• RTIE Reflections #6: Assignment: What possibilities do Indigenous perspectives on place and land hold for educational opportunities? Share your thoughts and ideas as it relates to your particular context.

My “context” may be somewhat unusual. In the past I have taught in both public and independent schools which include aboriginal students. I am now privately tutoring students with special needs and ESL students–and some of them have been First Nations students.

I am also a mother of 5 children and naanii of 9. As a school teacher, I was always interested in the possibilities of Indigenous perspectives on place and land, and I really tried to integrate those possibilities into the school situation. I got even more personally involved when I home schooled my own children for a few years. As my children are of mixed First Nations/non-native ancestry [my husband is from Musqueam (Coast Salish) on his mother’s side and Old Massett (Haida) on his father’s side; raised primarily as Haida; I’m non-native of British heritage], I was very concerned to involve Indigenous perspectives on place and land. We spent much of our learning time out on the land, hunting, fishing, berry picking, and so on, and based our “3R’s” on those experiences as much as possible. We also were involved in all kinds of community events such as a Haida dance group, potlatches, Haida language family dinners, and so on. To my way of thinking, those were “golden years” for me as an educator, although I always also tried to involve Indigenous perspectives in my school/classroom teaching as well; and we enrolled our children in First Nations language and culture classes–Haida in Masset, Coast Salish in Mission, and Okanagan/Syilx in Keremeos and Penticton–in the years they attended school in those communities.

But now that my children are grown, and I have become a tutor rather than a classroom teacher, I have seriously been considering how to integrate indigenous learning perspectives into the tutoring experience. How, I have asked myself, does one do that when meeting with individual students, most of whom have various learning challenges (learning differences, autism, ESL, etc), for just an hour or two a week, during which I am supposed to focus on helping them with developing basic literacy skills? Their parents (and teachers) are anxious for them to develop literacy skills which the classroom experience has not succeeded in providing, and of course they are paying for this specialized help. So while I have discussed possibilities of integrating First Nations perspectives with parents, especially those of First Nations descent, there has been some resistance: “Just teach them to read and write! Please!”

My home, from which I tutor, is within a 5 minute walk of ponds and meadows in which grow wild plants which are traditional local foods. I also have a garden in which I grow herbs and other food plants suited to our area. We are a 5 minute drive from the local aboriginal community which often has open events like pow-wows, and resources including the En’owkin Center and Theytus Publishing. I have tried to encourage parents to allow me to take their children outdoors to experience these things; and I have tried to explain that hands-on learning, especially in which one “lives” close to the land, can create amazing connections and motivation for children who have “special needs,” and can lead to oral and then written communication, in literacy-related areas including reading, writing, arithmetic, and speaking, which can otherwise be difficult for these young people. I explain that in aboriginal tradition, children who are “different” are honored and respected as being in a closer connection to the land and nature and spirituality than “normal” people.

Also, for children who are from immigrant families and are already experiencing difficulties with second language communication and with cultural differences (and who may have arrived in Canada as refugees, from traumatic backgrounds), the aboriginal perspectives related to learning that is grounded in land and place, can provide both healing and a natural connection and understanding compared to the school environment. I would love to develop a more land-and-place based way of providing tutoring experiences for these young people (and for their parents and families, who I would like to see involved with their child’s learning, as I do not believe that it is possible to separate a child’s learning from their experience in their family and community). I have been developing some possibilities for “summer school tutoring” which I would like to put into effect during summer lessons, and would also really appreciate any ideas that others could offer for year-round (when it’s cold and/or wet outside!)…and for ways to convince the children’s parents and school teachers that this is a viable and valuable alternative to that of sitting at a desk doing one-on-one tutoring (valuable as that can be). I picture group-learning scenarios, which could involve a variety of children and their families, and because of the “group” aspect, would be lower-cost than individual one-on-one lessons. This could in turn mean that parents could afford more learning time for their children, as well. And the interaction of the group would make the learning even more valuable.

I am, though, concerned about being perceived by some First Nations people as infringing on, or not showing respect, to their culture, by myself, a “white person,” sharing the teachings I have learned and value so much. Let me explain, through a few details of my own story. One of the RTIE class members wrote, “I see in my own Euro-Canadian culture the effects of having effectively few cultural ties. We have no distinct rights of passage, little reverence for ancestors, and a fractured sense of place.” I can so relate to this. As a white middle-class Canadian from British ancestry, but with little real connection to that background, I always felt “lost” and of little personal value or “specialness” as I grew up in a community with many immigrants who had what seemed to me very interesting foods, customs, languages, etc–while I spoke English and ate meat and potatoes and vegetables and wore “ordinary” clothes. When I married a First Nations man from a place which was truly undergoing a cultural renaissance after generations of residential school and other culturally genocidal experiences, I felt even more lost as I saw his people, especially the young ones, filled with joy and pride (though it was a different, more difficult, story for my husband and many of his generation, the last of several “lost” generations). I encouraged our five children to become as involved as possible in their aboriginal identity–and yet I felt more and more that I “belonged” nowhere, and I often felt I had nothing to offer them from my own background. Over the years, though, I have come more to terms with my own “fractured sense of place”–and it has actually helped me understand the difficulties my husband (a “survivor”) and those of his generation, have faced in the “school system” and “life after school,” and has motivated me to seek ways to make my position as an educator far more cognizant of the need for personal identify to be of value and centrality in learning, both in school and lifelong.

Some people have asked why I removed my children from the school system, and learned with them at home in alternative ways, when I myself was a school teacher. One of the difficulties we face in the traditional western form of education is that it is so connected to the clock on the wall and the requirements of the curriculum. It was out of frustration with these issues that I removed my own children from school for some years and taught them as much as possible in land-and-place, and family-and-community based perspectives. I was warned over and over that they wouldn’t be getting the “basics” they needed–as it turned out, they have each followed their hearts, and are all successful adults in the paths they have chosen (which have included, for some of them, scholarships to post-secondary education, with no difficulty; while others never did “graduate” and yet are satisfied and complete human beings in their chosen paths and families and communities). Now, as a personal tutor, I am seeking ways to integrate this alternative kind of learning, which I consider so valuable, while at the same time recognizing the panic many parents feel when their child is not “keeping up” with the educational methods, skills and values the “system” demands as necessary for their age.

Any thoughts or experiences which could help me with this path I am traveling, would be much appreciated.