Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some More Thoughts on the VSB Aboriginal Mini School Proposal (& a video!)

I’m on the record as supporting the idea of the Aboriginal Choice School in the Vancouver School District.  I am in the process of trying to convince the AEAC and the BCTF of the merits of the project.  I need to stress at this point that I don’t know what the project will look like and I do not know what sort of work the VSB is planning to do in the planning of this project if they choose to go forward with it.  I am trusting that they will consult with the Aboriginal people in the area, that they will ensure that it is inclusive and open to everyone, that it does not become a dumping ground for the “unwanted” students, that it makes a case for transformation by teaching anyone and everyone about the Aboriginal experience in Canada, and that the perspective of the Indigenous worldviews are integrated in such a way as to ensure that the students learn in respectful ways and to the best of their abilities.  Our children deserve that opportunity and the idea that this should not be tried because it sounds like segregation, or residential schools or racism is false.
This is a choice school.
There are concerns that have to be addressed, of course.  Those three have to be put to rest.  As well, how will the students be taught?  How will the teachers be taught?  We have approximately three hundred Aboriginal teachers in the public school system in British Columbia and not a lot of them are in Vancouver, so it is more than likely that non-Aboriginal teachers will be trying to teach an Indigenous perspective.  I have struggled with this idea for a long time.  If you refer to my previous post, you will see some of the concerns raised.  Another scholar I have studied, Eigenbrod, argues that it can be done respectfully and honestly, and while I resisted her for a long time, I did finally figure out what she meant (that will have to be another post).  How will the multitude of Indigenous backgrounds be fairly integrated?  Plus a whole host of others.
 The AEAC has not made a definite decision yet, as they have raised a number of questions they want answered before they support the idea, which is fair.  While I suspect that a number of questions cannot be answered until the VSB gets past proposing the idea, I think that it is okay for all of us to ask questions and get the dialogue going.  Even those of us in favour of the proposal need to be willing to ask questions.
Some of the things I have read about the school in Prince George has been that it has been a bit of a rough year.  I don’t think judgments can be made because of that.  It is the first year and they will all be going through some growing pains.  I am always a little amused and a little saddened when I hear that people are disappointed with the results of something without giving it time to take root.  I will be visiting the school this week to tour the place and I am really excited about it.
Christine Stewart is a teacher out of Vancouver and one of the first teachers of Aboriginal ancestry I met when I was starting out in this teaching thing.  I was scared and feeling very alone (still do sometimes) in facing the challenges in my district and in the province.  Below is a video of her speaking about the choice school at a forum in Vancouver.  She is in favour of it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Struggling Privileges

I wrote this short analysis of an article by Emma LaRocque a couple of years ago for a course entitled Writing from the Margins, which was a graduate course focused on Indigenous literature and Indigenous Literary scholarship.  It was an incredible course, and this, my fourth of five journal entries is the only one that really looks at a specific article and explores the discourse of Aborginality and resistance literature as a means of maintaining and growing Aboriginal identity in the face of attempts to "pan-Indianize" Aboriginal people and to re-marginalize Aboriginal  people's voices by using a cross-cultural approach.  I don't think you need to read the article to understand my piece below.

The course itself was fascinating as it seemed to play out everything we were exploring in the scholarship.  By centering the Aboriginal literature and voice, we were also centering the worldview, perspective, indeed the Indigenous people in the classroom, which had the unintended (or intended, I am still not sure) consequence of marginalizing the traditional voice of privilege in the room: that of the non-Indigenous person.  I have always been intrigued by relationships of power and how power is maintained as well as how resistance is achieved by marginalized people.  This class was incredible to be a part of and allowed me to observe the reversal of power and the attempts to retake power carried out by the traditional power-holders, as well as the desire to hold onto the newly acquired power as expressed by the Indigenous students.  Two years later, I still go back to reflecting on this class, I recently contacted my grad advisor to ask her another question about it, and I continue to consider how different group assignments were designed and continue to analyse my experiences against that of another colleague from the class, with whom I enjoy working.

In the piece below, I also mention the term hybridization, which continues to be a huge problem for me.  This is one definition, I have others, I have argued with graduate colleagues over its meaning, changed my mind on it, cursed it...It means different things to different groups of Indigenous peoples in Canada, based on their lived experience, history and circumstances, all built on the foundation of colonialism.  I will go into hybridization in more depth another time, but thought I would mention it here, because I mention it below and it is a term that I struggle with.

In working t
owards an understanding of the discourse of margins and mainstreams, as explored in LaRocque’s (2002) article, Teaching Aboriginal Literature.  LaRocque (2002) positions herself as an Aboriginal scholar and teacher, teaching Native literature within a Native Studies department of a university, pointing out the issues surrounding the development of literature from the margins, as Native literature is positioned, and the mainstream location of English and English literature.  The challenges of mainstreaming a marginalized literary worldview are made apparent when you consider that the mainstream discourse, that of English literature, is the discourse and language of the colonial powers.  English privileges the oppressors by making their language and experience the normal language and experience, ensuring that the marginal remain so.

LaRocque (2002) asserts McMaster and Martin, by stating, “To be an Aboriginal person, to identify with an Indigenous heritage in these late colonial times, requires a life of reflection, critique, persistence and struggle.” (p. 211)  She is arguing that all Aboriginal people are not ‘cut from the same cloth’, each person brings his or her own heritage, lived experience and history with them, they can not and should not be expected to know everything about the Aboriginal experience.  Yet, despite this, there is an expectation that the Aboriginal teacher be the expert on Aboriginal contexts and writing.  In addition, much of the writing was dismissed as ‘cut from the same cloth’, revealing a lack of understanding and knowledge about Aboriginal writing.  This is true of both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people; they have the same shared experience (p. 213) and learning informing their background understanding of Aboriginal peoples and writing.

LaRocque comes back around to questions of authenticity (p. 219), particularly as she questions who should be teaching Native literature in English departments.  She makes some interesting points: the Aboriginal identity is complicated in light of colonialism, there are many Aboriginal epistemologies which are affected by this colonialism and there is a shared Native experience (p. 220) based on the colonial (my emphasis) experience, but it is not all-encompassing.  As well, she challenges the Academy’s ongoing desire to erase the Native experience from Native literature and scholarship.  With the challenge presented by the need to define the Native experience, there is always a desire to set one specific definition that will apply to all Native people and all Native writing, a definitive Native experience.  As LaRocque points out, this is not possible; there is no one experience that can be commodified, but there is a theory and praxis (p. 221) which allows that there is an epistemology necessary in the identity, not just having blood (ibid.).

LaRocque challenges the Academy’s claims to cross-cultural rights to Native material, as it does not acknowledge or incorporate Aboriginal praxis into their scholarship (p. 221).  This is cultural appropriation and an attempt to erase the Aboriginal from Aboriginal scholarship.  She argues (ibid.) for the right of Aboriginal scholars to protect the Aboriginality of their praxis and their identities.  “Aboriginal identity and Aboriginal Rights are inextricably related” (ibid.).  The decolonization played out on the Academic stage is a reflection of the larger attempts to decolonize in this country.  As well, the non-Aboriginal scholar’s attempt to remove the Aboriginality from Aboriginal scholarship reflects the larger colonial attempt to erase Aboriginal Rights from blocking Canada’s designs on the land.  Aboriginal Rights are challenged by the Canadian nation-building myth (Mackey, 2002), which seeks to remove difference and create a sameness across Aboriginal identity, removing the final resistance to the benevolent society (ibid.), the multicultural, all inclusive state.  She calls the cross-cultural idea hybridization (p. 222), meant to bring together and blend, but really a means of erasure.

 LaRocque (2002) argues that this resistance to hybridization (p. 222), in opposition to Mackey (2002), who I interpreted as a supporter, is the means by which Aboriginal people are able to resist further loss of Aboriginality within their praxis, as well as on the grander scale.  Her process of resistance scholarship (LaRocque, 2002, p. 214) challenges privileged knowledge, ensuring that ‘voice’ and ‘engaged research’ are used to critically confront dominant understandings for the purposes of decolonizing Aboriginal scholarship.


LaRocque, E. (2002) Teaching Aboriginal Literature: The discourse of margins and mainstreams, in Eigenbrod, R. et al. Creating Community: A roundtable on Canadian Aboriginal Literature.  CA, Theytus Books.

Mackey, E. (2002). The House of difference: Cultural politics and national identity in Canada.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

It starts with a circle

My favourite part of my BC First Nations Studies 12 class was the circle.  It wasn't part of the prescribed learning outcomes, per se, but it was the most explicitly alive portion of the course.  It was the best way to explore aspects of First Nations culture and the best way to teach about it.  The class was large, and we were usually restricted to the traditional education format of rows, but every four or five classes, I would ask them to move the desks into a large circle, and I would sit in the circle with everybody.  When we could, we relocated outside, or in the commons room of the school.

Then we would share.

My eagle feather was the sacred item we used to denote the speaker.  I would remind them of the protocols of my circle: this is a safe place; what we share goes nowhere beyond the circle (speaking about it here is not a betrayal of that trust, as I am only talking about how it worked and what the circle means to me, I share nothing that was shared in the circle); the rules for that day (, Mr. G's right to interupt and intervene when the protocols were being abused; sometimes a time limit, though this was rarely imposed or enforced); the feather holder was the one speaking; you didn't have to speak if you didn't want to; the feather moved around the circle so that everyone had the opportunity to be a part of the sharing; it could go around again if someone wished to add something or a turn had been missed; and the feather was never, ever to touch the floor.  I would throw out a question, or a topic, sometimes related to the prescribed learning outcomes, but more often along the lines of "how are you doing?" Sometimes all we really need is that opportunity to do a check-in.  I would then hand off the feather to the young adult to my right and we would begin.

Not everybody spoke in the circle, but I believe that they all respected the integrity of the circle.  The circle sometimes moved very quickly, other times it took as long as it takes.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Reflecting on 21st Century Learning

What do we have to give up after being forced to give up things since before contact?  Small pox preceded the arrival of Europeans to the Stó:lō territory.   Since then, we have had to surrender parts of ourselves, our cultures, our lives...One of the concerns I have with the 21st Century learning proposals flying around, is that we have no idea what we will have in the end.  What do we have to give up in order for this current proposed vision to fly?
I envision a world where my Indigenous students do not have to give up their identity as Indigenous people to find success in Canadian society.  That isn’t possible right now.  Does 21st Century Learning account for that?  I do not see anything that helps non-Aboriginal people move beyond the range of semi-tolerance to barely contained hostility into acceptance of the Aboriginal worldview and understanding of that view.  I liked the term personalized learning because I could see ways to blend traditional Indigenous pedagogies into the curriculum and allow our students to meet the learning outcomes while still being enriched by their Indigenous cultural learning.  Interestingly enough, other Aboriginal people are opposed to that for some reason.  I need to explore that at some point and find a way to reach consensus there.  I like the idea of the mini-school in Vancouver, there is the possibility for real learning to take place for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, using an Indigenous focus and an inclusive, holistic atmosphere, but that, again, is another post, I guess.
The proposals tend to focus on technology as the means to educating in the future.  Let’s not forget about equitable access to technology.  Our poverty-stricken youth can’t afford the latest technology and the continued downloading of costs on our schools do not allow them to be up to date either.  In addition, our governments, despite promising to, have yet to carry out the connecting of all reserves and rural areas to high speed internet access.  I live near Hope and I do not have internet access on rainy, snowy, cloudy or cold days for some reason and it is usually slow when I do have it.  Anyone who follows my twitter account will see me complaining about the lack of internet access again and again.  I’m whiny that way.  The cable and phone companies refuse to hook us up, because, as I understand it, we are not economically viable.  Life on the Rez.  Yay.  How does a tech focused education plan ensure that those of us not living in a connected city will have the necessary access to get the job done?  My Tourism class was project based and required regular access to the internet.  I could not assign homework because many of my kids could not guarantee they could get online to do their work.  I couldn’t guarantee I could either. 
Just a couple of preliminary thoughts.  Thanks for listening.

Reflecting on Teacher Burnout

I will be, this year, leading a teacher inquiry project into the burnout rates of Aboriginal teachers and some of the reasons these might take place.  I am doing this on behalf of the Aboriginal Education Professional Specialists’ Association of the BCTF.  I have felt stressed in the job, to the point where I was ready to leave the profession, and was wondering how and why Aboriginal teachers deal with the stress and challenges we face daily in our positions.  What do Aboriginal teachers deal with?  How do they handle the challenges?  How does it affect the teachers?  What types of supports are available?  How does seeing Aboriginal teachers burning out affect our students of Aboriginal ancestry?  That is just generally the idea.  The proposal I submitted is far more in depth, but the nature of the Inquiry leaves a lot of room for the question to change.  It is the process, after all that is really important here.  I will be convening a group of Aboriginal teachers and, basically, carrying on a roundtable discussion on the topic.  From there, I hope the discourse evolves and we come to some conclusion.  If we, don’t that is okay too.  We may decide to do a larger research project, but I want to try this method and see what happens. 
I am using the document A Study of Aboriginal Teachers’ Professional Knowledge and Experience in Canadian Schools  prepared by Dr. Verna St. Denis for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, as a starting source and building on it with the experiences of the teachers I will be working with  (FYI, the BCTF is not affiliated with the CTF).  The STARS Anti-Racism and Indigenous Education Resource Blog features a post about a presentation by Dr. St. Denis on the report.  It is well written and she builds her presentation historically.  I would love to see her present (I am a fan of her work, and have referenced her in this blog before and used her extensively in my grad program). 

One of the common themes I keep hearing is that of racism in the school system, systemic and otherwise and I am curious on how to deal with that.  I know that I do not always handle it well, I find it silencing and it is never dealt with satisfactorily.  Another theme I am interested in is the go-to guy idea, where the Aboriginal teacher becomes the problem solver for all issues involving Aboriginal students and the expert on Aboriginal history and culture.

The filmmaker in me wants to film the discussion, but that will be up to the participants.

Reflecting on Teaching Practice

I’ve been in a bit of a reflective mood lately.  Part of that has to do with the end of my term specific contract.  This past teaching assignment has been a good one; I’ve had good classes and a decent relationship with the administration and staff at the school.  It has afforded me the opportunity to consider my teaching practice and determine areas of weakness and areas of strength.  I am not going to bore you with the detailing of those strengths and weaknesses, suffice it to say that they are there and I appreciated the opportunity to explore them a little bit.  This assignment is the first in a few years, where I have not had to go through an evaluation and I think the lack of that particular stressor was helpful.  I do not handle the pressure of a formal evaluation well.  I get nervous and forgetful and caught up in the terror of it.  They scare me.  I do not feel comfortable and I believe it affects my practice. 
In addition, I found the general calm of the school to be somewhat beneficial.  I have had challenging classes in the past and not always managed them successfully.  I would say that this was minimal this past assignment, I enjoyed my time with my students.  There was only one student I could not find a way to reach this year, and I suspect that he was not interested in being engaged.  I do not worry too much about that any more.  Just because a child is not ready today, does not mean he will not be ready to learn in the future. 
At any rate, reflecting on my practice has let me identify some areas I need to work on.  I have already identified a couple of teachers who can help me and they have agreed to let me come into their classrooms to watch how they teach and engage.  I am looking forward to it.