Engagement, Indigenous Learning, School Community

Understanding the Heartbeat

Even though we walk on lands rich in history, we non-Aboriginal Canadians often fail to hear its stories due to a cultural deafness – a state of unknowing.

This state of unknowing is something school districts in British Columbia are trying to address with curriculum and enhancement agreements. For example, School District 44 has created a senior level humanities course that studies First Nations culture and history, as well as Squamish Language classes. Alberta has introduced an initiative for First Nations Education called “Our Words, Our Ways”, a pedagogical style that links cooperative learning and community to the expression of traditional values.

However, none of these structures or materials will be meaningful until teachers from all backgrounds find the courage to explore First Nations culture. The timidity many of us feel when teaching Aboriginal studies may come from a sincere place – a place of not wanting to offend or further colonize or intrude – but it can do damage nonetheless.

Rather than speak from a place of authoritative knowing on Aboriginal matters, why not work from a place of wondering and invite our students to learn with us in gaining a deeper understanding of First Nations perspective? What follows is an account from two teachers who did just that.

Rockridge Secondary School serves about 900 students in West Vancouver, and while it is located on Squamish land, until recently it has had little contact with the Squamish people themselves.

Jessica Selzer’s Story 

Last year, when I was teaching at Sentinel Secondary School, a colleague, Glenn Johnson, asked if I wanted my Social Studies 9 class to make drums as part of their Explorers and Aboriginal Peoples of Canada unit. For many years, his students had made drums; his program was showcased for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Glenn organized almost everything for my class project and offered to teach my students how to string a drum. With a sense of excitement, I watched them string and paint drums, research aboriginal symbols and stories, and start asking about the culture they were holding in their hands. 

This year, new to Rockridge Secondary, I wanted to expand the Aboriginal drum-making project to help students understand a culture and worldview in their own backyard and to help them reflect on their learning and on themselves. If they were to make drums, they were going to understand the heartbeat and meaning of drums and drumming to the Coast Salish people.

I began the unit by sitting with my students and playing the drum I had made last year while telling them the story of the Europeans’ drive to find the Northwest Passage, the world travels of Captain Cook, how the Yuquot greeted him in Nootka Sound, and of Vancouver’s continued exploration of the B.C. coast until he landed close to where we sat that day.

Over the next few classes we discussed Salish culture, stories, and worldview in which we focused on the equal, interconnected relationships between all living things in the spiritual and physical realms. For one whole class we shared and reflected on personal totems. As an introduction I read them “I am Raven” by David Bouchard. Then my students read in silence about the animals and creatures from the Salish culture while thinking about which animal matched their core: not who they wanted to be, but who they really were. Once chosen, they would paint this totem on their drums.

In small groups they shared which animal they thought best suited them and why. They took this task very seriously, offering sincere reflections on who they are and what they do.

In small groups they shared which animal they thought best suited them and why. They took this task very seriously, offering sincere reflections on who they are and what they do. One girl felt that her love and loyalty to family, combined with her ability to be on her own, defined her, and so chose a wolf. She wrote about her leadership qualities, and how adults see her as mature and give her responsibility, like caring for small children. Another boy felt that, because of his expressive, outgoing personality and his willingness to take risks, he was more like a Thunderbird. He wrote that his ability to find new friends every time he moved around the world was like the Thunderbird with its transformative capabilities and bravery. He ended up painting his bird in the colours of Poland’s flag – his homeland, of which he was fiercely proud.

Stringing a drum is fairly easy once you know what you are doing, and my students caught on fast, helping each other.

At the suggestion of school administrators, I invited the Squamish community to be involved through a drum circle. Squamish elder Bob Baker taught my class a canoe song while they were painting drums in the cafeteria. Initially they were a bit self-conscious, but soon they started to have fun with it. As they were singing, students from other classes started sneaking out of classrooms and peering over the railings to see what was going on. It’s tricky to pay attention in trigonometry when you can hear drums and laughter!

Jennifer Olson’s Story

As I approached the Socials 9 First Nations unit, I knew it was important to study First Nations culture in a meaningful way. I wanted the unit to be personalized, inquiry-based, and experiential: all strong values of indigenous education.

Currently in B.C., First Nations are increasingly celebrating their culture through the medium of fine arts, so I figured an inquiry into First Nations culture through art analysis would be intriguing, non-intimidating, and allow them to focus on aspects of culture they found most intriguing. 

Building an entirely inquiry-based unit felt like a huge risk. I had never done a true inquiry project and was afraid that giving the students so much responsibility and freedom in what they learned would leave us with nothing really meaningful in the end. I spent many afternoons collaborating with our school librarians to find resources for the students to start with. My Middle Years Program Coordinator also guided me in preparing an inquiry process that would encourage students to take ownership of their learning and deepen their analysis.

“When I look at art can I see the artist?” This question made the students look for hints of the artist’s identity … wonder how art is a reflection of one’s self.

The unit began with students taking an “art walk,” moving from station to station in 10-minute intervals, browsing the artwork of First Nations artists from across Canada. They studied the art being mindful of the question, “When I look at art can I see the artist?” This question made the students look for hints of the artist’s identity within the art and begin to wonder how art is a reflection of one’s self and what led these artists to create these images. After the art walk, the students began developing their personal inquiry questions ­– and that’s when my doubts fell by the wayside! They engaged in their learning because they were empowered to choose the focus of their work. Students began researching artists’ cultures and histories in attempts to answer their own questions, a journey they would share with the class at the end of the unit.

When that time came, we sat in an informal “sharing circle”; students were not bound by scripts but instead spoke passionately about the knowledge they had uncovered. Many students studied the artist’s spirituality, which they had uncovered through studying the use of animals in the art. They found another common theme: the First Nations traditional ways of life, depicted in the art through Sun Dances, Pow Wows, and Potlatches. While the art celebrated the First Nations culture, the students also perceived a sense of remorse and rebirth in many pieces of art. The mood of these pieces led many students to study how the artists’ community was affected by the signing of the treaties and the residential school system. Each presentation was unique in content and reflectiveness, making it a collaborative learning experience. Much like the traditional style of First Nations education, each student had developed a different area of expertise and was excited to share it. It was clear these young people had developed a deep appreciation and understanding of First Nations history and culture.

What the students did not realize in the beginning, was that Jessica Selzer had offered to share her knowledge of drum-making with the class, enabling them to create their own art, a traditional Squamish drum. Seeing their art in action brought an even deeper level of learning and understanding. They were able to appreciate that who they are as individuals shaped the art they were creating, just as they saw in the art they had analyzed.


One afternoon later in the year, that deeper understanding shone in their faces as our classes came together to sing and drum at a blessing ceremony for a cedar raven carving that Squamish artist Rick Harry would begin at our school. The raven is our school mascot and also a spiritual symbol for the Squamish nation. Although the two classes had focused on different elements of First Nations culture, together they participated in a living ceremony that spoke of spirit and creation as they had come to understand it through their separate inquiries. As one boy announced after the ceremony, “That’s awesome! Stuff we learned about in class happened in front of us! It was real!”

When asked to reflect on the entire unit, our students said they felt that they learned something important, and they were surprised to learn that there was such a rich culture right in their neighbourhood. All students felt that the act of making a deerskin drum while learning about its spiritual and cultural significance – and then actually “doing history and culture” – was a much fuller experience than simply being taught about it.

EN BREF – Plutôt que de parler en connaissance de cause de sujets autochtones, pourquoi n’adopterions-nous pas une attitude de curiosité, en invitant les élèves à acquérir en même temps que nous une meilleure connaissance de la perspective des Premières Nations? Deux membres du personnel enseignant de l’école secondaire Rockridge de Vancouver Ouest l’ont justement fait. Les visages des élèves rayonnaient lors d’un après-midi où ils ont appris à mieux connaître la culture et la spiritualité des Squamish, les deux classes s’étant rassemblées pour chanter et tambouriner lors d’une cérémonie de bénédiction d’une sculpture de corbeau en cèdre. Le corbeau est une mascotte de l’école ainsi qu’un symbole spirituel de la nation Squamish. Quoique les deux classes aient examiné divers éléments de la culture des Premières Nations, elles ont participé ensemble à une cérémonie vivante évoquant l’esprit et la création et sont parvenues à mieux les comprendre grâce à différents questionnements.

Meet the Expert(s)

Jessica Selzer

Jessica Selzer is originally from Toronto, Ontario and this is her fifth year of teaching. She currently teaches Social Studies at Rockridge Secondary School in West Vancouver, B.C.

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Jennifer Olson

Jennifer Olson is originally from Penticton, B.C. and this is her second year of teaching. She currently teaches Social Studies at Rockridge Secondary School in West Vancouver, B.C.

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