B.C. educators build confidence, capacity to teach students about residential schools

Educators from across B.C. gathered in Richmond on Wednesday for a professional development session focused on how to teach their students about residential schools and reconciliation.

'Don't be afraid to make a mistake,' co-ordinator Jo-Anne Chrona tells summer institute attendees

Kids from the Ottawa area join residential school survivors at Rideau Hall as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's closing cermonies in 2015. The First Nations Education Steering Committee has developed resource guides for teachers as a response to the TRC's call for educational materials about residential schools. B.C. teachers gathered on Wednesday to learn about the resources. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC)

Educators from across B.C. gathered in Richmond on Wednesday for a professional development session focused on how to teach their students about residential schools and reconciliation.

Many said it was a valuable opportunity to engage with classroom resources developed by the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) and the First Nations Schools Association, and offered a chance to build their confidence and capacity in teaching the material to young learners.

"Your being here is reconciliation in action," FNESC curriculum co-ordinator Jo-Anne Chrona told attendees, a combination of elementary and high-school educators.

Responding to a recent study that found teachers in Ontario lack confidence in their ability to teach students about residential schools, a few people at the session said they too have doubted their ability to teach the subject.

But they also said that attending the professional development session had improved their level of comfort with the content.

Stephanie Duncan teaches high school in the Coquitlam school district and said she first taught students about residential schools and reconciliation around five years ago, in collaboration with an Indigenous youth worker and residential school survivor.

"For me, the big thing was just doing some research beforehand and then, having a larger district, I was able to pull in the support of [the Indigenous education team]. And so I kind of just jumped into it with their support," she said. 

'Don't be afraid to take first steps'

Throughout the full-day session, the group pored over the FNESC resources, which provide guidance on things like how to support students in planning an activity to educate others about reconciliation.

They also talked about more logistical best practices — for example, when to introduce residential school material during the school year and how to ensure supports are in place for students who might have a strong emotional response in the classroom. 

Chrona said overall, she sees confidence growing among educators in B.C..

"That's because we've been talking about it in the last couple of years and the launch of the FNESC resources had a big piece to play in that," said Chrona.

FNESC, a First Nations-controlled organization established in 1992, has been giving workshops to educators about residential schools and reconciliation for over four years. According to its mandate, the committee's primary goal is "to promote and support the provision of quality education to First Nations learners in B.C."

Resource guides are currently available for Grades 5, 10, 11 and 12 and are free to access online. According to the FNESC website, the materials are their "response to the call by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada for education bodies to develop age-appropriate educational materials about Indian Residential Schools."

Chrona said some teachers come to the sessions with minimal knowledge about the history of residential schools, while others show up looking to augment the work they're already doing. She says both perspectives are honoured and respected at the workshops.

Don't be afraid to take first steps, don't be afraid to ask respectful questions. Don't be afraid to make a mistake.- Jo-Anne Chrona

For those working in education who might feel hesitant, or lack confidence with the material, Chrona offered some advice.

"Don't be afraid to take first steps, don't be afraid to ask respectful questions. Don't be afraid to make a mistake."

Craig Duck Chief teaches at Chief Atahm school, a Secwepemc school just steps away from Little Shuswap Lake. He sees teaching about residential schools as important for young people in the community.

"I think it's empowering to understand for our younger generation that it's a legacy that doesn't have to be repeated but at that same time gives them a really good understanding of what's happened in the past," he said.

When asked what advice he has for educators who feel apprehensive with the material, Duck Chief said it's important for teachers to be committed to being lifelong learners.

He encouraged them to look at the variety of resources available that are catered toward different learning styles.

'Teachers want to teach about it'

An excerpt from Shin-chi's Canoe by Nicola Campbell, one of the recommended resources in the FNESC resource guide for Grade 5.
Heidi Wood, who works as an Aboriginal learning helping teacher in the Surrey district, said the FNESC materials are among the go-to resources for teaching about residential schools and reconciliation there.

"One of our most widely attended workshops that we give in the district and at schools is around Indian residential school and reconciliation," she said.

"And we constantly fill those workshops instantly. Teachers want to teach about it and they want to do it in a respectful way. That's not to say that they're not uncomfortable at some level about it, but what we've really noticed is their openness and their willingness to come in and do their learning first themselves."

As the summer institute session wrapped up for the day, Jo-Anne Chrona started clearing posters from the wall and packing up. Next on the agenda: a workshop on integrating Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into elementary and high school science courses.

"This is energizing," she said.

"If we do this work well right now we are going to fundamentally change society."