As more high schools add mandatory Indigenous-focused courses, some caution against a silo approach
A Shakespearean fan who loves to share his work with students, English teacher Carolyn Howlett in Windsor, Ontario, admits she was a bit concerned when her board started to expand his English course for grade 11.
“I always say the reason I teach is because of Shakespeare,” said the Greater Essex County District School Board (GEDSB) teacher and head of English at her school.
A little over five years later, however, she is convinced that the decision was a good one. As of this past September, every GEDSB high school has made the transition.
“Literature, language, you can teach that with George Orwell, or you can teach it with Richard Wagamese… Why not give the students a different perspective?” asked Howlett.
“This course actually helps students become more aware of the world around them and their place in the world in a very diverse community.”
A growing number of Ontario school boards are making a similar shift in their 11th grade English offerings. Meanwhile, the Indigenous-focused learning requirement for high schoolers in British Columbia to graduate begins next fall.
As students and educators continue to press for an education sector response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls, some are turning to mandatory Indigenous courses as a way forward. Others warn against a silo mentality, where indigenous voices, perspectives and knowledge appear only in certain subjects and are not woven into what students are learning.
CLOCK | Other schools adding mandatory Indigenous courses:
Studying indigenous voices in an advanced English class can have a different, more empathetic impact than perhaps when students encounter similar issues in history class, says Howlett, who herself has a history degree.
For example, when their students read Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian horse — in which an Ojibway Residential School survivor tries to escape in hockey — “you’re reading this through a first-person narrative. It creates an empathy you wouldn’t get otherwise,” noted Howlett, who began professional learning to prepare for first teaching in 2018 and has participated in reviews and updates in the years since.
Callie McRorie, a 12th grade student who took Howlett’s course (officially titled Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Voices) last year, says he presents indigenous voices in a natural way while using the same ones Learning expectations are met as in any other English class.
If you read indigenous literature, “you can still dissect it. You can still work with it like you work with any other novel or play — the only difference is that it’s written by an indigenous person and you’re having that experience,” she said.
“It opens up a whole new perspective and sense of critical thinking that maybe people didn’t get before just from the classics your parents read.”
Taylor DeVries, a classmate in 12th grade, said the authors sparked her interest beyond previous English classes and opened her eyes to Indigenous perspectives.
“I was upset that I had never been taught that before,” DeVries said, adding that a lesson about boarding school during her elementary school days had justified her.
“Hearing the complete opposite of what it was actually like hearing indigenous voices from dorm survivors… I think it’s important for all kids, especially our age, to learn that.”
“People will have to listen”
After campaigning for about two years to get the Toronto District School Board to switch to the Indigenous-focused Grade 11 English course, high school senior Isaiah Shafqat is pleased the trustees voted in favor last week.
“Indigenous stories are often hidden, [though] Tribal peoples have protested for years and shared our story,” the Mi’kmaw teenager, who is also the tribal student trustee for TDSB, said a day after the vote.
While Canadians weren’t listening before, “now they are. And since they’re the largest school board in Canada and they have this course mandatory, people have to listen and they have to learn.”
Toronto joins a growing number of peers across Ontario who have made or are making the transition, from the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, the Lambton Kent District School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to, more recently Time, the York Region District School Board and Durham Borough Education Board.
Making the course compulsory is “a great opportunity for our students to learn what the vast majority of Canadians never had growing up,” said TDSB Chair and Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin.
A similar desire to increase students’ awareness of Indigenous voices, perspectives and contributions led to BC’s introduction of an Indigenous-centric high school graduation requirement, according to Rachna Singh, BC’s Secretary of Education and Child Care. The decision comes after consultation and feedback from indigenous communities, she said.
Beginning next fall, BC students must complete a minimum of four credits in “Indigenous courses” to graduate, with options including an existing selection of provincial literature and social studies courses, Aboriginal language courses, or courses taught on-site by educators were developed.
“It’s important for our next generation to know about… our shared realities, our stories, and especially what Indigenous communities have been through and what they have to share with us,” Singh told CBC News from Victoria.
“It’s our commitment to truth and reconciliation… We can’t do it with just words. I think it has to come with strong deeds.”
“Every Aspect of a Student’s Experience”
Niigaan Sinclair, a professor at the University of Manitoba, while welcoming greater inclusion of indigenous voices, is wary of limiting it to specific issues.
“The problem with bringing indigenous perspectives only into … the social sciences or humanities is that we often present indigenous peoples as problems, as something that needs to be solved,” said Sinclair, the school’s director of indigenous studies .
“Science, physics, math — even indigenous knowledge belongs in all of these places,” he said of K-12 and beyond, noting that this is the approach being taken on the prairies.
According to a Manitoba government spokesman, “Indigenous perspectives are embedded in the outcomes of all core K-12 curriculum courses, such as English Language Arts and Social Studies,” rather than in any specific core course.
Saskatchewan has mandated covenant education for all grades since 2007, and students also have “opportunities to learn Indigenous content at every grade level,” a provincial spokesman told CBC News in a statement, adding that provincial courses are available in multiple Indigenous languages and locally courses developed by the school There are also First Nations departments and educational authorities for students.
“Literature is an excellent way to represent and include indigenous perspectives … Literature is not the only place. I think a lot of times when we think we’re throwing in a novel or a poem by an Indigenous person, we can wipe our hands and say, ‘The reconciliation is here,'” Sinclair noted.
“[Introducing a compulsory course] is a good start…but it’s not reconciliation. Reconciliation will only come in schools when we see it in every aspect of a student’s experience.”
CLOCK | Learning imbued with indigenous voices and perspectives is “essential,” say students, professor:
The Anishinaabe academic, author, and educator — who is currently hosting a webinar series for teachers on the TRC’s calls to action and the heritage of residential homes in the areas of education, child welfare, the justice system, and more — commends educators across the country who ” innovative, creative work” that incorporates indigenous knowledge and voices into student learning.
However, he sees the driving force behind this change in the students themselves.
“Young people understand that they need to have relationships with indigenous peoples and it’s the job of schools to empower and engage them and then educate them about what the future of relationships with indigenous peoples looks like?”
For Windsor teacher Carolyn Howlett, the Indigenous Voices Room was a valuable forum for her students to discuss and process current events. It also inspires rich conversations at home, she said.
“The kids are actually teaching the parents, which I think is fantastic.”