submitted by paula armstrong, IVAC Chair
Boozhoo and Hello,
My name is Paula Armstrong, and I am the BLTA chair for Indigenous Voice and Action. I’m very excited about this position and have thought about how I might best help the teachers in the division to integrate Indigenous culture and history into their classroom culture and curriculum. Communicating with you on a monthly basis seemed like the most productive means.
I teach in a multi-grade environment (Kindergarten to Grade 8), and I do so without the aid of technology, so adapting materials and integrating Art into my lessons has become part of my identity as an educator. I LOVE ART! In keeping with this, my ideas always carry a visual component, and where I feel I can integrate other subjects, I do.
Let’s get started, but, first, some helpful tips for approaching Indigenous culture and history in your classroom.
- Don’t let your unfamiliarity with the topic keep you from starting.
This is a big undertaking, and some teachers feel that they aren’t the person to do this because they are not knowledgeable enough about the subject. Don’t be intimidated! Take small steps. If you are uncomfortable with jumping into the history and impact of the residential school system, then don’t start there. Here’s my philosophy – the Indigenous People have been demonized, marginalized, and victimized, but that is not who they are, it is what has been done to them.
Indigenous history and culture are full of depth and beauty. Start from a point of beauty and respect and you’ll find it easier to talk about. It’s important for your students, also, to understand that the Indigenous People are more than what has been done to them.
- Don’t go into this thinking that you can “tick a box”.
You’re looking for a way to integrate Indigenous teachings into your classroom culture and that is ongoing throughout your year. You should be looking for ways to include information, and it does not have to be a major component of your lesson. Even including a mention of an Indigenous perspective demonstrates integration.
- Be prepared to be a student yourself.
If you are not familiar with much of the history of the Indigenous people, then become a student. We’re all lifelong learners, right? It doesn’t have to be a university-level text. In fact, a lot of the books available through Scholastic are absolutely fantastic, and you’ll have just as much fun reading them as your students!
- Consider this an amazing opportunity to bring us together as people, a community, and a country.
You are on the forefront of a wonderful movement – be proud of that. You are helping to educate and enrich your students’ lives by helping them to understand that we have many more similarities than differences, and the differences are part of what makes us unique and wonderful. With understanding comes respect and empathy – couldn’t we all use some of that?
To help further these connections it might be a good idea to invite an elder from an indigenous community to help deepen students' understanding of and purpose of the dreamcatcher. The Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba has a speakers bureau. People are available to come to your school to support students' learning about Indigenous culture.
THE FIRST PROJECT: THE DREAMCATCHER
SUPPLIES: (I bought most of mine from Dollarama for under $10.00)
* a hula hoop
* wrapping material (this could be felt strips or burlap, or any lightweight material of an earth-tone color)
*jute twine or string
*large beads (wooden is best, but plastic will work)
*3 to 6 pipe cleaners (depending on how many feathers you want to make)
*white and black construction paper
*scissors and white glue (you can use a glue gun to save time)
Wrap the hoop with your felt or burlap strips.
Just like a clock, mark the numbers 1 to 12 around your hoop. Depending on the pattern you choose, you need to tie the end of your string around the first number in the pattern.
- 7, 3, 11, 7, 2, 9, 4, 11, 6, 1, 8, 3, 10, 5, 12, 7
- 1, 10, 7, 4, 1, 8, 3, 10, 5, 12, 7, 2, 9, 4, 11, 6, 1
- 1, 8, 3, 10, 5, 12, 7, 2, 9, 4, 11, 6, 1 (this was my choice)
- 1, 9, 5, 1, 7, 3, 11, 7
- Make up your own!
Wrap the string around the hoop two or three times to stabilize the section. You can repeat the pattern for a thicker web, but I liked the look of mine with just one go-round.
The finished product (so far).
I wanted 3 large feathers and 3 small, but I wanted them double-sided, so I cut 6 of everything. It will look nicer, if the feathers move, to not see the pipe cleaner.
I used the pipe cleaner to stabilize the feather, add weight, provide a spine, and give me an anchor for my string.
Once I had the back and front glued together (do yourself a favor and use a glue gun!), I made very fine cuts along both sides to imitate feather threads.
All the feathers were attached to jute and I added beads and assembled. Done!
Before you use your dreamcatcher in connection with any lesson you have planned, first explain that the dreamcatcher is sacred to the Indigenous people. Your dreamcatcher is NOT sacred. It is not made out of natural materials and has not been blessed, so it is just a tool for you and your students to use to help you understand how a dreamcatcher works.
Feel free to search the web for another version of the origin of the dreamcatcher, but what follows was my favorite pick.
THE STORY OF THE DREAMCATCHER
Long ago, in the days of the ancestors, some of the children of the people were having strange, frightening dreams.
As the children talked to other children, the troubling dreams spread among them like a plague.
The parents of the children were concerned. The people wanted their children to be happy, but they didn’t know what to do.
The people went to talk to the shaman. The shaman listened patiently as the parents told him about their distress.
The shaman told the parents that he could help, but he would need to spend some time in counsel with the spirits before he would have a solution.
The shaman would have to enter the dream world to find the answer.
Upon entering the dream world, the shaman was approached by the four elements: Air, Earth, Water, and Fire.
Air had already heard of the parent’s concern and had carried the message on the wind to the other elements.
All the spirits in the dream world loved the children and wanted to help return the children to their state of peaceful sleep.
The elements and shaman dreamed together for a long time. They finally came to understand that:
Air could carry the children’s dreams.
Earth could hold the dreams within her hoop.
Water could wash and separate dreams – the wanted from the unwanted.
Fire could use the morning sun to burn up the unwanted dreams that are caught in the web.
Now, all they needed was something to capture the dreams as they were carried by the air. Try as they might, the shaman and the elements could not think of a way to catch the dreams.
Grandmother Spider had been listening!
She said, “Beautiful, loving elements, I can help you as you help me every day.”
Grandmother Spider continued, “I can weave a special web that only wanted dreams can escape down to the dreamer.”
And so she did, and the first Dreamcatcher was made.
The shaman brought the dreamcatcher with him when he made his journey back from the dream world.
All of the families of the people made dreamcatchers. The families hung them above where the children slept, in a place that was seen by the sun.
No longer were the children troubled by unwanted dreams. Instead, they had happy dreams and peaceful sleep.
And so, at last, Great Spirit looked into the dreams of children and smiled.
A Google search with the keywords “dreamcatcher; origin; young students” and a click on the Video option should bring you to an animated piece, about 7 minutes long, that shows the dreamcatcher warrior fighting the bad dreams that try to enter a boy’s dreams. If you just use this as your intro, then it is up to the students to interpret what the dreamcatcher does. After that discussion, you can read the story.
APPLICATION ACROSS THE GRADES:
I don’t know your students – you do. What type of lesson or discussion would be the most beneficial and make the most meaningful connections? In my Kindergarten to Grade 8 classroom, I adapt expectations, conversations, and projects/assignments up or down depending on my audience.
Here are just a few suggestions.
After you have read the story, use your dreamcatcher to open up a discussion about feelings – good and bad. Use cut construction paper squares (2 colors- 1 for good feelings, the other for bad), and ask students to give you words that describe our feelings (sad, happy, lonely, mad, peaceful, etc.)
Use a marker to record their answers on the appropriate color paper. Once you are satisfied with the number of answers with which you have to work, you or student volunteers can “trap” the negative feelings in the dreamcatcher and let through the positive feelings. If you hang your dreamcatcher on the whiteboard, you can use magnets to hold on to everything.
Once everything is sorted, you can lead students into a discussion about why we sometimes feel bad things, what we should do with bad feelings, how bad feelings affect others, and why happier feelings are a healthier way for us to live.
Depending on the writing level of your students, here are some suggestions:
*draw a picture of yourself doing something that makes you very happy
*fold your paper in two and draw an unhappy feeling on one side and happy on the other and a sentence or two for each. Leave some room for thinking/writing about how that unhappy feeling can be changed to happy.
*connect feelings to actions by having students write/draw how their bad feelings impacted others and what they could/should do to solve it.
“I was feeling angry when I hit my friend. I hurt him”
“I should say that I’m sorry and not make others feel bad just because I do.”
You can have the same type of visual activity as the EY students, just tailor your line of questioning a bit more so you can dig a little deeper. You will probably/hopefully get some more complex and extreme feelings, and that’s a good thing because it will make the conversation that much better.
*what are your dreams for yourself? How do negative emotions keep you from fulfilling your dreams? How can positive feelings help you? This can lead to a broader discussion about healthy lifestyle and relationships.
*what happens when a group of people with negative feelings gathers together?
(you can choose ANY news article to illustrate this!) How can positivity combat this?
*use a magnet to demonstrate how negatives are never drawn to anything but will “attract” a positive influence. Sounds hokey, or deep, depending on the lead-in to it.
What you are looking for are more complex responses. If you apply this strategy to a specific topic/issue, and keep it contemporary, this could be a very meaningful exercise. I would use the dreamcatcher as either a visual tool after reading the story or as a prompt to think of the dichotomy of light/dark, good/evil, illness/cure.
Questions pertaining directly to the First People might ask:
*why do so many First Nations live in poverty? Is there a solution to this problem that involves more than just throwing money at it?
*is Canada a racist country? What might we, as citizens, do to create a more inclusive and just society?
*generations of poverty, abuse, and trauma have nearly destroyed the First People. What are some of the events (historical or contemporary) that have kept them in this cycle? How might they break free? How can we all help?
*write a response piece to a news article, program, or documentary that presents complex issues.
*create an ‘Action Plan” that focuses on meaningful and realistic steps to promote change. My personal favorite is writing to the Prime Minister – might as well go straight to the top. If you put all your letters in a HUGE homemade envelope and decorate it, you are guaranteed to get a response.
*write a poem or play that dramatizes the ideas you’ve discussed. Make the setting familiar and it will have more impact.
I hope I’ve helped get you started or given you that next step.
Hold on to that dreamcatcher, because I will be coming back to it in the future. I’ll be including library and classroom resources next, and I’ll focus on some cross-curricular projects I’ve done with my students.
Be brave, be creative, be an advocate but, most of all, be confident.
Title page painting is “Tree of Life”, by Nancy Katanari Tjilly (with Alison Riley, Nyurpaya Kaika, and Nurina Burton) 2011.