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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 2, October 2004

First Nations literacy and community outreach project

by Alison Dennis

Although we extend invitations to school functions and events and request volunteer support, we see very few First Nations parents in our school (20 to 25% of the population at our school is First Nations). Further, on analyzing FSA, CAT, and report cards, we realized that the majority of our students struggling with literacy are First Nations.

While we have had a functioning First Nations education program in our district for some years, we continue to notice a lack of inclusion of our First Nations parents and community members. We have two main goals: to develop and deliver a literacy program primarily to and for First Nations students and to design a system to improve the relationships between First Nations parents and school staff. Both of these goals were addressed last year, and we are working toward building cultural awareness in the staff and entire student body.

Literacy project
Our school has 300 students. I am learning resource teacher for intermediate high-incidence students.

We created two groups of students, based on report-card marks, FSA tests and CAT tests, and included new referrals from teachers. The two groups were Grade 4/5 and 6/7. The 4/5 group had 13 students, and the 6/7 had 6. The primary goal was to improve reading skills. To do that, each of the students needed to feel better about school—most of them were also identified as having behaviour challenges at school. Many were showing a high likelihood to drop out of school in early secondary. The challenges included lack of homework completion, organizational deficits, overt/covert behaviours in class and on the playground, little or no contact with parents, low reading and writing skills, and emotional issues.

To help the students feel more at ease with school and assignments, I used a fiction approach to literacy. I found (in basements of schools and old, musty book rooms) novels with First Nations themes. we purchased one small set of a B.C. novel, My Name Is Seepeetza, by Shirley Stirling, for the 6/7 group. Using these resources, I endeavored to immerse the children in a "First Nations Only" classroom, as far as resources were concerned.

I also took some scary steps into discussing Aboriginal themes. The above-mentioned novel deals with the residential-school system. We had many long discussions and lectures about that part of Aboriginal/Canadian history. In that way, I attempted to honour the history and culture of the students. Further, homework was geared to things that the students could do with their parents. For example, in one story, we learned how the Lakota Sioux tanned hides. Students were asked to go home, ask about the Shuswap system, and report back to class. That enabled the students and families to utilize their knowledge base.

Since last spring, we purchased $2,000 worth of First Nations titles, creating a library in our school of Aboriginal themes and authors. The money came from First Nations education targeted funding, through our director of student support services, Dr. Richard Zigler. We will use many of the books to teach the project this year, and we have class sets so classroom teachers can use the resources. We will also team teach the novels and stories, in keeping with the goal of increasing cultural awareness and knowledge.

I used many more ideas and resources, and the students expressed great satisfaction with the materials; they read and read and read. They also wrote daily, practising proper paragraph structure, finally writing essays on their reading. Parent and band feedback has been very positive. That I am not of native ancestry has never been an issue. I do, however, have personal and educational experience with Aboriginal communities.

Community outreach
The second goal of the project was community outreach. As we know, students with involved parents achieve better at school. Thus, we need to bring in more parents, especially those of children who struggle. Therefore, we created community suppers, held on the reserve. The school-based team attended the first two suppers, and many of the school staff attended the last dinner with them. Under the theme "Bridging the Communities" (school and band), we created three dinners with distinct agendas. The band provided the food and encouraged its members to attend. Cultural awareness, sensitivity, and knowledge continued to build.

At the suppers, merely by showing up, we demonstrated our desire and commitment to the First Nations community and students. We shared some of our concerns and needs with the community, and this year, we are seeking more input from the First Nations parents. We are developing creative ways to enable parents and community members to communicate with us, as we don’t feel the "stand up and speak" system is working for all the parents. We have developed a Parent Satisfaction Survey for the band parents, and we are working on some system for parents to drop ideas and concerns into a suggestion box.

These are some of the things we are doing. The sky is the limit, if the desire is there. We have a dedicated staff at our school. Along with BCTF resources and our district’s commitment to Aboriginal education, we feel we can make a difference not only in the graduation rates for First Nations students in our community, but also in the general level of acceptance and comfort for all people who live here.

The program would not have gotten off the ground without the fabulous support of Education Co-ordinator of the Spallumcheen Indian Band, Darrel Jones, our school-based team (Principal Rolf Dykstra, Vice-principal Doug Cumming, Learning Resource Teacher Shelly Ellis, and First Nations Teacher Counsellor Louise Dunstan).

Alison Dennis teaches at M.V. Beattie Elementary School, Enderby.

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