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.
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?”