A workshop at MFNERC’s recent Lighting the Fire conference explored curriculum centred on First Nations role-model Buffy Sainte-Marie. The resource helps teach culturally relevant history while inspiring youth to pursue their dreams. Donna Beyer, MFNERC First Nations Studies Facilitator, developed and presented the curriculum, along with Jenny Bone, a teacher in Keeseekoowenin School who tested the curriculum in her classroom.
“Inquiry-Based Learning for Grades K–12: Buffy Sainte-Marie” follows a teaching method Beyer feels closely reflects those traditionally used by First Nations because students choose the direction of their learning. By focusing on a First Nations role model, students may see themselves reflected in the content.
This curriculum contains a sample student learning plan with the primary question: what is the message in Buffy Saint-Marie’s music? Students listen to her music, read interviews, and watch videos on Buffy. The unit features weekly goals and steps and culminates in class presentations. Teachers can use the curriculum as a template for other Indigenous role models.
Classroom teacher and LTF workshop presenter Jenny Bone is a positive role model herself having worked as both an educational assistant and teacher. Jenny’s teaching style reflects her Ojibwe culture and incorporates the Seven Teachings, sharing circles, and holistic practices. Jenny values essential questions and essential understandings connected to curriculum outcomes. Having worked with Beyer before, Bone happily agreed to try out the Buffy inquiry-based learning project.
Inquiry-based learning resembles traditional First Nations learning practices for several reasons. First Nations teaching methods often use stories to demonstrate values and morals. Parts of stories may be left out to spark curiosity. Along with story, inquiry-based learning encourages student questions, which often involves learning between the generations. Students ask questions that can lead to research, new ideas, and sharing. With this curriculum, a teacher can show a picture of Buffy to the class and have students share what they want to know, brainstorm how they can learn more, and then create a learning plan.
Beyer had LTF workshop participants practise their own inquiry-based learning activity. She asked them to discover the meaning of Buffy’s song “No No Keshagesh.” One group read the song lyrics and found it commented on materialism and its damage to Mother Earth. Beyer said song lyrics were a good place to find answers, as they are a primary source, coming directly from Buffy herself. Beyer stresses that one should choose secondary sources wisely, and in the curriculum, Beyer provides a list of resources on Buffy Sainte-Marie for teacher preparation and class use.
For her class, Jenny Bone prepared a study on Buffy Sainte-Marie by familiarizing herself with the singer and the curriculum. With the students, Bone focused on questions, journal writing, poem/video/song lyric analysis, and class discussion. The class looked at Buffy’s achievement and awards. Student drawings went up on the unit bulletin board along with other pieces of study.
Bone feels the new curriculum fits well into social studies programming for her current Grade Seven/Eight class. Through a study of Buffy, students meet many provincial curriculum outcomes focusing on historical and current events around First Nations.
Beyer has written other curriculum resources which are available through MFNERC. You will find ELA units with a focus on Anishinaabe or Cree, social studies units for kindergarten through to Grade Four, and units on residential schools. Beyer’s curriculum pieces meet many ELA general learning outcomes and also the literary practices in the new ELA curriculum, especially practice three (exploration and design) and practice four (power and agency).
All of Beyer’s resources include similar elements, such as sections Terms to Know and Teacher Prior Knowledge, which ensure teachers have a solid knowledge-base of Indigenous topics, and because, as Beyer writes in the curriculum, “We are all always learning.”
Her resources also have a section on Student Prior Knowledge to help them connect to their history, language, and traditional territory (Treaty). Beyer emphasizes respect for the diversity of First Nations and to avoid an authoritative approach while teaching (particularly important when teaching First Nations students due to the history of residential schools). When unsure about a question, teachers can say, “I don’t know the answer, but let’s find out together.” Such behaviour models the Seventh Teaching of humility.
Workshop participants watched a video on Buffy Sainte-Marie called “Raising Her Voice” (CBC, From the Vaults, 2018). The video explains how the US government blacklisted Buffy’s music, which raised awareness of Indigenous residential schools and the effects of colonization. In a clip from a 1966 CBC interview, Buffy said, “I think that it’s about time that we start to raise a generation of Canadian kids, and American kids, who realize that nations, like individuals, make mistakes, and mistakes must be corrected if proper and straight growth is ever to be resumed … and in the meantime, I try to fill you in.”
The video looks at Buffy’s appearances on Sesame Street for five years in the ’70s. Growing up during this time, Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas from A Tribe Called Red remembers his mother calling, “Come into the living room, there’s Indians on TV!” While performing at the 2017 Junos, that Buffy opened with a speech and where she received the Humanitarian Award, Bear Witness thanked Buffy backstage for leading the way.
“It used to just be me here,” she replied.
Buffy’s visibility as an Indigenous role model made a difference for A Tribe Called Red. And work like that of teacher Jenny Bone and curriculum developer Donna Beyer aims to continue in the tradition of sharing the history and strength of First Nations Peoples.