Native spirituality and Catholicism embraced at elementary school

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EDMONTON, Alberta - As the bubbles amass in the indoor pond, the soothing
sound of water resonates throughout the hallway.

The concept of the usually sterile environment in a school office quickly
dissipates inside the doors of Ben Calf Robe Native Elementary/Junior High
School. The warmth of a diorama depicting a stream, complete with live
goldfish and a mounted black bear cub, greets all those who enter the
building.

Immediately the principles of this school are evident. Designed for urban
Native children, this welcoming setting offers a curriculum encompassing
traditional studies combined with Catholic practices. Adorning the wall are
multi-colored dream catchers pointing in all four directions while the
images of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II observe. The water is an
element that combines both faiths.

"Water is so special because it's cleansing in the Aboriginal world and
it's baptismal in the Catholic sense," said Principal Bryan Richardson.

Named after the Siksika (Blackfoot) scout who preached work, wisdom and
respect, Ben Calf Robe has been open for 23 years in Edmonton's east end. A
lower-income area of town where children are exposed to poverty, crime and
drugs that can plague such a socio-economic class, the school provides an
educational and cultural haven for its all-Aboriginal enrollment of 341
between kindergarten and ninth grade.

The student population is up by almost 40 percent this year, in part
because of the higher standards that have been implemented into the
syllabus. Richardson, who's entering his second year as principal after
earlier teaching at Ben Calf Robe during the 1980s, is at the helm of a
school that's been targeted for improvement. As such, extra money and
resources have been allocated to improve upon the performances of First
Nations' children.

"The way we deal with the children and the strategies we use, [will] keep
the kids clear and focused on academics," said Richardson, who for most of
life has been near Aboriginal culture and is very familiar with Native
customs.

With these changes in teaching attitudes, the staff was almost handpicked.
Seventeen of the 20 teachers were new to the school this September and half
of them are Aboriginal or Metis themselves. Fifth grade teacher Amanda
Morin never attended a Native school so this opportunity was as much a
cultural experience as it was a job. She thinks these students are at an
age when they become impressionable and start to look for role models.

"It's important to see Native teachers so they can go to university and
become more than just staying on reserve," Morin said.

Perhaps nowhere is the explosion in attendance more noticeable than in the
kindergarten class of Gail Eberhardt, who oversees 32 4- and 5-year-olds.
Of that number, 30 take the bus, an unusually high percentage for a school
located in an established residential area.

Non-Native, Eberhardt had always wanted to teach in a First Nations
environment. She said the Cree language component starts very early for the
children.

"Would I do justice to the Cree program because I don't want to
mispronounce the words," she questioned.

To assist, there is a Cree language facilitator and additionally the school
has a full-time elder. Cultural practices, such as smudging, are
incorporated into school ceremonies like the sharing circle for healing and
discipline. When two girls were punished for their actions, the entire
class participated and the lessons were impressed upon those in attendance.

"You shouldn't hit people because your hands were meant for healing," noted
Aaron, a ninth grader.

Among all of the Native symbols and references, Catholicism is also quite
prevalent as crucifixes and references to Jesus and God exist in all the
classrooms. Though Ben Calf Robe operates under the umbrella of the
Edmonton Catholic School system, Richardson noted kids are entitled to
follow their own beliefs.

"The Native spirituality and Catholicism are seen to be equal," Richardson
said. "They're not overlapping or entwined, but even."

The strength at Ben Calf Robe is not just the all-Aboriginal enrollment or
the continuous push towards cultural identity but how the curriculum
incorporates traditional and contemporary First Nations' knowledge.

NATIVE CURRICULUM IS FEASIBLE

During a tour of the school, Principal Richardson stepped inside a third
grade classroom. Chalk in hand, he stood at the blackboard and gave an
impromptu lesson that incorporated mathematics along with the importance of
reading.

"If you read just 15 minutes a day," he enthusiastically, doing some quick
calculations, "You can read over 100,000 words in a year. By the time you
start sixth grade, that means you will have read more than 300,000 words."

Richardson cited how English contains 550,000 words and theoretically kids
could read half the language before arriving at junior high. Never mind
that many of the words are duplicated, his point was that with only a
minimal amount of an additional effort, children themselves could improve
their own level of learning, or raise the bar, a philosophy that's being
embraced at Ben Calf Robe.

There's no mistaking Richardson's excitement about some of the longer-term
plans at the school. Standing in the center of the class, he pointed to a
spot on the floor where computer ports will be installed. This innovation
will allow teachers' lessons to become more interactive and livelier by
allowing full movement and rotation within the rooms.

"We trying to raise the bar as far as our academic achievement but at the
same time we're ensuring we always respect their traditional realities,"
said the principal.

As some subjects lend themselves easier to Native teachings, like art where
soapstone carving is taught, or in the gymnasium with participation in
lacrosse and cross-country running, the core subjects too present
opportunities to incorporate indigenous stories and values. Language Arts
classes use fiction and non-fiction from Indian authors and teachers have
compiled their own libraries to encourage further reading.

In seventh grade Social Studies a textbook about Cree history was locally
published and includes several people the students know thus personalizing
the course. Even with these modifications at Ben Calf Robe, this agenda is
designed within the framework of Alberta Learning, the provincial agency
responsible for education.

Principal Richardson believes of any of the core subjects where Native kids
should excel, it's in mathematics as the subject is non-verbal. The intent
for those students who are struggling is to place them in classrooms more
suited to their abilities, even if there are discrepancies in ages. In
doing so, the Native practice of a communal atmosphere is also maintained.

"Multi-age instructional groupings is a new concept (in education) but an
Aboriginal concept that's been around forever because the younger kids are
learning from the older kids," said Richardson.