Treaty Education in Schools: We Are All Treaty People

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There are many teachers who make excuses about why they don’t teach treaty education. I don’t have time. There are no Aboriginal students in my class. I don’t know anything about treaties. I don’t want to offend. The list goes on and on.

This is perhaps why some students do not take topics such as treaty education seriously. They sense that their teacher does not think the topic is meaningful and so they choose not to engage in the material. In addition, some teachers may not choose to teach treaty ed. at all and this, again, is an indicator to students that such a subject is not important. This, in combination with media and news perpetuating stereotypes against Aboriginals, makes it no wonder why the cycle of racism seems to be an unending one. Indeed, from Claire Kreuger’s presentation in ECS 210 yesterday (check her out on Twitter), she talked about a  article that CBC news posted in the last couple of years. The article polled people about whether they would date someone of Aboriginal descent and a startling 50% of those stated “no”.  Upon searching for the link to this article, I found that I could not find it and I hope that the outcry of people about the racism inherent in such an article forced CBC to pull it down. Yet, CBC writes what the people are interested in and that they would feel that such an article would pique people’s interest is disturbing in itself. After talking about this article, Claire asked the class to think about what Aboriginal adolescents would feel upon seeing such an article. If that was me, I cannot even describe in words what I would feel – the alienation, the anger, the hopelessness…it would be overwhelming. Yet, this is the reality that many Aboriginal adolescents face. It is one that no human being should ever have to endure.

Every student deserves to feel like he or she belongs is school; every student should feel welcomed. I would argue that, even in the most multi-cultural school, there is evidence of white privilege. It is shown through the smiling white men and women on posters across the school, the existence of only white staff members, the curriculum which has traditionally furthered white ways of knowing, and even school being organized around the Christian calendar; it is everywhere. From this evidence, it seems that achieving a truly multi-cultural school could be an insurmountable task. However, we are making gains; although our school system is not perfect, this progress is important – we are trying. Yet, by some teachers completely dismissing the idea of treaty education – and schools not holding them accountable for that – this progress is being severely inhibited. By failing to recognize the existence of treaties, teachers are furthering to perpetuate white privilege – the phrase “We owe them nothing – comes to mind. Indeed, there needs to be a major change in how teachers view treaty education in order for students to truly understand why treaty education is important.

Treaties are in effect as long as the “sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows.” That means, even though treaties were signed 150 years ago, they are still binding. We obey laws that were created this long ago and the treaties are essentially that; they are a contract, an agreement, that both white and Aboriginal peoples signed. In this light, it is curious that there is so much resistance towards treaties and this may point to those of European descent actually enjoying the privilege bestowed upon them due to their skin colour. This, obviously, will be a big hurdle in overcoming the existing stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples. Yet, we are all treaty people – white people signed the treaty, too. It was not a one way street. Promises were made that haven’t been met. Injustices (ie. residential schools) have been committed that have forever changed a culture. These are things that we cannot simply ignore as educators. Treaties are a part of Saskatchewan culture; Saskatchewan exists because Aboriginal peoples agreed to share their land. This cannot be taken for granted. More than this, however, the past must be understood in order for a better future to be secured. We cannot remain ignorant of past mistakes because that means we might commit them again and we do not want this for our children; teachers educate the next generation and thus, by incorporating treaty ed. into our lessons, we can hope to instil in students just why we are all treaty people.

One last thing – the fact that teachers don’t want to teach treaty ed. in fear of offending someone else is a valid one. Teaching a culture that you know nothing about is a scary task. However, something that Claire said in class really stuck with me: as long as you approach the topic of treaty ed. humbly, very little could go wrong. That is to say, as long as you make it clear to students that you do not have all the answers and that you do not claim to be an expert on Aboriginal culture, you will not offend other students. One way to practice this thought is to tell students that we are going to learn together; together, we are going to learn about treaties and we will make make gains, together, about why we are all Treaty People. With such an approach, students will really feel like they are part of the process of learning and they will be more inclined to engage with treaty ed.

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Pushing Students Beyond Boundaries

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“M, you are not bad. It’s just your behaviour that sometimes needs to be better”

“I’ll be better tomorrow,” M would say apologetically. And each time we had this conversation, I would leave with a profound sense that something was not right.” –pg. 20, Against Common Sense by Kevin Kumashiro

“Why didn’t you just tell us the answer in the beginning? Did we have to have this whole discussion?”

“I didn’t want to just tell you the answer. You don’t learn when you’re just told an answer. You learn when you figure out yourself and come to your own answers.”

“But you already had the answer. Weren’t we just trying to figure out your answer?” — pg. 23, Against Common Sense by Kevin Kumashiro

Out of all that I read in this chapter, these two passages were what left me with the most to think about. I can remember specific instances in which I was in the exact position as Kumashiro. There have been times when I would get frustrated when kids like “M” weren’t listening in class because I thought that was a direct reflection on my inability to teach. I would get upset at the student because I was upset at myself; I would ask myself, “Why can’t I get through to them?” Like Kumashiro, I have come to realize that, in most of these cases, it is not my ability to teach that is in question, but the ways that I teach. Sometimes, the “traditional” classroom does not work for certain students; even though schools constantly tell students such as “M” or “N” how to act and think, kids rebel against such notions, even though they don’t realize they are rebelling at all. Instead, they are simply saying and doing what feels right to them – they are learning in ways that makes sense to them. And who are we, as educators, to say that this isn’t how you learn? The school system is overly concerned with shoving information at students – here are the outcomes that you need to master by the end of the semester and we are going to learn them on my terms. What teachers need to realize is that education is a two way street; there needs to be give and take. Of course, there are some things that the students need to learn, whether they like it or not. However, the method in which you teach these things should be altered according to your students’ needs.

Most of all, however, you should encourage students to learn the material on their own terms; don’t teach to impose your own views on students. Instead, question the common sense answers and make students uncomfortable with their current ways of knowing. Learning is not about being complacent; it is about challenging your views and pushing knowledge to the limit. Oftentimes, students just adapt the ways of knowing that their family and peers have – there is a transmission of knowledge that occurs outside of school. The job of school, then, is to address these views and challenge them. Why do you think this way? Have you ever considered different ways of knowing? Investigating these different kinds of understanding is a way for students to learn more about themselves and question “common ways of knowing.” Doing so will not only improve their critical thinking skills, but it will also allow them to become more engaged in the world around them.

The Tyler Rationale: Out With the Old, In With the New

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The traditionalist model of teaching is one that is perceived by many as a “common sense” approach to education. However, as I talked about last week, issues arise with these kinds of “obvious” solutions because then people never stop to think: Is this still  working? Indeed, while the traditionalist model of teaching may have worked wonders decades ago, kids now live in a different society and teachers therefore need to consider the variety of students’ needs when thinking about lesson plans and assessment.

The Tyler Rationale is one that is built out of a traditionalist approach. It is as follows :

  1. Determine the school’s purposes
  2. Identify educational experiences related to purpose
  3. Organize the experiences
  4. Evaluate the purposes

When we went over Tyler’s Rationale in class, my first thought was, “If only it could be that simple!” Indeed, the allure, I think, to this kind of approach – perhaps explaining its popularity when it was introduced – is simplicity; follow these steps and you will have a school where all the kids will learn! And while I think the Tyler Rationale does have its merits as a starting point for teaching – it can be helpful when thinking broadly about lesson plans, determining what kind of teacher you want to be and determining how you want to organize your units, providing a good educational experience is not as black as white as this rationale may suggest.

When I was in school, a structure similar to The Tyler Rationale was used. I am the kind of student who is well suited for a traditionalist approach to education – I like memorizing and my skills are in language and writing – but many of my peers struggled because the teacher had such a concrete perspective on what knowledge and assessment was. Instead of the teacher observing the class and catering his/her lesson plans to fit students’ learning styles, it was the opposite: the students had to meld to the teacher’s way of learning. This, unsurprisingly, had negative consequences as the students started to resent the teacher and I doubt that they ever got anything meaningful out of the classes.

When I was in high school, I did not realize that this was the wrong way to teach; I grew up in a small town so I thought that memorizing facts and spitting them back out on exams was a good marker of knowledge. Perhaps more startling than this was that I thought that those students who were struggling in class weren’t trying hard enough; “if you actually sat down and read the material, you would be getting good grades,” I thought to myself. It was not until I came to university that I realized how inaccurate this was. Yet, that’s the way I was taught; that was the way that someone else’s “common sense” transferred as my own.

Education is a field that should always be changing; as society changes, education needs to change. Being stuck in one teaching methodology is counterproductive as if we, as teachers, fail to constantly challenge our teaching approaches, we will not be able to give students the education they deserve. The truth in schools today is that every student learns differently and that every students has different ways of showing knowledge; while it is true that teachers may not always be able to cater to these different needs, it is important that we still understand them so that, next time, we can give options of how a student could complete an assignment or the kind of activities we do during a lesson plan. Education today is all about acknowledging the diversity of one’s classroom and therefore trying one’s best to accommodate to these different needs; indeed, by doing so, the students are far more likely to learn and the teachers are far more likely to cultivate students’ success.

When “Common Sense” Isn’t so “Common”

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“Common sense” is a familiar phrase in the Western World. We use it to encompass various things that, as a culture, we think everyone should know.  Don’t cross the street before looking both ways. Don’t leave your purse unattended. Don’t go walking in a bad neighbourhood after dark. And while these “common sense” solutions certainly aren’t invalid, problems arise when we, as a society, constantly make “common sense” synonomous with “this practice has been in effect for decades and is therefore sound”.

That is to say, with the very origin of common sense comes a group mentality; common sense gained its very definition because everyone in society learned to follow a certain practice. And while this common sense certainly comes in handy for certain situations, it also proves problematic for others. Indeed, if a practice deemed “common sense” has been practiced for decades, who is going to question it? Very few. And the chances are, those who do question it will be scoffed at by the other 90%. Even though the world continues to evolve, it seems that our “common sense” has not grown with it; now, many of the things that we perceive as “common sense” are actually outdated.

As we see in the article “The Problem of Common Sense,” there are issues with relying on “common sense” solutions in schools. First off, it doesn’t allow us to adapt to the changing environment in the school. Schools have always been a part of our society but, within the last ten years, we are experiencing big changes in the demographics of our student population. However, many schools are still using the same practices that they did twenty years ago, saying “this is what we’ve always done.” Standardized testing – especially in the United States – is an example in which many say that this “common sense” practice just isn’t working anymore. Yet, those who want to go outside of the box are often scoffed at and their ideas dismissed as counterproductive to the goals of school. Where does it end? In many ways, the education system is in a slump; new ideas aren’t welcomed, yet the old ideas are simply not working.

Another intriguing point that this article makes is that we, as a society, rely on common sense because it provides us with a sense of comfort. The train of thought goes: “This is what we’ve always done so how could what we’ve always done be wrong?” People don’t like to stray from their comfort zone and they certainly don’t like to think that what they’ve been doing for the past years has been wrong. Yet, when so much of the world is changing around us, one must recognize that we, too, must change with it; much larger problems arise when, entrenched in our ways, we refuse to adapt to the environment around us.

Another facet of this “common sense” problem is the origin of it. As I said before, common sense is a product of society’s own viewpoints and experiences. However, isn’t a major problem in society today that not everyone is being heard equally? That it is only those of privilege and status whose opinions matter? In schools where there is increasing diversity, this poses a problem because those from India, for example, might not regard certain situations as “common sense” like those native to Canada do. Yet, society still greatly presses solutions of “common sense” and perhaps this is just an excuse for those of privilege to keep pushing their views. The article likens this thought to a sort of cultural imperialism and this, of course, can easily lead to different types of oppression. It is exactly this kind of oppression that we, as future teachers, have to work together to prevent. Every student deserves to have their thoughts heard and disregarding their experiences because they do not coincide with white society’s definition of “common sense” is a sure way to ensure that they do not reach their full potential.

With this, I am in no way saying that teachers are purposefully letting things such as racism, religious intolerance or sexism permeate into their lessons. What I’m saying is that in this day and age, with globalization and our culture moving at a rapid pace, there needs to be more awareness of the sort of dangers that arise from blindly obeying “common sense”. Instead, we need to be constantly challenging what we believe to be easy solutions, analyzing our responses to certain situations and always being open to different approaches or ideas. With that, and only that, can we hope to create an environment in which all of our students feel equal and ready to learn.