Video games and online interactions are so much a part of children’s lives that students now distinguish between what happens IRL (in real life) and what happens in the digital world. It is logical for educators to want to venture into this new digital world and harness its potential to reach and teach today’s students.

Karl Hildebrandt recognizes the importance of digital and technological advancement in First Nations schools to keep pace with the modern world. He hopes to educate teachers and students about the benefits of learning through scholastic electronic sports, or e-sports, and becoming a part of a digital community that is diverse and inclusive and can adjust to the way students learn.

Hildebrandt is an education technology facilitator within the Manitoba First Nations Schools System (MFNSS), but he is also the director of Northern and Rural Esports for the Manitoba School Esports Association (MSEA). He helps MFNSS schools and teachers connect to online communities and use online platforms so they can work on lessons, but also to stimulate interactions between students who wouldn’t likely participate.

“With the growth of online communities, there are no limits to what students can accomplish. Teachers can better understand the way each student learns, maybe, help improve students’ mental health. When students realize their potential and learn to appreciate their abilities, their skills flourish,”

– Karl Hildebrandt,

One of the education sites that Hildebrandt likes to share with First Nations school staff and students’ families is Minecraft Education, a game-based learning platform that promotes creativity, collaboration, and problem solving. While it is obvious how effective online tools can be for most students, these tools can also provide a means of teaching and communicating with students with individual and/or special needs.

Hildebrandt tells a story about a student with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) who thrived using Minecraft Education. Through Minecraft Education, he was better able to showcase his unique talents. Hildebrandt gives kudos to the student’s parents for understanding the barriers that make it difficult for their son to learn within normal settings and taking advantage of online gaming as a teaching tool. Through Minecraft Education, this student was able to build, create, and demonstrate concepts in French, such as directions, verbs in the present tense, and structures in French communities. The student even gave his teacher and classmates a virtual field trip of his replica of France’s Louvre Museum. The online environment allowed the student to use a range of audio-, visual-, and text-based options that made it easier for his skills to shine. Hildebrandt believes, with the support of the student’s parents and the use of the online learning environment, there are no bounds to this student’s learning capabilities.

“You do not need to be a gamer, an expert, or even interested in video games to start up an esports team at your school. If teachers want a new tool for creating a better student connection to school and a better way to relate to those students who may benefit from the digital environment, esports can provide this for them,” Hildebrandt says.

Improving mental health in First Nations schools is the main reason that Hildebrandt believes student connections to online communities are important. The online environment can help a student express thoughts, feelings, and goals, while gaining confidence by having social connections and participating in something they are good at. Through cooperative and competitive gaming, students can also better connect to their school and find motivation and encouragement to participate. The four C’s—communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking—are major factors in restoring confidence in students. Problem solving through authentic experiences in-game can give students the learning opportunity to create solutions to their everyday problems. Through these connections in online gaming, students can see things from different perspectives and learn how to give and gain acceptance from others.

Hildebrandt believes that ancient traditions can also be taught using new technology. “Old and new technology will always be passed down to the next generation, like the way teachings and life lessons are passed down by Indigenous Knowledge Keepers. Students will thrive in upholding their roots and build better relationships with their teachers and peers by connecting the Seven Teachings to activities that are familiar to them, like online gaming,” Hildebrandt says.

Online educational gaming platforms can open doors for students, allowing them to create global connections and communities. By using online gaming in their classrooms, teachers can better understand how to use them for their advantage and, potentially, find a new way of addressing students’ mental health needs. Hildebrandt is excited to be a part of making that connection between online gaming and the Resource Centre and MFNSS schools.

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Richard Keeper learned how to use the stars as guides when he went out on the land to hunt and fish. Now, he teaches his star knowledge within First Nations schools using an inflatable planetarium. Keeper hopes the teachings will help First Nations students find their way back to their culture.

As a member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Keeper grew up on the land looking up to the sky for direction and knowledge. Now, working within the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre (the Resource Centre), he facilitates a workshop called Cree Night Sky Stories. Keeper is honored to be learning more about different First Nations perspectives on constellations, and he is working with Resource Centre staff from other First Nations cultures to expand the star teachings available.

“It is wonderful speaking to the Elders. I was speaking to an Elder and he was telling me his stories that went with Pleiades, the constellation, and then he spoke about how he got lost once and used the stars to find his way home, and that led into a Creation Story,” Keeper says. “He’s a fisherman, and we spoke about moons and how they relate to the food he needs to catch—the white fish, the jack fish. And he wants to invite me back to the community because he has remembered more.”

Keeper thinks it is important to hand down such knowledge to today’s young First Nations people— to teach them that their people looked up to the sky and created a worldview that explained what they saw above.

“When we looked up at the stars at a young age, we may have often wondered how they got up there, and those questions always led to more questions. And it left us wondering about the creation of the world and how we all fit in it. Most youth have learned about space and all it entails through Western teachings in school, and it’s even carried on over to university and so on. But, there are some who may wonder, and even seek out, how Indigenous Peoples see the night skies,” Keeper says.

Keeper has travelled to three of the Resource Centre’s member First Nations since he started and has facilitated this workshop many times for First Nations youth. Keeper’s vision is to see more youth and students brought out to the land to listen to these stories and traditions while observing the night sky. Keeper’s workshops have received a huge amount of positive feedback from both students and schools.

“The kids can certainly be star-struck by the presentation. There are always a lot of oohs and aahs. We change the presentation based on the age of the students. We’ll use puppets for the younger ones, but when they get older, teenagers, we can use, say, the lessons of the moon to teach the deeper values of our Peoples. These teachings have been passed down through the generations for years and years,” Keeper says.

In the workshop, the stories of each constellation appear as visuals in the planetarium creating a better understanding of the star teachings. Through storytelling and songs, the students learn about First Nations stories and names for stars and constellations. Keeper says it is important that these views are valued the same as Western views on the night skies.

Indigenous stories of the stars, and even creation and human existence, are told by Indigenous Peoples all over the world, and Keeper believes that all nations under the stars have their own interpretation of the night skies. Western knowledge has been embedded into today’s educational curricula, but the goal of Keeper’s workshop is to pass on local Elders’ knowledge and teachings to local youth so they can learn and pass along their own culture’s perspective of the night sky.

For more information or educational resources check out Atchaksuk, First Nations Astronomy course.

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