Decolonizing Literacy – Creating Culturally Relevant Literacy Lessons

 In Classroom Practice

Learning Bird works alongside schools and communities to find paths of learning for students who may not always find success in traditional classrooms. One of our recent collaborations with Garden River First Nation addressed a specific challenge that Indigenous students face: struggling literacy rates. We worked together to create resources for an English course that supports students in their Literacy learning. In order to do this, our goal as a collaborative team was to create meaningful community-specific and culturally-relevant learning objects for their English curriculum. In a 2008 report from Toulouse it was reported that, regardless of the particular topic being taught or learned, the self-esteem of Indigenous students plays a pivotal and undeniable role in their overall school success. Toulouse asks in her work “how can schools support Aboriginal student success?”, and recognizes that the answers to this are found outside of the classroom and that success touches on all aspects of student life. Within reading and writing, this is a sentiment that is further echoed by the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, which bases its work on the principle that an individual’s employment, health, safety, happiness, and confidence are all strongly intertwined with their level of literacy.

Learning literacy skills often come about by practicing those skills. Usually, when a skill is introduced, accompanying examples are also presented. With Garden River First Nation, we worked together to create a series of literacy and reading lessons that not only met ELA curriculum standards but also incorporated examples directly from stories, literature, and photographs provided by Garden River First Nation. This brings the learning objects closer to home and makes them more relevant to the students of Garden River First Nation while offering new perspectives to other students and teachers. Our shared objective wasn’t just to create material for students to pass a provincially-mandated course, but to help Garden River First Nation’s learners excel beyond that course by creating a series of culturally-relevant and individually-meaningful tools that honour them, their history, and their community – something that Toulouse singles out as being fundamental for student self-esteem and success.

There is something really exciting about having a collection of authentic resources, images and sound files from a community available at your fingertips and being able to do something valuable with them for an even wider group of people. Looking through the stories, places, names, and faces in these files, we understood that we were not just delivered a pile of documents to turn into content; we were entrusted with the artifacts of a community and the pieces of their history, and – by supporting literacy – we were asked to introduce a new piece to help continue that story.

We have found that the best way to decolonize literacy in classrooms is to maintain a steady dialogue with the community itself, to listen intently to their needs, to integrate familiar and meaningful resources, and, when making resources for schools like Learning Bird does, to make sure that what we build together respects and celebrates the past, present, and future. For example, along with the other resources that were shared with us, Garden River included a historical account written by community member Dr. Karl S. Hele. Because of this, we asked to be put in contact with Dr. Hele, and arranged a recorded interview about his experience in putting the project together and his professional advice for young writers. The audio from this interview became the basis of a video lesson on Research Strategies – and, with his stories and his advice, we were able to re-contextualize a curriculum-mandated writing exercise as a project that can originate in their environment, have a tangible impact on the people around them, deepen their knowledge about their community, and illuminate a potential career path.

Whether it’s through the work of academics like Toulouse or from the communities that we are so fortunate to get to know, it’s more evident than ever that academic success in literacy and other domains is intimately connected to a very holistic vision of student self-esteem. If we want to further support literacy, it’s clear that we need to begin with content that puts the student first and makes it explicit that their personal universe is as valid as the world of standardized evaluations and tests.

If you would like to learn more about how providing students access to content that is reflective of their communities and cultures and presents information in an inclusive way has proven to increase engagement and increase learning, we invite you to contact us.

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