Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2018 | TELjournal.ca
A narrative account of how a community changed its educators and their professional practice.
If, “environments that experience constant change and complexity…[require]…teachers to be responsive to the needs of diverse students in uncertain contexts,” (Timperley, Ell and Le Fevre, p. 177), then the beautiful people of Tl’az’ten Nation allowed me that environment. My first position as an educator quickly made obvious that my training fell short, yet I needed to quickly begin adapting or risk wasting precious moments of my students’ lives. Enthusiasm was tested often as I failed and failed again, but that failure bred the desperation that made me humble myself – truly humble myself – and admit I knew nothing and ask for help. An elder, Annie Mattess, who to be honest intimidated the heck out of me with her surety and quiet observation, suggested I best begin listening to what I didn’t want to hear: I was not meeting my learners’ needs. She also teased me, saying I wouldn’t be the first to run – which stuck in my head the entire sleepless night. I refused to give up – on my learners, or myself.
This experience of mine is not unique: I believe that if any colleague from this community, former or present, was asked the same question about contributing to the environment of education and the culture of a school, you would hear an answer based on a similar experience. You probably have a tale of your own.
Our community is a powerful one. Its people are fiercely independent and adaptive; we are resourceful in the use of the tools we possess; and creative in obtaining the ones we don’t. Yet, our collective journey of healing and reconciliation deserves a voice – and, so, to that end, I humbly offer mine, and acknowledge it is told through my own lens.
I believe that what Thomas King says is true: “you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories you are told, “ (King, 10). Know that I am fully cognizant that I am telling a story that is not mine alone, but also know this: I am telling it as I do not believe it has been told. And not only do I believe it’s important to tell, I also believe it is important to be heard.
Prepare yourself for this story. It is one that spans many decades; one that relies on the experiences and contributions of elders and experts present and past; one that speaks to a collective will to heal; and also, one that is in no way finished.
This is a living story. This is not my story alone. This is our communities’ story.
This is the story of us
Ours is a small community, made up of many smaller communities. Yet, all learners in one way or another converge within these walls. The scanning process began long before I ever arrived here from away, and that was almost 20 years ago. The overarching community has many abilities, yet is mired in dysfunction. Still reeling from the legacy of colonization, many learners were disassociated from our high school. Many years ago, the educators in this building began a process to examine the issues preventing Dogwood graduation for many. Thus the unofficial scanning process was begun.
When the scope of examination extended beyond the analysis of data to include a desire to understand the experience of learners and their feeling about their own efficacy as learners, many dynamics were revealed. A large number of learners never completed either a Dogwood or an Evergreen, they simply vanished from the system entirely – some to the world of work, which was still a possibility at that time, and some? Well, they simply vanished.
Many identified a pervading sense of systemic racism, and felt apart from the culture of both the schoolhouse and the curriculum. Many families felt a real sense of fear about sending their children to our school, and entering it themselves – both preventing learners’ sense of belonging. And many learners were relegated to special education or alternate classrooms as diagnostic testing showed great deficits that classrooms felt unequipped to handle, and therefore placed the learners in different streams of learning.
None of these dynamics were easily explained or fixed. But, none was acceptable.
System leaders, both formal and informal, began to target their energy to mediating these factors of disengagement. Classroom leaders began to weave indigenous ways of knowing into the curriculum. Over the span of a decade, authentic indigenous voices were brought into leaners’ experiences across departments. Professional development occurred in order for educators to understand, first, the need for these historically marginalized voices to be heard, and second, how to respectfully and honestly determine the authenticity of the resources, themselves. A growing understanding of history as being the victor’s story, and a growing body of authentic, place-based texts was the result of this phase of inquiry and is the base still built upon today.
Next was the focusing of attention to the question of assessment. Assessment For Learning techniques were adopted by many, and quickly spread to more of the departments. Assessment became more relevant and overarching, as opposed to focused on high stakes tests and projects, only. From this came the targeted and intentional move to use essential questions to frame curriculum in many classrooms. And from that, the use of inquiry based learning to showcase learner skill and personalized intent behind learning, resulted.
I became involved after this paradigm shift had begun. It is my intent to keep honouring the work of those that came before by continuing to adapt and build on the base left for me.
Developing a Hunch
From the focusing of efforts to create classrooms that honoured and made visible all learners came a hunch: in order to meet the needs of all learners, more development needed to happen for the educators. Thus began an intentional learning journey for educators to learn about reconciliation education, which meant learning about colonization deeply, in order to understand the effects on learners, their families and their communities: effects that still exist.
Over the last 5 years, an initial learning experience has been built for our grade 8 class, as a whole. Educators actively sought out authentic facilitation training in the blanket exercise – a powerful metaphorical experience that helps learners “feel” colonization and build empathy through listening and experiencing. Community experts were invited to speak to our youngest learners about the Bahlats system that existed prior to colonization, in which learners see the distinct organizational, and clan based systems of governance, law, economy and education that were firmly established prior to colonial arrival. Learners also bear witness to the concept of geographic luck, as theorized by Jared Diamond, to demystify the still prevalent perceptions of genetic and cultural superiority. Not only are our perceptions confronted directly but the understanding of how geography shapes who we are is introduced and made relevant. This experience happens for learners at another district high school 60 kilometers down the highway, and has been co-created, shared and coordinated by educators in both buildings – talk about far reaching education!
The other pivotal hunch that came from the last decade, here, was that while psycho educational testing has a purpose and a relevance, tests are at their core racially biased. With that knowledge came the belief that all learners can learn and achieve, and do what powerful colleagues from our past dubbed, “walk the stage with dignity, choices and options.” We honour that message by striving to give that opportunity to all our learners, every day. So, no longer do diagnostic levels determine classroom placement. Here, learners enter grade 8 in classrooms, together. Inquiry based learning, an attention to formative assessment, and skill building over time and across curricula are supporting our indigenous leaners to achieve Dogwood graduation at an almost 20% higher rate than the provincial average for eligible grade 12 graduation.
This is no one person’s achievement. No one person that came before, or is here now. No one learner. No one community. This is all OUR achievement. Ours. Together.
A story that must be carefully and purposefully shared.
Recently, some new learning has shown itself to be necessary. We have embarked on professional learning about how to embed First People’s Principles of Learning and Knowing into our teaching and our learners’ experiences. We are currently embedding 2 credits of English First People’s Language Arts into every grade 10 Language Arts classroom. Not as an option for leaners, but as an embedded part of the curricular experience for all.
Another piece of learning taking place is the inclusion of place based understanding in a course that combines the Environmental Science 11 and Geography 12 curriculums into a linear, 8 credit student experience that is hoped to result in the future adoption of a local waterway, and the care of it, by learners.
We have a classroom being built upon the ideals of independent learning and growth mindset principles, where students are not expected to be independent – instead they are supported and directly taught how to be so – through the application of reflection, goal setting and self-regulation strategies.
Educators across departments are participating in teacher inquiry processes that are intended to diversify their own curricula, and in many instances bring classroom, departments and curriculum together to provide multi modal, multi-disciplinary learning experiences. Robotics Math 8/9, Drone 10-12, and Senior Humanities Independent Study are just a few examples of the new opportunities happening here that are changing learners’ experiences.
All innovation is requiring intentional, targeted, professional development on behalf of practitioners in the classroom. And, all have required support and freedom given by formal leaders, at the departmental, school and district level. This cannot be mentioned often enough. This community supports and nurtures each other.
Taking Action and Checking
During the 2018/2019 school year, our school community will be taking action by piloting these courses school wide, not just as single pilots. Student feedback, along with classroom assessment, will continue to be used as a base to gauge each initiative’s effectiveness and areas to improve.
Our community will be actively looking for evidence to provide directions for our actions resulting from our scanning. Increases in enrollment in academic courses at the grade 11 and 12 level, in addition to phenomenal increase in provincial exam success rates have been some of the evidence used to inform our actions up to now.
As a school community staff, we are also committed to continuing our own professional learning – as an entire professional community – into trauma informed practice and growth mindset principles and their application to spur on the momentum of changing the culture of our building.
Truth and reconciliation understanding and education is in the forefront of our minds. As Richard Wagamese says through the character of Fred Kelly in his novel Indian Horse, “‘we’re not responsible for what happened to us. None of us are…But our healing – that’s up to us,’” (Wagamese, 210). Learners, families and community alike are feeling a greater degree of comfort and belonging within our building, which I see, personally, as having the potential to affect our community, as a whole. Collectively we are learning about our present day realities. As one student so powerfully put it to me, recently:
“We learn about our past, in order to fix our present” (Elizabeth Mattess, 04/19/2018).
Change is a complicated process that by definition involves many players, at many different moments in time, acting towards a singular goal: here, that goal is to best support the learners that come together from all our distinct communities, under this one roof. Our story is not yet over, and is one without a definitive point of beginning, either. And, perhaps, this is a true reflection of the essence of story, period. I acknowledge that stories can be dangerous, and that once they are loosed in the world, they cannot be called back, (King, 9-10). That is fine by me. This one needs to soar far and wide.
This story needs to be told, and told again, and told again – each time changing with the teller and the details. For this is our story, but this is not our story alone. Each eye that reads it sees themselves within its narrative: for it is the essence of education.
I share this story with permission, and with the humble understanding that I did not start it, nor will I see its conclusion.
It has no end.
It is the story of us.
1: Nenachailya = thank you [for what you have done] more than one person to one person
BC Ministry of Education. (n.d.). Provincial Reports - Reporting on K to 12. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/reporting/province.php
Diamond, J. (Director/Researcher). (n.d.). Guns, Germs and Steel [DVD].
King, T. (2003). "You'll Never Believe What Happened". In The truth about stories: A native narrative. Canada: CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Learning, at Fort St. James Secondary means… (E. Mattess, personal communication, April 19, 2018).
Thank you [for what you have done]. (2011). In W. J. Poser (Ed.), English-Carrier pocket dictionary: Stuart Lake dialect (p. 213). Fort St. James, BC: Nak'azdli First Nation.
Timperley, H., Ell, F., & Le Fevre, D. (2016). Curriculum and Pedagogy: The Future of Teacher
Professional Learning and the Development of Adaptive Expertise. In The Sage Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. London: SAGE Publications, Limited.
Wagamese, R. (2018). Indian horse: A novel. Madeira Park, BC - British Columbia: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.