By Juanita Tuharsky, Nancy Buisson, Sue Burns, Cory Britton and Greg Enion

Our Stirling McDowell project focused on students of indigenous descent (Inuit, First Nations and Metis) who struggled to successfully pass grade 10 and go on to graduate.  As educators and researchers, we wanted to see what challenges these students encountered — what prevented them from success. Cochrane High School, back then, was an alternative high school that provided hands on learning through shop classes to our students.  It no longer exists today.

We used a qualitative methodology and grounded theory to examine our students’ interviews. We anticipated interviewing fifteen; however, for our research, we were only able to obtain twelve students — five were Cree, three were Assiniboine, two were Saulteaux and two were Metis. They were ages 17 to 20, fifty percent female and fifty percent male. This provided us a small glimpse into lives of students of different indigenous backgrounds.

As a research team of five, four Caucasian teachers and one indigenous teacher, we had differing views on how to write our research questions. Some thought our first set of questions would provide a vast amount of dialogue. However, after two interviews, we discovered our first set of questions failed to provide valuable insight.  As a result, revisions were made and more open-ended questions were asked to provide for more storytelling by the students.  The remaining interviews were more productive.  Our second research difference was who would interview. The first seven were conducted by a practicum student who was in her final semester at Cochrane, and this person was not as familiar with the interviewing process.  Therefore, the data collected with the first seven interviews differed slightly from the last five which were conducted by a teacher with a master’s degree.

From these interviews several themes emerged: relationships, identity, racism, curriculum knowledge, and hopes and dreams. Ones that continue to be pertinent today.  Our indigenous students spoke highly of their family members, of teachers who supported them, of how some teachers were knowledgeable, used humour and listened well.  These students identified how absenteeism, and drugs and alcohol got in their way.  They spoke of the importance of success and how they could help their children see this was possible.  These indigenous students spoke of struggling, of being proud of who they were and how important it was to connect culture and identity.  These students provided us with a small glimpse of what it meant to struggle — yet hang onto hope.  We were gifted with their presence, their stories and how they saw education, but we also heard how they struggled to successfully problem solve and achieve what they valued.

As researchers, this process taught us to listen, to be flexible, to be open and receptive to learning new ways. Through these interviews, oral traditions and storytelling were honoured, voices were heard, and Strauss and Corbin’s Grounded Theory helped in analyzing our rich data. It identified what our indigenous students wanted to be known and heard. As a team, we discovered it was not easy to interview, to gather research, and ensure indigenous traditions and culture were included. Stirling McDowell opened doors for us as educators to uncover student perspectives about school — to validate what we suspected may be happening. It encouraged us to think outside the box and be open to new possibilities on how to approach education with indigenous students. Our research was just the beginning. Since 2005, education with our indigenous students has changed. Today there are many more indigenous opportunities, cultures and languages being infused into education, and many school districts are hiring more indigenous staff.

Thanks to the Stirling McDowell Foundation, we will continue to explore and search for new and innovative ways to improve education and our teaching practices. And today, this has been and will continue to be how we see education in Saskatchewan …

“As Eddie Belleroe, a Cree elder said, “Grandfather, what is the purpose of life?” After a long time in thought, the old man looked up and said, “Grandson, children are the purpose of life. We were once children and someone cared for us, and now it is our time to care. (Brendtro, Brokenleg, Van Bockern, 2002, p. 46)”

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