Medicine wheels, talking circles, and traditional knowledge
The Sacred Medicine Garden, located outside the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program’s offices on West campus, is just one of ATEP’s initiatives that bring traditional knowledge to the classroom.
“We grow the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—and some medicines in the courtyard,” explains Kate Freeman, ATEP’s manager. This nutritionally balanced trio of plants, traditionally cultivated together by Indigenous people, is used in various ATEP feasts and ceremonies. Further, the garden gives passersby a first-hand look at Indigenous medicines and agricultural practices, such as planting companion crops to create a sustainable ecosystem.
Like the garden, ATEP is flourishing. It’s now marking 25 years of enabling Indigenous and non-Indigenous teacher candidates to specialize in Aboriginal education, and of qualifying graduates for Ontario College of Teachers certification for duty at elementary and high schools. As well, the Faculty of Education provides a mandatory 12-week course on Aboriginal education for all B.Ed candidates, which provides teachers with more resources.
Meeting the educational needs of Indigenous children is an ongoing challenge: far fewer Aboriginal students, for instance, graduate from high school than non-Aboriginal students. This is a serious problem for Canada, says ATEP coordinator Lindsay Morcom, an assistant professor and researcher who focuses on Aboriginal languages. “We need to understand why this happens, and find teaching methods and types of schools to change it.”
At ATEP, learning is guided by Indigenous cultures and values. “Our teaching philosophy is based on the medicine wheel,” says Dr. Morcom, who is originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, and has Anishinaabe Métis heritage. Medicine wheel teachings emphasize the importance of appreciating and respecting the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of all things.
This differs from Western perspectives, in which curriculum is divided into subject areas. “Indigenous knowledge is holistic, so we approach learning that way, while still meeting provincial curriculum guidelines and making sure students can succeed at higher levels of education,” Dr. Morcom says.
How is this accomplished? “We show our teacher candidates ways to provide experiential lessons, so the whole person can be involved,” Dr. Freeman says. Using authentic types of crafting, for example, they cover all subjects. “Kate teaches beadwork and I teach basketry, and we connect these activities to curriculum expectations in math, history, geography, and English,” Dr. Morcom explains. “Or for treaty education, we ask, ‘How can we use drum-making, or traditional music, to touch on all curriculum in a creative, hands-on way?”
ATEP’s aim is “to produce Indigenous teachers who will be leaders in meeting the educational needs of their communities,” says Dr. Morcom. “And to produce non- Indigenous teachers to meet the needs of all learners and model allyhood.”
To this end, ATEP offers two program streams. The first is campus-based: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students with a university degree can apply to earn a Bachelor of Education. The other stream is community-based: applicants of Aboriginal ancestry can enter with grade 12 , receive a diploma in education, or if they already have an undergraduate degree, applicants of any heritage can apply to earn a B.Ed.
The campus-based program, which includes practica in schools with Indigenous students, is growing. “When I came four years ago, we had four, then six students—now we have 21, including more Aboriginal students,” Dr. Morcom notes.
One of the gifts of the campus-based program, she adds, is the fifty/fifty mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. They work together in a spirit of respect and honesty, often grappling with difficult issues such as residential schools and reconciliation. Most have just finished a degree, the majority are women, and they come from varied backgrounds, including all of the Nations of Ontario, including Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, Cree, and Métis students
“We’re turning out people who are going to be leaders in their communities. We teach from an unapologetically Indigenous perspective, so the Aboriginal students get a strong basis in their cultures. And having non-Indigenous people in class, we’re able to help develop new teachers into strong Indigenous allies.”
ATEP’s community-based stream, which prepares mostly Indigenous teacher candidates, has been expanding, and has involved partnerships with six Aboriginal education institutes. “It’s a real success story,” Dr. Morcom says. “We have 400-plus graduates, people now working in their own communities, in government institutions, and going on to further education. In fact, many former students are now educational directors, who are approaching ATEP to create new partnerships.”
An ATEP consultation on program design found that Aboriginal people wanted community-based delivery, says Dr. Freeman. “It’s part-time, with up to four years to finish, so it’s flexible for people who have jobs, families, or other barriers to university.” Students attend Queen's University for two summer sessions and then take classes at a partner institution in their home communities for four fall and winter terms.
For her part, Dr. Morcom brings together her love of education and Aboriginal languages in her work with ATEP, and her research. She earned a master’s degree in Linguistics from University of Regina in 2006 through the First Nation University of Canada, then a doctorate in General Linguistics and Comparative Philology as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 2010. She aims to help revitalize Aboriginal languages, and advance current linguistic theory.
Her main project, one of many, involves monitoring an immersion school where, for six hours a day, kindergarten and grade one students learn in Ojibwe, their heritage language. The project blends Early Learning Kindergarten curriculum with language immersion and Aboriginal pedagogies such as play-based learning, and is taking place at Mnidoo Mnising Anishinabek Kinoomaage Gamig (MMAK) in Manitoulin Island.
Findings so far, at the two-year mark in this four-year project, show most children achieving academic results at, or above, age-appropriate development. “This is phenomenal, particularly given the gaps in educational success seen in Indigenous communities,” Dr. Morcom says. “It tells us that having access to education that is culturally appropriate in the local area is beneficial to Indigenous kids.”
In future, Dr. Morcom hopes the research will help policymakers recognize the value of culturally based immersion programming, and funding will increase. “The results are so encouraging: the children are doing extremely well, and they are protecting their heritage language, which is endangered. The possibilities are exciting: we already have another school on board for an immersion program, this time in Walpole Island.”