Canada Research Chair for Truth and Reconciliation Education

Dr. Michelle Coupal (Bonnechere Algonquin First Nation) joined the Faculty of Education in July 2018 as a Canada Research Chair of Truth and Reconciliation Education. Since completing her PhD in English at Western in 2013, Dr. Coupal (Algonquin/French) has achieved national recognition by her peers as an emerging scholar of considerable talent in the fields of Indigenous literatures, particularly Indian residential school literature, and Indigenous pedagogies. Dr. Coupal was appointed by the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA) as President-Elect (2017-2018), and beginning in November 2018, she will serve as President of ILSA (2018-2019).

Coupal regularly accepts invitations to organize and participate in national panel presentations, including the recent panel for the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) at Congress 2018 in Regina. Coupal’s contribution, “Irreconcilable Spaces: the Canlit Survey Course in the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Centre Round Room,” posed a challenge to CanLit’s hegemony, and suggested that CanLit is irreconcilably settled on Indigenous literary territories. Coupal also presented at a public event (co-sponsored by ILSA, ACCUTE, and CALCLAS) at Congress 2017, where she, alongside an illustrious panel of speakers including Dr. Warren Cariou (Métis), Dr. Kim Anderson (Cree/Métis), Sarah Henzi, and renowned Mushkego storyteller, Louis Bird (Swampy Cree), presented original work on ways to incorporate Indigenous positioning protocols into the classroom as a means to foster a healthy entry point into and dialogical relationship with the stories Indigenous writers tell. Coupal ultimately considered how positioning protocols can be mobilized to encourage activism and advocacy that extends beyond the classroom setting.

This demonstrated public presence and scholarly recognition are closely tied to Coupal’s research productivity. Coupal’s book-in-progress, Teaching Trauma and Indian Residential School Literatures in Canada, was awarded a SSHRC Insight Development Grant (2016-2018), and will be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Coupal’s ground breaking work embodies Indigenous methodological strategies that include a clear focus on both the theory and praxis of bringing difficult material into largely settler classroom settings. By combining Indigenous understandings with Western ones, Michelle makes her work accessible to the wide reading public so as to move forward the project of responding to the educative Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

Coupal is co-editor (with Deanna Reder [Cree/Métis], Joanne Arnott [Métis], and Emalene A. Manuel [Secwepemc/Ktunaxa]) of a collection of the works of Secwepemc/Ktunaxa writer Vera Manuel, which is in press with the University of Manitoba’s First Voices First Texts series edited by Warren Cariou (Métis). The book is scheduled to be released in February 2019.  Manuel’s largely unpublished work, with its focus on the history and legacies of residential schooling, marks a timely contribution to the present-day need for teachable material on the topic. Manuel was a healer committed to decolonizing theatre to purposely reveal her own therapeutic process through her family’s history of attending the schools. Coupal’s achievement in unearthing the archive of this work with Manuel’s sister, Emalene, and her coeditors is testament to her commitment to ethical editorial practices and to bringing Indian residential school literature into the hands of the Canadian reading public and the classroom.

Coupal has published and submitted articles on teaching trauma and Indian residential school literature, truth and reconciliation education, pedagogies of reconciliation, the cultural work of teaching truth and reconciliation through narrative, and Indigenous positioning protocols in the classroom. Coupal delivered the opening keynote address on truth and reconciliation education for Indigenous Research week at Laurentian University in the fall of 2017. She has shown considerable leadership in Indigenizing the academy by co-organizing an international conference in 2016: MAAMWIZING: Indigeneity in the Academy. Coupal’s research contributions not only respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action, they actively work toward decolonizing pedagogies and decolonizing truth and reconciliation itself.

Study Tour to Belgium

U of R study tour students, UCLL students, a teacher educator from Bhutan, and facilitators at the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training in Brussels

In July, five B.Ed. students, eight M.Ed. students, and one professor boarded international flights and converged in Belgium for a 10-day course exploring the theme of Social Justice and Globalization from an Educational Perspective. Students spent time in Leuven and Brussels for the course. Leuven is a university city in the Flanders Region, a region established mainly along ethnolinguistic lines. In Leuven, the dominant language spoken is Dutch (Flemish), and in Brussels, just a 20 minute train ride away, French and Dutch are spoken. Brussels is the capital city of Flanders, Belgium, and Europe. Belgium has three official languages, Dutch, French, and German. Belgium students learn, as part of their core curriculum, four or five languages. All of the UCLL students in the summer institute spoke fluent English as well. Fittingly, in this multilingual context, the U of R course was offered in both of Canada’s official languages: French and English, and students could use any language of choice for their assignments.

Dr. Heather Phipps, Assistant professor in the Bac program, spent many hours over the past two years organizing the course in partnership with the UC Leuven-Limburg (UCLL) University colleagues. She says, “We aimed to connect students internationally in a bilingual course that focused on global citizenship. As a language education professor interested in social justice, the whole experience was both rewarding and transformative, from planning the course to travelling with the students in Belgium.”

For undergrad students, the experience included volunteering for one full day in a summer language camp for young Flemish-speaking children who were learning French and English.​ Dr. Phipps says, “It was a very memorable day as the students worked alongside camp monitors from Italy and Turkey who spoke many languages. The students gained confidence through this experience and also made new international friends!”

As part of the course, the University of Regina students joined with five undergraduate students from UCLL and a teacher educator from Bhutan for a 4-day institute on global citizenship, which explored UNESCO’s key concepts for a sustainable future, and was facilitated by UCLL’s Katrien Goosens and Leen Alearts. This diverse community of learners and educators generated international and even intergenerational perspectives on current global issues. Ashley Churko, a teacher working in French and a graduate student, found the diversity of perspectives a highlight of her time in Belgium. She says, “The class was not simply a master’s class, but was combined with undergrads as well. I found that the undergrads from both the University of Regina and those we connected with from Leuven gave very interesting insights and perspectives… I very much appreciated the mixture of people that we had in our group as it always led to fascinating conversations.” Erika Baldo, also a teacher working in French and a graduate student says, “I thoroughly enjoyed this cultural, educational, and bilingual experience. In addition, I appreciated meeting wonderful people and making new friends.”

Leaving one’s country, one’s comfort zone, and exploring another country takes courage, requiring one to meet new people, and navigate new cities and multilingual contexts. There were many ‘firsts’: for some students this was the first trip overseas and for many of the students, the tour was their first time staying in International Youth Hostels. Discomforts were met with courage by the students. For instance, one of the Canadian student’s luggage didn’t arrive with her and she only received it when she got back to Canada. And, two students spent a night sleeping on the floor of an airport due to delayed flights. Despite these difficulties, everyone remained in good spirits.

Walking and talking, and at times jointly solving navigational problems, was a big part of the learning experience. Professor Phipps says, “I learned alongside my students as we explored the goals of the course through experiential learning, local visits, and workshops on topics related to social justice and global education. Being in Europe, we spent a lot of time walking and having conversations along our walks. One evening, a student pointed out to me that we had walked over 15 kilometres that day in Brussels. Walking and taking public transit was aligned with the course focus on sustainability and global citizenship education. Importantly, those long walks enabled deep conversations, often sparking a desire to make changes in society. From my perspective, it was refreshing to take learning outside of the classroom, to a new context, and to see the professional and personal growth occurring during the course. I am also filled with hope about the positive changes that the students and teachers will make in their own classrooms.”

Math teacher and graduate student Mike Stumph, reflecting on his experience and study tours in general, says, “We often hear in Education how concepts and ideas come ‘full circle.’ As a grad student, the pursuit in making connections between theory, practice, and experience is one of the key features of these programs. This course reminded me of the full circles that are continuously happening within my own teaching experiences. For me, this course was different in so many ways. Firstly, it happened in Belgium. Secondly, it required an urgency to understand, to communicate, to question and to listen that is indicative of study tours that lead to impactful learning. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experiences with Canada World Youth many years ago, traveling and living in South America where my desire to become a teacher began and where the learning was profound. Spending time in Leuven, Belgium, our traveling group and hosts were incredible, adding so much to the experience. We shared ideas on social justice, oppression in education, multicultural viewpoints, immigrant perspectives, and global issues within the classroom.” Erika Baldo, also reflecting on the value of the study tour, says, ” As a student, I look for new opportunities to acquire more knowledge with different people in new environments. As a traveller, I seek out new places to explore and new adventures to embark upon. Finally, as a lifelong learner, I try to push my boundaries to challenge myself. I am thankful that this study tour gave me the opportunity to do all of the above and more. Overall, this was a powerful and rich experience that I will cherish forever.”

Students had opportunities to tour the sites, including museums, historic and heritage sites, art galleries, a bell tower, university library, abbeys, local agencies, the Flemish Ministry of Education and Training, and an amazing learning facility called Arts Basics for Children.

An especially unforgettable experience for many students was the walking tour guided by a medical student who came to Brussels as a refugee at age 16. The group walked the path that a refugee or asylum seeker would take in seeking permission to stay in Belgium, a grueling process involving long line ups and interviews. Teacher Ashley Churko gained insight into “what it is like to be a student when you are a refugee or immigrant,” and has changed some of her classroom practices as a result. She says, “It was very sobering to see the journey that refugees must take once they arrive in Belgium. One of the biggest take-aways from my conversation with our guide was that I need to make more of an effort to value all languages in my classroom. As a French immersion teacher, I tend to value only French. My days are spent constantly reminding students to « parlez en français » and I didn’t appreciate any other language in my classroom. After this class, I have given myself the challenge this year of letting go of that need for full time French, and I have started to let the students use their language of choice during the planning stages of writing. It has made an incredible difference. My students are actually writing better in French because they are organizing their ideas out without worrying about the restriction of language. They are more willing to look up words in the dictionary without complaint or me telling them to do so and take risks with their writing.”

Remembering her experience on the walking tour, undergraduate student Nicole Gebert says, “Before the tour started, I asked the guide “What is this?” I was referring to the rows and rows of sleeping bags occupied by people in the park. He told me they were refugees, waiting. They were people without homes who came for a better future.” As an art student, Nicole was asked by a graduate student to create a piece of art from a quote in the course text. The excerpt, referring to Mark Cocker’s Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (2000), went as follows: “Europe’s conquest of indigenous peoples all over the world was bent on a unilinear but multidimensional project of achieving riches via creating extensive streams of blood, which eventually created and sustained the world order we have today.”

Nicole created the following piece:

In explanation for her art, Nicole wrote in her travel journal: “As one steps into society on a daily basis one is bombarded with hate and racism. Whether they experience it for themselves or see it happen right before their eyes it is evident that people stand on uneven grounds… Hence the curtains. Perhaps this is a show to some people or a form of entertainment to see who is better than the other. Battles are fought, people are hurt, the pain flows like a subtle stream where no one seems to notice or care about its impact. The bump in the roads are represented by rocks, the broken bridge is the broken connection to humanity itself. But wait… There is hope. There is a glimmer of light in the sky of lost languages and memories trying to break through the walls of society. Perhaps it is such that we need to break free and gain a rather different perspective on who we are as a nation. Break the stereotypes, and repair society.”

Grad students contextualized their learning by their professional employment. Teacher Ashley Churko has incorporated into her classes a new discussion method, learned in the Philosophy for Children workshop during the summer institute: She says, “An idea I took away was the red, orange, and green papers for discussions. It is such a great way to entice all students to participate in a discussion, even if they are not speaking. Since September, I have used this system so much, that anytime I say ‘discussion,’ my students automatically take out their papers, even without me saying so. I love it so much because I know the opinions of my students who barely say a word in class because they show their opinions. It has been a great way to encourage participation without forcing everyone to speak.” Teacher Erika Baldo says, “I found the session on Philosophy for Children to be particularly interesting and relevant. As a teacher, I search for creative and innovative ways to engage in critical thought, challenge perceptions, and enlighten the minds of my students.”

Deni Miclea, who works as a Student Success Analyst for Treaty 4 Education Alliance, had another perspective to offer on the learning in the course. He says, “I learned that Belgium has a complex education system that is governed by national, regional, and local authorities. In Belgium, students learn in the country’s three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Each language group promotes their unique language and culture while meeting similar Educational outcomes. In Canada, there is an increasing need to cooperate between Provincial and First Nations educational authorities to shape our curricula. It is important to promote Indigenous language and culture instruction in schools.”

Mike Stumph says, “So what does a senior secondary mathematics teacher do with an experience such as this? The simple answer is; be a better teacher. The complete answer is to weave the ideas from this experience, along with further readings of Paulo Freire, Marilyn Frankenstein, Eric Gutstein, Andrew Brantlinger, Ole Skovsmose and others, into a pedagogy that is inclusive, flexible, decolonizing, empowering and emancipatory. Many of my colleagues argue that mathematics is neutral, its universality and bias-free perspective is how every class should be taught. Mathematics is a human endeavour, complete with bias, perspective, purpose, and influence. It can be used to build or destroy systems of oppression as well as empower or disenfranchise citizens. The role the teacher plays is a crucial one.”

Mike is looking forward to applying his learning in his Spanish classes, too. He says, “I’m hoping to bring the world into my classroom, relying heavily upon my interactions with Spanish speakers and experiences living in Mexico and Uruguay. I feel ready for the language component but I will also be working hard to include the concepts brought forward from this tremendously valuable study tour. My gratitude cannot be understated to the organizers and participants who pushed me to see and understand more.”

Another ongoing effect of the study tour is the community that formed through travelling and learning together. On one of the final evenings of the tour, the group sat late into the night on the terrace of a youth hostel in Brussels, chatting about their experiences, discussing global citizenship issues, and telling life stories. Their level of enjoyment was evident to others: another guest at the youth hostel asked if they were having a family reunion. Going through this experience together, walking, talking, getting lost, and sharing food and stories, formed family-like bonds, but also a professional learning community. Even now that the students are back in Canada and working in their separate environments, the conversations continue.

By Shuana Niessen

Opening a doorway to culture through equine assisted learning

Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), Kelsey Moore, Zhiishigwan (Shaker/Rattle), and Angela McGinnis stand at the entrance sign, which commemorates the four grandmother mares from which the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary descend. The seven ponies who reside at the Sanctuary, which is located near the Qu’Appelle valley, contain the two original bloodlines, the Keokuk and Nimkii lines. Their lineages date back to the four Original Mares from Lac La Croix First Nation and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa that were the last remaining in the world (Lilian, Biizhiki, Diamond, and Dark Face) who were strategically bred to a Spanish Mustang Stallion (Smokey) in 1977 in order to save the breed from extinction. (Source: www.theredponystands.com) Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

What is the connection between horses, educational psychology, and Indigenous youth and culture?

Reconnecting with cultural and traditional ways of knowing and being is increasingly seen as a significant part of the healing and learning process for First Nations peoples, whose culture has been historically and systemically oppressed by the colonization process. Language revitalization has been a key focus of cultural preservation and reclamation, but Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is a relatively new and less understood approach to learning and healing, at least among the scientific community. For Indigenous peoples, however, horses have long been viewed as carriers of knowledge and healers. The preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies, then, is part of the process of cultural reclamation and preservation, and thereby healing and learning, as relations between Indigenous horses and peoples are (re)established.

Dr. Angela McGinnis, an Assistant Professor of educational psychology in the Faculty of Education and an Indigenous Health Researcher, and her graduate student, Kelsey Moore, are conducting SIDRU-funded research to better understand how and why Indigenous youth benefit from working with Indigenous horses, specifically the seven Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies being cared for by Angela and her partner Cullan McGinnis at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary. Founded by Angela and Cullan, the Sanctuary “is an Indigenous owned and operated not-for-profit.” The Sanctuary receives some financial support by private and corporate sponsors and donors; however, these supports do not cover all of the costs: Angela says, “The majority of the work and expenses fall on my partner (Cullan) and I to keep the ponies happy and healthy, both physically and spiritually. Our mission is to protect, promote, and preserve the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed.”

Angela, Cullan, and the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies all originate from Treaty 3 territory in Northwestern Ontario. Horses have been part of Angela’s life from her earliest memories at her home in Fort Frances. “I have a picture of me on a horse before I could even walk,” says Angela. Her parents were caretakers of Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies and Nez Perce horses. Angela credits her father as a mentor who has taught her a great deal from his knowledge of working with horses.

Reconnecting with her Métis/Ojibwe cultural identities has been a focus of Angela’s education and healing. Cultural connectedness was a central concept in her research at Western University, where she received a PhD in clinical psychology in 2015. As part of her doctoral research, Angela developed a measure to assist in determining the extent to which cultural connectedness is associated with health and well-being, specifically among First Nations youth. Angela’s findings indicate that cultural connectedness is a positive predictor of mental health. This is critical knowledge because, as Angela says, “the mental health and well-being of youth is one of the most urgent concerns affecting many First Nations communities across Canada.” Angela views her work in educational psychology as “a perfect fit” for the research in which she is engaged. She says healing and learning are inseparable: “You can’t have healing without learning, or learning without healing.”

Doodem (Clan), who is standing, is a 5-year-old sorrel stallion from Kichi Noodin off Ishkote. His genetically matched breeding partner, seen in the foreground, is Aazadi (Cottonwood Tree). Because the ponies are critically endangered, careful DNA testing must be done before the ponies can be bred to ensure their preservation. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Since completing her doctoral research, Angela has been seeking to understand how cultural connectedness can be developed through, what she calls, “real-world experiences,” which include strengthened relationships with the land and all its “more-than-human” creatures, particularly the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony. Broadening health research to include the more-than-human world is important to Angela because, she says, “We need to situate well-being within a larger network of social relations, with both the human and more-than-human worlds. We need to focus beyond the individual and extend our understandings about health and well-being to living in relation to all else, not just for the present but for future generations as well.”

With her expertise in psychology and her passion for the preservation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed, Angela is perfectly situated to bridge, in her words, “often seemingly conflicting world views… I understand Western mental health perspectives, but this work requires an understanding of Indigenous perspectives of holistic wellness to fully understand the role of the ponies in the resilience process.” Angela likens the loss of contact with Indigenous horses experienced by Indigenous communities to the loss of family members: “Part of their family has been ripped away,” she says. Reconnecting Indigenous youth and adults with Indigenous horses brings about “indescribable moments,” says Angela. These moments spark the ‘I remember when…’ stories told by Elders about the ponies and traditional ways of life and are, Angela believes, charged with healing potential. “These are moments that could potentially change someone’s life. To see that happening in front of you, it’s a privilege.” Angela felt especially privileged to hear of the repatriation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony to Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, from which her partner, Cullan, originates. She says, “I was completely moved by the return of three black geldings to this community.” During a recent visit to see the community’s ponies, Cullan had opportunity to meet the geldings for the first time. Angela says, “The reunion of these family members was so powerful—an emotional reuniting. The bond between the geldings and Cullan was instant. It’s a culturally specific relationship that dates back to pre-Colonial contact. This type of relationship can’t be replicated with any other breed of horse.”

Family Reunion. The three Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation gather around Cullan (Waabinaanikwad) McGinnis at first meeting. Photo credit: Angela McGinnis

Reunions such as these lead to the beginning of relationships with the more-than-human world, and are what Angela calls a “doorway to the culture,” which can help youth make other cultural connections, such as ceremony. For instance, Angela and Cullan’s relationship with the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at the Sanctuary has meant that they have sought guidance from local traditional Elders and engaged in horse-specific traditional ceremonies held in communities, such as the Horse Dance. Angela would like to share the doorway experience with her Educational Psychology students: “I want to help students step through that doorway. That’s how we understand how to help others, by experiencing it ourselves. And in return we help the ponies. That’s the whole mutual helping process, helping the horses in their fight against extinction. We need the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies as much as they need us,” says Angela. She plans to start bringing her students out to the Sanctuary for classes in Spring. A 20-foot tipi will be raised as Angela prepares to bring her students in contact with the ponies and the land.

Master’s student Kelsey Moore, who received a B.Ed. in Indigenous Education from First Nations University of Canada, is now undertaking her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Regina under the supervision of Dr. McGinnis and the mentorship of Life Speaker Noel Starblanket. Kelsey is Métis and grew up in Yorkton. Her lifelong passion for horses began with several summers spent working with youth at horse camps and riding stables and continued with her experience of getting to know the Curly Horse breed at her inlaws’ farm. Her thesis research question perfectly intersects with Angela’s interest in understanding and offering evidence-based research to explain how and why Indigenous youth benefit in both educational outcomes and mental health, through establishing relationships with horses and how Equine Assisted Learning programs can be successfully culturally adapted.

Angela, Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), and Kelsey demonstrate a teamwork exercise, learned at the EAL certification course. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

Kelsey and Angela are amazed to have found each other. Angela says, “What are the chances of me finding a student who wants to work with Indigenous horses?” The two researchers are working toward the same ends as those involved in language revitalization: “We are all tackling a shared goal: Cultural preservation,” Angela says. The actual preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony extends as a metaphor for cultural and identity preservation: “Their mere presence is a counternarrative to the colonial narrative of the extinction of Indigenous horses to the Americas,” says Angela. Indeed, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony’s survival itself inspires hope. But beyond that, Angela feels that interaction with Indigenous horses gives “Indigenous youth opportunities to connect with horses who have resilience and strength, like their own, that they can identify with, a culturally specific story,” she says.

What exactly is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)?

Snowshoe and Starblanket (2016) state that EAL “is a relatively new approach to knowledge acquisition that draws primarily on the tenets of experiential learning, that is, learning through hands-on experience with the horse (Dell, Chalmers, Dell, Sauve, & MacKinnon, 2008).”

To deepen her understanding of EAL, Kelsey received EAL certification in August at Cartier Farms, near Prince Albert. Cartier Farms teaches that establishing an experiential hands-on working relationship with horses, with their sensitivity, non-verbal communications, resilience, and forgiving ways, can be an effective approach to learning, to self-knowledge, and to self-evaluation.

Angela, who has been guided by the traditional Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and communities with whom she has worked, sees the potential for healing and learning in culturally adapted EAL. Angela views horses as “more-than-human co-constructors of knowledge.” Horses have much to teach us about the land and living on the land, she says. Elders and Knowledge Keepers have taught Angela that, with their four feet always on the ground, horses have a greater connection with Mother Earth, and through this connection, the Creator. Thus, traditionally, horses have been considered a source of maintaining and recovering holistic wellness.

Upon the arrival of Angela’s first Pony at the Sanctuary, a beautiful stallion, affectionately named Sagineshkawa (Pleasure with my Arrival), she says, “I realized that I should not rush things. I needed to slow down and have humility, especially around a powerful being like a horse…This was the horse that I had to pay attention to and listen to spiritually.” Angela is grateful to all her ponies for their patience in teaching her. Kelsey’s experiences with horses have similarly given her the understanding that she must “slow down and be present in the moment,” she says. “Helping humans slow down is a way that the horses care for us,” says Angela. She views the horse-human relationship as one of mutual caring: “We are caretakers of them and the land, but the ponies also take care of us.”

Yet, there is an urgency that requires speed in this research due to the need for Indigenous youth to be able to access culturally adapted healing and learning programs. As a mother of a toddler, Kelsey had intended to move a bit slower with her research, but she says everything is moving much quicker than she planned or expected. Kelsey’s research, using what Angela describes as “a pure Indigenous research method,” seeks to understand the spiritual and cultural connections between Indigenous youth and Indigenous horses. Incorporating ceremony as research, Kelsey is documenting her interactions and deep listening experiences with the ponies, along with the conversations she has with Elders and Knowledge Keepers to make sense of what she observes.

The two researchers are already envisioning and talking about future plans. Angela says, “We hope to apply for an operating grant to help Kelsey set up her own Indigenous-centered Equine-Assisted Learning and healing program in the community, following the completion of her academic work.”

The Sanctuary has recently gained international attention. It will be featured in a short documentary film currently being produced by National Geographic as part of the Natural Connections Project. The film will document how EAL contributes to the well-being of First Nations youth. Through the film, Angela hopes to showcase “how Indigenous communities are using horses to connect with culture, strengthen positive relationships, and learn through activities with horses and nature.”

By Shuana Niessen

Credits for photos below: Shuana Niessen 2018

Teaching STE(A)M outside of the box

Carla Cooper, a 2018 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

“I don’t teach in a box, and I want students to take risks, too. I want my kids to become healthy risk takers.”

How does one go from a struggling student in math and sciences to an award winning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) teacher? For Carla Cooper it took finding her way past failures and obstacles and learning to teach outside of the box.

In May, Carla Cooper (BEd ’08), a teacher at Lumsden High School and graduate student doing her Master’s in Education at the University of Regina, was informed that she was a recipient of the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM.

Cooper, who grew up in Moose Jaw, went back to school for a semester after graduating from high school to improve her marks. “I knew I wanted to do something in the sciences but I struggled in the sciences and math, quite badly. Fifties weren’t going to be good enough for me, so I spent a semester at Vanier, thinking a change might help. It was a huge help.” The change, or possibly a new maturity, Carla speculates, gave her success at Vanier, and from there, she went to Red Deer College to become a geneticist. However, life got in the way and before she finished, Cooper left college, moved home, got married, and began her family.

Not long after, Carla started in a new career direction: She had always been drawn to teaching. “I was that kid who had a chalkboard in my bedroom. I was always pretending, playing school. I love being in school: the atmosphere, being around the staff and students, the smell of the school; it’s weird. I love the sounds, the feel, the buzz.” Cooper was working as an Educational Assistant when Dr. Sandy Kitz observed her teaching math. Carla says, “Afterwards she pulled me into her office. I thought I was in a lot of trouble, but Dr. Kitz said, ‘What are you doing here? You need to go back to school. You need to spread your wings and fly.’ That was the push,” says Cooper. The next step in 2001, was to enroll part-time in Science, while waiting for admission to the Faculty Education at the University of Regina. Cooper took the required sciences for the Science Education program and in 2004, she was accepted to the Education program, in which she chose a double major in biology and chemistry, and moved to full-time studies.

By that time she was a busy single mom, and her memorable moment is not a very positive one: “It was the first year I was accepted into the Faculty of Education, and my first time back at University on a daily basis, and I got my first Biology mark back…it was horrible. I had really high expectations of myself but I realized that just because you’re mature, doesn’t mean you are going to succeed.” But Cooper pushed past this initial failure. From there, she says, “I improved and improved and improved and I figured out how to be a mom and a student.”

Recalling this experience led Cooper to a more positive story of her undergrad experience in her third year, when she found the science ed group “very accommodating.” At the time, Carla was feeling concerned because her youngest son was at home recovering from surgery, and a big project presentation was due. Her instructor, John MacDonald, had said, “Just bring him in.” Carla recalled, “My son just had his appendix out, but he said ‘bring him in’ and so I brought him in, and John had a lab set up with a whole bunch of laser activities for my son to do. John kept an eye on him while I did my presentation. Nobody in my class thought ‘there she is bringing her kid in.’ It was the opposite…I was celebrated for going back to school.”

Learning from both of Cooper’s memorable experiences can be seen in her current teaching philosophy. Cooper says, “I’ve had students coming back to school with babies; it’s just, like, babies cry…” So Carla recalls that on one lecture day, she told the student mother to let her hold the baby, and she says, “I just rocked that baby and taught and said, ‘no mom, you do your thing. Let me just hold him.'” Her role model, she says, is John MacDonald. “He is number one! I want to be John,” says Carla. What makes John special is, Carla says, is “his excitement, and his belief that you can do this. If you can’t figure it out this way, let’s find another way. He is so accepting of everybody,” says Cooper. “I can call him up for anything…I never want to lose the connection.”

Since her time as an undergrad student, Carla has had many other experiences that have contributed to her success as a teacher. Working for a time as Acting Vice Principal, gave Carla the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the administrative side of education. Though she likes to teach, as she says, “outside of the box,” she also respects the administrative process. “Having admin experience has made me a better teacher. I understand the Division’s vision. I try to keep up on what’s been changing with the Division. I want to abide by my Division’s philosophies. I don’t want to step outside their vision. They allow me to expand the bubble a lot.”

Carla also attributes the experience of working on the writing team for the Health Science 20 curriculum with her new understanding of teaching outside of the box. Through this process, she realized, “We don’t have to teach a prescribed curriculum. We have to teach the outcomes, but the indicators can be taught in the way that we like them, or grouped together with indicators from other units, or you can make up your own.”

For Cooper this understanding has unleashed her creativity, which she realizes through the incorporation of arts-based projects. For instance, she decided to model her human anatomy unit after Grey’s Anatomy. Students are placed in resident groups, and each group is assigned a fictional celebrity patient, those Cooper has assessed as being a match with certain types of health issues, such as Will Smith whom students will diagnose and treat for sickle cell anemia. Using the Diagnosis for Classroom Success program booklet, which is a book of labs to be worked through in a week or two, students “delve deeply,” working through the book over four months. Cooper says, “We weren’t learning about the human body for the next few weeks, we learned about a patient, learning through the eyes of a patient.”

Cooper allowed for the ethical and diagnostic conversations that developed, pushing the students to deeper learning. She says, “At that point I didn’t know what deeper learning was, but the deeper questions students were asking, we just ran with.”

Because this wasn’t a Grade 12 course, the final assessment was not a test. Instead, students were asked, “Did their patient live or die? How did they treat? Was their treatment ethical? Did they do invasive or non-invasive? What secretions did they evaluate, and why? What was the chemistry breakdown of that? And, how did the physics work for the cat scan? They had to do a peer review and self-review.” Carla created a rubric to go with the project and students marked themselves on the rubric. “These simulations have helped students either enter a science-oriented career, or decide against it. It has also helped prepare them for their post-secondary classes,” says Carla.

When she first received the news in May that she was a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Teaching STEM, Carla wasn’t sure if the letter was for real. She sent it to her husband, asking, “Am I reading this right?” When she finally processed what was happening, she felt humbled and thought, “What makes me different? I am no different than any other teacher. But I’m just realizing that I do things a bit different.” Carla is excited, by the new connections and opportunities to pass on her curricular understandings to others, including preservice teachers, generated by this recognition.

When asked what excellence in teaching looks like, Cooper says, “I don’t even know if I am excellent, yet. I feel like I’ve done excellent teaching when I’ve excited students by allowing them to be who they are. We have student-directed study and I don’t put any constraints on that. I don’t teach in a box, and I want students I take risks, too. I want my kids to become healthy risk takers. If something flops, it flops. I’ve adopted the phrase fail forward. We are F-squareds in C-squared rooms.” As Carla continues to envision what teaching outside of the box looks like, she finds her focus moving towards a new kind of box: a sandbox. She says, “My whole focus is practicing real world science and getting kids back in the sandbox. At recess the kids are playing, communicating, problem solving, building, and doing the six big Cs in education. Why are we not doing that? I take them to the playground, to the teeter-totter, if there is one. So in the last few years, I’ve been working to bring the students back to a metaphoric sandbox, but I hope to have a real sandbox in the classroom as well.”

By Shuana Niessen

One student’s journey toward reconciliation

“I know in the long run it isn’t much at all, but in my way, in my journey to reconciliation, I can do this one thing.”

Aysha Yaqoob is no stranger to feelings of discomfort and dislocation. Born in Saudi Arabia and immigrating to Canada at the age of 2 with her parents, who were originally from Pakistan, Yaqoob’s early years were spent moving from place to place in the Greater Toronto Area. Then, in 2008, her family moved to Saskatoon, where Aysha attended school from Grade 7 to 12.

Attending 15 different schools during her K-12 years gave Aysha keen insight into feelings of marginality, which were amplified by being a visibly Muslim student. The lack of representation she saw in professional roles combined with her feelings of marginality sparked a desire in Aysha to work with marginal and at-risk youth, and influenced her decision to become an English teacher.

“In high school I had a great group of English teachers, and they hung out in a nice pack. It was there where I saw how dedicated they were and how fun teaching could be, and I observed their interest in teaching us not only about Shakespeare and poetry, but also about real world problems. However, there were no teachers that looked like me; all the teachers were White, and I wondered, ‘If I feel this, other students must feel this as well.’”

Dr. Mike Cappello and Aysha Yaqoob, Spring Convocation 2018

University gave Aysha a sense of control over her learning: “I had full autonomy of where I wanted to push my learning. I remember sitting in Mike Cappello’s ECS class, and seeing a White male talking so strongly about White privilege and what it means to oppress students of colour, and me being one of the very few students in our program who were of colour, and Muslim, visibly Muslim; it felt weird to see someone saying the words I could relate to.” Aysha wanted to learn more about representation: “After that, in every single class I took, I wanted to explore more into representation, and representing marginal and Indigenous students. All my profs were so willing to let me do assignments, I never had a prof who said you have to stick with my assignment. It was so great, I got to push my education and learning in areas that I was interested in. I was really able to shape my journey the way I wanted.”

These experiences changed how Aysha viewed education. She says, “It made me see that there are teachers who are trying to change the system right now, and trying to make students of colour feel represented and welcome. It was so nice.”

Dr. Jenn de Lugt and Aysha Yaqoob, Convocation Spring 2018

Up to that point, Aysha says she had been quiet and shy, but feeling supported at University helped her find and use her voice. “I remember that during the time when the Muslim ban was going on, I got up in front of my peers and let them know how I felt, how cornered and unsupported I felt. I invited them to a vigil at Victoria Park…Even talking about this gives me goose bumps. Just seeing all of the support I had from my peers and colleagues and professors made me want to speak up about these issues all the more. Since then I’ve been a non-stop machine; I don’t have an off button,” she says.

In 2017, as part of the Education Students’ Society executive, Aysha organized a Professional Development event called Meet-a-Muslim. She says, “I wanted to dispel misinformation about Muslims, so I invited everyone to come out and hear what it was like growing up Muslim, and about how the travel ban was affecting us. I wanted it to be an open safe space to ask questions and dialogue.” For people who are often misportrayed, Aysha explains “My go-to is to just ask questions. I’d rather you ask a billion questions than just assume.” In her quest for how to go about designing the event, Drs. Jennifer Tupper and Mike Cappello advised her to have an open dialogue with a panel. In hindsight, Aysha is glad about the panel format: “It was great that it was that way because a lot of topics came up that I wouldn’t have touched on because for me they were everyday things, even questions about why I wear the hijab and why my sister doesn’t, basic questions about Islam, and my view point on conflicts around the world. I’m not a token representative of all Muslims, so the panel gave a variety of viewpoints,” she says. The event was well-attended, one of the busiest ESS events that year, with 50-60 people attending. CBC covered the event and it was also live-streamed on Facebook.

Aysha at Convocation in Spring 2018. Photo credit: Shuana Niessen

“My parents look at me now, and they are surprised too, saying ‘You were never like this; you were so quiet and felt uncomfortable with public speaking.’ Now every chance I get, I’m out there.” Aysha credits her transformation as growing out of her experience of feeling supported by her peers and professors: It was “having that moment where I felt enough support to be vulnerable and express how I felt, and sharing that ‘your silence is hurting me,’ and getting their response in return,” she says.

Still quiet in some ways, Aysha likes to achieve extraordinary things while maintaining a low profile. Though she only walked the Faculty of Education’s halls for four years, Aysha managed to earn both a B.Ed. (English Language Arts and Social Studies) and a B. A. in English. Students typically take five years to finish a combined degree program, but Aysha, taking between six and eight classes per term, finished in four years. Aysha laughs, saying, “Nicole Glas, [Student Services Coordinator] asked her ‘Are you sure?’ I said ‘absolutely,’ but I got to the point where I wasn’t sure…I even had a course during internship!”

Pencils of Hope
As if squeezing a 5-year program into four years wasn’t enough, along with serving in the Education Students’ Society for two years (one as VP of Communications), and organizing Meet-a-Muslim night, Aysha maintained her own photography business, and founded a charitable organization called Pencils of Hope.

It was during her second term of University that a plan to support marginalized youth formed in her mind: “The principal from Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School, came in to our class to talk about schooling and education and how it is important for U of R grads to go out on reserves and experience teaching there. I chatted with him later about funding, and learned that federal funding on reserves, and schools on reserves, is significantly less than funding for schools off reserves. I had thought all schools were the same! I remember going home to my parents and talking about it: ‘I want to do something; already there’s such a drastic change between conditions on and off reserves. And all the discrimination that goes on…it doesn’t seem right that in education, especially,—we say Canada has such great education and equal access to education but it doesn’t seem like it.’ So, my parents asked me what I wanted to do. I said ‘I don’t know, but I want to do something.’ Over breakfast, we talked about names, and I thought ‘Pencils of Hope’ was a good name and my dad said, ‘What do you want to do with that?’ I talked to the principal again, and I said, ‘Why don’t I try this? I’m a photographer by hobby. I’ll donate everything I make through photography to this cause. If I can get enough funds, will you accept my gift of supplies to this school?’ I tried it out my first year and it worked out really well.”

Since then the organization has “snowballed,” says Aysha. Sponsors started making small donations. A committee was formed. For the first three years, Pencils of Hope partnered with one school each year. But this year, the committee decided to partner with four schools. “Four schools was a huge difference. We received a grant from Taking it Global, which offered a rising youth grant.”

Donations and, therefore, spending has increased substantially over the four years of existence. The first year the group spent $750 on supplies and this year they spent over $4000, with carry over for next year. Pencils of Hope has made some changes to their vision as well: “This year we’ve changed our vision to match the Calls to Action. So from here on out we made a vow to partner with at least one school on a reserve.” The group is also making supplies available to individual students who may not be in a school that is in partnership with Pencils of Hope.

For Aysha, this work has been part of her journey toward reconciliation. “I know in the long run it isn’t much at all, but in my way, in my journey to reconciliation, I can do this one thing.”

Doing this project in a good way, a humble way, has been one of Aysha’s goals: “When we talk about Pencils of Hope, I don’t like to be called the founder. It is still a journey, still a process; I’m still learning, of course. Meeting with different elders and profs and being able to exchange knowledge, learn indigenous ways of knowing and culture, and how to go about this in a more humble way, it’s been very uncomfortable, but it’s been a great kind of uncomfortable…It’s not learning if it’s not uncomfortable.”

Aysha has learned many things along her journey, but one thing stands out in her mind, “It’s hard doing it alone, not fun to do it alone.” She advises others who would like to do something similar to, “Get many people involved and see what they will do.”

Now a first-year teacher at Balfour Collegiate, Aysha plans to carry on with the work of Pencils of Hope, with the support of her committee, family and community. “I anticipate it is going to be busy, but to me that is a good thing, to me that means more schools and more partnerships, and more relationships—expanding.”
By Shuana Niessen