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Mandatory Grade 11 English course only teaches Indigenous books

Eight of 15 high schools with the GECDSB are using the mandatory Grade 11 English course to teach students about Indigenous authors.

By 2020, all literature taught in mandatory Grade 11 English course will be written by Indigenous authors

Carolyn Howlett is teaching Indigenous books to her Grade 11 English students as part of the new course material. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

Most high school students remember being assigned a dog-eared version of 1984, Othello or Catcher in the Rye, but today's Grade 11 students with the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) won't share the same nostalgia.

By 2020, all of the literature used in the board's mandatory Grade 11 English courses will be written by Indigenous authors.

"This decision wasn't made lightly," said Tina DeCastro, a teacher consultant with the GECDSB's Indigenous Education Team. "It was made with thoughtful consideration."

As a response to Truth and Reconciliation Commision, the public school board's trustees passed a motion in 2016 to develop an Indigenous education protocol in response to calls for action.

Since this decision, eight of 15 high schools have replaced Grade 11 English course materials with Indigenous books including Indian Horse, In this Together and Seven Fallen Feathers.

The new course is called Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices.

Seven Fallen Feathers, In This Together and Indian Horse are three of the books Grade 11 students are reading. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

Vital for students to learn these stories, says university professor

"It's vitally important that Canadian school children learn these stories, and get a chance to hear these stories," said Sandra Muse Isaacs, who is Eastern Cherokee and works as an associate professor of Indigenous Literature at the University of Windsor.

Grade 11 English gets a facelift, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's "calls to action." That means more Indigenous literature. And it's being met with some trepidation. Tony speaks with Tina DeCastro , a teacher consultant with the Greater Essex County District School Board. She's coordinating the Indigenous literature program for grade 11 English. And Sandra Muse , an English professor at the University of Windsor 10:49

"For the most part, they've been ignored or overlooked or placed in the past history," said Isaacs. "Our stories predate Canada. It's as simple as that."

English teachers who are affected by the course changes spend a year learning the new novels before teaching them to their students.

A table in Leddy Library has several Indigenous books, something Sandra Muse Isaacs says she never saw in her years as an undergraduate. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"I always say that Shakespeare is why I teach, so for me, losing that part of the course was surprising," said Carolyn Howlett who teaches Grade 11 English at Sandwich Secondary School in LaSalle.

"One of the things that really made me uncomfortable at first was feeling like I was going to be a new teacher again because this was a brand new course."

Howlett said it took time for her to realize "it's just a different format, a different style, a different author, but it's still all of the same things that we do in an English course."

Carolyn Howlett has switched from teaching Shakespeare to teaching Indigenous authors. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

There was a lot of pushback from parents who were worried their children wouldn't be ready for Grade 12.

"A lot of people didn't know what to expect, and parents were concerned about what their kids are learning, as they should be," said Howlett.

But the phone calls have been fewer this year. Howlett believes that's because people are more familiar with the course's look and feel.

Students are surprised they like the new novels

While some of us remember struggling to decode Shakespeare in high school, students who have never read the literature written by the Bard of Avon said they're worried they could be missing out.

"[I'm] a small bit disappointed since I heard before we were going to do Shakespeare, which I've heard was pretty fun," said Matthew Corkum, a Grade 11 student at Sandwich Secondary.

But Corkum said he has really enjoyed the books in the new curriculum, especially Indian Horse.

Matthew Corkum is reading Indian Horse, a book students in Grade 11 are now studying. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"I got into the story and I actually really enjoyed the book," said Corkum.

Corkum, who identifies as Indigenous, added that he didn't expect to read a story that would reconnect him with his culture.

"I think about what happened to them, and I think to myself, that could have been me. I guess I kind of see myself in that light a little bit," he said while holding a copy of Indian Horse.

Ministry of Education says no book is mandatory in Grade 11

The Ontario Ministry of Education said, while there are mandatory learning expectations for Grade 11 English, there is no mandatory or recommended reading list.

The ministry's curriculum mandates that teaches provide material that reflect the diversity of Canada.

"[Students] should be exposed to literary works drawn from many genres, historical periods, and cultures, by both female and male writers, that represent a wide range of perspectives and reflect the diversity of Canada and the world."

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