Wikwemikong Educational Conference lays educational foundation

WIKWEMIKONG—Educators from across the North, including representatives from each of Manitoulin Island’s Native and non-Native schools, gathered at Wikwemikong High School for the two-day Education Conference 2014: First Nation Success Kinoomaagewin Giizbiadoon (Teaching Days).

The event, presented by the Wikwemikong Board of Education (WBE), brought together an impressive lineup of education experts and academics to facilitate and inform the discussions that took place during the workshops and keynote addresses.

“We are delighted to host in our community the distinguished academics and educators that will assist us towards our ultimate goal of maximizing student success,” said WBE Education Director Dominic Beaudry. “Presenters include Dr. Mary Jean Gallager, Dr. Garfield Gini-Newman, Dr. Ruth Beatty, Wab Kinew, Dr. Cindy Blackstock and Dr. Darrel Manitowabi.”

Mr. Beaudry noted that the keynote speakers were “complimented with an excellent array of workshops, whose topics include Inquiry-Based Learning, 3C Inquiries, Differentiated Instruction, Data to Support Instruction, Reggio Emilia Approach, Building PLCs, Tools for Capturing Stories, E-Learning, Anishinaabemowin App, Mathematical Thinking at Home, Literacy at Home, Manitoulin History, Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and Staying Safe Online.”

Wikwemikong Chief Duke Peltier welcomed the participants and speakers to the Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on behalf of the band council and the community. “We are excited to welcome into our community leaders in the field of education with extensive knowledge and expertise,” he said. “To all the conference participants, please take the time to explore our community and territory here on beautiful Manitoulin Island. Enjoy your stay.”

Chief Peltier also used the opportunity to encourage all those in attendance to “support the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and to follow its case closely.”

Dr. Gallager delivered the first keynote address of the conference. As deputy minister of the student achievement division of the Ontario Ministry of Education and an educational speaker and workshop leader in high demand around the globe (she delivers overseas keynotes on her vacation time), Dr. Gallager brought a unique perspective to the proceedings. She was named the 2013 Phi Delta Kappan Educator of the Year, has been awarded an Honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Windsor in 2006 and was a recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2003 for her leadership in education and community service.

Dr. Gallager spoke extensively on changing the perspective paradigm on educating children. “Every child is born with a gift,” she said. It is up to teachers and the educational system to uncover that gift.

Critical to that process is for educators to adopt a “growth midset,” she said. Every child is capable of growth, but each student may do so in a different way at a different pace. Workshops and keynotes at educational conferences bring a host of new ideas and concepts, but just as important is for educators to put in place a plan to implement those ideas in the classroom. “We must plan to implement and change something we do every day to increase students’ development,” she said. “If we don’t take them within two days those ideas are left on the shelf.”

As a strategy, Dr. Gallager suggested taking away three things, “three new learnings that will change my practice,” she said. “At the end of these two days, I am going to share those three things that I am going to bring into my classroom.”

Dr. Gallager noted that First Nations students today are being asked to walk in two worlds, but that those two worlds are not mutually exclusive. “They need to walk with pride in the Anishinaabe world,” she said. Dr. Gallager took a moment to explain that she is still finding her way in Anishinaabe culture and practices, and she apologized in advance if she should make a misstep and say something disrespectful.

Dr. Gallager noted that the present premier of the province was minister of education herself and that she had begun the process of increasing awareness of the relationship between Canada and the First Nations within the Ontario curriculum. “Premier (Kathleen) Wynne was in the North just a few days ago where she said that “we are all treaty people.” She noted that the treaties were signed by both sides and that both sides are party to the process. Dr. Gallager’s PowerPoint included the ministry’s new map of Ontario showing each of the treaty regions of the province. ‘Those treaties cover that map,” she pointed out. “Anywhere in this province we are on the traditional lands of the First Nations.” It was of key importance going forward in the province that all students learn an accurate history of that relationship.

“We need to focus not on the First Nations people of 200 years ago,” she said, “but on the trends of today.”

There is a long way to go ahead, she noted. “I know nothing about teaching First Nations pride and culture,” said Dr. Gallager, “but I do know about good teaching.”

Ontario has been recognized internationally as having one of the best education systems in the world and recently “it has been recognized as one of the most improved systems and that was starting from an already very good position. We have moved from good to great.”

There is only one route to a better educational system and that pathway lies through teachers.

Dr. Gallager cautioned educators to not expect changes to immediately be reflected in improved educational scores. “When we start doing something differently, we are not really very good at it,” she said. Often, there is a dip in the stats following change. But the data bears out that improvements do take hold and bear fruit with perseverance as “we learn to do it better.”

Dr. Gallager displayed charts and graphs that showed a remarkable improvement in student scores over the past decade, although the gaps between First Nation students and the mainstream are still far too wide, there has been steady improvement as the gap closes.

A key to better educational attainment is found in early reading comprehension, as it plays a greater role by far than socio-economic position. Although students from a lower economic strata are 14 times more likely to drop out before finishing high school, students who attain a high level of literacy early on those statistics show no difference between the classes.

An important part of encouraging higher educational attainment is to stop making excuses based on background and economic status. Studies have shown that one of the main hindrances to educational attainment is the concept of “the poor dears, what can you expect?” Set the bar high and expect that students will reach that bar and the results will improve, expect that they will fail to attain that level and they will meet that expectation as well.

“You don’t get a higher score result simply by asking harder questions,” she cautioned. The framework and tools to reach that goal has to be in place and accessible by students.

“Every child can learn,” said Dr. Gallager. “We can expect results if we turn the key.”

One of the changes taking place in schools is a realization that children are learning differently, with different tools today. Classes are being encouraged to join in group learning and classrooms should be noisy, interactive places with plenty of discussion and learning going on. “Learning floats on a sea of talk,” noted Dr. Gallager. “Our classes should be really noisy places.”

For those raised in the “seen but not heard” era of classrooms, the changes can be both bewildering and terrifying. “Change is not an easy thing,” said Dr. Gallager.

In any event, she had one vital message for educators. “It is absolutely urgent that as teachers we up our game,” she said. “We have a golden opportunity for about 14 years of a child’s life that as a teacher we have a gift to program them for success.”

The second keynote speech of the first day was Dr. Garfield Gini-Newman from the University of Toronto. Dr. Gini-Newman is “a widely sought after speaker who blends humour with a deep understanding of effective curriculum design centred around the infusion of critical thinking for all.” A senior lecturer at OISE and a national consultant with The Critical Thinking Consortium, Dr. Gini-Newman has helped countless teachers to frame learning around engaging and provocative activities and authentic assessments. He is the author of seven textbooks and has taught at York University and the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Gini-Newman began his keynote by exploding one of the key myths of teaching, that changing the words changes the learning. “It is the qualifiers,” he said. “Take any task and add a qualifier.”

Understanding that caveat allows an educator to tweak questions and tasks so that they “invite the child into the process.”

He described one exercise he had used in the class, the creation of a CD containing the top 10 anti-war songs of all time. The process included many different aspects of critical thinking and assessment.

[pullquote]“We must invite kids to dare to dream,” said Dr. Gini-Newman. “Dare to dream of a better society.”[/pullquote]

Dr. Gini-Newman further illustrated the interactive process through the use of an ancient photograph taken in South Bay. He asked the assembled educators to use their knowledge of the world to work out season and the time of day in which the photograph was taken and why they decided on their answers. The answers were very good and insightful. At the end of the session, Dr. Gini-Newman admitted that he did not “know” the correct answer which segued into a discussion on when, or even if, you tell a student involved in a qualitative and critical thinking exercise the “correct” answer. The answer to that question involved a surprising number of qualifications that focus on the individual student’s personality.

Education today, with its barrage of data and information through the Internet and digital media, needs to enhance and nurture critical thinking skills through brain compatible classrooms, curriculum design and effective assessment practice posited the professor.

One of the routes to that goal is to build our teaching strategies around an inquiring approach, one that is not linear and utilizes a far more organic process. The world is “too big to know” in its entirety and it is important to recognize that reality in building a new more organic process and one of the key elements in that new process will be “kids talking to kids.”

“Yes, we need basics,” said Dr. Gini-Newman. “But we don’t want to ‘go back to basics,’ we want to go forward with basics.”

If you want to teach for a deeper understanding you have to put in place the environment for deeper understanding.

Research has shown that a major source of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that courses through our brains to make us happy, is success at achieving challenges. Understanding that is important for learning in the future as teachers “choreograph learning.”

“We must invite kids to dare to dream,” said Dr. Gini-Newman. “Dare to dream of a better society.”