Coming to Know our Learners in a Good Way

“It is as though the stories that are shared are doorways into many other stories… Once we enter that world with another… this can lead to many things.  One of them is change”​(Regan, 2010).​


​Imagine a different way of solving friendship problems. In a traditional school setting, teachers, leaders and resource teachers would decide what strategies and activities could work to help smooth things out. They might host a class meeting. But what if they took their students out on the land as a radical attempt to create change and (re) establish relationships?


One learning leader shared her story of just this. Her students were experiencing increasing difficulty with their group dynamic. As a possible solution, the teacher took her students out on the land for the entire day to reconnect with each other. In the beginning, there were complaints about how long the walk was, but as they continued, they developed new found camaraderie through a shared experience and a return to Indigenous ways of knowing and being. They spent time at the medicine wheel. They marveled at the animals they saw and reacquainted themselves with the land.

This story was shared in response to the Calgary Board of Education’s key pedagogical considerations:

  • There are things to be known about each student and knowing something about students has implications for teachers and leaders​
  • What is known in one context should be known in another​
  • Feedback is critical to student achievement​
  • All students can and should learn​
  • Leading and learning together

(CBE, 2015)

and the questions:

  • How do these principles align with the Indigenous perspective of our students?
  • How does these principles impact our practice and our students?
  • What are some examples of how this principle is lived in our classroom and school community?

This educator’s story is not alone. Learning leaders shared inspiring stories of how they were coming to know their students. We heard heartfelt accounts of the importance of storytelling, holistic education, and a collaborative project to build school garden boxes. By building relationships and understanding our learners, we are helping each Aboriginal student to set and work towards learning goals with the support of educators, administrators and learning leaders.


The goal? Intentionally building resilience, perseverance, and critical thinking skills of all students in relation to stories and the land.


Calgary Board of Education (2015) Iris | Key Pedagogical Considerations. Retrieved from:

Regan, P. (2010). The Power of Apology and Testimony. In Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada, pp. 171-192. Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press.





How Might We Celebrate this Work While Acknowledging the Struggles?

Gathering together as Indigenous Education Learning Leaders means that we need to linger in the highs and the lows, the celebrations and the sadness that comes with the truth that we are reconciling.

Recognizing and acknowledging what it means to be together in this work requires a constant setting a-new (Arendt, 1969) as we find our way forward. Each time we meet, we smudge, we talk, and we share. This time, we shared our feelings about wellness, and then we gathered together to ask deep questions about literacy within the Indigenous Education framework. We used the provincial achievement data as a provocation to discuss what a given discipline looked like in each of the schools in the pilot project. We talked about storytelling. How do we want to tell our story together so that others might learn from our journey this year? We ended with a reading a story that used mirrors as a metaphor to ponder how we can reflect our best selves out to the world, linking back to our opening smudge when we shared how this is hard work and heart work.

Where are the gifts from this long day of rigorous sharing and reflection? For so many of us, it was starting the day in a circle, with a smudge, a blessing and a candid conversation about how we are taking care of ourselves so that we can care for others. It was having a deep conversations about literature. Why? We realized that there is a need to know more but this was realized with caution. Being an Indigenous Education Learning Leader does not mean that we now become literacy specialists and then math specialists in our schools, and so on.

So the gifts offered from the cedar in our smudge? The day became about finding a path forward. Perhaps this path starts with bringing principals and different leaders together to build a collective understanding of the nature of this position as it evolves. Perhaps it is also about supporting Indigenous students and supporting the entire school community in actively embedding holistic ways of knowing across and through the curriculum for the benefit of all students, all teachers and all citizens who live here on Treaty 7 land.

The sweet grass in our smudge represented balance. So I pause a minute here to wonder and reflect about what we are offering our Learning Leaders in terms of balance. Direct knowledge of different aspects of the positions so that we might develop an understanding of what it means to have the responsibility of this role? Also community so that we might support each other on this meaningful and necessary, yet difficult journey.

Meeting together as a cohort always leaves me feeling balanced by traditions and the relationships before we head out again into situations that can quickly become unbalanced from the pressures of the work.


Arendt, H. (1969).Between past and present: Eight exercises in political thought. New York, NY: Penguin Books.







Finding Ourselves Through Circles

“Meaning is improvised together…’telling our story’ is how we make sense of the world and ourselves.” (Loy, 2010)

A small group of Learning Leaders gathered to determine what might be the best way to navigate through the journey of discovering and uncovering what it means take up Indigenous ways of knowing across the curriculum. The purpose is twofold. We want to teach the truth about Truth and Reconciliation in age appropriate and sensitive ways so that we might begin to heal as a country with multiple peoples with a flawed past. Equally, if not more important, are the celebrations of success. Secondly, we are trying to find ways to help educators understand that Indigenous ways of knowing benefit the personal and academic development of all students, both Indigenous and non Indigenous. The success stories and the darker stories that we share with each other are necessary for all students to hear.


We began in a circle. We went once around the circle beginning with a smudge ceremony to start our day with good intentions, and to cleanse the mind and spirit. We let the smoke travel over our ears so that we might hear the truth, and our hearts so that we might be open to show compassion, gentleness and caring for others.

We went again around the circle to discover who we are, responding to the questions “Who are you? Where are you from and who are your people?” Breathing slowly, rhythmically, we quietly began to share who we are. We learned that it was important to introduce ourselves as who our families are, and where we come from, not by the schools where we work. We are a diverse group consisting of people with Indigenous descent, Indian, South African, Canadian, and European. We hailed from New Brunswick, British Columbia and many provinces in between. The mere act of sharing our descent, showed us how we represented cultural diversity.

We went once more around the circle, sharing a significant memory of our school experiences. Faces softened with empathy as we unearthed stories of heartbreak, sadness, joy and pride. We nodded in recognition, in sympathy and in wonder as we connected our stories to the stories of others. We realized that our stories had everything to do with relationship and nothing to do with academics.

And so, we went three times around the circle. To cleanse, to share, and to create a foundation that would begin to form the fabric of an essential bond to support us in the important work of indigenous learning leaders. We needed to find our way together as a group so that we might share our teaching and learning with others. As we moved through the morning, we gained understanding that the work of the learning leaders was deeply rooted within the community of each school, the Truth and Reconciliation pledge, the provincial collaborative pledge and our school board’s Three Year Education plan. We compared traditional beliefs in education with the spiraling spider web of indigenous world views.

We wondered where and how to situate our work in schools and through the sharing of stories, we began to piece together what this might look like. Learning forward together, we shared our beginning experiences in this role with the different school communities and with our colleagues. Asking questions of each other, nodding in solidarity when someone shared a struggle, writing notes to capture ideas that will help the work to build upon itself and the stories that we will collect.

We are building capacity. Ensuring that our Indigenous students feel safe and welcome at school is essential. As part of this work, Canada has pledged to understand Truth and Reconciliation. As a group, we are uncovering what this means for us. We understand that there can be no reconciliation without truth. This is a hard ugly truth that must be shared in age appropriate and sensitive ways, but shared nevertheless. We acknowledged that the truth is hard for some because it is so sad or because they don’t feel ready. As a communal, collective and united group, we know that we must gently find a way for all to listen. It is tricky to navigate how to embed indigenous ways of knowing throughout the disciplines and how to learn and share our understandings about residential schools. We shared concerns that some are asking how we measure this work. How will we know our impact? How will we know if our leadership is making a difference?

This is enormous work, yet all involved are up for the challenge. There is a strength of spirit that holds up this unique group. It is quiet, determined, passionate and hopeful.


Loy, D. (2010). The world is made of stories. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications