Engaging families by Confronting Stereotypes

by Michelle Sanderson -First Nations Me’tis Achievement Consultant

STARS Student Teachers Against Racism

What is it that engages families? Especially, in regards to my position, for First Nation families?  I think about this question as I prepare for a PD drop-in for the early learning consultant’s workshop. She’s working with 21 new teachers and EA’s and has asked me to speak on one of the four pillars of early learning, engaging FNM families. There’s no easy answer, as the causes of disengagement are complex and multi-faceted. (She’s alloted me 15 minutes)

Through my research and experience as an anti-racist educator, I realize that because there has been a lack of deep and meaningful education regarding First Nations people, that, many teachers and school staff are coming into the position not having a critical analysis of some of the symptoms of colonialism that we see in some of our families. This is a critical problem of course, but can be minimized by stating that we teach to all children. Whether the achievement gap, or as some call it the education dept, agrees, is quite different. Of course, there are the exceptions, and no group of people have homogeneous qualities. But, what I do know, is that at some point, someone deliberately made a decision to not cover First Nation history in Canada’s education. I’ve heard stories of history majors working in our school division, who knew nothing of the Indian Act or residential school! -(until they took our treaty catalyst teacher training).  On a more upbeat path, I’m not the only one to notice this, and actions have been taken provincially to address this problem.  Amid the changes recently, is the inclusion of First Nation and Me’tis specific outcomes and indicators Saskatchewan has made mandatory to teach, in all grades from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. As well, the province has made teaching treaty outcomes and indicators mandatory. Since the mid 1990’s, recent graduates from teacher’s colleges, have been compelled by the University of Saskatchewan’s college of education to take anti-racist or Native Studies classes. I’m not sure if these classes are mandatory across Canada, or Saskatchewan for that matter. However I do applaud the University of Saskatchewan’s efforts to treat the roots of this problem and hopefully, we will continue to see growth in this area. On a side note,The University of Manitoba, has made Indigenous Studies classes mandatory in every college. Locally, within our own school division, we have had many events, including, but not all are listed, such as treaty catalyst teacher training and anti-racist/anti-oppressive education to address this education void. These are small efforts, but that’s how change happens.  I applaud those teachers for taking the time to get this training in our school division.  Along with the many benefits to having this training, is that it can only serve to create more skilled teachers in meeting the province’s outcomes and indicators and to create good relations amongst all people. (ie. interrupt racism) Another initiative from the province in pilot project form, is the “Following their Voices” project. In short, it’s a project, which starts with research by asking teachers and community members, students, parents what they think about education, and where they are, and where they wish it would go. Problems are identified, and actions are taken to address the problems. Again, small pockets of change to address the First Nations Metis achievement gap, or the First Nations Metis education debt, whatever you want to call it. Basically, these trainings are giving educators a much needed critical analysis that is needed to connect in meaningful and humanizing ways with First Nations and Metis students and families.

At one point, I myself, lacked the analysis that was needed to understand the effects of colonialism. A lot of the racism, and stereotypes that were out there, floating in space without a deeper analysis, caused me to internalize the racism at a very young age. One need only turn on the news, or drive down the street to see the effects of colonialism. Sadly,and it’s the negative images that makes the news more often than naught. Stories of strength and resilience, plentiful though they are, are often left to more spectacular negative news items. That in itself is a future project to address. Back to the subject at hand. Because of these internalized racial images I had been exposed to,  I had to have my eyes focused another way, from someone else.  I had to be shown that I was not a bad person, or that I wasn’t worthy, or that something wasn’t wrong with me, or that my genes weren’t faulty. It’s a process, that as a racialized being, I must continually visit and interrupt within myself each and every day. Being someone who has experienced much trauma due to my race and racism, due to being a child raised in a community of first and second generation residential school survivors, who were themselves, victims of abuse and trauma, guilt and shame, I had to analyze why I had these negative thoughts about myself and my people, the way I did. My healing journey is ongoing.

One of the tools which helped me to understand the effects of colonialism, racism and stereotyping, was passed to me by an anti-racist friend and colleague of mine, by the name of Sheelah Mclean. She shared an illustration with me, to help me to understand within minutes of why there were such negative perceptions of First Nations people, and impressed upon me the importance to teach the First Nation Me’tis history education void. This illustration helped me to depersonalize racial stereotypes about myself and my people and to make sense of them.  This illustration can also be used to understand multiple types of oppression. The illustration is quite simple. It is in the shape of a triangle. Starting from bottom right, we move clockwise. The first point in the bottom right corner of the triangle represents the policies, procedures and strategies which were put in place to oppress Indian people. The second point of the triangle, bottom left, includes the material consequences of the oppression. We can use this illustration to take apart the stereotypes and the myths and to challenge ourselves as to how we came to conclusions, based on the partial picture we are presented when we process a large group of First Nations people through our education system without knowing our own shared history. At the top of the triangle is the thoughts, inferences, or the conclusions that people come to without understanding that these are the results of the policies and procedures.   We can clearly see that the direct result of oppression when we look at this triangle, travelling clockwise. So, if we just see the bottom left, (3.) the results of policy directed at First Nation people,  is obscured (2), then we can see how stereotypes are made, and generalizations like, (1.)“Indians are inferior” are created. (Of course, this is just a brief snapshot of some of the strategies/policies unleashed upon Indian people.) Which, is what makes treaty catalyst teacher training and teaching our shared history about residential school, treaties that much more effective in interrupting racism and the creation of stereotypes.

Triangle of Misunderstanding


As an educator, I feel that there is an urgency to breaking the stereotypes and myths around First Nations people. It is these negative ideas, about First Nations people which are interrupting good relations across the spectrum. If First Nations are to fully participate in the economy, we need to confront the stereotypes.The full participation of First Nation people in the economy was the intention and was embedded in the spirit of our treaties.  It’s important to understand that the First Nations experience as Canadians, as “Indians” as defined by Canada has been disastrous to First Nations people. I think the future will brighten, and the possibilities will expand, when we as Canadians can together come to an understanding, of our shared history. When that happens, we can begin to humanize each other in meaningful ways and engage families and communities who have long been divorced from trusting education.  As First Nation families realize that teachers and schools are beginning to come in as allies, engagement will rise. But as well, it will begin a process where non-Native teachers will also be questioning and redefining within themselves, what it means to be white.

Further Reading:
Non Native teachers in Native Communities by John Taylor



September 15, 2015Permalink


Been thinking a lot about happiness….

I’m happily off to visit my daughter in Vancouver during the February break. She’s finding her place in Vancouver and is settled there.  When our children were young, my friend and I always said we just wanted our kids to be happy when they grew up.  We often repeated that statement, but as our children grew, our definition of happiness was challenged.  The friends, schools, and life directions they chose weren’t always what we believed would make them happy.  I discovered that I had to let go of what I wanted for my daughters to be happy and let them discover what they needed for their own happiness.  Although stability and consistency bring me happiness, these same things do not provide my daughters with the same joy.  Happiness is a personal state.

“Clap if you know what happiness means to you.”   I came across this line from Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy,” as I was searching for a celebratory song for our newly implemented reading intervention.  The data that we collected after our first session showed that all students involved had achieved more than we had hoped for. We had cause to celebrate.  I put together a slideshow and needed a song to set the joyful mood. As I watched Pharell’s video, I was smiling all the time.  There are people of all ages, sizes and races, happily dancing their own dance.  It made me think of the variety of students and teachers as they danced through the intervention.   When we find the right intersection between quality programming and quality instruction, students will succeed. Success is essential to happiness.


Alison Behne, in a post on The Daily Café  quotes her young son saying he wants a job where he gets to make kids happy. She goes on to say that we (educators) are in the business of making kids happy.  But, what does make students happy?  It isn’t just loving them and telling them they are wonderful; loving my own children isn’t enough for them to find their own happiness.  It isn’t about making everything fun and lively. Students need joy in their lives, no doubt.  But again, laughter and activity isn’t enough.

I believe that students feel good about themselves when they learn to work hard and strive towards excellence.  A recent experience nuanced that belief. I work with a youth choir.  We seem to acquire very engaged, intelligent singers with strong family support.  We can push them hard and often say to them,  “You are smart and you are good, so now we’re going to challenge you even more.”  Recently, one of our younger singers taught us a lesson.  She was leaving rehearsals upset and finally wanted to quit.  After sitting down with her to find out why, we realized that what she was hearing  from us was not “You are smart and good,” but rather, “Even though you are trying, it’s not enough.”  We weren’t giving her enough compassion and laughter.  Providing challenge isn’t enough for our students’ happiness.

How do we encourage happiness in students? In Teachers?  In Consultants?  I wish there was a simple answer . As we strive to balance compassion, joy, success and challenge, perhaps we can guide our students and ourselves as educators to find the individual ingrediencts themselves that will provide their happiness.  We can then join with Pharell Williams and  “Clap because I know what happiness means to me! “

I’m happy I finally completed a blog post!

Share your latest moment of happiness….

What If Everyone Understood Child Development?

In my recent readings of Early Childhood blog posts I came across the following “poster” advocating for developmentally appropriate programming:

Let Me Play

I’ve long been an advocate of deepening the understanding and support of play-based learning in early learning.

This leads me to wonder…

If our education system and society as a whole truly understood child development, what impact  would it have on our interactions with children and our programming decisions?

As educators if we truly supported the value and importance of play-based learning for our youngest learners, what changes would we make in our classroom environments and teaching practices?

As early childhood classroom teachers I believe we often, almost innately, understand the value of play and all the learning that is supported through play-based environments but we struggle with advocating for play-based activities and learning in our current education system.

February 3, 2014Permalink

How does documentation differ from displaying children’s work?

by Angela Yeaman

I recently read this quote on an early childhood blog I follow (Journey Into Early Childhood, 07/31/2013 post: Documentation-pondering a quote):
“Documentation is not pretty pictures of engaged children. Rather, it captures the thinking process: What motivates [students] to begin, continue, change direction? What were the breakthroughs, the pivotal remarks or actions? How did they solve the problems? The goal is to enable whoever reads a panel to understand what the child attempted and how they went about it, to see stimulus, process, and outcome.”
A. Lewin-Benham

This reflection on a main purpose for documentation resounded with me and specifically connected to the reading I have been doing in the book, Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children’s Work, 2nd ed. By Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke and Kathy Steinheimer.

Given the young age (3-5 year olds) of children that are a part of the projects and learning done in Prekindergarten it can often been challenging to truly share and celebrate the important learning and growth that is documented in children’s work.
Our classroom documentation then becomes a key piece in sharing the thinking, learning and growth of our students with an outside audience.
As emphasized by Helm, Beneke & Steinheimer (2007), “One value of documentation is the ability it gives us to share the importance and thought that goes into learning experiences that may not produce patently impressive products” (pg.16).

A “simple” drawing included in a display and the learning it represents for the child cannot be fully understood by an outside audience without the added narrative of the teacher.
Consider this drawing done by a 4-year old Prekindergarten student during an inquiry about plants.

Drawing of a plant
Drawing of a plant


Without the added labeling by the teacher the understanding this student is developing about different parts of a plant would not be evident.

Consider this documentation of a 4-year old Prekindergarten student during an inquiry about Spring and birds.
Learning about birds

Without the added photo and quote from the student accompanying the work created, an appreciation of what the student understands about birds and nests would not be developed by an outside audience.

As I continue supporting Prekindergarten teachers with their use of documentation I am challenged to explore how can we use our documentation to:
• Understand our students better
• Provide insights into students growth
• Inform our teaching and professional development
• Allow others to see into the learning experiences in our classroom

September 16, 2013Permalink