The Carrot River math reconciliation experience described as awesome

March 18, 2020
By Lisa Squires, Communications Officer

Grade 6 teacher Danielle Vankoughnett was excited to be invited to participate in a one-year research project to explore how rural teachers can incorporate Indigenous culture into the existing Saskatchewan mathematics curriculum.

Initially, she thought her team would be testing existing culture-based lesson plans. When she found out there weren’t many out there and that they would be creating their own, her excitement momentarily morphed into fear. 

The Carrot River research team shared the results of their math reconciliation project at the McDowell Foundation Learning from Practice event on January 31. (L – R: Danny Sylvestre, researcher; Kevin Duchscherer, teacher; Sharon Meyer, project lead; Serena Palmer, teacher; Krysta Shemrock, teacher; Danielle Vankoughnett, teacher; Sari Carson, principal; and Glen Aikenhead, researcher.)

 

“At the start of this journey, I was very scared because it’s a huge project for a first-year teacher to take on,” recalls Vankoughnett. “I didn’t want to make a mistake and I didn’t feel comfortable integrating this into a mathematics class.”

But, Vankoughnett is not alone. She is part of a team of four educators who teach Grades 5 to 12 at Carrot River Jr. Sr. High School in the North East School Division. The Culture-Based School Mathematics for Reconciliation and Professional Development project was funded by the McDowell Foundation and was led by researchers Sharon Meyer, Glen Aikenhead and Danny Sylvestre. Together with local Elders and Knowledge Keepers, they guided the teachers on their professional development journey to build their cultural knowledge and competence. 

“I taught abroad for two years in Mexico and England and knew more about cultures around the world compared to local Indigenous groups,” says Grades 11 and 12 teacher Krysta Shemrock, who has 10 years teaching experience. “Working through this project allowed me to learn more about our local Indigenous culture.”

Admittedly, when you think of learning, unlearning isn’t the first thing that comes to mind; however, in order to create space to learn new perspectives and worldviews, teachers must first unlearn European-Canadian ways of knowing.

“This approach benefits all students,” says Grade 5 teacher Serena Palmer, who has been teaching for 12 years. “In Western mathematics, the thinking is right or wrong. Students need to know math problems don’t have just one answer or only one approach to find the answer. Adding Indigenous thinking to a math lesson is one way to do this.”

For principal Sari Carson, the fact that her school does not have a diverse student population made their participation all the more important. But before they could design and develop their lesson plans, the team first needed to learn about Indigenous mathematizing and culture.

“Delivering curriculum in an inclusive and well-rounded way is always a teacher’s intent,” says Carson. “Our teachers built relationships, asked questions and learned the necessary background knowledge to be able to confidently incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing into their math lessons.”

The learning journey began on August 31, 2018 with a professional development day at the Carrot River Jr. Sr. High School, followed by small group work with Meyer and Aikenhead in September. In October, the group participated in two days of intense cultural immersion with Elder Albert Scott where they learned about the medicine wheel, Indigenous culture, spirituality, ceremonies and protocol.

“It was awesome,” says Kevin Duchscherer, who has been teaching Grades 7, 8, 9 and 10 math for the last 20 years. “It gave us the opportunity to become more comfortable with looking at Indigenous worldviews. The activities we did had a lot to do with collaboration and sharing. The western culture of education is very competitive, but this collaborative approach provides for deeper and more meaningful learning.”

After developing lesson plans, the teachers would test them with students while Aikenhead would observe. The group would then discuss and refine their plans.

In the beginning, some of Vankoughnett’s students did ask why they were learning about Indigenous culture in math instead of social studies.

“I told the students that the world is a lot bigger than Carrot River,” says Vankoughnett. “As cool as we think our culture is, it’s also cool to learn about other cultures and people.”

For principal Carson, the best part of the experience has been the level of student engagement she’s witnessed.  

“I was able to chat with Danielle’s students,” shares Carson. “Although the lesson was about math, the students were making connections to their own lives and cultures. So cool!”

All participating teachers agree this was more than a project, it was a life-changing experience. They now plan to build on what they’ve learned and hope others will join them on the road to reconciliation.

“I am teaching Math Foundations 10 and Pre-Calculus 10 this semester,” says Shemrock. “I am already planning on how I can teach measurement alongside First Nation medicine. We are all so proud of what we’ve accomplished and we’re more than willing to share.”

In total, the group created seven math lesson plans and can be found on the McDowell Foundation website, www.mcdowellfoundation.ca.