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Mother Earth's Children's Charter School in Canada: imagining a new story of school.

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard.... Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they my what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives. (Heilbrun, 1988, p. 37)

This article is a beginning for sharing a collaborative story of how a group of people gathered to live and tell a new story of indigenous education. We share our stories of the creation and development of an indigenous charter school in Western Canada and address issues around re-imagining school evaluation, curriculum, and family involvement.

A Story Begins

In late August 2003, over 300 students, teachers, parents, community Elders, and researchers gathered on a sacred landscape covered in rolling hills, ponds, and forests to welcome in a new story. The occasion was the official opening of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School (MECCS), the first indigenous charter school in Canada.

This vision has been a long time in the making. When architect Douglas Cardinal stood right here on this land with me a few months ago, he told me, "Once you've seen it you know it is your responsibility." I accept his words with honor and I am so grateful to the Creator for all of the people that He has brought together on this path to make this dream possible for our children. (MECCS principal, at the official opening of the school)

But this story has an even earlier beginning. It begins not on the rolling land dotted with teepees but in the lived experiences of those who came together on that landscape. For it is when we begin to step back from the stories already lived and told to see the cultural and institutional conditions that shaped our stories that we can imagine new retellings of our story (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).

Attending to Past Stories

They said I was having panic attacks and had to see a psychologist. I didn't like it--the school or the psychologist. Why would I talk to someone who didn't know me, didn't know nothing about my life? ... I wasn't having no panic attacks. I just hated school.... It wasn't a place for me.... I'd rather be off in the bush. (Grade 7 MECCS student)

I remember going to a residential school. I was used as labor for the school ... given little food, not enough ... when your body weakens, so does your mind and spirit.... My children started school on reservation land.... It was a place where they didn't look at healing the spirit--a place where they taught the child but the family was not a part of this teaching. ... I remember my son getting in trouble. He felt he wasn't safe at the school--he wanted to escape.... I wanted a place where he could return to the teachings of the land, a place that would not see him as a failure but as a possibility of hope, a place where culture was not taught as an add-on but as something that was embedded in his life. (MECCS parent)

Many people say that the children are our future ... this is true. But the wisest advice that I have heard on this matter is that first, we are their future. They need us to build them a strong foundation and they will lead from there. One of our cultural guides from New Zealand reminds us that each decision that we make today determines the future of our generations to come. This collective wisdom surrounds us, ensuring a safe journey along this path ... so long as we honor it and follow the words and prayers. Over seven years now the vision has been coming stronger and more clearly. As the parents, grandparents, and educators of our children, we now know that the time has arrived to take action on the vision. The result was the charter application for this school, our school, Mother Earth's Children's Charter School. (MECCS principal)

Throughout her 10-year teaching career, Charlene Crowe was concerned that the minds, spirits, and physical needs of indigenous children were not being addressed, let alone embraced, through the public school system. Late one night in the fall of 1996, Charlene shared her vision for a better educational approach with two aboriginal Elders as they stood outside a sweat lodge, waiting for the rocks to heat in the fire. With that speaking, the story of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School slowly began coming to life.

In 1998, a small group of educators, aboriginal leaders, parents, and grandparents came together to consider how this vision could come to pass. It was determined that the only way to bring the vision to reality was to open their own charter school. After four more years of planning, consultation, and research, a charter school application was submitted to the Government of Alberta in the fall of 2002, and the waiting began.

A group of us were driving out to the land that we had purchased in anticipation of the charter school being granted. It was a cold January afternoon and we stopped for coffee at the little rural gas station along the way. This was the same place that our mailbox was located. On a whim, I checked the mailbox. The excitement of the group was indescribable as I returned to the group, waving a letter that was on Alberta Learning letterhead. The Minister of Learning, Dr. Lyle Oberg, had responded earlier than expected and the news was good ... conditional approval! (MECCS principal)

Following the completion of the requirements set out by Minister Oberg, the MECCS Society received final approval of their 5-year charter on May 15, 2003. The new school opened its doors to 146 students a mere three months later.

Making Connections Through Our Stories

As we have begun to review the story of the first year of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School through the lived experiences of the children, staff, parents/guardians, and community, we are uncovering the wisdom of the Elders, the beauty of indigenous teachings, the respect of the Creator, and the hope of future generations. Within collaborative spaces, we make connections through the telling of our stories, and together we are beginning to imagine new ones to live and tell (Connelly & Clandinin, 1994).

The school, initially located in a converted strip mall in a small rural community in northern Alberta, Canada, currently serves children from kindergarten to grade 8, with the intention of expanding by one grade each year to include grades 9 through 12. Its student body self-identifies as First Nation (mainly Cree and Nakoda) and non-aboriginal. Students and staff often return to the teepees and rolling hills where they held their opening ceremonies to continue making connections with the land, an important aspect of aboriginal and indigenous cultures. They are patiently waiting for the day when their new school will appear as if "growing out of the earth, where some of the hills would be classrooms themselves which would turn their backs on the North winds, and open to embrace the south and the sun" (D. J. Cardinal, personal communication, July 11, 2002).

At MECCS, the land is the first classroom and allows our children to live the experiences of our ancestors--to smell the smoke, to feel the wind, to plan for the rain and to bring in wood. This helps awaken an ancient spirit that is content with the simplicity of being. This experience encourages confidence and responsibility as the children are allowed to do the physical work that brings comfort to themselves and others. It is a beginning, like the ultimate beginning, that allows the child to be free and in harmony with the Creator. The soul feels good and all else can be accomplished. This is how foundations are built. (MECCS parent)

A Story of Evaluation

One way of understanding lives in school is to pay attention to test scores, which can tell us if children are achieving specific learning expectations. That approach guides a part of the MECCS evaluation project as mandated by the Alberta Learning Charter School Handbook (2002). In September 2003, an evaluation team from the Misericordia Community Pediatric Research Group, in collaboration with the staff of the Mother Earth's Children's Charter School, undertook a three-year longitudinal study (funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) to examine the effect of culturally compatible education on children's academic achievement, mental and physical health, and school attendance. However, such tests do not reflect the holistic, intuitive, and experience-based learning styles of aboriginal students (Smith & Shade, 1997) that is favored at MECCS. So the research team also imagined other ways to approach a story of evaluation at the school--ways that will allow for a narrative understanding of children's, teachers', and parents' lives; ways that take into consideration the predominantly aboriginal community at MECCS; ways that attend to experience in order to understand learning (Dewey, 1963). School, school board, and evaluation team members designed a visual narrative inquiry (Bach, 1998) to attend directly to the experiences of students, parents / guardians, teachers, administrators, and Elders as these stories are lived out on the MECCS landscape. The focus of narrative research (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) is on the individual and how that life might be understood through a telling and re-telling of the visual narrative story. Images, created with photographs, can provide useful insights into participants' experiences, understandings, and growth over time (Bach, 1998). Our objective is to gain a deeper, more profound and balanced understanding of aboriginal and indigenous children's school/life experiences and identities. This article explains how we are trying to begin to understand the experiences of people involved with MECCS within the context of their lives.

A Story of Curriculum

The group of parents and educators who established MECCS wanted to educate their children through traditional indigenous approaches to learning and growing. This approach, delivered in a cultural context, is framed around respect for Mother Earth, respect for all living things, and respect for oneself. The philosophy of the school community and program is based upon the medicine wheel, the foundation of many North American indigenous teachings. Medicine wheel teachings look at providing a balanced education in which the intellectual, physical, social/emotional, and spiritual aspects of each student is developed, valued, and nurtured equally. It is a fundamental understanding at MECCS that if we value, nurture, and support the development of each of these aspects of every child, then the children will do their very best possible in all aspects of learning and development.

It is not our goal to make the children into what we think they should be. Our role is to help each child discover his or her gifts and support that child to become what he or she was meant to be. (MECCS principal)

Not every home has a comfort zone. The Mother Earth's Children's Charter School has a comfort zone for many children, even if it's just for a short period of time. Mother Earth uses words that encourage the mind and bring happiness to the heart. If you move the spirit, then the spirit will grow on its own to do great things. (MECCS parent).

In keeping with traditional practices of self-care and personal development, smudge (burning of herbs for emotional, psychic, and spiritual purification) and prayer take place in each classroom each morning to begin the day with positive energy. In aboriginal and indigenous cultures, all life is sacred. All living beings merit respect and all who inhabit the earth are an intrinsic part of learning and teaching. A child is viewed as the embodiment of all the inner knowledge of all his or her ancestors and as the grandparent of all future generations. Within each individual is the vast knowledge of the past, present, and future. The school program is steeped in the traditional values of family, extended family, and community involvement in the development and education of each child.

We all come from Mother Earth ... we are all made from the earth. That teaches us to be humble. We need to get back to that place where we are connected to the wind, the water, and the energy that surrounds us. When I see the sun every day, I am reminded that I am alive today. Mother Earth's school connects us to the earth and to each other. (MECCS parent)

MECCS does not follow a traditional school calendar. The school year is extended and the school day is longer, allowing for seasonal ceremonies that occur at times that do not necessarily fit into a regular school day. For example, school begins in mid-August. This allows time for students, staff, and parents to gather sage and sweetgrass for the school and for their homes for the duration of the school year. Daily routines incorporate fundamental indigenous practices such as prayer, sweetgrass ceremonies, sharing circles, and healing circles. The involvement of Elders is integral to the operation and integrity of the school. Even the right to sing the songs selected for the school must be first granted by the Elders and cultural guides.

The school staff's commitment to the cognitive development of the children is demonstrated through their understanding of differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 2001) and multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993). Staff members also have participated in a review of literature, examining learning styles and the educational implications of learning styles for aboriginal children. As a result, programs at MECCS are planned around interactive learning activities that focus on a holistic, visual, and team approach to education. Aboriginal children have unique learning styles that are not always addressed by European models of teaching (Rasmussen, Sherman, & Baydala, in press). At MECCS, children are taught in groups that are working at similar skill levels so that they may develop and advance at their own learning rate. The traditional teaching of acceptance of individual differences allows this approach to be very successful.

The MECCS staff believes that programs and activities should respect individual needs and help reveal the wealth of knowledge that is already present in each student. MECCS espouses the belief that each student is a magical being with the power to make a great contribution to others, as well as to him- or herself.

It is through this knowing that the walking, hearing, speaking students in the grade five class at MECCS love and respect one of their classmates, who is deaf and confined to a wheelchair. This student is also the child who most exhibits that "joie de vivre" that her classmates embrace. They respect her for her beautiful art work and her beautiful spirit. (MECCS principal)

Sharing Stories

At MECCS, the focus is on respect rather than authoritarian discipline, and the school day incorporates a cohesive community-oriented environment focusing on harmony, cooperation, and group work. Second language classes in Stoney, Cree, French, and American Sign Language are offered to students in all grade levels. In addition to an infusion of indigenous culture into daily teachings, other cultures studied include African, Inuit, Metis, First Nations, and Maori. The second language and international studies classes are composed by families rather than by grade level. As parental involvement is key, children from the same family go home at the end of each day with similar experiences in these areas. This allows all family members to discuss and share their ideas and understandings after the school day is over. Learning is ongoing.

When my children have come home, talking about their learnings of other cultures, I am reminded of how we are all connected to this earth. I know that whatever differences my children bring into the school are going to be respected.... They are learning not to be afraid of who they are and what they bring to the community. They are also learning not to be afraid of what others can bring to them.... We all want to be understood.... Our journey to reconnect to our culture has not been easy. But it is exciting to see how quickly our children are coming to understand. (MECCS parent)

Continuing To Interpret Our Story

The story at MECCS is a process of interpreting what the Creator and our ancestors show us on our pathway to educating and raising our children. Moments of tension occur as teachers and students and parents struggle to make spaces for curriculum moments that are responsive to people, culture, and Mother Earth. However, it is these moments of tension that allow us to be most attentive to the stories we are living out, that allow us to live wide-awake (Dillard, 1998) in the world. For it was the tensions experienced within regular school systems that inspired the beginning of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School. It is the ongoing conversations that allow us to live with the tensions and continue to see possibilities for the story of the school.

Some people believe that the only way to gain knowledge is from books. But what is also important is knowledge gained from the land. Our children have to know that many of their grandparents came from the land and they need to appreciate and care for the land and for each other. I want my children, all of Mother Earth's children, to return to the land to continue healing their memories and the memories of their ancestors. I want them to be able to stand strong in the world. (MECCS parent)

The beginning of something truly new, a great tribute to the Creator and to our ancestors, will come on the day that our children take what they have learned here at MECCS and go forth to make our world a place of respect. On that day, we can sit back and smile and know that the storytellers that we have nurtured now move forward to write our future. It will be a story for the ages. (MECCS principal)

Caring for Each Others' Stories

Learning to tell our story is another beginning point in our journey of trying to re-imagine indigenous education. In the story Crow and Weasel (1990), Barry Lopez tells us, "Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves" (p. 60).

Our ancestors also teach us that we are all related and we have an obligation to share our stories and care for the stories that come our way. As our story of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School finds a place in your memory, we hope it may give you wisdom in imagining and living out your own new stories of school.

These stories and experiences are needed to sustain our culture. We do need to share our stories to stay alive. (MECCS parent)

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to sincerely thank members of the evaluation team, Jeff Bisanz, Nicole Letourneau, Carmen Rasmussen, Jody Sherman and Erik Wikman. They also wish to express their ongoing gratitude to the staff, students, and families of Mother Earth's Children's Charter School.

References

Alberta Learning. (2002). Charter school handbook. Retrieved on July 15, 2004, from www.learning.gov.ab.ca/ educationsystem / charter_hndbk.pdf

Bach, H. A. (1998). Visual narrative concerning curriculum, girls, photography etc. Edmonton, Canada: Qual Institute Press.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D.J. (1994). Telling teaching stories. Teacher Education Quarterly, 21(1), 145-158.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Dillard, A. (1998). To fashion a text. In W. Zinsser (Ed.), Inventing the truth: The art and craft of memoir (pp. 141-161). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Heilbrun, C. (1988). Writing a woman's life. New York: Ballentine Books.

Lopez, B. (1990). Crow and weasel. Toronto: Random House.

Rasmussen, C., Sherman, J., & Baydala, L. T. (in press). Learning patterns and education of aboriginal children: A review of the literature. Canadian Journal of the Native Studies.

Smith, M. E., & Shade, B.J. (1997). Culturally responsive teaching strategies for American Indian students. In B. J. Shade (Ed.), Culture, style, and the educative process: Making schools work for racially diverse students (pp. 176-186). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publishers.

Tomlinson, C. E. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marni Pearce is Research Associate, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Charlene Crowe is Principal and Founder, Mother Earth's Children's Charter School, Wabamun, Alberta, Canada, and Martha and Charlie Letendre are parents of two children attending the school. Lola Baydala is Associate Professor, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
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Author:Baydala, Lola
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 15, 2005
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