A new postsecondary course is exposing a pilot group of nine NWT teachers to a political, cultural and historical overview of the North with the goal of creating a more supportive learning environment in K-12 classrooms across the territory.
The two-week intensive, which wrapped up this month at the Dechinta Bush University Centre for Research and Learning, brought together a mix of teachers, curriculum developers and Aboriginal language coordinators from across the NWT to learn best practices for teaching in the unique context of the North and inspire ways of bringing community and land-based resources into the classroom.
Co-organized by the department of Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) and Dechinta, the course recently brought the mix of adults and their kids out on the land at Blachford Lake Lodge and connected them with Aboriginal leaders, elders and instructors while providing them with an accredited Master’s-level course to advance their post-secondary education level.
“The course looks at colonization and decolonization in terms of how we approach the classroom and pedagogy, the history of Northern and indigenous education in Canada, and really trying to introduce indigenous worldviews on education into teachers’ tool kits, so that teachers who are teaching in the North who aren’t from the North have more resources and more background when they’re coming to teach Northern kids,” said Erin Freeland-Ballantyne, dean of programs for Dechinta.
Though the course is designed to be most beneficial for southern teachers, it is also a way to give local educators a chance to work on furthering their education or careers while contributing to a strong cross-learning environment, Freeland-Ballantyne said.
“I think the diversity of the cohort is what makes the cohort really strong,” she said.
The pilot group included indigenous teachers from Tuktoyaktuk, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, mixed with non-indigenous teachers working in Aklavik, Fort Providence and Inuvik. Two curriculum and policy developers from ECE also participated, as well as the Aboriginal Education Coordinator from the YK1 school district.
The first week of the course was done online, followed by a one-week land-based segment at Blachford. Students are now expected to complete a project in their communities that mobilizes new tools for getting students out on the land and harnesses local resources to “deepen” the classroom and take it “beyond the school,” Freeland-Ballantyne said.
A partnership initiative
Dechinta was approached by ECE to help teach the course based on the school’s experience providing a mix of on-the-land and theoretical programming aimed at empowering primarily indigenous community leaders in the North.
“As part of our 10-year education renewal initiative, one of the areas that was identified as key for strengthening a Northern teaching force was to have opportunities around postsecondary courses, and particularly courses that would be at the Masters level and that would contribute to their better understanding of the Northern context in which they’re teaching,” said John Stewart, director of instructional services for ECE.
“About 80 per cent of teachers in the NWT come from elsewhere in Canada, and so what they’ve received in their teaching programs is likely not much focused on some of the realities of the North,” Stewart said. “We’re convinced that will reflect, then, in the classroom practice and in their understanding of the communities they’re working in, and that would reflect then in how they work with their students.”
Because this is the first time running the course, Stewart said the department will have to evaluate it moving forward, but hopes to eventually make the course regularly available to all NWT teachers.
The course would be limited to those planning to return to or stay in the NWT for the following teaching year, as an incentive to stop the high turnover of educators in the North and to also improve NWT curriculum over the longer term, particularly in the area of Northern Studies.
“A long-term goal is that, as we grow a cohort of teachers who have gone deeper into an understanding of education in a Northern context, and especially a deeper understanding of Aboriginal pedagogy and worldview – because that is a significant part of the student population that many teachers are working with in the NWT – those people might become resources to and inform bigger areas of curriculum, for sure,” Stewart said.
Extending reach of land-based education
While students at Dechinta are able to bring their children to “Kids U” – a hands-on, land-based school for children at Blachford – during courses, the school only enrolls adults aged 18 and over. This new course enables the bush university to extend its reach further, Freeland-Ballantyne said.
“Teachers make a huge difference in the development of children, and how children are taught in the North has a huge impact on their identity and how they feel about education. We really felt that education in K-12 is really changing in the North with the new Northern Studies courses, and we really felt that this was an opportunity for Dechinta to invest in K-12 learners and the kind of experience they are having,” she said.
By supporting the teachers, Freeland-Ballantyne hopes the same kind of education central to Kids U is brought into classrooms across the NWT – something she said is even more relevant following the recent gathering of Canada’s education ministers in Yellowknife, which focused on Aboriginal education.
“Our communities are so full of resources – elders and the land – and so many skills that we could be using and mobilizing to teach our kids in K-12,” she said. “And I think that having a stronger relationship between teachers and the school and communities – and the resources that are in our communities already – can only make education stronger.”