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Two-Eyed Seeing in a School District

Originally appears in the Fall 2009 issue

The depth of knowledge in any community will exceed your preconceived notions. This is as true in a kindergarten class as it is on a university campus. Each individual holds not only the knowledge and skills of personal experience, but also the collective knowledge and lore of the culture of the community. These experiences and cultural messages forge valuable mental tools with which to view the world, but also tend to create mental blind spots that make people interpret reality in a defined way. A community’s particular world view helps its members define how things work and ought to be; but once ingrained within a people, that world view is difficult to shake. Herein lies the real value of cultural interaction.

This is nowhere truer than in my school board in northwestern Ontario, where there is an evolving dialogue about environmental education between the local Anishnaabe and non-Native cultural groups. During the past two years, I had a ringside seat for this evolution in my role as Environmental Stewardship Special Assignment Teacher for the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, which serves the communities of Kenora, Red Lake, Dryden and others in the region north of Minnesota and east of southern Manitoba. In 2007, the board created a mandate to increase environmental programming and to adopt environmentally sustainable practices in school facilities. Embedded in this mandate was an acknowledgment that because a significant proportion of our students are Aboriginal, its implementation must reflect Aboriginal views on the environment.

By working with Aboriginal elders and teachers in the community, many schools have enriched their courses in environmental geography and in outdoor and traditional technologies. Engaging the Aboriginal community in environmental programs has benefited all students, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, and provided a more holistic view of the world than they would otherwise have been exposed to.

At Queen Elizabeth High School in Sioux Lookout, Darren Lentz teaches a technology course that is a model of the synthesis of Western and regional Aboriginal views. In his traditional technologies course, students gain practical skills passed down in the Anishnaabe culture and learn to look at the world in a different way. “The program is based on four principles — culture, language, land and community. Each of these leads into the next and stems from the local Anishnaabe way of looking at the world,” Lentz says.

To be a student in Lentz’s class is a daily adventure. As well as learning the hands-on skills of bush craft, such as making snowshoes, shelters and birch bark canoes from scratch, students also interact with Aboriginal elders in the community, Western-educated experts in the fields of ecology and natural resources, and national and community environmental groups. They work on projects that are fun for the students and foster a connection with the land they live in. Needless to say, attendance rates are high.

The environment is central to students’ experience and learning in Lentz’s course. “In the Anishnaabe view,” Lentz explains, “culture, land, language and community are all interdependent, and this interdependence in turn shapes the people’s world view and changes the way they use the environment.” He takes this same holistic approach in the classroom: “I try to link the major curriculum initiatives in the Anishnaabe way of looking at the big picture instead of the Western science method of looking at the small parts of a system…. When studying fisheries and fish biology, students go down and set nets with the elders and learn about their conservation practices. They learn fish names in Ojibwa and the spiritual significance of the fish clans. We also study the modern design process in the shop, and students then apply it to the building of a birch bark canoe. They plan and harvest in the traditional manner the materials used in bark canoe construction. They learn the language while out on the land; they learn the land-based teachings while picking the materials; they learn the cultural teachings of the canoe; and, finally, they build a strong community during the course.”

While there are clear benefits of including Aboriginal views in the classroom — especially in school boards that have a high percentage of Aboriginal students — there are also challenges. According to Lentz, the key problem is a lack of knowledge among teachers: “Many science teachers might not have enough exposure to Aboriginal culture to feel comfortable teaching through the Aboriginal lens. We, as teachers, need to help other teachers become comfortable with looking at problems and concepts in different ways.”

In order for teachers to become more sensitive to and knowledgeable about Aboriginal world views, Lentz suggests direct contact: “Spend time with elders and Aboriginal people. Invite them into the classroom, and go and learn from them. You can also learn from the Aboriginal students you are teaching. They can teach you a lot.”

Implementing such programs has obvious benefits, but it is not always easy to integrate the traditional Western education system, which is focused, structured, direct and institutionalized, with the more narrative and culturally and environmentally holistic systems of the Aboriginal education tradition. In our board, this task of melding the two systems falls on the shoulders of Eleanor Skead, Native Culture Special Assignment Teacher. Skead works to make school culture more accessible to Aboriginal students and to educate staff on Native culture and traditional ways. Part of the challenge, she says, is that merging Native culture with standard curriculum is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. “There is a conflict between the two systems of education, which makes it difficult to bridge the gaps between the two,” Skead says. “As an example, Native people are comfortable with silence, but in school we want them to open up and communicate all the time. To get Native students to open up, you must prepare a social environment in which they feel comfortable.”

Cultural conflict also arises in environmental education, Skead says, in that “The environment… provides everything people need physically and spiritually, and so dividing things and studying things in isolation is not how Native people are traditionally taught.” Skead also sees the focus on blending cultures to be problematic. “The common theme today is to blend the cultures, but this is really difficult. Peaceful co-existence and mutual respect might be a better model to follow,” she says. While the challenges are large, Skead is optimistic about the future: “I think we are moving forward. It’s just challenging and complex.”

Here in northwestern Ontario, we are struggling to find the right balance for our students’ learning and for the environment we live in. By looking at the different ways in which our cultures view the environment and pass on knowledge, we might just be able to deliver the environmental education our students will need in the future.


To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.


Drew Myers is a classroom teacher and former Environmental Stewardship Special Assignment Teacher in the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in Dryden, Ontario. Darren Lentz now teaches in Thunder Bay, Ontari