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You couldn't call it warm that afternoon by the Albany River in early May. It was just 10 degrees, but the sun burned their faces and gave the four boys a tantalizing taste of summer as they fished in the icy water. The young fishermen weren't playing hooky but the fish seemed to have taken a holiday, ignoring the lures. It was late in the afternoon when a northern pike finally took the line and was welcomed to the world above water by the whoops and hollers of the small gang of boys.
The fish was not just a tasty addition to dinner – perhaps to be fast-fried that evening by one of the boys' grandmothers – it was the culmination of one more learning opportunity in Ontario's north. The field trip was organized by Tom Wilkinson, one of the hundreds of teachers sprinkled across Canada's north who look for teachable moments while adapting curriculum to the social and cultural needs of First Nations students.
Wilkinson, a 36-year-old native of Pickering, now teaches a Grades 3 to 6 Special Education class at Peetabeck Academy in Fort Albany. His students spent two days in class preparing for the excursion. They learned that pike have sharp teeth so must be held from the top, but that pickerel have barbs along their spines so should never be held that way. They examined the school's new fishing equipment and learned how to take care of it. They learned the uses as well as the spellings of lure, tackle and jigs. After choosing rods and lines and putting erasers on the hooks, they headed outside to practise casting techniques. And when their lines got entangled, Wilkinson found another teachable moment, demonstrating that problem solving could be more effective when they weren't yelling at each other.
“When we hiked out to our spot on the river,” he says, “they were pumped.” By the time they were hiking back, they had tapped into a sense of possibilities, as well as their own confidence and self-esteem.
Teaching in northern Ontario's isolated communities is very different from the experience of most Ontario teachers. Up north, teachers must be adept at a wide range of subjects and grade levels, and must find ways to appeal to the specific and diverse needs of students living in isolated, often rugged communities.
These communities frequently face daunting social and economic problems – drug abuse, alcoholism, teen suicide, limited school attendance and even more limited hope. For teachers, fostering intellectual skills is important, but equally crucial are social, spiritual and physical strengths.
For most of the year, Fort Albany – a predominantly Cree community of 1,500 – is accessible only by air, though for three months a frozen road connects it to Attawapiskat, Kashechewan and Moosonee, along the James Bay coast. The school, Peetabeck Academy, is an impressive new facility with just over 200 students, registered in kindergarten to Grade 12.
Peetabeck's vice-principal, Madeline Scott, says that low attendance has contributed heavily to the fact that only two students graduated this past year. Asked what it will take to encourage students to stay the course, Scott says it is imperative that they see the relevance of what they are learning and how it can contribute to making their lives better. Top on her list for accomplishing this is finding teachers who are flexible and creative enough to weave Cree culture into the curriculum and to develop hands-on programming that responds to students' needs, which is precisely what Wilkinson was doing that day when he took the boys fishing.
During the seven years he has been teaching in the north, Wilkinson has learned that he must frequently step outdoors to fish or ski, or into a kitchen for a combined cooking and math lesson.
He says he quickly discovered that group work or jigsaws created “big social battles” while co-operative games were a definite success. But it took some time to develop lesson-plan strategies that worked. What does work is delivering information in a visual or physical way – using art and building or construction. And, at every juncture, he seeks to find connections to Cree culture that will make learning pertinent for his students. He says it helps that his wife, a nurse who runs the small hospital in Fort Albany, has learned to speak some Cree.
Hundreds of kilometres away, three hours north of Thunder Bay, 25-year-old Corey Dagenais has just completed his first year of teaching with the Grades 5–6 students of Armstrong Elementary School. Armstrong is a predominantly Ojibway community of about 750 at the end of highway 527. The school has about 100 students in Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8, mostly from the White Sands First Nation. Dagenais says that finding relevance has not only meant bringing the Ojibway culture into his classroom – for example, using Ojibway art to teach art concepts – but becoming involved in the wider community as well. Dagenais, originally from Thunder Bay, says his love of the outdoors – skidooing, cross-country skiing, fishing – is important, but so is technology. “Students make a strong connection to technology. It is relevant to them. It is another language that needs to be taught and needs to be learned.”
Back in Fort Albany, cultural relevance is the central theme in Angela Nahwegahbow's Grade 2 classroom. For Nahwegahbow, a 34-year-old Ojibway from Espanola near Manitoulin Island, creating cultural connections is the magic key for unlocking learning among First Nations children.
“Education needs to be about so much more than what the textbook has to offer,” she says. Students crave their own stories, reinforcing who they are and where they come from. They need to know about traditional values, about moose hunting and goose hunting and spring breakup, drumming circles and respect for their elders.
At the same time, says Nahwegahbow, they need skills that will help them function in the larger Canadian society. Most children in her classroom have no books in their homes and don't know how to read when they arrive at the beginning of the school year. It wasn't until February last year that all her students could finally spell their first and last names. When the last student finally threw out the cheat-sheet post-it note he used to copy his name, the whole class celebrated. She says it's essential that her pupils have some success in reading before she can address the more complex aspects of the Grade 2 curriculum.
As a child, she too struggled with reading and did not finish high school. She attended college and then university as a mature student.
Nahwegahbow understands the daily challenges facing these children. Students often arrive in the morning without having eaten breakfast or seeing an adult. “There are a lot of very young parents and there is not a lot of parenting,” she says. Her earlier job as a social worker in an Elizabeth Fry Society transition house raised many questions.
“Why are they ending up in jail and having to reintegrate into society? Why was I seeing so many adults in literacy programs?
“How could I help?”
Her answer was to become a teacher.
Back at Peetabeck, Danyele Abra also wonders how to help. Her answer has been to create a loving, supportive classroom for her Senior Kindergarten students. She says many of her students have lost their innocence, have seen and heard more than they should.
“I have heard such heartbreaking stories,” she says.
This is Abra's second year of teaching in the north – her third year overall – and her second year with the same children, who she had for Junior Kindergarten. When they arrived last year, she recalls, they had limited English – Cree being their first language – and very little prior learning. But by the end of this year, her students caught up with all curriculum expectations.
Abra, 26, says she needs a lot of support to teach such vulnerable young children in such an isolated community. Her primary support has been her husband, Ben Rabidoux also a teacher at Peetabeck Academy.
Rabidoux teaches math to Grades 7 and 8 and science to Grades 9 and 10. This year was his second year in a classroom, and he had to grow quickly as a teacher as he scrambled to create a locally developed course for his students.
He says he relies heavily on his background as an outdoors enthusiast and fishing guide among First Nations people. “I've had to use more creative ways to keep the kids involved,” he says. He believes the most crucial role he can play for his students is to help them formulate a vision for their futures and focus on finishing high school so they have a chance to achieve that vision.
Experience and continuity
Danny Metatawabin, Director of Education for the Mundo Peetabeck Education Authority, echoes Rabidoux's belief, adding that students and their parents still have to overcome the deep mistrust of the school system that was left by the residential school debacle. To counteract that mistrust, he encourages teachers to use the seven aboriginal grandfather teachings as the foundation for their programs: love, honour, respect, kindness, humility, sharing and wisdom.
When asked what kinds of teachers his school authority is looking for, Metatawabin says they must be extraordinarily flexible, resourceful and willing to step beyond their roles as teachers to become part of the Fort Albany community. Before they even arrive, they need to imagine how very isolated and far away from home they will be.
Thirty-one-year-old Jason English just completed his second year of teaching and his first year at Crolancia Elementary School, where he taught French and the Grades 9–10 visual-art program. He agrees that teaching in a remote community can be lonely, isolating and very challenging at times.
“You need to know yourself first. You have to be a strong individual with a sense of adventure,” says English.
Crolancia, in the town of Pickle Lake, is a community of about 385 people and the final destination on highway 599 – three hours northwest of Armstrong. But Jason English is not alone. The school of about 60 students in JK to Grade 10 has a tight-knit and very supportive community of teachers.
“It's an excellent place to learn and to find your own teaching style,” he says. “There is a lot of latitude for experimentation.”
Metatawabin would like to persuade teachers to stay beyond the two or three years that is the norm so there can be more continuity within the school culture. In another community at the end of another road, four hours northeast of Thunder Bay, Brenda Downey is one such teacher.
Downey has taught for some 30 years at Nakina Public School (every grade, always in split classes). The school has about 45 students enrolled, from kindergarten to Grade 8, in a community of about 500. After graduation from her teacher education program in 1970, Downey thought she'd teach kindergarten in the north for a year or two before travelling in Europe. But that was before she met the forestry superintendent who became her husband. She says most of the teachers in Nakina have similar personal stories. She loves the long-standing professional and personal connections she's made here, and has relished the many professional development opportunities offered through the Northern School Resource Alliance, particularly in literacy and computer skills.
Ask any of the teachers interviewed for this story and they all say the same thing – they wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Schools in the north are looking for teachers who are flexible and resourceful, willing to step beyond their roles as teachers to become part of the small, interconnected community – teachers like Wilkinson and these others, who can look at a tackle box and imagine how that mess of lures, hooks, weights and line can both catch a fish and change the lives of students.