What Will Your Verse Be? Poetry & Aboriginal Identity

Part of my position at Oak Bay High School is scheduled time each day to meet and collaborate with my colleagues on (a) adopting technology in to their practice, and (b) working in an inquiry-based learning framework. It is such an excitingly inspiring opportunity. I visit classes in all of our grades levels (9-12) and in all of our disciplines. At times I am asked questions about wikis, blogs, or GAFE applications. At other times I am asked how to best integrate iPads in to a class or activity. And at other times I am asked to assist in creating a structure and common understanding of inquiry for teachers and students alike.

I know. I am the luckiest guy in our profession.

The colleagues who seek me out all have something in common. They all have the courage to reflect on their practice and the bravery to try something different in the name of better meeting the needs of our students. And that cannot be better reflected than in my recent work with Brenda Watson.

Brenda teaches English 9 at our school and she is a fantastic educator. She connects with her students and holds the relationships she nurtures close to her heart. She wears teaching on her sleeve and this is evident in everything she does. In my short time at Oak Bay I have come to admire Brenda and respect her. When she approached me to collaborate on an idea she had been pondering I was completely excited and honoured.

Now that we are getting close to the end of our project together I have asked Brenda to share, in her own words, a bit of the why behind the project and her thoughts on how it has played out. Have a read:

“I love teaching poetry and I was looking for another theme to explore within my Grade 9 Poetry Unit. My students are bright and quite aware of their world, so after attending a First Nations workshop at SJ Willis in the fall, I decided to blend poetry with the First Nations culture. I also had just finished teaching The Secret Life of Bees, a novel set in Southern Carolina and featuring a young woman’s struggle with her identity and the prejudiced world of the South in the 60s. All of my classes had been discussing identity issues and bullying, and I felt it was a bit hypocritical to not be educating my students about the treatment of First Nations peoples right here in our own country. I grew up in the Cowichan Valley and I witnessed many instances of poor treatment towards my Indigenous friends so I also had a personal interest in learning more. Two of my best friends, who were of the Mill Bay First Nations, disappeared in Grade 7 and I have always wondered what happened to them. I also have an olive skin tone and when I was younger, people would often ask me “What are you?”. They were always very surprised to discover that I was not First Nations and I was made to feel, unfortunately, that it would not be a heritage one would want. And this never sat well with me.

My BIG question for the unit was “What will your verse be?” I borrowed the question from the film The Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams is trying to inspire his class of all boys to write poetry. I wrote it on the board and it fueled our discussions on all aspects of poetry and First Nations culture. The classes knew they would be creating poetry at the end of the unit after they had had a chance to listen to guests and myself about poetic forms and figures of speech, residential stories, and how to write poetry. They also were introduced to many examples of First Nations poetry and we held a poetry walking gallery in the common space outside our classroom. We had some rich discussions the next day following the “walkabout” and we were able to explore the messages behind the poems. Students found this part quite useful as we could look at the way poetry is written to imply theme, identity, and conflict. We could also see that poetry is up for interpretation – it was fascinating to hear what each person believed the poem was about.

During the unit we had two guest speakers join us to help enrich our understanding of Aboriginal identity. Both speakers were suggested by Paola Bell who works out of the First Nation Annex at the Greater Victoria School Board office. The costs for the speakers were paid for by the School Board which is amazingly refreshing!

Our first guest was Starla Anderson, a retired English teacher who writes her own poetry. Starla spoke to my classes about the importance of passion and imagination in our poetry. We had read three of Starla’s poems before her visit, so the students were familiar with her work when she spoke about it. She related stories to the classes about where her ideas had come from for her work. Her visit was also the springboard for everyone to begin writing their own poems. She brought in a beautiful painted drum and it was used as a prompt for students to write. She was well-received and the students felt proud of their work.

Our second guest speaker was Alex Nelson, the husband of the coordinator of the First Nations Annex, Nella Nelson. Alex spoke to a large group of students in our theatre. Many classes attended, including my own, and they learned valuable information from Alex as he told stories of his experiences living in a residential school for seven years. He was an experienced, inspirational speaker for everyone to hear and the best part was when one of my students spoke to me at the end of the presentation. He told me his grandfather had been in a residential school and he had family stories of his own. He also turned to me and said “I am Cree, Mrs. Watson.” I was aware of his heritage, but until the presentation, he had not shared anything with me. It was quite a moment. The hour went by quickly and Alex will actually be returning in April for a Q&A session as a follow up.

Why did I take this on? Maybe I am crazy, but I am retiring this June and I wanted to finish with something meaningful and relevant to our lives in BC. I also wanted to take a bit of a risk and try something new with technology. The students are ready to learn a variety of skills at this age, and they tend to be willing to “take things on”. As the unit comes to a close their projects are coming along beautifully and their poetry is reflecting the First Nations education they have received in the past month. At this point it feels like a success and the proof will of course be in their final presentations.”

Brenda and I used Explain Everything with the students via a class set of iPads. Students then uploaded their work to a teacher maintained Youtube channel. We co-designed (Brenda, myself, and the students) a criteria for their poetry, the videos, and their presentations.

If you know me at all you know how I absolutely love Explain Everything. It redefines how we assess student understanding. It scaffolds public speaking and eases the anxiety of sharing to a group. And it lends so well to the digital arena, acting as an artifact of learning that can be shared to a genuine audience for years to come.

I want to thank Brenda who, in her final 5 months of her career, took a risk, showed tremendous openness in her craft, and brought me in to her class. Thank you Brenda!

Here are a few exemplars of student work that were published. More to be posted in the coming weeks!


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