Yellowknife’s YK1 school district brought together hundreds of staff on Thursday for a day dedicated to Indigenous languages and cultural education.
At the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s Wiilideh ceremonial site, teachers, administrators and support staff fed the fire before hearing from Susan Aglukark, the Inuk singer-songwriter, who graduated from Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School.
“This was the first time I presented to a group of teachers since the reconciliation movement,” Aglukark told Cabin Radio after sharing how she believes an emotionally safe space for learning can be created.
“We all work hard and advocate for the importance of education in the future lives of Indigenous children and in our communities,” Aglukark said.
“Who are the teachers teaching their children, and what was their training? What is their knowledge about the Indigenous perspective and Indigenous communities’ history, pre and post-colonization?
“It’s important that teachers learn all the critical pieces about their students, and we have to make room in our learning spaces to address the trauma.”
YK1 operates eight schools – six in Yellowknife and one each in the Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities of Dettah and Ndilǫ.
Professional development days like this one would ordinarily start each academic year, but were harder to coordinate in the past two years because of pandemic-related restrictions.
Shirley Zouboules, YK1’s assistant superintendent, said Thursday’s professional development day aimed to ground staff in the Dene environment in which they live and work “and give them the opportunity to experience some of the things they may never have experienced before, or to re-experience some things that they have.”
With many new staff, bringing everyone together for this kind of learning helps teachers better understand how to support students, Zouboules said.
“It reconnects people to being outside, to being on the land, and it gives you a different experience so that you yourself have that experience,” she told Cabin Radio.
“Your goal is to reproduce that or recreate that for the kids … I may not be able to go back to the school and do a tea-boiling activity, but I can see the benefits of getting the kids together and trying something that I’ve never done before.
“It gives the adults a little bit of practice to do it, and then be confident enough or feel safe enough to risk trying it with somebody else.”
Teachers and staff spent Thursday afternoon taking part in workshops dedicated to activities like soapstone carving, beading, moose-hide tanning and fish filleting.
Chandler MacConnell, a Grade 3 and 4 teacher at Range Lake North, said as she learned to bead that she could appreciate the time and effort required of people who work with traditional clothing.
MacConnell said she would take the message of “understanding cultures and immersing yourself” and try to bring lessons from beading into her classroom.
Barb Shaw, an educational assistant at NJ Macpherson School, spent her afternoon learning how to fillet fish.
“It didn’t go very well, but it was so interesting to try,” she told Cabin Radio.
“We’ve got to let the kids know that their traditional ways are very important. We want to be able to model for them.”
William McDonald School Grade 6 teacher Claudia Gomez, who learned about tanning moose hide, praised the ability to acquire hands-on “practical knowledge.”
“It’s one thing to explain to the class what the process is of making a traditional canoe with moose hide, but it’s another to actually see and experience how it’s made,” Gomez said.
“I’m learning so much. There’s lots of language and new words that I can’t normally find or have access to. Lots of Wiìliìdeh Yatiì. Even now, I’m standing here listening to the Elders talk about their lives and how they learned to hide, and it’s all really interesting.”
Jameel Aziz, YK1’s newly appointed superintendent, stressed the importance of staff learning how to best support students of different Indigenous cultures and backgrounds.
“It’s really important for us to be on the land, honouring the territory that we’re in, and to start our school year in a good way,” he said.
“We are all in education because we care about relationships, we have strong relationships. It’s almost like having a family reunion, and I think it’s going to really create some positive energy for people to feel inspired and begin the school year.”