Lorraine Flavelle; Teacher from Gibson studying the Blackfoot
Over the years I have taught my grade three students about the People of the Plains, a rather generic term for all First Nations people who lived on the prairie. At the end of each unit I always felt that there was something missing from our learning. This would change however with the onset of the 2001 school year when I, in collaboration with other teachers, embarked on a project that would accomplish two goals. The first goal would be to immerse my students in an authentic learning experience that would allow them to come to know the Blackfoot People in a personal way. In my case, the study had to truly reflect the Blackfoot culture whose impact is still felt in our area. Further to this, I wanted my students to examine another First Nations tribe with another classroom all the while utilizing technology to break down the walls of our classrooms thus enabling us to discover, share, and teach one another. This is how my story began. It was a journey filled with twists, turns and enough detours to make me want to return to my familiar teaching methods. The beauty of this journey was that it not only led to a discovery of the Blackfoot People for my students, but also would forever change the way I would teach.
Often as educators we spend immoderate amounts of time planning unit lessons, activities, and projects that we are convinced will be amazing learning experiences for our students. We are so adept at planning, informing, and testing that we oftentimes forget to ask ourselves, "What exactly do I want my students to take away from these experiences that will endure? How can I help my students discover what is important to them while building on their past experiences?" This project has forced me to reexamine how students learn and to align my teaching to better meet their learning needs. Looking back over my notes I came across a quote written by a First Nations Elder. It read,
"In our system of education, knowledge is earned. One learns
to listen, like a human being who has the gift to hear what is said. We
don't put knowledge in a person's head or hand. We give directions, not
answers. We don't trap people into thinking answers are given from the
outside. Answers come from the inside."
At the time I remembered thinking it was an interesting quote but not particularly applicable to my teaching. How wrong this would prove to be. I would, over the course of this study, come to know my student's capabilities in a different way. I would be forced to listen and guide rather than tell and show. I discovered that guiding them through a learning process would make them ask their own personal questions. This would ultimately help them understand what it means for the life of the Blackfoot to have authority, and only then would the "answers come from the inside."
Although this study was unique in many ways, the area that would have the greatest impact on my teaching and my students learning was the carefully thought out learning experiences that took place. We wanted to create experiences that would allow our students to view vicariously the world of a Blackfoot or Stoney. When we framed our enduring understanding to read,"People live in different ways for very important reasons", we opened the door to what was truly meaningful to the Blackfoot and Stoney people. By looking closely at the land, ancient stories and art of our respective tribes we embraced some of their strongest beliefs and values.
Yes, it is common knowledge that they lived on the prairie, but how did the prairie feel? What did it look like or smell like? How did the Blackfoot feel about all of this land and did we feel the same? Did the ancient stories tell of their land? What teachings did they tell? What did their art look like? Did it relate to the land in any way? Would the students understand and accept that the land, the stories and the art were all intertwined to create a Blackfoot culture that was different from their own but equally as valuable? Creating these sensory learning experiences in my classroom would at first be a struggle for me. Initially it was hard for me to formulate questions that would lead my students to think and understand at a level deeper than mere facts. I wanted to be in control of their feelings and their insights rather than allow them to experience and express their own. With the help of a Galileo colleague I became more comfortable with this process. I was amazed at the insights and connections we began to draw out of my students. Insights that were well beyond what I would have ever imagined 8 and 9 year olds to understand. They were proud of the fact that a powerful tribe such as the Blackfoot had at one time inhabited the land that they now live on. Student conversations and reflections were different this time. Through the ancient stories and art, the students were able to grasp the uniqueness of the Blackfoot culture. Some of these conversations included,
"I wouldn't let any stranger on my land for it belongs to me
and I am the one who will care for it best."
Having large blocks of time to research as well as meet with my colleagues was crucial to the success of our project. Since the traditions and beliefs of the Blackfoot and Stoney People were passed down orally, written information was at times limited and not readily accessible. Luckily for me, the Blackfoot Gallery had just opened at the Glenbow Museum. I began to visit their Archives as well as sit in on a series of sessions offered by members of the Blackfoot tribe. Sitting and listening to the Blackfoot stories provided me with insights that I never would have learned from a book. Time to meet with my colleagues was particularly welcoming. I thrived on the discussion and planning sessions as well as the times when we reflected on how the project was progressing and how much we were learning.
The use of technology became an integral part of this project. Using a digital camera meant that pictures taken could be viewed the next day using a LCD. The students were really excited to watch their pictures and stories go up on their own web site. When the other schools began to post their information discussion in my classroom became enthusiastic and lively. They began to quickly make connections and draw conclusions. They were eager to point out the commonalties and differences between each of the tribes. This became a valuable medium through which we could discuss, reflect and learn from each other. Technology made an incredible difference to the scope and depth that we as educators could deliver to our students. Breaking down the classroom walls wasn't unrealistic anymore.
This past year was one of great professional growth for myself and I believe for the group as a whole. Our students benefited from learning experiences that inspired them search for answers outside what is conventional. As a group we are intent on continuing to expand this web site, hopefully bringing other schools into our study.
Copyright for student work remains with the authors.
All else copyright © 2002 Pam Irving, Lorraine Flavelle and Galileo Educational Network Association