saying “no” was not yet part of my repertoire and everything was a priority.   These were the days before children and my husband was working just as hard to start his business.  The advantage of professional development in Abbotsford was that it was a small enough district that we all did pro-d together.  Therefore, the things we learned and ideas we were thinking about, were discussed in the staffroom, as staff socials and the ideas frequently referenced.  I think in this way, many of the ideas were incorporated into who I was.

I recently finished reading Stephen Covey’s (2008)  The Leader in Me:  How Schools and Parents Around the World Are Inspiring Greatness, One Child at a Time.  In this book, the learning is focused on children in K-5, middle and secondary schools, in the United States (the main focus), Singapore, Canada and Japan.  The power is that it that the ideas are introduced and developed with entire school populations.  Students are taught public speaking and acknowledged for their strengths and encouraged to assume responsibility for leadership tasks within the school.

I remember shortly after my Covey training, I was asked to do the goodbye tribute to my mentor, Joan Fuller, at her retirement function.  Public speaking had never been in my comfort zone.  Memories of tomato seeds bouncing out of my hand during my 9th grade oral report haunted me.  Boring topic.  Questionable choice to be holding the smallest of all seeds for an oral report in front of the class.  Terrifying teacher who was known to roll her eyes. Nothing good came out of it and I carried a lingering fear of public speaking.  However, I loved Joan and had a vested interest in making her retirement special.  I was terrified.  I was over prepared and tripped over my words.  I was glued to my cue cards.  My vocal chords constricted.  My legs shook.  I blushed.  And yet, I lived through it.  Everyone clapped and smiled.  Joan was delighted and cried.  And there were no tomato seeds.  I drank the Kool-Aid and was excessively proactive and had a passion for professional development.  I found myself more and more speaking in front of audiences,  in both my professional life and involvement in personal passions.  Yes, I was one of the lives that was changed because I had come to understand I had something worthwhile to say.

Covey is frequently referenced but I wonder how many people really understand the ideas and have integrated them into their lives and then regularly revisited.  There is a tremendous amount to be learned that directly correlates with empowering, not only adults but children too.

For those of you who need a quick recap of the habits:

  • Habit 1:  Be Proactive
    • Take initiative
  • Habit 2:  Begin with the End in Mind
    • Set goals
  • Habit 3:  Put First Things First
    • Prioritize and only do the most important things
  • Habit 4:  Think Win-Win
    • Getting what you want while considering others
  • Habit 5:  Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Habit 6:  Synergize
    • work well with others to accomplish a task
  • Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw
    • Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep
  • Habit 8 (added in 2004):  Find Your Voice and Help Others Find Theirs –
    • Identify gifts.  Optimize them.  Develop them.

Reframing 2018

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I’m am writing this blog post as a series of questions but it is actually a reframing of my New Year’s Resolutions.  I am undaunted by the fact that I have been writing the same resolutions using different words  and forms for many years.  To believe that we cannot become better is to admit defeat.  Like my mother, I am an eternal optimist.  Although things did not always turn out as planned or hoped for or prayed for – she put steadfast belief that people could become their best selves, as did all three of my grandmothers.  Strong women that worked with deliberate intention.

I have German and Scottish roots and perhaps because of that,  a well developed work ethic.   I also have a creative mind and need for little sleep, so the possibilities in life are endless.    Unfortunately time is not.  I continue to struggle with the limits of a 24 hour day.  In the past, it has been all about creating work / life balance.  My colleague, Brian Kuhn, frames that best as “working to live” as opposed to living to work.  However at times, my life has become frenetic in trying to get things done.  My first question is how can I discipline myself to work less and maintain balance?

The quest to balance body/ mind / spirit has often been in the “life outside of work” end of the teeter totter and “work” on the opposite end.  Because there is a plethora of competing demands and imminent needs everyday in my job,  during the school year the teeter totter is most often is grounded in the problem solving and minutia on the work side.  The natural school break times do allow me to refocus priorities, replenish my energy reserves and reframe my next go in the elusive quest for balance.  This seems to be the times I play catch up with creative possibilities, physical and spiritual wellness.

Yes, these are the times of the “ultimate oxymoron” –  the power relax.  Although laughter is a key part of my stress management at work and enjoyment of life, it isn’t enough.  My latest and greatest power relax is the salt float.  My cousin in Cairo is right, it’s not the Dead Sea.  It is 90 minutes of floating in highly concentrated salt water, all by myself in the ocean room of the pristine Halsa Spa in Kits.  Like being a noodle in soup.  My preference is no sound and no light but ambient sound and the blue light and the pod option, work too.  Reading, yoga, cardio activity (walking/ hiking, biking, skiing / boarding, swimming, golfing ), sunshine when possible, good wine and socializing with people I enjoy – all build up my depleted energy reserves.  How do I maintain the balance to maintain long term energy reserves?

Over time I have been changing my perception of balance to be more of a teeter totter with triangular seats on either end.  How can I carve out the time and place to meet physical, spiritual and intellectual needs at work and maintain enough energy to create the same balance at home?   The goal is to avoid the frenetic pace I maintain at work and then collapse in front of the News, Murdoch Mysteries and Modern Family.

My school is right beside the Pacific Spirit Park and Acadia Beach and most classes regularly engage in outdoor learning.  All but the most torrential days are outdoor days during recess and lunch.  The school is less than 20 minutes from four golf courses.  I can ride my bike to school in 40 minutes or less, depending how energetic I am on the big hill.  My husband and I live right beside the beach and already walk to shop, see movies, eat out or go to church.  How can I extend that to get enough exercise at home and work to maintain a healthy perspective and body?

My work first as a teacher, then a teaching vice principal and now as a principal have afforded me many opportunities to participate in rich face to face opportunities for professional learning.  Participation in social media has added another layer to access information and connect with people online.  Blogging has incorporated more depth to personal reflection because it is public and invites further conversation.  The many challenges of implementing curriculum change and adapting to societal change creates stress and possibility in all school communities.  My current school has students speaking 34 different home languages in addition to English.  Some students live in the area, others commute and some will return to their home countries when they have learned English or when their parents finish their studies at The University of British Columbia.  How can I incorporate the voices and needs and desired directions of our staff, students, parents and community partners with national, provincial, district and community school team directions?

For me, spiritual wellness requires times of quiet reflection or a pause button to stop and be grateful for the people and events unfolding around you.  What matters most doesn’t fit on a To Do list with time limits or happen with a perpetual open door policy.  Although I participate and grow from participation in organized religion, spiritual wellness is bigger than participation in church activity.  Church can be a conduit to spiritual wellness and empathy but unfortunately, I have seen it also used as a weapon to control or justify entitlement and hurtful actions.  Fortunately I live in one of the most diverse and profoundly beautiful areas of the world.  A walk in the neighbourhood takes my husband and I to the beach, skiing and hiking takes us to the mountains, wine tasting in the interior of BC takes us to the desert, golf takes us to the park, and a walk just beyond the school grounds takes us to the forest.  I believe that nature feeds the soul because it speaks the natural beauty and diverse forms of life that surrounds us.  On a very foggy late afternoon in December, I was working in my office and happened to look up just in time to see a bald eagle descending down on the playground to scoop up it’s prey.  My question is how can I hit the pause button and look up more often?

My goal throughout 2018 is to go about answering my questions.  One of my ideas to encourage sharing of ideas is a tea time on the first Friday of the month from 9:15 – 10:15 am at my school.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  My student leaders will be providing school tours and talking about their learning at the same time.  Good luck with your reframing in 2018.