Welcome to My Stretch Experience!
Before I get into the specific details and outcomes of my project, I want start off by introducing myself. I would also like to take this opportunity to give the appropriate background information for those who do not know what a “stretch experience” is.
My name is Kaitlyn Walcheske, and I am a bachelor of education student at the University of Alberta (U of A ). I have chosen my specialty in the secondary (high school) route, majoring in biology and minoring in social studies. I proudly recognize as part of the Métis nation of Alberta and one of the main goals in my degree it to find supports for Indigenous Education and share the beauty of Indigenous culture with others.
On top of my degree program, I am also a part of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College (PLLC) at the U of A. PLLC is a two-year interdisciplinary certificate program that is devoted to breaking down and building up the questions surrounding “leadership”. Throughout this program scholars are able to explore a variety of different perspectives and strategies to help us to engage with PLLC’s golden question, “how will you change the world?”
In order to fully engage the diverse perspectives that leadership calls for, PLLC scholars are selected from faculties across the University and are divided strategically into forums of about ten people. In my opinions this format is one of the most critical aspect that sets PLLC a part from any other leadership program that I have known. From my experience, having the opportunity to have continuous small class discussions in my own forum as well as the ability to reach out to other forums for new perspectives, ensures that I am always, critically thinking and reflecting.
PLLC Students and Staff 2016
The stretch experience (SE) is a 200 hour self-directed leadership project that scholars complete after their first year in the PLLC program. The goal of the SE is for scholars to answer that golden question above by integrating their academic coursework alongside their passion(s). PLLC encourages scholars to step out of their comfort zones in order to make the most out of the SE opportunity. For scholars this is once in a lifetime opportunity to fully engage in their futures. I believe that the most beneficial aspect of the SE is the fact that the scholars have full control over their experiences. The outcome and the impact the SE will have on the scholar and society is completely in the scholar’s hands. For this reason, not only is the SE about stepping into a leadership role for personal development but it is also about the potential to be a part of something that is bigger than just ourselves.
My Stretch Experience Part 1: International Partners- FinAl
During part one of my SE I went to Finland under the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) International Partnerships program. Curriculum development, pedagogical strategy and student voice were just a few of the main focus points that I was lucky enough to be a part of the conversation for. The International Partnerships is a research initiative driven by Alberta teachers, stakeholders and international experts who are working to fulfill the publication called, Renewing Alberta’s Promise: A Great School for All (2015).
You can read more about the Renewing Alberta’s Promise: “A Great School for All” and the international partnerships here or on the ATA’s website. Visit the website see what the program is achieving and its goals for the future. For the purposes of my stretch experience, I will only be drawing from the Finland- Alberta partnership, FinAl.
The partnership that I was directly involved with was, FinAl which is the collaboration between the Finnish Board of Education and the ATA. Students are selected to take part in the exchange program via school specific criteria; some of the students even stay in home stays for the duration of the exchange. For this round specifically, there was four different schools from Edmonton, Jasper Place, Queen Elizabeth, M.E LaZerte and East Glen. The groups ranged in the number of student representatives and all had accompanying teachers and even one assistant principal.
In preparation for the Finland exchange, the Alberta students meet up on various occasions to discuss and review their goals prior to entering into the FinAl experience. These meeting were called “summits” and each school/student was required to develop different goals coming into FinAl. The summits are a place where students can collaborate with the other students to share ideas and receive constructive feedback. Depending on the school and their interests, the location and placement in Finland is matched accordingly. For example, student interested in trades or technical programs, would be matched with the Vocational schools in Finland.
In Finland the students performed the action based research projects by using the information they had developed in during the course of the pre-trip summits and the new information they learned during their time in the Finnish schools. I helped document all of the students work, record all student presentations and was an extra facilitator during the synthesizing conversations. I was inspired at the level of thought and creative ideas that each student showed for reaching their goals. The students were committed to helping each other lead the way to make each of their schools even better centers for learning.
What I think is the most important takeaway away for both, FinAl and the international Partnerships as a whole is the constant reminder that this research is not to judge or conflate school systems but rather to share ideas that can be then translated to fit in the existing context and culture of the participating schools. The goal for the research is to share successful practices across school districts in order to build “A Great School for All”.
My Action Based Research Part 2: The Making of My Experience
As an aspiring teacher, understanding my role as a leader and how I can become a role model to inspire leadership among my future students is really important to me. Therefore, in order to create a stretch experience that would be life changing for not only myself but for the students whom I will dedicate my career to, I had to come up with my own action based research to complete in Finland. For this reason I developed part two of my experience in Finland to focus on how different schools in Finland were approaching and supporting their Indigenous programs at both the personal and curricular levels.
Like the First Nation, Métis and Inuit of Canada, the Sámi are the Indigenous people of the Sápmi land, which is now known as being a part of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. Although all identifying under the title of Sámi, the culture, languages and experiences all differ from Sámi nation to nation. Similar to many other Indigenous nations worldwide, each of the Sámi nations have experienced and continue to live out a colonial story.
An Insider looking from the Outside:
Recall that title of the International Partnerships research initiative is, A. Great. School. For. All. To me this meant from North to South and East to the West….A-L-L. Every student, every school- everyone, deserving of a great school. Well, I was disappointed to find out that after weeks of being in southern and central Finland that there was little acknowledgment of Sámi people and little for me to put towards my research outside of what I seen in museums or tourist shops (a whole other issue of its own). I was even turned away from schools because the teachers felt that they themselves or their schools had nothing to offer me in regards to my interest in Sámi people or Indigenous education of any kind. An email I received read,
“There are only about 6000 Sami people in Finland and most of them live in Northern Lapland. There are some Sami people in Southern Finland too but they attend the same school programs as everyone else. In other words, the indigenous populations in Canada and Finland don’t have much in common, at least regarding the living conditions and social issues.” –Email received from Anonymous
I found this really interesting because not only is there actually over 10,000 Sámi people in Finland, around 60% of them live outside of Sápmi. On top of that, I also noticed while I was in Finland that just like the Canada 150 celebration, Finland was also undergoing celebrations for their 100th anniversary of their confederation. Like Canada, many Sámi also felt that this was just another reminder of the 100+ years of colonialism and ignorance to the Indigenous people who have lived on the lands for 1000’s of years.
One Finnish school that I visited in Turku, Turun Suomalaisen Yhteiskolun lukio (TSYK) did have one section in their English textbook that talked about Indigenous nations. Included in this was even the Canadian First Nations, Métis and Inuit. I later learnt that this textbook is the result of the International Partnership at work. What I have learnt from my stretch experience and what you will hopefully come to understand is that there is actually lot of commonalities when it comes to colonialism and the affects that it has on Indigenous people.
Although I knew the information I really sought after would be in Northern Finland, I had higher hopes for other Finnish schools- especially since they are held at the one of the highest standards for education around the world. I question if this statistic includes the relationships with Indigenous people and how that affects student success? Prior to my departure, I also had reason to believe that things were “different” there but none the less, I was eager to find out the truth.
After completing my time with FinAl, I went to Sápmi in Northern Finland. Sápmi is name that recognizes the Sámi territory and the more appropriate way to refer what is commonly known as, “Lapland”. I visited The Sámi Education Institute: Saamelaisalueen koulutuskeskus (Sogsakk) in Inari, where I was toured around the different school facilities and orientated on the different degrees that students could receive in everything from Sámi Handicraft to Reindeer herding.
I stayed in the Sogsakk school dorms and interacted with many students who quickly became my friends. They toured me around the Inari area and took me to The Sámi cultural Center: Saamelaiskulttuurikeskus (SAJOS), which on top of being a cultural gathering place for the community. SAJOS also housed an important gathering place for the Sámi Parliament.
Inside SAJOS, students have access to areas that they use for their school work. The students showed me projects that they themselves or their peers had created as resources for Sámi education. The works included everything from Sámi stories, to exposing colonialism. I was inspired at the amazing work and talent that the students had for using different types of media to express themselves. From Sámi art to films and of course music, the quality of these projects was no less then professional. My favorite part was getting the chance to share music with each other. I was introduced to many traditional and modern Sámi artists and it was exciting that popular groups such as “Northern Cree” and “A Tribe Called Red” from Canada were also popular in Sámpi.
More Stretching: The Inspiration and the Questions
I strongly believe that an education system and the curriculum are direct reflections of the culture in a particular society. This is because I think that what we chose to teach our students defines the future we are trying to build and makes important of what we want to remember about the past. The same goes for research, what people are researching in education gives a good insight into the things people are curious to learn about. An entry in the Renewing Alberta Promise (2015), “A Great School for All—Transforming Education in Alberta, outlined a comprehensive approach based on the core value of achieving excellence through equity.” From this, I asked two questions;
- Why does education remain to be the biggest barrier for Indigenous students?
- Why there are still many schools, specifically in the Indigenous communities of Alberta that do not have the opportunity to get a proper education because the lack of equality in education?
The Executive Summary in the Final Report (2015) of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, gives voice to a former Residential School teacher who said, “There was, for example, a heavy emphasis on English, and no recognition of the role of Cree in the communities from which the children came. “They were doomed to fail under the system that existed. The majority of them would certainly and did” (as cited in Honoring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, 2015, pp.128). When I look at this quote, it is hard for me not to wonder if they are talking about a residential school or the present day Canadian schools. It is important to realize that many Indigenous students are still forced to leave their Indigenous communities to attend a non-Indigenous schools in order to get a “better” education… sound familiar?
Along with Residential school survivor accounts, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) also released 94 Calls to Action for Canada to actively engage in Reconciliation. My response to this has been to start an inquiry based documentary project to find out what the barriers are for Indigenous students in schools across Alberta. To do so I have been talking to different Indigenous teachers, students and members of the communities to find out what they think about this issue and their ideas for remediation. The goal for this project has been to give a voice to Indigenous people and allow ideas for what successful Indigenous education looks like be determined by Indigenous people themselves. I took this idea and applied it to Finland to see if I could get an international perspective on Indigenous relations with their colonial states.
The Final Stretch:
Looking forward, my next steps will involve developing an International Indigenous Collaboration Program that will document how different schools, teachers and students in Indigenous communities are approaching Indigenous empowerment at both personal and curriculum levels despite existing colonial pressures. By focusing solely on Indigenous schools and communities in this partnership, it is my hope that the world Indigenous communities can empower each other with their ideas and success stories.
An International Indigenous Collaboration program is my initiative to enhance and develop the educational standards and strategies here in Alberta by sharing with other Indigenous communities devoted to doing the same. Collaboration between Indigenous students will empower each other through a cultural exchange just like I have experienced. The information collected would not only be beneficial to Indigenous students but the research that it would obtain would also be very beneficial to non-Indigenous people and the schools that looking to learn more about Indigenous culture.
Members of FinAl are interested to learn about my experience and I have proposed my idea for an International Indigenous Collaboration based off of my experiences. Whether or not they agrees to incorporate this type of partnership, I will have transmitted my call to action for education stakeholders to ask themselves what they are doing to support and involve Indigenous communities directly in their research. As far as my research goes, this is a topic that I have dedicated my career as an educator to.
“Education is what got us here and education is what will get us out.”
-Justice Murray Sinclair
A Glimpse of the Future: A documentation so far..
From the Ermineskin Elementary School, Paula Mackinaw and Travis Lee shared with me how language has and continues to impact each of their cultural connections. Ermineskin is one of the four Cree nation communities that make up the Maskwacis reservation in Alberta. Just recently the four communities have amalgamated their education systems which is also working to synchronize and develop the Cree curriculum. Getting Cree into all of the subject areas is just one step in teaching students to developing what Mackinaw calls the “Cree thought.”
Pictured above is Paula Mackinaw is the Cree Instructor at the Ermineskin Elementary School, she has been a teacher for fifteen years and over the past two has been developing the Cree Language curriculum. Paula grew up speaking Cree but received formal training through Dr. Steven Grey Morning at the University of Montana. Paula shows us how international collaboration has allowed her students to succeed through Accelerated Second Language Acquisition (ASLA).
Travis Lee is an Educational assistant (EA) at Ermineskin Elementary. Travis has a background in the trades but over the past two years of working in the school. Lee has found his passion for teaching and found what he calls his “Cree Person.” Travis Shares his experiences growing up off the reserve which he now recognizes impacted his cultural experiences growing up. Working at Ermineskin Elementary has allowed him to rebuild these connections for himself while at the same time assisting the students to do the same. Lee is now a major support for staff and role model for students school wide.
Adding to my documentation, the lovely and talented, Sunna Nousuniemi. Sunna is a Sámi woman from Inari. She works for the International Film Institute as a project coordinator and in this position she travels the world representing the Sámi people. Nousuniemi has large role in producing Sámi films and is a vital part of making the Skábmagovat Film festival happen in her home town.
During my interview with Sunna we talked a lot about Indigenous identity and understanding. This was by far the most impactful experiences that I had in Sápmi as understanding Indigenous identity is a process I am currently undergoing. In our conversation Sunna shares personal insights about why she thinks that there is a disconnect between the Sámi and Finnish in Finland and what she believes there is to do about it.
From my conversations with Sunna I realized that in order to have these kinds of conversations requires being open and vulnerable about personal feelings and experiences. Being slightly introverted, it shocked me at how easy and comfortable these tough conversations could be with someone who already shares a mutual understanding of Indigenous Culture and oppression. Sunna and I shared experiences and stories that existed across the globe yet they had very similar themes that we were both very familiar with.
Note: Pictures are all my own unless linked to their source.
As Peter Lougheed Scholar, I have been given a multitude of different opportunities and guidance to take my professional development to the next level. There is an incredible support system of colleges, teaching fellows, mentors and program leaders, that all work together to contribute to the overall experience of PLLC. Thank you to the donor of the David Tavender award for encouraging scholars to look and think beyond the stretch experience.
It was through the mentorship program and with the help of the PLLC vice president, Ferguson-Pell that I met my first mentor, Mr. Dave Hancock. It was Mr. Hancock who made the connections in order for my SE to become a reality. Another mentor that I would like to thank is, Michael Aherne. Mr. Aherne has and continues to be a big part of supporting my journey with advice and resources as I have progressed throughout my stretch experience.
Thank you to the ATA for all their continued hard work and advocacy for all Alberta teachers, students and educational stakeholders. Thank you to JC Couture, Jean Styles for their leadership in the International partnership program and for allowing me to be a part of FinAL. I cannot express my excitement enough for this program at what I believe it has the ability to do. Thank you to Julia Dalsman, the teachers and the students whom I worked directly with in Finland; along with the great company, I was inspired at your ideas and ground work within the project.
Thank you to Tuula Ahtola and the teachers of Turun Suomalaisen Yhteiskolun lukio (TSYK) for having me as a guest in your school and in the classrooms. The experience of getting a glimpse into the Finnish education system was an incredible opportunity. Thank you to Mika Aromäki and the students of the college for touring me around the Sámi Education Institute: Saamelaisalueen koulutuskeskus (SOGSAKK) and the Sámi cultural Center: Saamelaiskulttuurikeskus (SAJOS). I was inspired at how devoted the students and community are to cultural preservation of Sámi culture and land.
I also want to thank all of those who were directly involved in my SE, documentary or the people I met along the way. This includes everyone I interviewed, or simply just shared a conversation with about my project.
Kaitlyn’s Stretch Experience won the Tavender award, a $5,000 donor-funded award that recognizes students’ positive community impact and allows them to continue the project.