Remembering why

On Friday, September 29th, our school board wore orange shirts to remember the mistreatment of Indigenous children in residential schools. As September 30th is the national day for truth and reconciliation, Friday was the day we recognized  this date in schools. 

This year, one of my students who just arrived in Canada a few years ago asked why we do this every year. I gave him the best answer I could, mentioning how important it is to learn about the mistakes of our country’s past and to work towards reconciliation. He understood that but didn’t understand why we were watching the same story as last year. So this year I decided to have my students reflect on some of the key takeaways of reconciliation.

  • How genuine are apologies? Do they change what happened in the past? For this, we watched several videos of apologies made to Indigenous communities  
  • What can you do in your life to make sure you never try to change someone? We reflected on how all these children were assimilated after their arrival to the schools and how their rights and freedoms were taken away
  • We shared how learning about this each year is part of the truth and reconciliation process and that it is an important part of the work that still needs to be done

However, the “why” on Friday made me remember that the “why” should always be the central focus of all of our lessons. If we don’t know why we are teaching something or starting some project, we haven’t really thought out our lessons. If there is no end goal or why, then we need to re-examine our work and try again. Which is why I am so glad I was asked that on Friday, I needed to remember what I wanted the learning to be. I worked backwards from there.

Another important thing I remembered this year was that our newcomers may not know about this history of our country and it may be a lot to tell them at once. I had some of my students translate the central ideas around Orange shirt day but fear it may have been too much to handle. Next year, I look forward to planning ahead of time with an ESL teacher to think how I can make this learning more accessible for all.

As we reflect on our past and how we can better shape the future, I think about our new language curriculum with the Indigenous focus of many expectations and look forward to planning and focusing on the “why”. 

National Ribbon Skirt Day (January 4)

“A bill put forward by Senator Mary Jane McCallum to recognize National Ribbon Skirt Day has received Royal Assent and is now an act of parliament. McCallum was inspired to create the bill after a young Saskatchewan girl named Isabella Kulak was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt during a formal school event” (Francis, 2022).

Bill S-219 was passed to create awareness and provide an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about the importance of Ribbon Skirts to many Indigenous cultures and heritage. “National Ribbon Skirt Day will provide an opportunity for everyone in Canada to recognize, learn about, and celebrate the importance of Indigenous traditions and expressions of culture. The Ribbon Skirt is one such tradition” (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, 2022).

In Indigenous communities, “Ribbon skirts are traditionally worn in ceremonies and during special events by First Nations women and represent the person’s identity, unique diversity and strength.  Women, girls and gender diverse people also wear them to express pride and confidence in their Indigenous identity and heritage.” (Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, 2022).

According to the article by CBC News, A young Saskatchewan girl by the name of Isabella Kulak was targeted and shamed at a school function for wearing a ribbon skirt to the school’s formal event.  A teaching assistant told Isabella that her attire did not meet the requirements of ‘formal wear’ and that she should have worn a store-bought (mass-produced brand) to fit with the other students. Unfortunately, in Canada, this oppressive dialogue is not uncommon in the interactions of many racialized and marginalized people groups who choose to honour their culture or religion through their attire. According to Francis, 2022, while speaking at an interview On CBC Radio One, Isabella mentioned that on January 4, she would wear her ribbon skirt. She said, “It makes me really happy because lots of people can now wear their ribbon skirts proudly. I hope they are now proud of who they are” (Francis, 2022). Isabella’s father (Chris) mentioned that “No child should be treated like that regardless of where they come from or who they are” (Francis, 2022).

The passing of this bill is an opportunity for us as educators to gain deeper insight into the importance of traditions and practices in Indigenous culture. It is also a challenge for us to pause and think about what we deem ‘formal’, ‘proper’ or ‘acceptable’ as it has to do with how our students express themselves through their attire or nonconformity to what attires we think they should wear.

Louise Jocko of Birch Island near Manitoulin said, “Each person has their own story behind their skirts. Each person has their own colours that they bring with them when they make the skirt. I think it really does bring about the resiliency, and it shows the strength in our people that we’re reclaiming that culture and identity … wearing these skirts” (Gemmill, 2023).

There is still so much for us to learn, unlearn, and relearn. As we continue to work together to advocate for equitable learning practices and environments for all students, it is imperative that we all understand the importance of Bill S-19 in combating racism, discrimination, and oppression in all spheres, especially as it pertains to raising awareness of and celebrating Indigenous ways of knowing and being.


Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. (2022, December 21). Bill S-219, an Act respecting a national ribbon skirt day, receives Royal Assent. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from

Francis, J. (2022, December 23). National Ribbon Skirt Day bill passed, to be celebrated on Jan. 4. CBC News. Retrieved January 1, 2023, from

Gemmill, A. (2023, January 4). Marking 1st-ever National Ribbon Skirts Day in Northern Ontario | CBC News. CBCnews. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from

Lambert, A. (2020, July 1). Crazy Hair Day. Crazy hair day. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from

Beyond One Day – Truth & Reconciliation through curriculum planning.

Orange Shirt Day
Orange Shirt Day Bead Work

September 30 has been earmarked as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Before this, most educators knew this day as Orange Shirt Day, which stemmed from the story of Phyllis Webstad, a Northern Secwepemc author from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, who shares the story of her experiences in a residential school. The significance of September 30 is profound as it calls for us all as a nation, particularly as educators, to pause and reflect on the effects and impact of residential schools on Indigenous peoples (children and adults) to this day. It is estimated that over 150000 Indigenous children attended residential schools in Ontario alone over the span of 100+ years (Restoule, 2013). We know that many of these children did not make it home, while many others still live with the trauma they faced within these schooling systems. 

Orange Shirt Day, now known as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, is but a starting point for us as educators. How can we collectively move beyond one day to infuse learning about Indigenous histories and present Indigenous impacts into our overall planning across different subject areas? In the ‘Calls to Action’ reported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015), sections 62 and 63 emphasizes the need for an educational approach that centers Indigenous histories, accounts, and perspectives in the curriculum, not as a one-off event or as an interruption to learning, but instead as an integral part of developing understanding within Canadian education. 

Simply put, Indigenous history is Canadian History. Indigenous peoples continue to shape and influence Canadian society in meaningful ways. 

“In 2015, ETFO endorsed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action. ETFO understands that it is integral for educators to move forward into reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada” (ETFO, 2022). Challenge yourself to learn more using the curated information provided by ETFO, and be intentional about infusing Indigenous representation in the various subject areas you may teach. Resources can be found and explored at

Fostering further development and understanding (both in learning and teaching practices) of Indigenous accounts and narratives in K-12 learning communities not as an alternate focus or ‘alternative learning’, but as a central tenet of Canadian education is critical to moving towards reconciliation as we learn and teach about Indigenous peoples of Canada.

For more exploration and information, visit


Restoule, K. (2013). An Overview of the Indian Residential School System.’ Retrieved from -System-Booklet.pdf.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Reports – NCTR. NCTR – National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Retrieved from

Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. (2015). First Nation, Métis and Inuit (FNMI). Retrieved from,-metis-and-inuit-(fnmi).

Before you summer, take time to D.E.A.L

Drop Everything and Learn

This week, I hit the stop button on my life inside of the classroom for another school year. To quote the Grateful Dead. “What a long strange trip it’s been.” Yet, before shutting down, I need to D.E.A.L. more about how to deepen my understanding and leverage my white settler privilege in support of FNMI communities.

Heart wrenching discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada have me fighting to make sense of many things right now in this country. How and why could so much hatred and overt evil be inflicted on generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people for more than a century? How can a democratically empowered system built on commandments of love thy neighbour, be so obviously racist and genocidal to the very people who shared this land in the first place? And how did it come with the criminal complicity of faith based institutions to boot? These questions have me hearing some very strong internal voices telling me to stay in teacher/learner mode a little longer.

Maybe it’s time we give Canada Day a timeout for a while so we can move forward in a good way?

Can you recall reading or hearing of any treaties that included one group being subjugated to tyranny and relegated to systemic abuse and racism by the other? I can’t. Everyone in education must take time to ensure that the truth about the traumatic truth of Canada’s past no longer remains on the outside of the history books. It’s can be as simple as shifting from outdated text books and colonizer curricula, by for profit publishers, when we plan our lessons. It can be in seeking your closest FNMI partners in education. Numerous school boards are already doing this and ETFO as well. It’s time to seek out resources that include all sides of the story, and not those that fit the nauseatingly one sided Disney endings written for and by settlers.

In my mind it stands at the heart of our humanity as educators and treaty people. We must do more than acknowledging the trauma caused in the past, but to genuinely reconcile our relationships in order to build a just and inclusive future. There is work to be done and despite my momentary fatigue. This learning is a personal call to action that serves as the energy to keep going instead of heading straight for the chaise lounge on my patio. It needs to start now.

Things I can do (you can too)

I need to turn my attention to learning more about the truth that has been so strategically whitewashed out of our conversations and history books as a nation. A nation that is supposed to be the beacon of kindness and inclusion to the rest of the world. The truth, about Canada that world has been shown by our gleaming generosity and polished politeness, may not be seen the same reality as seen through the eyes and experiences of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. It’s time to demand better from those in leadership to stop standing in the way of the truth as shared in the TRC Commission Report shared in 2015.

I need to come to terms with the dissonace from what I have been taught about Canada as a student, and ensure that it’s mistreatment of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit does not continue. As such, I am committing more time to listening to voices that have been silenced for far too long, reading books from authors who share stories from first hand experiences or who speak for elders who have been silenced, and by seeking out ways to bring this into my future classrooms.

I need to reflect in order to move forward.

Throughout this year, my grade 4/5 classroom was a space for conversations and lessons on Residential Schools, Orange Shirt Day, the Mik Maw fishery, BLM, Anti-Asian hate, and systemic racism in general. What is abundantly clear despite many meaningful moments of cleared understanding, the fires that have been lit in my students will need to be refuelled. I hope you all take some time to recharge your bodies and minds over the break, but encourage everyone, at some time over the summer, to drop everything and learn in preparation of re-igniting the fires of truth and reconciliation in the minds of students when we gather again to D.E.A.L in September.

Need a place to start?

Digital Resources:

Education – NCTR – Reconciliation through Education
ETFO First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education Resources 
First Nations Education Steering Committee – Indian Residential Schools and Reconciliation Resources
FNMI Learning Grid curated by Richard Erdmann

Important reads to deepen your understanding:

21 Things you may not know about the Indian Act – Bob Joseph
All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward – Tanya Talaga
Seven Fallen Feathers – Tanya Talaga
Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Wisdom always found here on Twitter:

Bob Joseph @wewap
Colinda Clyne @clclyne
Pamala Agawa @agawap
Bryson the Gaytive @ArnallLabrador 
Jody Kohoko @NishVPKwe



Water is Life

I have been learning with, from, and about water for several years. In another blog, I shared examples of what decolonial water pedagogy might look like in a Grade 2 classroom.  Whenever possible, it is critically important to invite Indigenous artists, activists, and Earth workers to share their knowledge with students in their own voices.

Water is Life:

This fall, the Grade 2-6 students participated in a workshop with Joce Two-Crows Tremblay and Faye Mullen called “Water is Life”.  They describe the workshop as: “Wondering on water as an ancestral highway, as home, as Medicine and more, through story, song and ceremony.”  

It was a beautiful morning. We gathered in a circle and welcomed our special guests with the song, “Funga Alafia”. Archer Pechawis, a Grove parent, joined us and shared songs and drumming. We offered tobacco and gratitude for their teachings. 

Water as Home:

Joce taught us about the strong connections between language and land. We learned about the Indigenous roots of many words spoken in English. After the workshop, I asked the Grade 2 students to document their new learning on inquiry cards with the prompt, “Now I know….”.

…that Toronto is pronounced many different ways. SOL
…that Lake Ontario in the Indigenous language is “Lake Handsome Lake.” DEMA

Water as Relative:

After a discussion about the importance of water and who we consider to be our relatives, we learned about the relationship between salmon, people, and water. When young children see themselves in relationships with land that are rooted in reciprocity and respect, they might care for all humans and more-than-humans as family.

Water as Ancestral Highway:

In preparation for the workshop, everyone had made salmon puppets, and we re-created water using tarps and blue material. As Joce and Faye paddled up the river, singing an Anishinaabe Water song, our salmon puppets swam upstream to spawn.


…a song about water. GWEN
…that people sing river songs to catch up to salmon. CLEM

At the end of our journey, we learned more about how Anishinaabeg used land as tools and technology in innovative ways.

NOW I KNOW… to catch salmon, and when to.  DESMOND

…people put Willows down to trap big salmon.  SVEA

Water as Medicine:

We ended our workshop with a Water Ceremony. We sat in a circle and water was poured into our cup. As we held water in our hands, Joce and Faye invited us to think about how living things can feel and absorb our energy, and that is why we must be aware and intentional about our relationship to land. We were encouraged to send greetings of love and hope and gratitude to the water. After sitting quietly and reflecting, we drank from our cup and wondered if the taste of the water was affected by our ceremony.

…water can hold lots of energy. LOTE
…water gives life to everything. ELLIOT

It was a powerful morning.  We learned many important lessons about land and language, connection and community, technology and teachings.  Everyone enjoyed learning outside with and from the land, through storytelling, movement and music.  Thank you to Joce, Faye and Archer for sharing your knowledge with us.

Eco-Justice: Learning with Water

I was invited to co-host a webinar about Ecojustice Education, hosted by the Toronto District School Board’s EcoSchools team, in collaboration with OISE’s Environmental and Sustainability Education Initiative. 

My inspiring co-host was Farah Wadia. Farah is a Grade 7/8 teacher in Toronto, and she has written about her work raising issues of environmental justice through the study of water with local and global connections in VOICE magazine. You can watch our webinar here.

As an anti-colonial educator, I am actively learning how to centre Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, worldviews, and stories of resistance throughout my curriculum. This integrated water inquiry is one example of what eco-justice pedagogy might look like in Grade 2.

Land as Pedagogy: Welcoming Circle
As I deepen my understanding about how to support Indigenous sovereignty, and actively disrupt settler colonialism, I am coming to know that some of the most powerful work I can do is to build relationships, make connections, and acknowledge land with respect.

Every morning, we begin our day outside. We take a few deep breaths together and pay attention to the land (which includes plants, wind, animals, water, soil, etc.) around us. We notice the clouds, the mist, the frozen puddles, and share our observations with each other. We honour the original caretakers of land, practice gratitude, and promise to care for the land as part of our responsibility as treaty people.

My approach to land education is to honour, celebrate and strengthen the relationships that children have with their natural environment, which includes the urban setting. Inquiry-based learning that is grounded in love and wonder can support children to be curious and critical thinkers. If children feel a strong connection to the land, they might also feel responsible for taking care of the land, and each other.

Building Relationships: Sharing our Water Stories
Our water justice inquiry began with an idea that I learned about in the first edition of Natural Curiosity. In September, students shared samples of water that they had collected from different water sources they encountered during the summer. Every day, one student shared what they love about water, and told stories about the water they had collected. We wrote about every experience. This act of storytelling helped to connect us as a community, and created a shared intention for learning with and from water.

A Community of Co-Learners:
Students shared their knowledge and what they love about water in different ways. During MSI (Math-Science Investigations), I asked everyone to build and create structures that connect to water. We used inquiry cards to document what students already knew and the questions they wanted to explore together. These questions provided diagnostic assessment, and will guide our inquiry throughout the year.

Taking Action:
It is critical that young children learn stories of resistance, and see themselves as agents of change. We are reading many picture books to support and guide our inquiry. “The Water Walker” by Joanne Robertson and “Nibi’s Water Song” by Sunshine Tenasco, are two excellent stories written by Indigenous authors. Reading these stories inspired more questions:

Why does Water need to be protected?
Do all people have access to clean water? Why or why not?
How can I take action to protect water?

Students used a Venn Diagram to make text-to-self connections and compare themselves to Anishinaabe Water Protector, Josephine Mandamin. 


Write for Rights:
As students learn to recognize inequity and confront injustice in their lives, they need multiple strategies and tools that they can use to take action and feel empowered as activists and allies.

Every year, Amnesty International organizes a letter writing campaign on December 10, called “Write for Rights”. In 2020, I learned that Amnesty International was highlighting the First Nations community of Grassy Narrows. I decided that the students would learn about the issues and write letters of solidarity. Everyone was very surprised when Premier Doug Ford wrote us back! 

Learning Through the Arts: Water Poems
We are learning that Water Protectors will often sing to the water. This call to action has inspired us to write our own songs of gratitude for water in our local community. In preparation, the Grade 2 students wrote a variety of poems, and we explored the sounds and shapes that water makes through soundscapes and movement. Students expressed their appreciation and love for water in creative ways.

Water Songs:
As we compose our water songs, we will continue to listen to the songs of Water Protectors for inspiration and guidance. Some of the songs that we have been learning are: “The Water Song” by Irene Wawatie Jerome, “Home To Me” N’we Jinan Artist from Grassy Narrows First Nation and “We Stand” by One Tribe (Kelli Love, Jordan Walker, and MC Preach). It is my hope that we will sing our songs to the water, with gratitude and joy.

Hindsight is…

Please don’t make me finish the title until the last second has ticked off the clock. I may have developed a defensive outlook about this trip around the sun. While I know this Gregorian Calender measurement of time will soon be in the rearview mirror of our lives, it is still a battle avoiding the queasiness and wincing that come when I think about all we have been through in 2020. Can resolutions be far behind?

Dang! I just wrote 2020

My understanding, perhaps acceptance, of this year is coming into clearer focus. It has been an extraordinary year on so many levels, and thus a great opportunity for personal growth. It has also been an educational year because, dang, I learnt a lot. 

Dang! I just wrote ‘dang’ again. 

I also taught a lot, and despite it feeling like a roller coaster ride from hell along the way, it meant that there were many lessons for me as an educator in 2020 too. Which made me happy to find this quote below after thinking I made it up myself. 

“If you are not learning, then you are not teaching.” Vernon L Smith*

A wise and gentle reminder that there was always something new to learn about ourselves, the students we teach, and the world around us during periods of unexpected loss, labour strife, professional uncertainty, and a global crisis. Smith’s words echoing loudly as I type. Here’s my version of it à la René Descartes. 

I learn, therefore I am a teacher.

So here is what I learnt from hindsight/2020:

  1. Take time to grieve and offer comfort first when students/families are hurting. The lessons can wait. It hurts to lose a student to senseless violence. Our school felt this very deeply last January
  2. Sometimes governments do not have the best interests of the population in their actions. Standing up to malfeasance and legislated tyranny is the right and a responsibility of all educators. 
  3. Mental health matters more than marks. Students/educators who struggle will not miraculously get better after a call to a helpline or a conversation with a social worker/psychologist. It is a process that takes time and patience before progress. I learned that there is much more to learn in this area to better support students, colleagues, and myself. 
    Remember that no matter how many times people tell you to take care of yourself first, there have to be reasonable boundaries and supports to make that happen. An encouraging message from admin, a Board Director’s email blast, or the Minister of Ed is not going to suffice. Set your boundaries. Do what you can do within them. Take time to be still. The work can and will wait. 
  4. Equity in schools needs to go way beyond a single day in the classroom, Orange/Pink/Purple shirt days are great starting points, but most not become performative events, but rather actionable beginnings to build on everyday in classrooms. There are so many amazing inclusion and equity resources being shared via school boards and social media for educators committed to allyship and activism in areas of Truth and Reconciliation, anti-black racism, LGBTQ2+, and culturally responsive relevant pedagogy. I learned that words in a classroom mean very little if they are not accompanied by opportunities to critically engage learners to become agents of change. 
  5. I learned not all educators are ready to confront their privilege and unearned advantage. I also learned that acknowledging my own privilege comes with the responsibility to examine my pedagogy and practice. It is a chance to unlearn, learn, and then teach. 
  6. If you are going to move into emergency distance learning within a short period of time, take it slow and make sure you have an ergonomic work space for those extended hours of screen time ahead. I learned that not all students have the same amounts of available space or bandwidth required for virtual school. I also had to accept that some students checked out the moment learning became asynchronous. 
  7. Rethink, question, iterate, bend, blend, and break everything you have done in the past to teach. Say goodbye to “we’ve always done it this way thinking”. Reimagine your reading lists, your math instruction, your use of worksheets, your classroom management, and your assessment approaches. This will not be easy, but it will be worth it. Embrace the discomfort. Learn from it, and then teach forward knowing 2020 taught us all so much. 

Thank you for a wonderful year at the speed of education. Please feel free to add what 2020 taught you in the comments below. Cheers to you all, and to a safe trip around the sun in 2021. 

*  There is comfort in the knowledge that the quote above is attributed to a Nobel Prize winning thinker because before checking, I thought the words above were mined straight out of my mind. Needless to say, I am happy to share a common thought in esteemed company. Searching out the source of the quote also allowed me to discover some of Smith’s other vast body of work in economics.


Engaging with Indigenous Knowledge as a Non-Indigenous Educator

Over my teaching career I have been fortunate to teach in schools with high populations of Indigenous students and to learn from the knowledge keepers and elders in the communities that our schools served.  Admittedly, I haven’t always said or done the right things but I have learned from those mistakes.  As a non-Indigenous educator, I know that I will continuously be on a professional and personal learning journey.  I acknowledge that it is my responsibility to do this learning.  There are resources that I have used along the way and I hope that by drawing attention to the following resources, I can assist others in their learning journey.

In order to avoid cultural appropriation, to honour and respect Indigenous culture and history as a non-Indigenous teacher, it is important to have the appropriate resources. We can’t avoid teaching about residential schools because we don’t feel comfortable.  It is a part of the Ontario Curriculum.  It isn’t just about “history” either.  Current events draw attention to the pervasive issues faced by Indigenous peoples.  These are teachable moments that are authentic and relevant to students.  Students will be asking questions and forming opinions. As educators we have a responsibility to assist students to find accurate and culturally respectful information.

If you are looking for a place to begin in your learning journey, visit ETFO’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education website.  It is filled with cultural protocols, resources and Ministry Documents.  It is a treasure trove of information on treaties, land acknowledgements and avoiding cultural appropriation.  Throughout the literature are hyperlinks for explanations of concepts and lexicon.  Through ShopETFO you can purchase the FNMI Engaging Learners Through Play  resource created for elementary educators which provides play based activities that engage all students.

A quick resource can be found on (The Council of Ontario Drama and Dance Educators). This resource provides a quick chart of protocols on what to do, what to avoid, why to avoid and what to try in order to bring learning about Indigenous culture and history into your classroom.  This document also provides links to videos about Indigenous Arts Protocols, and a quick reference guide for what to think about before engaging with Indigenous Knowledge.

The website is filled with tools and resources for educators including videos of Indigenous Knowledge Keepers telling their stories.  There are free educational resource kits with lesson plans for primary, junior and intermediate students.  In addition, you could sign up for professional learning or a workshop on the site.

Like me, you might make mistakes.  However, my Indigenous educator friends have coached me that the worst mistake that non-Indigenous educators can make is to do nothing.  I hope that highlighting these resources will help you along your professional learning journey.

Equity and Inclusion for All : Culturally Responsive Teaching and Assessment Pedagogy

The role of culturally responsive teaching is to understand who students are as people and who they are within their community. This pedagogical approach acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental aspects of student culture while providing equitable and inclusive education for students of all backgrounds and identities. This is especially important for students who identify as First Nations, Métis, and/or Inuit (FNMI). Essentially, in teaching through a lens of culturally responsive pedagogy, student identity is honoured.

What is student identity?

Deborah McCallum states identity is “connected to the groups we affiliate with, the language we use, and who we learned the language from. I believe that each of us has various identities according to the different groups that we belong to, and that this has implications in terms of the languages and discourses we use.” (McCallum, November 28, 2017).

Specific characteristics of culturally responsive approaches include educators taking the perspective of :

  1. positively valuing perspectives of parents and families
  2. communicating high expectations for all students
  3. adapting learning within the context of students’ culture, background, and identities
  4. student-centred instruction and assessment
  5. considering students’ culture, background, and identities within instruction
  6. reshaping and adapting curriculum to address students’ cultural and identity issues
  7. teachers stance as facilitators with students providing input to guide learning

(adapted from Ladson-Billings, 1994)

How does culturally-relevant pedagogy benefit teaching?

Teachers need to be reflective of who their students are and how best to adapt with instruction and assessment to their needs. As reflective practitioners, teachers learn to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of their students. Here, the focus of teaching goes away from the curriculum and towards the learning needs of the students.

Schön (1987) stated that in teachers’ reflection, learning influences behaviour through the teachers’ self-discovery, self- assessment, and deciding the appropriateness of instruction. It is through teacher reflection that the opportunity, the motivation, and the environment reflects on the idea that learning belongs to the learner, the student. In this process, teachers take on the role of and status of facilitator over the traditional role of an “expert” teacher (Schön, 1987).

In using a reflective stance (Schön, 1987), teachers incorporate issues of equity, inclusion, and social justice as a necessary element in their day to day teaching practices. The development of culturally relevant teaching strategies is necessary in order to challenge learners to think critically about their own learning and who they are as learners. In other words, to feel included, students need to see themselves within the curriculum and instruction (Hutton, 2019).

By including their identity in education, students become more engaged in their culture in the context of learning. This helps develop perspective and skills to adapt to present day reality in order to address skills and knowledge for the future (Hutton, 2019).

How does culturally-relevant pedagogy impact families and communities?

It is very important that teachers learn about their students’ families and backgrounds. In learning about the families and communities, students embrace their own understanding of challenges across various cultural communities and backgrounds (Hutton, 2019). This is an importance stance to take given the diversity of students in all Ontario schools.

Developing healthy family-school relationships promotes family involvement and cultural awareness which further develops the supports needed to improve overall student achievement (Epstein, 1995). In addressing the distinctions of families and communities, this results in a varied understanding how families contribute to schools which are part of their community. Depending on language and cultural expectations, different levels of involvement and engagement usually vary (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Communication between school and home is a critical factor in developing relationships and building overall school capacity. Teachers and families work together to support schools by providing resources and in developing knowledge of diverse learners. Therefore, the community becomes an extension of the community (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

The importance of culturally-relevant pedagogy in teaching First Nations, Métis, and Inuit (FNMI) Students

With a history of abuse (i.e. residential schools),  assimilation (i.e. absorbing FNMI people into European culture), and neglect (i.e. substandard funding of education and healthcare), educators need to address ways to meet the specific needs of FNMI students in order to increase overall educational achievement (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Culturally-relevant pedagogy addresses the connection between school and home by promoting communication, forging relationships, and building capacity for all students. At this juncture, teachers and families support diverse learners through local resources and knowledge sharing (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

The importance of culturally-relevant pedagogy in teaching students who do not identify as FNMI

Given the diversity of students across Ontario, classrooms that show diversity of culture need to represent meaningful and relevant depictions of groups of people. Pedagogy should reflect the complexities of cultures, cultural products, and students as individuals. Further, the portrayal of background needs to reflect cultural history and changes that have evolved today which includes the diversity within groups. In other words, students need to identify with curriculum and instruction. Educators must to become more culturally aware in order to meet the needs of their students and the communities where schools stand (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Understanding student diversity in classrooms and in schools

Getting to know students is a powerful approach to help teachers understand who students are and the roots of their family history and culture. In honouring who students are in classrooms and in communities, teachers can adapt instruction and impact engagement in accessing what matters to students in their lives. By moving towards students’ cultural and learning interests, students thrive academically (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Understanding culturally informed pedagogy in the context of assessment

Teachers undertaking culturally informed pedagogies take on the dual responsibility of external performance of assessment (i.e. large scale government assessments) and building community involvement along with student-driven learning. In balancing the demands of culturally revitalized pedagogy with the demands of present day approaches to assessment, teachers embrace pedagogy that promotes student success by not just propelling FNMI students forward academically … but to also in reclaiming and restoring their cultures (Ladson-Billings, 2014). Ladson-Billings (2014) states that “the real beauty of a culturally sustaining pedagogy is its ability to meet both demands without diminishing ether” (p. 83-84).

Best Practices for Culturally Responsive Teaching & Assessment.

The Culturally Responsive Educator Mindset (adapted from Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 4 & 5)

  1. Socio-cultural consciousness: Teachers are aware of how socio-cultural structures impact individual students’ experiences and opportunities towards
  2. High expectations: Teachers hold positive and affirming views of student success from all backgrounds.
  3. Desire to make a difference: Teachers work towards more equity and inclusion as change agents.
  4. Constructivist approach: Teachers understand that students’ learning is constructed through their own knowledge (or schema).
  5. Deep knowledge of their students: Teachers know who their students are by knowing about students and their families. Teachers then know how individual students learn best and where they are at in their learning.
  6. Culturally responsive teaching practices: Teachers design and build instruction based on students’ prior knowledge in order to stretch students in their thinking and learning.

Effective Cultural Pedagogy (adapted from Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 6 & 7)

The quality of teacher instruction and expertise outweighs challenging circumstances that students can bring to the classroom (Callins, 2006; Willis & Harris, 2000). With effective inclusive instruction, there is a promise of high academic rigour within the framework of culturally responsive pedagogy and with the supports to scaffold new learning (Gay, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 2001). Some strategies below were adapted from the work of  Kugler and West-Burns (2010):

  • Using professional judgement, teachers recognize that curriculum can be expanded upon in informal and the subtle ways in which the curriculum defines what is and what is not valued in students’ schools and society.
  • Using inquiry-based approaches to student learning, teachers engaged and self-directed learners. In this approach, students are supported in making decisions about their learning that can integrate who they are and what they already know with their home and community experiences.
  • Using a variety of resources, including community partners, teachers ensure the learning environment and pedagogical materials used are accessible to all learners and that the lives of students and the community are reflected in the daily classroom learning.
  • When using resources, materials, and books teachers insure that local and global perspectives are presented and a reflective in the students’ lives.
  • Teachers need to know and build upon students’ prior knowledge, interests, strengths and learning styles to ensure they are foundational to the learning experiences in the classroom, in the school, and in the community.
  • Teachers need to ensure that learning engages a broad range of learners so that varied perspectives, learning styles, and sources of knowledge are considered.
  • When differentiating instruction and ways to demonstrate learning, teachers ensuring both academic rigour and a variety of resources that are accessible to all learners.
  • Teachers need to advocate to ensure that the socio-cultural consciousness of students is developed through curricular approaches, emphasizing inclusive and accepting education, to inform an examination and action regarding social justice in education.

Have a restful March Break,

Collaboratively Yours,

Dr. Deb Weston, PhD


Callins, T. (2006, Nov./Dec.). Culturally responsive literacy instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 62–65.

Epstein, J. L. (1995). School/family/community partnerships. Phi delta kappan76(9), 701.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, practice, & research. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hutton, F. (2019). Notes on culturally responsive pedagogy.

Kugler, J., & West-Burns, N. (2010, Spring). The CUS Framework for Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy. Our Schools, Our Selves, 19(3).

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing Co. Downloaded from

Ladson-Billings, G. (2001). Crossing over to Canaan: The journey of new teachers in diverse classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review84(1), 74-84.

McCallum, D. (November 28, 2017). Identity and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy , Canadian School Libraries Journal, School CultureVol. 1 No. 2, Fall 2017. Downloaded from

Ontario Ministry of Education. (November 2013). Culturally responsive pedagogy: Towards equity and inclusivity in Ontario Schools, Secretariat Special Edition #35, Ontario Ministry of Education, Downloaded from

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner.

Willis, A.I., & Harris, V. (2000). Political acts: Literacy learning and teaching. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(1), 72–88.

Importance of Safe Water for Aboriginal Children’s Education

drinking water

Access to potable water is a fundamental human right and essential to ongoing  human health. Good health is also essential for students to obtain an education. For over 20 years, conditions of water safety and quality on reserve lands continue to be an ongoing concern in Canada. “Despite a substantial amount of funding allocated toward improving water infrastructure on reserve, an alarming proportion of communities face boil and drinking water advisories” (White, Murphy, & Spence, 2012, p. 1). As reserve land is under the Government of Canada’s jurisdiction, bureaucracy via regulatory frameworks, legacy of colonization, funding formulas, governance and policy issues remain as roadblocks to ensuring access to safe water on lands where Aboriginal students attend school.

Limited access to safe water impacts health creating discrepancies and disproportionate levels of disease and early death among Aboriginal people. Further, health discrepancies between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are also directly and indirectly related to social, economic, cultural, and political inequities (Adelson, 2005).

Even though, in 1989, Canada played a prominent role in drafting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a United Nations Child Find (UNICEF) report cited the plight of Aboriginal children due to lack of adequate housing, education, and clean water (UNICEF 2007).  In 1997, the Government of Canada documented promises to improve living condition for Aboriginal children (Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development 1997). The 2007 Senate report (Canada, Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights 2007) recommended a legal framework and an independent national children’s commissioner to monitor implementation of children’s rights federally and to coordinate federal, provincial and territorial policies that affect children. But with no legal framework or commission to monitor change, very little continued to be done to improve living conditions.

Poor living conditions impact children’s lives as Aboriginal children have a 1.5 times greater probability of dying before their first birthday, higher rates of hospitalization for acute lung infections and accidental injury (Canadian Institute for Health Information 2004), higher rates of apprehension by child welfare services, and a greater chance of having to live in a series of foster homes outside their community (Trocmé, Fallon et al. 2005). Further, living in poverty means that a large proportion of Aboriginal children lack the basic necessities. “Aboriginal homes are often poorly constructed and ventilated; their plumbing systems are often inadequate for the number of residents; and their clean water supply is often unreliable. Six percent of these homes are without sewage services, and four percent lack running water and flush toilets” (Assembly of First Nations 2006).

One in three Aboriginal people consider their main drinking water unsafe to drink with 12 percent of communities have to boil their drinking water (Chan et al. 1997). Contaminants in the water and food supply create concerns for the health and wellness of young Aboriginal children. For example, one study found that more than 50 percent of Inuit in a Baffin Island community had “dietary exposure levels of mercury, toxaphene and chlordane exceeding the provisional tolerable daily intake levels” (Chan et al. 1997).

In 2019, the Canadian Government continues to address healthy living conditions only when emergencies and outbreaks start hitting the media. The big challenge is for the Government of Canada to increase a sustainable level of investment to produce long-term improvement of living conditions for the Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children are being denied clean water in Canada (Klasing, 2018).

In Canada, Aboriginal children living in rural and northern Canada are the least-supported children in the basic aspects to support qualify of life. Persistent inequities in health care, housing, access to safe water, protection from family violence, early childhood education and protection of cultural and linguistic heritage all impact these children’s lives and their ability to attain a quality education.

What will it take for Canada to ensure equity and dignity for Aboriginal children?

Collaboratively Yours,

Dr. Deb Weston, PhD

Classroom Resources to Support Inquiry

Grade 3 – Water the Gift of Life: Investigating Environmental Impacts

 In our own words: Bringing authentic first peoples content to the K-3 classroom

Deepening Knowledge: Resources for and about aboriginal education – Kindergarten/ Primary/ Junior/ Intermediate/Senior/ French/ Aboriginal Language

Our word, our ways: Teaching First Nations, Métis, and Inuit learners

Aboriginal Children Canada Must Do Better: Today and Tomorrow


Adelson, N. (2005). The embodiment of inequity: Health disparities in Aboriginal Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health/Revue Canadienne de Sante’e Publique, S45-S61.

Assembly of First Nations. 2006. Royal Commission on Aboriginal People at 10 Years: A Report Card. Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations.

Ball, J. (2008). Promoting equity and dignity for Aboriginal children in Canada. Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) and Canadian Population Health Initiative. 2004. “Aboriginal Peoples’ Health.” In Improving the Health of Canadians. Ottawa: CIHI. IHC2004rev_e.pd

Chan, H.M., P.R. Berti, O. Receveur, and H.V. Kuhnlein. 1997. “Evaluation of the Population Distribution of Dietary Contaminant Exposure in an Arctic Population Using Monte Carlo Statistics.” Environmental Health Perspectives 105 (3): 316-21.

Klasing, A. (November 20, 2018). Why is Canada denying Indigenous peoples clean water? Globe and Mail. Assessed February 1, 2019.

Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. 1997. Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada. Assessed February 1, 2019. 2000E.pdf

Trocmé, N., B. Fallon, B. MacLaurin, J. Daciuk, C. Felstiner, T. Black. 2005. Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada. Assessed February 1, 2019.

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2007. Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-Being in Rich Countries. Innocenti Report Card 7. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. Assessed February 1, 2019.

White, J. P., Murphy, L., & Spence, N. (2012). Water and Indigenous peoples: Canada’s paradox. The International Indigenous Policy Journal3(3), 3.