Desjardins sees life as a journey of opportunities to be embraced

Column: 
June 13, 2018

Denise Desjardins has high standards for her Grades 1 and 2 students at Chief Mistawasis Nêhiyawak School, while also embracing her own learning in infusing Cree language and culture in all aspects of the curriculum.

MISTAWASIS FIRST NATION–In many ways, the 130-kilometre commute (each way) Denise Desjardins makes on a daily basis with three teaching colleagues from her Saskatoon home is an appropriate metaphor.

Bring up any subject to this latest winner of one of the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and you readily see her eagerness to adapt and learn while often juggling several tasks simultaneously. Life to Desjardins is in many ways a journey; the more new trails the better.

Although she has been singled out and recognized nationally, her first instinct invariably is to note what others have done to inspire and teach her. She refers to her experience at Chief Mistawasis School as having played in integral role in “my spirit being awakened.”

Desjardins, who grew up in one of the more remote corners of Mistawasis First Nation, and where her mother still lives, has been a fixture at the school for the past 14 years. Her enthusiasm is as strong as ever, perhaps even more so in recent times. Her innovation and passion have paved the way for her to incorporate technology with her Grades 1 and 2 class as the springboard, to not only the students learning Cree language and culture, but also simultaneously for her as well.

Citing the school’s Cree teacher Calinda Duquette as her mentor, Desjardins incorporated the use of tablets to act as the catalyst for the students. As she said herself, the spark came when she saw the children’s faces light up at seeing their own photos in a story with Cree words.

“They were so engaged. I knew this was the journey we had to make happen, and to get them involved in their own learning in a really meaningful way.”

It’s just another example of what Desjardins readily acknowledges is her practice of setting high expectations for the youngsters in her class. As for help from fellow staff members and parents at this K-8 school (170 students), that has never been an issue.

“I feel like I have my family with me at school. It just makes me so happy that we’re able to share this every day. We have built such strong relationships here, and so you know you’re making a difference,” Desjardins said.

Initially, Desjardins found it difficult to procure any of the apps she needed to move the course forward in terms of First Nations content.

“I spent hours online and there wasn’t a lot out there, so pretty soon, in order to keep things rolling, we had to create our own content. Then the next hurdle was that I needed to know the language, and that’s where Calinda was so helpful. I knew a few words, and as we sat down and went through the ideas for the apps, it basically changed my entire mindset throughout the year.

“I started to understand and appreciate how important it is to have a part of the [Cree] culture in all my teaching.”

While focusing on traditional activities such as smudging, Desjardins also incorporated augmented reality, which is described as an interactive experience of a real-world environment.

“We had so much fun learning animal names and stuff like that, and it was the coolest ever to see how the kids responded. They created their own stories, and so it became very real.”

Another benefit derived from learning more about the outdoors and animals was that Desjardins could share what they learned about the beaver, for example, with her husband Kelly, who is an avid trapper.

“It’s about keeping things creative and fun for them, and that is one of the greatest things about being a teacher. The students feed off your excitement and energy. Throughout the process I learned so much about myself,” Desjardins enthused.

A significant bonus through all of this was what she alluded to as an overwhelming response from parents.

“They had a chance to not only see their culture honoured, but also to see how engaged their kids were. That was so rewarding personally because the kids made so many connections across the curriculum. They became so much more confident and aware because they are more accountable for their own learning. That is so powerful, and learning becomes fun.”

The whole process offers ironic introspection for Desjardins, who recalls her own days as a youth when she intuitively knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Somewhat wistfully, Desjardins agreed that she would really like to follow these youngsters through the school system, and while she has asked for a grade change previously, she understands the cyclical nature.

“They become part of you. For sure there are tears because it is tough to let go sometimes, but I know it’s just a part of the journey, and you’re always trying to set the bar higher,” Desjardins said.

That counts for herself too as she aspires to become fluent in Cree, adding that “it’s never too late.”

“I’m so excited to see what next year will bring and what we can do to build on this and continue to see the growth. Just think what these kids will know by Grade 8 in terms of coding and robotics and using technology–and blending that with learning about their culture,” Desjardins said, divulging that she was never a “techno” person before.

“But I can for sure invest the time and effort because you see the outcomes so clearly, and that’s so rewarding and exciting.”

It is surely the best example of a win-win situation at this First Nations school.