'I had my eyes opened': Indigenous curriculum enriches lives of B.C. and international students

B.C. and international students from the Langley Fine Arts School say studying Indigenous culture in high school changed their approach to education and Canadian history.

CBC Series Beyond Beads and Bannock takes an in-depth look at Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools

Annika Szarka is a graduate of the Langley Fine Arts School who says studying English 12 First Peoples provided her with a completely different educational experience. (CBC/Alex Migdal)

There isn't just one way to learn.

That is the biggest takeaway for Annika Szarka, a graduate of the Langley Fine Arts School, who took a course that was focused on Indigenous culture and perspectives.

While attending the high school, Szarka completed English 12 First Peoples, a course that explores Indigenous voices and themes through literature. However, Szarka says she didn't just learn about Indigenous culture. 

She also altered her approach to education. 

"I feel like a lot of the time in class in high school, it can turn into memorization rather than learning," Szarka said. 

"Through this course, the fact that there was culture content, there was learning through spirituality. There was learning through all different senses. I think that I truly felt like I was learning, which was a completely different experience than I've ever had in any other high school course."

Szarka and her classmates were inspired to create an art video and dance project to share the benefits of studying Indigenous curriculum. 

Course an eye opener

Szarka says she thinks all high school students should experience a course primarily focused on Indigenous perspectives. 

"To have my eyes opened to so many issues that I, as a Canadian citizen, didn't know were happening just really blew my mind," Szarka said. 

"I'm glad I have the knowledge now. So, now that I'm aware, I can make changes in my own daily life and make decisions to help toward truth and reconciliation." 

The fact that many students were learning about issues like residential school for the first time was astonishing for Elinor Atkins.

Atkins is also a graduate of Langley Fine Arts and a member of the Kwantlen First Nation.

"I grew up on a reserve and so my whole family lived through it [residential school]," Atkins said.

"So, being in school and having it be taught was really fascinating. And seeing so many that hadn't heard about it before was kind of mind boggling."

Atkins says that talking about residential schools in the classroom is an opportunity to build awareness in the wider community. 

"My grandmother went to residential school when she was five or six, and she didn't really talk about her history in residential school. But then through [Langley] Fine Arts, I was able to put on an event. It was called Project of Heart. And that was the first time my grandmother had ever talked publicly in front of a bunch of people about her experience. And it was the first time I ever heard her say anything."

Different take on Canadian history

However, it isn't just Canadian students who are studying Indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools.

Manuel Schuster is an international student from Germany who spent two years at the Langley Fine Arts School. 

Manuel Schuster is an international student from Germany who says he found some similarities between concentration camps and residential schools. (Manuel Schuster)

He was very surprised by some of the curriculum in both B.C. First Nations Studies and English 12 First Peoples.  

"I always thought the history of Canada, it was always really peaceful and everything, but then we started to learn about the residential schools," Schuster said. 

Schuster visited a former residential school with his class and heard stories from survivors. 

"I could connect it to when I lived in Germany. We had concentration camps, and there, the people, they took them and killed them there. 

"And in Canada it was so similar. They just took the kids and put them into the schools, and they tried to get rid of the the whole culture."

Like his classmate Szarka, Schuster also appreciated the focus on storytelling rather than memorization. 

"The difference is with the oral learning, you won't forget it because it's stories. You remember the stories."

B.C. and international students from the Langley Fine Arts School say studying Indigenous culture in high school changed their approach to education and Canadian history. 7:55

Beyond Beads and Bannock is an in-depth look at indigenous curriculum in B.C. schools. The series runs on CBC B.C. radio, TV and digital Sept. 3-8. 

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