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École River Heights School
Inspiring Learning

Tipi project provides unique space, engages students in learning

November 07, 2016

RHtipi_news2.jpgAn opportunity to create a unique outdoor learning space while engaging in meaningful learning and conversations about Indigenous culture and history has been embodied in a tipi erected at École River Heights School.

The tipi -- which was designed, painted and installed at the school through leadership from students in a Grade 7-8 class, school staff members and Saskatoon Public Schools' First Nations, Inuit and Metis Education Unit -- represents a significant learning opportunity for both the school and the wider community, according to principal Mickey Jutras.

"The initial conversations were really about could this be an opportunity to create a wonderful outdoor classroom space, and it is really more about having an outdoor classroom space where we can do some really rich cultural learning and have a significant impact on our building overall," he said.

"Being that it is a tipi it raises the opportunity for us to have that quality Indigenous learning infused into our school. Already it is acting as a catalyst and creating great conversation around what are the possibilities? What could we be doing? The excitement you can feel in our building just with the teachers is there, and we are really excited to see what this looks like as we roll it out to our entire school."

Jutras says the tipi is a tangible response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action. The presence of a tipi – particularly one in which students played a significant role in creating -- on the front lawn of River Heights School represents one way to address the calls by honouring Indigenous identity and creating authentic opportunities for incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing into student learning.

Beyond the classroom, Jutras believes the presence of the tipi on the school's front lawn will be a conversation starter in the neighbourhood and the hope is that students will share their learning with their families and the broader community.

The tipi will remain on-site for at least the remainder of the school year and it is expected to be used almost daily as an outdoor classroom and gathering place for students from kindergarten to Grade 8.

The project was led by students in the Grade 7-8 class of teacher Jamie Van Olst and intern Jenelle Minish along with arts education teacher Kaleah Bilinski. Fueled by their research and discussion about the importance and role of the tipi in First Nations culture, the students helped to design and then paint the canvas that stretches over the poles.

For Van Olst, the response of students to the integrated learning approach and the curricular connections encompassed as part of the project's scope was gratifying as was the opportunity to work with Indigenous artisans T.J. Warren and Hunter Blassingame in designing and painting the tipi.

"It supports our curriculum 110 per cent," she said. "Science, social studies, language arts – we are hitting all of our outcomes and it is actually bringing it to life. It's making students understand what first Nations culture and way of life is like. They are experiencing it first-hand. (For example) they had the opportunity to smudge, so actually experiencing that first-hand instead of reading about it is a totally different experience.

"The other interesting part of it for me is seeing students who were not engaged at the beginning – who had lots of really tough questions and lots of wonders about why we would be doing this – flip their thinking process and now understand the importance of why we are doing this and how it is important to our community, how it is important to our learning and how it is important to our future. They are so engaged right now."

Van Olst's students will also take on the role of teaching as they share their learning with students in the other grades. She says the sense of pride the students have exhibited in their work will help them be keepers of the tipi at the school and allow them to share that knowledge and pride with the school community.

Donnie Spiedel, a cultural resource liaison with the school division's First Nations, Inuit and Metis Education Unit, says the questions asked by students and the discussion that resulted are a significant part of the learning: "It's good to hear from Grade 7 and Grade 8s that they have that critical thought to ask those type of questions and create a purposeful engagement."

The work being done by Saskatoon Public Schools and at individual schools such as River Heights to engage students, regardless of their ancestry, in Indigenous learning is a way of reclaiming history, according to Spiedel. The tipi at River Heights is one symbol of that reclaiming but it is also a recognition of the commitment to culturally responsive education.

"We put up tipis and we see tipis at gatherings as a prominent First Nations and Indigenous symbol. But when people are hands-on – to paint, to be part of ceremony, to be part of the rights of passage – those are indictors that we are trying to not just do small, incremental learnings or just doing one-off stuff," he said.

"We are creating this piece so we are deepening the learning. You have kids who are doing research, they are doing digital messaging and storytelling and, on top of that, they are going to place that (tipi) on their school front lawn so it becomes an outdoor learning space for the rest of the year. That is a huge commitment."

Jutras says the location of the school – close to the banks of the South Saskatchewan River and in proximity to the First Nations historical site at Wanuskewin – offers particular resonance to the tipi project.

"Truly our absolute hope is that the hard work that is going in to it and the ownership that our staff and students will be developing through this process will translate into a deep respect in our community that hopefully can ensure that the tipi is respected and treated well for this year and future years."