The needs of Aboriginal students has come up often in the course of my degree program here at the University of Regina. However, in the past the discussion has focused on the reasons why we should be trying to meet the needs of Aboriginal students. I understand the why and I believe we should be meeting their needs. Over and over I asked the question of “How do I do this?” rarely have I been given an answer beyond differentiated instruction. In this class I finally got a glimpse into the how and it made me feel more at peace with this big educational issue.
Hearing from Steve how project based learning has helped and getting his perspective on how to plan and implement this type of programming was excellent. In the early years I often think through my teaching based on themes which is very similar to projects and getting a glimpse into how Steve and his team mates did their long range planning helped me understand for the first time how to bring everything together. It also gave me hope that I am on a track that can offer the flexibility and support that Aboriginal learners need. I saw first hand in my pre-internship at Albert school a lot of the issues that Steve mentioned: transient lifestyles, attendance issues, and lack of family support. By following a less linear planning style and instead thinking through your planning as modules that students can complete based around a concrete product that they are interested in I can see how students are engaged and needs accommodated.
A big struggle for me has been being asked to teach a culture and beliefs that are not my own. Not because I think that the Aboriginal culture has no merit but because I am an outsider to that culture. Often the answer to this struggle has simply been “educate yourself” and I do believe that this is a starting point. The text gave me hope that beginning here can help me be effective. “‘Non-native teachers who are most successful [teaching Aboriginal students] are those who are continually learning, who understand and accept Native ways and who can then transmit values, beliefs and behavioural norms which are consistent with those of the community.’ (Gilliland, 1999) “ In my studies I have found a lot of values I have connected with and feel I am transmitting in my teaching.
I also saw at Albert school the importance of bringing in those in the community like Elders to share their culture and beliefs. The students seemed to like these sessions and they responded well to them but I was left uncertain whether the understood that this was “their culture”. In one of these sessions the presenter was telling a story about the buffalo. When she asked if anyone had ever seen a buffalo I was the only one in the room that had. I saw the students struggle to connect to the story because it didn’t relate to where they are. These are inner city students who rarely leave the city is a story about hunting a buffalo going to connect them to their culture. In another session the presenter asked them which reserve they belonged to. Most in the room couldn’t identify a reserve and were told to ask their parents but if they never visit or live on the reserve is this going to connect them to their culture. It could be that I witnessed some weak guest presentations but it felt to me that the presenters where teaching a history lesson more than a living culture. Despite my few reservations about the content that was being shared, I do think it was beneficial for the students to see healthy culturally active Aboriginal role models. Many of these students are from very broken or unstable home environments so having someone to look up to is very important.
The text and Saskatchewan Education have also endorsed the infusion of Aboriginal content into all subject areas. I planned my three week writing unit around the trickster tale instead of fairy tales to try to include Aboriginal culture. I feel the unit went well but I was left uncertain that the inclusion of Aboriginal culture accomplished much to help the students embrace their culture. The effectiveness of these strategies will have to be judged more in the long range in a lot of ways but I had happy students that all successfully completed the assignment so I will have to hope that my unit was effective at showing these students that I value their culture. This was harder to judge too because as a pre-intern I was just parachuting into an existing classroom and while I formed relationships with the students I was not there long enough to see if there was growth in their confidence, happiness and sense of self. I was at least able to convey to them my pride and see their pride in their success at finishing their first written story. Hopefully when they look back they will remember that feeling of success and that an adult was proud of them. I think that is important to building strong learners of any background.
I am just at the beginning of this journey but I am willing to take it and to continue to learn and grow. I see now that many of the strategies that meet the needs of Aboriginal learners are not very different from the strategies to meet the needs of all my students. This makes me feel better because I truly want all students I teach to be successful both in my classroom and throughout their life. I want to help them build a strong foundation so that they can confront the issues that face them whether that is Aboriginal, social, economic or medical issues. I want to help every student be the best and achieve the best.