J’Lee Howitt works on a dream catcher in her class at Okanagan Landing elementary school

Exploring culture with technology

Students in Aaron Hoffman's Grade 5/6 class at Okanagan Landing elementary school are exploring aboriginal history and culture

As several groups of students make dream catchers, another group gets into costume in preparation for filming a video.

It’s all part of the learning process in Aaron Hoffman’s Grade 5/6 class at Okanagan Landing elementary school, where he has led his students in learning about aboriginal history, culture and customs, with guidance from the school’s aboriginal support worker, Jessie Brown.

Last year, Hoffman’s class focused on 100 Years of Loss, which looked at the history and legacy of the Indian residential school system.

A stained glass window in Ottawa by Métis artist Christi Belcourt provided the inspiration for lessons. The window in Parliament commemorates the legacy of former residential school students and their families, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s historic apology in 2008.

“We put the message out, to really look at someone and the developmental effect it had for generations of children, to display empathy,” said Hoffman, whose interest in First Nations history and culture deepened when he played hockey in Merritt. “I moved to Australia in 2013 on a teacher exchange, and it gave me a better perspective. In Australian schools, every time they have an assembly, they fly the Aboriginal flag along with the Australian flag. It resonated for me when I came back and it made me a little more aware.

“We had incredible elders talk to the kids and I went to the residential school in Kamloops, and there was a pit in my stomach. We took the kids to the kekuli, and they were profoundly affected by it.”

This year, Hoffman’s class has focused on 100 Years of Gain, with a focus on the achievements of aboriginal Canadians.

“So in spite of the devastating effects of residential schools, we’re celebrating the many successes of people who carried on, such as my friend (hockey player) Kevin Epp and (NHL player) Jordin Tootoo.”

For Hoffman, technology plays a key role in his classroom, so he was thrilled when he received a grant to install a green screen to allow students to make videos.

“We have a full-on Hollywood North here, so the kids can put on the traditional regalia and they have created their own stories and have looked at First Nations legends and they have come up with their own.”

A green screen is a background of a set where other images can be superimposed into the shot, making an actor appear to be on the moon, in a film or anything they choose.

Hoffman also uses the Fresh Grade program, an assessment tool which allows teachers and students to upload content to a student portfolio.

“The Fresh Grade program is phenomenal,” said Hoffman. “Parents see in real time what their kids are doing in the classroom.”

The use of technology and First Nations culture in the classroom all ties in nicely with the Ministry of Education’s new curriculum for B.C. schools, which incorporates aboriginal content as part of the learning journey for all students. It’s a natural fit for schools in this district, which operates on the traditional territory and land of the Okanagan Nation.

“When I looked at the new curriculum, we knocked off so many things on it. And Jessie and (aboriginal support worker) Keith McLean have been phenomenal resources for me.”

For Brown, this type of project-based learning incorporates the First Peoples Principles of Learning, which ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits and the ancestors. It is learning that recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge and is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational.

“We wanted to look at 100 years of gain and what that looks like for aboriginal culture today,” she said. “We divided kids into seven groups, into categories such as politics, storytelling, hunting, athletics and art.

“After we assessed where they were at, to figure out where their passions lie, they were really drawn to storytelling and it was amazing to watch these kids come alive, telling stories about coyote, creation, how did turtle island come to be. The kids were mesmerized, and we were really able to enunciate as to why telling stories is so important to aboriginal culture, from the past to the present.”

Student teacher Amy Whittome has been at Okanagan Landing since January and said the technology used in the classroom was something of a surprise to her.

“I’m not tech-savvy myself and it’s been so much fun with the green screens, so innovative, and we always have so much creativity,” she said. “The kids are able to build on their ideas and run with them.”

Grade 5 student Emily Mann said she has been enjoying all of the activities her class has been doing this year.

“I like it because I’m aboriginal, I like learning about the past and what happened,” she said. “You get to learn more with your friends in a fun way. Something can be challenging but the challenge is you make it through and you learn something every single time. I’m Métis and I like learning about the 100 years of gain, and learning about 100 years of loss is a way of making up to the aboriginal people.”

For Paige Cover, Grade 5 has been an interesting year so far.

“I like learning this because it’s interesting to me and it’s fun because our teachers make it fun and funny,” she said. “We get to know things through hands-on activities. I had already learned about residential schools this year and it’s pretty awful.”

Brown said it’s easy to include aboriginal culture in learning, because it’s project-based.

“It’s so effective because students enjoy it,” she said. “Students need to learn they are in charge of their education. If you can get them enjoying their learning, they love it. I try and share with them, ‘you guys need to be my teachers.’

“For me, the biggest thing is to have families be open to different learning options, the students do have passions and it’s time for them to be deciding what it is. Just like aboriginal culture, not everyone is meant to be a warrior. Find out what they are good at. Everybody is good at something, it’s just a matter of finding out what it is. I’m good at sharing my passion for aboriginal culture.

“A lot of teachers might think they are not able to do this — they may not be comfortable and they need to empower themselves. I know they can do this.”

 

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