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The Role Of Culture In Education

Sally Goddard

The education of many native Canadians has not met with a great deal of success. The high drop out rate, suicide attempts, and overall despair to be found within the native society generally can be attributed in part to the failure of the education system. The problem appears to be linked to a lack of identity suffered by many native people. Education is often imposed from outside. Native children are asked to read books and relate to white middle class Canada. Social Studies tends to be looking at many cultures, but not their own. Without a sense of cultural identity, native students feel that they are caught in the middle - the more education they get, the less they can relate to their society; a lack of education results in unemployment, welfare, and a lack of self esteem.

Many educators are afraid to venture away from the syllabus that has been laid down by the Departments of Education. At the very mention of "culture", teachers object, stating they can not get through the outlines provided by the school or the department so how can they add culture to an overworked system? In addition to the time factor is the concern that the study of native culture will not help the students cope with the world they will find themselves in when their formal education is completed.

By bringing appropriate culture into the school, a number of different purposes are served. On a reserve, it can mean that a student learns about his heritage, his people, and his community. This gives the student a sense of self worth and a pride in who he is and where he belongs. When this student ventures off the reserve for further education or employment, he takes with him a sense of identity. For a non-native student, it can develop the tolerance and understanding that might have been previously denied.

The experience that I have had throughout Saskatchewan shows that "culture" does not exist as a separate subject. Rather, it is a way of life on reserves, in small towns, and in the larger centres. Culture should not be taught as a separate subject. I should be integrated into the subjects where it can be used to enhance the prescribed syllabus.

This means that the integration is different from school to school, community to community. It becomes very important that the community play a vital role. The culture that is to be included in the schools has to be set by the School Committee, in consultation with the Chief and Council, the elders, and the members of the community. Schools need to have guidelines made by the community. Often community members do not want teachers to venture into traditional areas of health and religion. Schools have to respect what is laid down by the community.

Teachers will find themselves in a situation where they will have to get help from the community. A non-native teacher coming from a white urban environment will have trouble teaching the traditional skills and cultural values of the reserve. Community members need to be ready to help out where needed. For example, the Grade One Social Science Curriculum asks teachers to teach the concept of Acculturation. It is intended that the students come to know the families of different environments and cultures satisfy their needs in different ways. This is a perfect time for the teacher to bring in members from the native community to show traditional skills that are still part of the native lifestyle. Children learn better by example. Have the community members take the children out to snare rabbits, make a bush camp, skin a caribou or a deer, or set fishing nets.

These examples can be used to enhance the Language Arts lesson as well. If teachers need to teach descriptive paragraphs, the children can describe how a caribou is skinned. Snaring a rabbit can lead onto lists showing the uses of the rabbit fur as well as recipes explaining how to cook a rabbit. The organized teacher may then wish to share the feast with his or her class.

Skills in Math can be reinforced with older students by measuring the circumference of the skinned cariboo as well as determining how many pairs of mukluks or mittens can be made from the caribout hide. Younger children can learn sequencing by describing the correct order for setting up a bush camp. In Science lessons dealing with fish (identity, location, anatomy, feeding habits, and so forth), may be developed at all grade levels.

Another area that is often overlooked is the use of legends and stories in the classroom. Many native children first learn English at school. All too often these children get lost by the wayside trying to understand Dick and Jane visiting the zoo, living in the city, or participating in equally alien activiites. This can be counteracted by using legends and stories that the children are familiar with in their own language. The children may not understand every word in the legend but, as they have the idea of the story, the transference to English is a much less complex process.

Legends and stories in the

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The Role Of Culture In Education

Sally Goddard


older grades can be used to reinforce various language activities. Closed readings, dictionary work, alphabetical ordering, and sequencing can all utilize legends and stories based on the community rather than on mythical creatures that often appear to come from another planet.

Unfortunately, these activities do not happen by themselves. A great deal of time and planning on the part of the school and the community must take place. The school must be willing to make the education provided by the school more relevant to the children. The commiunity must be a willing partner in this venture. Southern teachers may have enthusiasm, but they rarely have the skills or the knowledge necessary to provide this kind of service.

The elders in the community play an extremely important role as they often have the stories, the legends and the skills that the younger generation do not know. Legends and stories need to be taped and written in both the vernacular language and in English so they can be used by both the Language Arts teacher and the native language teacher. Old people do not live forever, and there is a danger that much will be lost if records are not made now. It is important that the traditional skills are video-taped so they can be used throughout the school after they disappear.

With this careful blending of the present curriculum with the skills, knowledge and stories of the traditional community, the students become educated adults, proud of their heritage, confident of their future and a credit to their community.