Classroom reconciliation

Anishinaabe teacher Christine M’Lot has a never-ending pile of homework on her plate, be it mid-school year or summer break.

This time last year, M’Lot was redesigning a post-secondary trades math course in order to emphasize Indigenous knowledge throughout the syllabus.

She recently wrapped up a project that involved collaborating with fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers to write lesson plans on how to effectively teach immersion courses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, the University of Winnipeg Collegiate instructor is balancing several curriculum development projects for clients near and far — but she has no complaints about her busy schedule.

For M’Lot, Indigenizing education is both a passion and a privilege, as well as something she hopes to pay forward with a new mentorship program for First Nation, Métis and Inuit teachers.

“I honestly feel like this is my purpose. It just makes me so happy, and I feel really blessed and to give back to my community in such an impactful way,” she says.

“I was a student not too long ago in high school, and I never learned about Indigenous topics, period — never mind all of the innovative things that our communities have done in the past and continue to do today. And so I think teaching all youth and, in particular, Indigenous youth, about the beauty, resilience and the creativity and the brilliance in our communities is something that is my biggest goal for any curriculum that I create.”

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Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action, many of which target education, teachers across the country began to think more critically about how they incorporate Indigenous cultures and perspectives into lessons.

Medicine wheels have become commonplace in Manitoba classrooms. Orange Shirt Day is commemorated annually with survivor speeches in schools and frank conversations about Canada’s assimilative residential school system. Increasingly, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators introduce students to the seven laws sacred to Indigenous people across Turtle Island: respect, love, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility and truth.

There is undoubtedly demand for expertise in Indigenizing lesson plans in a way that is respectful, meaningful and accurate. M’Lot’s packed schedule, only five years after she first got involved in Indigenous curriculum development, is evidence of it.

The Winnipeg-based consultant is one of few who has expertise in integrating Indigenous knowledge into syllabuses and the ability to test her methods first-hand with students as a full-time high school teacher.

It was actually during her first year teaching Grade 7 English that she came up with her first project pitch. Taken aback by the dearth of Indigenous curriculum materials she could find for a middle-years audience, M’Lot reached out to her friends involved with the Red Rising collective to see if they would want to develop educational resources.

M’Lot soon became co-founder of the Indigenous non-profit’s education branch and, in 2017 Red Rising Magazine published a special education issue for students in grades 5 and up. The edition, which includes lesson plans from an Indigenous paradigm, was entirely produced by Indigenous contributors.

“Content and process… that’s sort of my motto. I don’t just try to focus on incorporating (Indigenous) content or just incorporating the processes, I like to fuse them together,” says M’Lot, adding the feedback she received after the publication went to print made her realize how important the work was and that she wanted to keep doing it.

She then decided to pursue a master’s degree, with a focus on Indigenous education, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

A blurb about the issue on the Red Rising website indicates it was created to address concerns local teachers in Winnipeg have about wanting to teach Indigenous topics but don’t know where to begin and are afraid of “getting it wrong.”

M’Lot’s advice for teachers who see Indigenizing a classroom as a daunting task is to acknowledge their personal expertise level — even if it’s non-existent, which is OK — and then do extensive research, hire Indigenous experts to provide lessons and defer to resources created by Indigenous educators.

From looking into best practices in the educational field M’Lot is working on to seeking out knowledge-keeper input, research is one of the most time-consuming elements of her own curriculum-development work.

Her lengthy assignment last summer involved overhauling the course outline for an Indigenous math trades credit at the Manitoba Institute for Trades and Technology.

Students enrolled in the transformed course participated in medicine-wheel goal-setting, learned how to build a Wigwam while studying an architecture unit and learned about treaty rights during lessons about personal finance.

M’Lot supplemented studies on space and shapes with a video she recorded of a local knowledge-keeper finding a tree and giving it an offering in the wilderness by cutting out dimensional pieces of the birch bark and using geometry, measurement and perimeter concepts to create a basket.

“Part of the Indigenization of curriculum incorporates a lot of those values about our community and our world and the environment,” says Neil Cooke, vice-president academic at MITT, who identifies as non-status, although he is seeking Indian status.

Cooke, whose family is from Peguis First Nation, says many educational programs are colonial in nature, in that they are taught a certain way — one that views teaching as a one-way experience during which a teacher educates students, rather than a communal one.

But he says a shift is happening to embrace collaboration in traditional classrooms, incorporate more self-reflective activities and acknowledge different paces of learning.

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Knowledge-keeper Andrea Redsky, a principal in Winnipeg, is among those M’Lot has featured in recent projects.

Always top of mind for the curriculum developer when she sets out to design a new lesson plan is the importance of seeking out Indigenous role models to feature.

“My hope for Indigenous youth is to inspire them, but also to instil a sense of cultural pride,” says M’Lot, noting she never saw Indigenous role models reflected in the resources she studied in grade school.

“Oftentimes, when you are learning about Indigenous topics in school, we’re always learning about Indigenous trauma — and that’s the truth part of ‘truth and reconciliation,’ so it’s definitely important to learn — but I’m now starting to really focus on the innovation, that creative piece, that really beautiful piece that I think is missing in a lot of education environments.”

Since M’Lot started making a name for herself in the field, she has become a role model for other Indigenous educators in Winnipeg. She encourages teachers interested in mentoring to get in touch with her for guidance.

“I certainly don’t want to be the only one doing this work,” she says. “I want to train other Indigenous educators on how to do this stuff, because it was trial and error.”

She wants to start a formal mentorship program soon to help other Indigenous teachers start a curriculum-development business, learn how to negotiate fair contracts and launch a personal website with effective branding.

Elementary school teacher Marika Schalla registered her independent consulting business, Heartberry Education, with guidance from M’Lot.

Not unlike her mentor, Schalla, who is Red River Métis and Anishinaabe, develops curriculum and facilitates workshops on everything from decolonizing spaces to truth and reconciliation.

The duo met via social media, when M’Lot extended a hand to support Schalla as a colleague doing similar work in a city where demand for their educational expertise is seemingly limitless. Schools, private companies and organizations have all expressed interest in their work.

What Schalla said she loves most about what she does is how receptive and grateful her students are when she shares her traditional knowledge.

“Indigenizing a classroom, to me, means respectfully and truthfully incorporating Indigenous people, Indigenous history and Indigenous traditions in your classroom,” she says.

“A lot of people just like to use the medicine wheel maybe once or twice in a year… and that’s a great starting point, but there needs to be more.”

TORONTO STAR