In this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of Thunder Bay secondary school teacher Vicky Walker and teaching teams at two schools in the Lakehead District School Board. Together, the teams have improved student learning through two projects called "Engaging Aboriginal Learners" and "iPads for Success: Engaging Aboriginal and Applied Level Students."
When Vicky Walker’s Grade 10 Applied History students created iMovies on World War II that hit higher achievement markers than the work produced by her Grade 12 university-bound students, she knew she had hit teaching gold.
“Watching these students shine, explore and be so proud of their accomplishments, for me, that has truly redefined education,” says the Superior Collegiate and Vocational Institute teacher. Walker boasts a long list of classroom success stories resulting from two Ontario Teacher Learning and Leadership Program-funded projects she led in 2011 and 2013.
Entitled "Engaging Aboriginal Learners" and "iPads for Success: Engaging Aboriginal and Applied Level Students," the projects aimed to improve learning outcomes through the use of technology and make school a more culturally relevant place for all students.
There were two teaching teams working on the projects. On the first project, Vicky Walker worked with Rachel Mishenene and Karen Watt. The second project involved a larger group of teachers, including Lynda Bachinski, Patricia Cibinel, Tammy Coccimiglio, Donna Hrysyshn, Sylvia Hughes, Andrea McParland, Jason Pilot, Paul Wojda, and Sheila White.
Specifically, the first project built upon the 2008-2011 Urban Aboriginal Education Project, which identified that relationship building with Indigenous students is key to their engagement and success. Specifically, the project focused on seven key areas:
- creating welcoming environments;
- practicing cultural proficiency;
- connecting with Indigenous communities;
- embedding Indigenous content;
- engaging and building relationships with students;
- integrating 21st Century instructional and assessment practices; and
- becoming interconnected professional learners.
The second project built on this foundation with the use of technology.
The projects offered students the chance to tell their teachers what would help them to be engaged and inspired in school. It also gave teachers at the board the opportunity to share research-based best practices with colleagues and to develop a teacher toolkit for engaging Indigenous students.
In order to be successful learners, it is essential that First Nation, Métis, and Inuit students are engaged and feeling welcome in school, and that they see themselves and their cultures in the curriculum and the school community. That was a critical finding noted in the Ministry of Education’s Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Policy Framework.
“A ‘welcoming environment’ is one in which a student feels safe to learn, to ‘come as they are,’ and feels like a valued member of the school and classroom community,” Walker explains. Students want to see themselves reflected culturally in all areas of the school, including pictures, books, other students and staff. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, Walker says, including through student councils with multicultural representation, sharing or lunch circles, a breakfast program, an Indigenous students lounge or classroom, parent-guardian events or socials and community group partnerships during and after school hours.
Research shows that when teachers become more familiar with students’ cultural backgrounds, they are better able to understand how cultural differences may affect students’ learning. Studies have shown that
understanding students’ motivations and values, adapting materials and approaches appropriately and building mutual respect with the students, are also critical to successful learning.
One teacher involved in the project reports that learning the basics of an Indigenous language spoken in your school can make a big difference to the students. “Saying “Boozhoo” (hello), or “Miigwetch” (thank you) shows respect and that you care enough to try,” the teacher says.
Connecting with Indigenous Communities
Indigenous elders from the community can be included in all aspects of the classroom, Walker reports. The Lakehead District School Board has created an Elder-Senator Protocol to help school staff understand how to engage an elder for a school activity. Special event evenings for the community where Indigenous artists, writers and other mentors come to speak and share are one approach the schools have used to build that connection with the community. Métis author and Order of Canada recipient David Bouchard and artist and broadcaster Elliot Doxtater-Wynn are among those invited to the schools as a result of these and other projects. Walker’s research into the needs of the community also found it is important to develop strategies with parents, not for parents.
Embedding Indigenous Content
Building learning activities around meaningful content related to students’ experiences and interests is crucial to engagement, Walker and her team found. Students reported they wanted Indigenous heritage worked into every subject and that more cultural resources should be used.
With this in mind, one teacher created a traditional garden in an Environmental Science class based on Grandmother and Grandfather teachings. Drumming circles, powwows, and outdoor experiential learning activities (including cooking a traditional meal of bannock and moose stew) are other examples of how the teachers are embedding Indigenous content directly into the curriculum.
Engaging and Building Relationships with Students
When teachers show commitment and make the students feel welcome, the student is more likely to have a positive learning experience. That was some of the feedback Walker and her teaching team received from the Indigenous students during the projects. The students also reported that it was important for them to have a teacher who:
- “Does not pressure me with questions;”
- “Says ‘good morning [NAME],’ every single day;”
- “Believes you can;”
- “Doesn’t give up on you;”
- “Knows when something is wrong;”
- “Has a good sense of humour;”
- and “who listens to students.”
From creating Oji-Cree welcome signs for the classroom and breaking bread with students, to simply asking them where they are from and what they need, the teachers in the schools have found many ways to connect with the students and create trust. “I engage in conversations that make the student feel valued,” says one teacher. Another reported he aims to show the student “that a caring adult is in the building.” The simple act of a teacher knowing what First Nation community the students are from and asking questions about that First Nation shows an interest and cultural acknowledgement that breaks down educational barriers and resistance.
Integrating 21st Century Instructional and Assessment Practices
The technology integration model of SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition), created by Ruben R. Puentedura, was a cornerstone of the team’s approach in the second project. This model helped the teachers approach the integration of the technology effectively into their subject-specific, content-driven classrooms.
“For a student like me, being able to use an iPad, a netbook, or one of the many kinds of software that the school offers is extremely helpful,” says Grade 11 student Daisy Darrach. “It allows me to focus on something that is more tangible than just a piece of paper. It is also a great help in terms of resources as it gives us greater access to more information than we could get from simply reading the limited knowledge available in a textbook.”
With most Indigenous students at the schools being functional or fluent in the Ojibwe language, Ojibwe language teacher Sheila White says she saw an opportunity with technology to build on these skills. “I have tried different strategies to teach new vocabulary and I always felt that the students were not retaining the vocabulary and therefore resorting to memorization,” she says. Using the Neechee Ojibwe App and iPads allowed the teachers to support a more engaging and robust approach to language learning, which White reports led to greater retention and learning in the students.
The access to iPads and the Internet also helped low-income students bridge the technology gap, giving them the power to change their social structures by being empowered and engaged, Walker reports.
Parent Susan Reppard was thrilled that her daughter was able to benefit from the iPads. "By teachers embracing and incorporating technology into everyday subjects at the school, students are more engaged and interested to learn and explore," she says. "Whether it be the green room used to broadcast the televised morning announcements to every classroom via SMART boards or the software used for the metal plasma cutter in the welding shop."
Becoming Interconnected Professional Learners
Pulling all of this student feedback and teacher success stories together in her TLLP reports, and sharing them with her colleagues, has been an important step toward empowering the teaching staff as interconnected professional learners, Walker says.
As a result of the projects, one teacher actually changed her curriculum to include issues relevant to the students in her class. Another reported that teacher training needs to revolve around the student and focus on making students feel comfortable in their learning environment. “Many students, not only Indigenous students, do not have the same lives teachers do. Recognizing this is crucial for all students to have success in the classroom.” History teacher Tammy Coccimiglio reports that giving students iPads has gradually changed her teaching practice from a teacher-directed style to a more student-centered style of learning. “My role has slowly evolved into that of a facilitator, where students have the opportunity to make choices about the way they learn.”
Principal Michelle Probizanski recognizes that, moving forward, Professional Learning Communities and the Ministry of Education's Student Success Support Initiative, which focus on Applied and Indigenous Learners, are supported by these projects. “The results of the TLLP built a base from which to work, and teachers and departments have continued using technology and research-based best practices to improve student learning," Probizanski says.
According to Puentedura’s SAMR model, Redefinition is the final stage in integrating technology into education in which student learning and assessment are transformed into new educational formats. The teachers involved in these projects know they have transformed education when, in the particular case of Indigenous students, learning is rooted in cultural respect and the technology allows Indigenous student voices to be heard.
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