Recently, I worked on a project that required me to take a curriculum and adapt it in a way that I thought would be effective for delivery in remote First Nations communities. As someone who has instructed in remote communities in general, as well as with a focus on adult education for First Nations, I felt confident and comfortable completing this project.
The reality of education is that culture, geographical differences, languages, and traditional customs do influence the classroom. Student engagement techniques, topics, and method of delivery that are effective and accepted at a downtown Vancouver campus may be foreign and downright uncomfortable for some students in remote communities.
In my experience, some of the most effective engagement techniques in remote communities allow for:
Students to be prepared mentally and emotionally before contributing or participating
Adequate time for the student to decide on what to contribute
Creative research and informational resources
When a student has come to depend on family members and community to be their key source of reliable information due to lack of satellite/cable tv, internet or cell phones, they are justified in taking a project home and using what their uncle or Elder have taught them about the topic. It doesn’t make the information wrong just because there isn’t a papertrail of concrete documentation stating ‘this is accepted truth’. The reference might just be ‘My Uncle Johnny’.
I have also found that by addressing the obvious and somewhat uncomfortable historical truths of the area promotes trust-based relationships to be formed between students and instructors. Sometimes, feelings and attitudes are carried into the classroom as a direct result of the impact that traditional European educational conformity had on Elders and ancestors in the community. I discovered (by accident) that a sense of community can be built in the classroom by acknowledging that history, and then taking it a step further by creating the opportunity for students to comfortably share their thoughts and opinions about that history through assignments. When students understand that the instructor understands them, it clears the air so to speak. The instructor can support this further through active listening while students give opinions or share personal stories, and asking respectful questions.
When it comes down to it, all of us want to be heard, understood and acknowledged. When we feel that we are heard, understood and acknowledged, we get comfortable and feel safe. Once we feel comfortable and safe, we can then be prepared to learn and absorb information.
I did a bit of research for this project and came across a number of insightful articles and interviews. One touched base on what I have framed above regarding student engagement techniques; that the traditional oral storytelling of Indigenous peoples, as well as the method of learning through observation and practice are key points to the success of any curriculum being delivered in remote communities or on-reserve. The article that supported my thoughts, and echoed personal observations I used to support my opinions in the project I did, included that ‘Post-secondary institutions in Canada over the last decade have given particular emphasis to changing both their delivery modes and program content. The 2009 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Aboriginal Initiatives, Memorial University of Newfoundland, identified 22 recommendations including ‘a more welcoming environment, peer support and adequate gathering space’ for Aboriginal students’ (Memorial University of Newfoundland 2009,np).
Sense of community and a welcoming atmosphere are positive attributes for any classroom setting, but some students from some cultures or demographics will not indicate that they require them to succeed. First Nations communities have voiced that these considerations, as well as others, should be made priority if we are going to see change in Canadian education for our First Nations people.
There is some debate over whether or not agreements and treaties should be emphasized, as the focus can create another issue of highlighting Indigenous/non-Indigenous and race. Shouldn’t we all just be considered Canadians? I always find myself standing in a strange place with this. I am someone who almost wants to boycott Pride because I feel like the emphasis of such events undermines the whole ideal of everyone being equal. I want my family members that are part of the LBGTQ community to just be part of our universal community. They explain it to me differently, and when they speak, if you didn’t know the context, you could listen in and assume it is someone in a racial minority group talking about how they use those particular events to feel empowered and acknowledged, and accepted.
I guess for me, the key word above is acceptance. If there are changes we can make as a country (that we are being requested to make) that allow for every Canadian to feel accepted and comfortable in order to explore and fulfill their highest potential, we should do it.
As someone who attended public school in a small Yukon community from the grades of 7-11, I have a first hand experience of how education can be perceived, valued and prioritized in remote communities. Many students in remote communities do not finish high school, which makes attending some form of post-secondary education when the desire or need presents itself, difficult. The reality is that local school systems in northern communities, especially small and remote ones, can often be unbalanced and unstructured. The turnover of instructors and lack of resources throughout a high school experience can result in a student presenting as inadequate when applying for post-secondary education that has more structured expectations and requirements for acceptance. Even choosing to complete my high school years at a large high school in a city quickly made it obvious to me that I had not received the quality or level of education that my peers had when I went through grade 11 and 12. I was able to muddle my way through, but the experience made me appreciate those friends I had up north who had lived in that small community their entire lives and still chose to move for their education. Not to mention that their traditions and comforts of home would have been almost non-existent, or at least difficult to come across in a larger city setting.
When we practice empathy we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. When we practice self-awareness, we can acknowledge that we may not fully understand someone’s point of view or experience, yet we can accept them regardless.
Treat everyone the way you’d like to be treated.
Carr-Stewart, S., Balzer, G., & Cottrell, M. (n.d.). First Nations Post-Secondary Education in Western Canada. The Morning Watch. Retrieved from http://www.mun.ca/educ/faculty/mwatch/vol40/winter2013/firstNations.pdf