Teaching math through cedar weaving, trade beads and oral history

Educators streamed into a Vancouver conference room to learn how curriculum specialists in Prince Rupert are developing Ts’msyen teaching materials for math classes.

Educators in Prince Rupert rise to the challenge of incorporating Indigenous culture into math class

An educator works on a cedar weaving math exercise at a First Nations Education Steering Committee workshop in Vancouver. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

At the math workshop the tables were full of materials: faux cedar strips, dry erase markers, dice, scissors.

Educators streamed into the Vancouver conference room to learn how curriculum specialists in Prince Rupert, B.C., are developing Ts'msyen teaching materials for math classes.

"A lot of teachers are wondering how they can use the culture in teaching math, so that's one of the biggest things we wanted to do is come and share that with everyone," said curriculum specialist Tina Demings, one of the workshop co-presenters.  

As of this year, the worldview and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples are being incorporated into all core subjects taught in the B.C. curriculum for grades K-10.

Math is no exception.

With teachers openly talking about their struggles to find culturally relevant teaching materials for math, Demings and her colleague Tannis Calder worked together with Sm'algyax language speakers, elders, cultural advisors and teachers to build up their curriculum materials.

Tannis Calder and Tina Demings worked together, with a host of others, to put together the curriculum materials presented at the workshop. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

"We started looking at this through a lens of weaving, cedar weaving," said Calder, who is also a curriculum specialist in the Prince Rupert school district.  

She said cedar weaving is a great way to teach younger children how to identify patterns. It can also be used to teach older teens more complex math concepts like algebra and algorithms.

"[Weaving] is a really great metaphor for the whole unit because we're trying to show how the concepts are woven together, throughout all the different grades and levels."

Calder said it was exciting to see how many educators at the First Nations education conference had registered for their math workshop.

"It really goes to show how people are looking at how we can move beyond seeing Aboriginal education as a thing on its own, or a separate thing and really see how it fits in with the core subjects," she said.

Tammy Saigeon, an Indigenous education teacher on the Sunshine Coast, attended the workshop and said teachers are increasingly looking for ways to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into their curriculum.  

Tammy Saigeon (centre) sits with her Indigenous education colleagues at the cedar weaving math workshop, holding up the faux-cedar fish they created. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

"Especially in math," she said.

"I have teachers asking me all the time, 'OK, what does that look like?' So we can take this back and we can show them, 'This is what that looks like.'"

More than math

Since starting their work linking math and weaving through the Prince Rupert district's Aboriginal Education Department, the math teaching material has grown to incorporate Ts'msyen adaawx (oral history), language and culture in a way that crosses over into several subject areas.  

One of the lessons Calder and Demings previewed in the workshop started with a song that teaches children how to count to 10 in both English and Sm'algyax.

The catchy numbers song serves as the launching point for a math game called Gabada Ḵ'a̱lmoos (eating crab) that teaches about multiplication and expression rules.

Worksheets were distributed to educators explaining how to teach children the crab legs math game. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Another lesson shared at the workshop involves trade beads as a way to teach different math concepts like pattern recognition and divisibility rules.

Demings asked the people in the room if they'd heard of trade beads and then explained how they were used in Ts'msyen territory.

For Demings, it's important for Indigenous content to be used across the curriculum so all students learn about the local history and culture of the place where they live.

You see a lot of pride coming out in the students who are Indigenous. It's cool to be Indigenous and to know about it.- Tannis Calder

But she said it's especially important for First Nations students as "it brings a sense of pride."

"As soon as we talk about weaving, so many of our students will say, 'Oh, my auntie weaves,'" said Calder.

About 64 per cent of the students in the Prince Rupert school district are Indigenous and Calder said she's already seen the impact of the curriculum changes among the youth.

"You see a lot of pride coming out in the students who are Indigenous. It's cool to be Indigenous and to know about it, so you see lots of other kids who aren't Indigenous wanting to join in and participate."

Authenticity is key

Pulling together the curriculum content Demings and Calder shared in their workshop was no small task. They said collaboration with the community has been key to their success.

Working with Calder to develop the teaching resources, Demings said her own perspective on math changed.

"I could see and notice how math is fun, and how easy it is to just use stories or use songs," she said.

While the math lessons shared in the workshop may be easily replicated across districts and territories in B.C., Demings and Calder said it's important to use materials that incorporate local knowledge and stories as much as possible.

'It was blowing my mind'

For basket weaver and Ucwalmícwts language teacher Heather Joseph the workshop was a way to see how other educators, in different districts, are incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing in the classroom.

Joseph teaches at a Pemberton elementary school and was particularly interested to see how Calder and Demings were using weaving to teach math.

"I already knew about patterning and some of the counting a little bit, but I really wanted to see the things they were doing with it," she said.

Even for experienced weavers the math exercise took some time to tackle using an algorithmic approach. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Joseph said it took a couple of tries with the paper weaving activity to figure out the math component of the lesson shared at the workshop.

"I had to take half of it apart and start again and then I was like, 'Oh, now I see the pattern.'"

"It was blowing my mind," she said.

Like others who attended the workshop Joseph said she's looking forward to taking what she learned back to her school with a new perspective on how much further she can incorporate her weaving and language lessons into the math curriculum.

About the Author

Chantelle Bellrichard is a reporter with CBC's Indigenous unit based in Vancouver. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @pieglue.