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Rights + Justice

How to Bring First Peoples into BC Classrooms

If done right, ‘we can have a fundamentally changed society,’ says educator Jo Chrona.

Katie Hyslop 3 Nov

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Her work is supported by Tyee Builders and a matching contribution from the Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Chris Wood here.

Residential schools left a legacy of pain still felt in communities across Canada.

And achieving true reconciliation between the settlers and Indigenous people of this country — and easing that pain — has to involve our education system. The big question is how.

Jo Chrona has been working on an answer for almost 20 years. Chrona began as a high school teacher in 1997, and her work with the B.C. education ministry’s curriculum committee played a pivotal role in the decision to include First Peoples’ content and ways of knowing in he province’s new Kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum.

As the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) curriculum coordinator, she’s pushing for even more representation in the still-to-come revamped high school curriculum.

Chrona spoke briefly about Indigenous content and classroom reconciliation at The Tyee’s The Future of Public Education: Beyond the Headlines event in Vancouver on Oct. 5.

But she left us wanting more, so we caught up with Chrona to ask some questions posed by the event audience and The Tyee.

The following is a version of that conversation lightly edited for length and clarity.

How have you implemented Indigenous content into the school system?

Part of it is trying to help people unpack some of their underlying assumptions about education. Because if we’re going to look at whose voice has been absent, we have to look at our understanding of what education is.

Then it’s about looking at the pedagogy that generally has been accepted in our education system. It’s been developed based on a post-industrial model of education out of Britain, and that is not a system that works for the majority of students.

And that ties into the other piece: even if our system in B.C. is just over 80 per cent successful if we’re looking at graduation rates, when we look at those who graduate from our education system, how many of them come out feeling inspired to continue learning? How many of them have their passions nurtured in high school? A successful education system is more than the graduation certificate.

I don’t want to just pick up aboriginal content and plunk it into existing systems if that existing system needs examination.

What’s changed in the curriculum since you started teaching?

There was the development of the English First Peoples 12 course. The ministry of education partnered with FNESC to have this course developed as the academic equivalent to English 12. It hasn’t had as much uptake as we would like to see, due to a number of systemic reasons. But it opened the door to have more conversations about Indigenous content in courses.

What are some reasons First Peoples English 12 hasn’t taken off?

There is a perception unfortunately that still exists that when we add aboriginal, or First Nations or First Peoples to anything in our schools, it’s less than. It’s quite a rigorous course; it’s the academic equivalent to English 12. But some schools, unfortunately, if a student is struggling in the regular English stream, they will put them into the First Peoples’ stream. For some reason they think that’s going to be an easier fit.

The other factor is that in a time when we’ve got fewer resources in schools, to get a new course going sometimes you have to go with fewer students in the first year or two to get the course known by students. So you’ve got a teacher who wants to teach the course, and 18 students who want to take the course, but the school, says, “No, we have to have 23 minimum to offer the course.”

What do you say to people who fear Indigenous courses are lesser than other offerings?

The perception is held by people who don’t know what’s in the course. So it’s about having the conversation, taking a look at what is there and talking with people who know about it. And it’s recognizing that all of us want to do things that are the best for all of our kids in the system. So we wouldn’t want to have any student disadvantaged.

I had a non-First Nations student and she wanted to take every English-related course because she wanted to go to university and get an English degree. And I asked her, “What is your experience of having these two courses in the same semester?” She said, “I understood what we did in English 12 and why we read the people that we did. But I really loved English First Peoples 12 because it was more real to me.” Part of that is the literature that we use tends to be more contemporary, grittier.

What Indigenous content is in the new Kindergarten to Grade 9 curriculum?

For math there are two learning standards in each grade that ask teachers to help students look at the understanding of math through some cultural contexts. An example would be in the building of canoes, there’s so much math that has to be involved in the scale, diagramming, etc.

In English Language Arts there’s an increased focus on story as a part of the oral tradition, and helping students understand First Peoples’ context through story, through narrative. And also understanding the diversity of First Peoples.

The arts have included Indigenous content, and one of the exciting things to see is in the draft Social Studies 10 course, part of the content being truth and reconciliation in Canada.

In science, what they’ve done is say “connect science learning to place.” And approaching learning in place is incredibly important. But what we wanted was something more specific, looking at Indigenous context of land and place. It has to be mandated explicitly, because otherwise teachers who haven’t been doing it aren’t going to all of a sudden start doing it.

You’ve called for a mandatory First Nations course. What’s your pitch for that?

We have other non-negotiables in our curriculum. We say, “In order to be an educated citizen, you have to have some knowledge of Canadian history, of English language arts, of math literacy.” And we’re saying if you really want to be a knowledgeable Canadian citizen, you have to have some understanding of historical context and the contemporary context of First Peoples in Canada, and that will be best achieved by some focused study.

If it’s valuable and important, then we need to find a way for it to be mandated. Otherwise it’s still pretty hit and miss.

Is language part of the new curriculum?

No. There are provincial curricula for 15 First Nation languages in B.C. What happens is an education authority will work with the school district, and they will develop the curriculum for that language to be taught in that school district that’s associated with that community. So, for instance, Prince Rupert has the Sm'algyax language up to Grade 12.

These languages didn’t die because of any natural evolution of the language. It was the result of a very focused and systematic onslaught and assault on the language. So that’s why we really need to support the language.

What training do teachers need?

Some teachers are at the place of “I want to integrate First Peoples content and perspectives now, but I need some support in doing that. How do I do it?” That’s a very different conversation than you would have with some other educators who are still not seeing the value.

FNESC campaigned for years to have the one professional development day each year the ministry gets to control to be on aboriginal education. The ministry did that last year, but from what we understand, a significant number of districts did not follow through. What we were hearing was a lot of districts said, “We already have something else planned.”

There needs to be some accountability on what is happening around professional development in school districts for helping those teachers understand how to do the work that we recognize needs to be done.

What about teachers’ education, and the role of universities?

As of September 2009, any teacher in B.C., before they can become certified, has to have a course or course equivalent in aboriginal education. And it’s up to each university or college what that might look like. It’s opened up a lot more conversation. We have newer teachers coming out with the understanding that “well, of course we’re going to integrate aboriginal perspectives and content.”

We don’t necessarily even know what all the courses look like because every post-secondary has designed it themselves. And the other piece, which is a little shakier, is that we don’t know what does the “course equivalent” mean? How do we know that it’s actually getting the focus that it needs?

What does racism against Indigenous people look like in schools?

There tends to be lower expectations of aboriginal students. It plays out in so many different ways — the belief they’ll need support because they can’t achieve what others can achieve, and a prevalent lack of any Indigenous students considered gifted.

The other is judgments made on aboriginal families and communities without full understanding. Sometimes, not always, it’s about a legacy of residential schools. That history is still leaving a lot of parents and families not wanting to engage in the system.

Another is when you have an education system that historically doesn’t meet the needs of aboriginal peoples. Sometimes, looking at when a child who might not be succeeding, there’s a tendency to say the child has to change, rather than saying, “What are the things going wrong systemically that might need to shift?”

Other than the curriculum, what could districts’ and schools implement this year to further reconciliation?

All educators could make a commitment to learn something about Canada’s history with First Peoples or our contemporary context right now. We ask our students to be in places of learning — well, we can be the best models of that. Recognize that there’s something that each of us individually can learn each year.

How are independent and religious schools implementing reconciliation in the classroom?

I don’t have a big picture, but I do know that I’ve been getting requests to come and talk. Last year, the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver Archdiocese asked, and I met with a number of their high school teachers.

In your own work with the government, what’s proven effective in engaging them in a way that results in changes?

As educators we can say that we want things, as FNESC we could say this is necessary for our children. But we know that the government responds to the general public contacting them and saying, “This is important, this needs to be done.”

Our education system has the opportunity right now to do something that could fundamentally shift our province. If we start ensuring that we have First Peoples content and perspective where we do our own learning as adults, and we help our students do the learning, then when those students leave the system we can have a fundamentally changed society.

What’s the best term to use in the classroom?

In the classroom I encourage teachers to use First Peoples, and let them know that it’s inclusive of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit.

Indigenous can be used, as well. But it tends to refer to all Indigenous people around the world. So I recommend we say Indigenous peoples of Canada to differentiate it if we’re just talking about First Nations, Metis and Inuit.  [Tyee]

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