Monday, July 8, 2013

Woodlands Secondary - Girlz Tuff making a Difference

Three caring educators at Woodlands Secondary School in School District #68 Nanaimo-Ladysmith set out to examine some big school challenges through their inquiry focus this year. Bonnie Bill, Connie MacArthur and Theresa Watson, after examining their school community of learners (specifically Aboriginal adolescent girls), recognized the need to address grades 8-12 girls’ self-esteem and self-image. Specifically, they inquired about the following question: “Will having a ‘Girlz’tuff group at Woodlands Secondary School enhance adolescent girls’ sense of belonging by promoting positive self-image, positive self-talk and positive self-care?”

The idea to design and facilitate the ‘Girlz’tuff group was based on the school inquiry team members’ observations that a number girls at Woodlands Secondary seemed uncertain in themselves, lacked confidence and self-esteem, as well as the tools to make healthy decisions when faced with personal and social challenges. Conversations with students also brought forth confessions of online bullying, dealing with rude and racist behavior from peers, and the perception of needing to act and look a certain way to be accepted by others. Thus, the ‘Girlz’tuff group was formed – a safe space where Woodlands Secondary female students were invited to explore and question ideas around healthy relationships/boundaries, media impact on self-image and negative self-talk.  Inquiry team members Bonnie Bill and Connie MacArthur both became certified trainers in the Girl Power Facilitator Training Program, part of West Coast Empowerment Training, and facilitated the ‘Girlz’tuff group using Aboriginal concepts, tools and teachings. The group gathered formally for 12 sessions between November and May, as well as informally through circle chats. They examined Aboriginal history and stories, and worked to develop cultural understanding through sincere dialogues and applicable activities.

The ‘Girlz’tuff group is making a difference for girls at Woodlands Secondary, as was shared through both student and teacher testimonials.  ‘Girlz’tuff group participants reported that being a part of the group during this school year helped them learn about their culture, about strength, trust, hope and acceptance, and about building a strong sense of self. When asked what message they would like to give to teachers, one participant responded “please don’t just give us a piece of paper and tell us to do it. Get to know us and touch our hearts. Then we really learn.”  What a poignant observation by this student, and an important reflection to come out of this inquiry project. When we think about ‘living inquiry’ in our teaching practice and everyday lives, this is a message that we’re sure will resonate with the Network community.

We’ll be posting more Network stories throughout the coming months.  You can also see what other Network schools addressed through their inquires in 2012-2013 by checking out NOII and AESN inquiry questions here.  

Nala'atsi Masks - Creating Connections

The case studies from the schools involved in the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network are filled with rich accounts of the ways in which teachers, principals, learners and elders are working together to create new and powerful forms of learning. We have been moved and impressed by the work at Nala'atsi School in Comox. Here is part of their story:

“Masks are elaborate and everyone has one.”
-       Nala’atsi Mask Project participant

Mask making has become an annual tradition at Nala’atsi in the Comox Valley.  Nala’atsi is an alternate program for Aboriginal students in grades 10-12 in School District #71.  The school is closely connected to the Nin’ogad, Wachiay, K’omox and MIKI’SIW Aboriginal groups, and the Mask Project is a way to bring members of the community into the school to work collaboratively with students.

Toresa Crawford has been teaching at Nala’atsi since the program’s inception in 2000.  She started the Mask Project several years ago, and has been focussing the school inquiry around how the project may increase students’ sense of belonging and cultural awareness through multi-generational connections with Elders in the community. 

This past school year Nala’atsi had 34 participants – a diverse group of Elders, students and community members with a variety of interests, abilities, skills and knowledge about their Aboriginal ancestry.  The group started with a sharing circle, with everyone introducing the person next to them and getting to know each other in a safe, respectful environment. Then, and over the course of the next two weeks, everyone participated in creating a mask and accompanying by a written piece that spoke to their creation.

All 34 participants completed the Mask Project. Often times Elders would come into the school to work on their masks with the students, sharing tea and stories, and building connections with one another. Take a look at this beautiful poster that showcases the culmination of this year’s efforts.


On the final day of the project, the group shared tea and snacks and everyone will receive a copy of the poster as a keepsake. Toresa Crawford, through her recent AESN case study really captures why the project has become so successful: “It is important for our students to feel that they not only belong but that they have a network of people who they can count on in the Aboriginal community. Projects like this encourage diverse groups of people (who are often in different generations) to share their stories through art in a welcoming environment. It also provides many opportunities to make connections and to form relationships with positive role models”.

 We can’t wait to see what next year brings for the Mask Project. Until then, here a few comments from this year’s participants:

The students are so interesting and I love coming into this building. I wish so much that I had had a chance to go to school at Nala’atsi. This place is VERY healing for me” - Elder 72 years

 “I didn’t think that it would be so revealing about who I am. I was okay letting others know about who I am” - Youth 16 years

“Every time I do this project (this is my second time) I feel better about myself and who I am as an Aboriginal person. It is empowering” - Youth 17 years

                                           Some of the Nala'atsi learners with their masks.