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Connecting through Story, Transforming Learning

Written on May 7th, 2014

[caption id=”attachment_6154” align=”aligncenter” width=”495”]Diagram This graphic representation of Cree values was created with the community of Peerless Lake First Nation. It is intended that all values will be highlighted through different areas of the curriculum.[/caption]

If you appreciate Christian education for the emphasis it places on narrative and community, you might also share Doug Monsma’s love for the Teaching for Transformation Learning Model (TfT)—a framework for the development of authentic learning experiences that is rooted in a transformational worldview, with a focus on the Biblical story.

As Director of Learning at the Prairie Center for Christian Education (PCCE), Monsma believes that many Christian schools in Alberta “have a story to tell” and he has worked tirelessly to give them the skills to tell it.

Having spent time in one of Alberta’s First Nations community this winter, Monsma knows that there are many schools in the province (not just the Christian ones) with valuable stories to tell—stories that arise from a shared worldview, reflect a unique cultural heritage and actively shape a community’s understanding of God.

Unfortunately, this rarely comes through in the curriculum used by Alberta’s First Nations Schools.

That was one of the reasons Rick Hayes, Executive Director of Alberta Education, initially advised First Nations, Metis and Inuit Services Branch  to connect with PCCE—Hayes understood that both organizations saw the integration of story, worldview and curriculum as an essential part of learning.

Through that connection, Monsma had the opportunity to talk with three members of the Alberta Government’s First Nations Metis Inuit (FNMI) education department. During those meetings, Monsma talked about the Teaching for Transformation curriculum design model, and the way it has helped PCCE teachers frame the creation, fall, redemption, restoration story within a transformational worldview.

The more that Monsma talked with the group about PCCE’s mission and vision around Christian education, the more excited and hopeful First Nations members became about what the TfT approach to curriculum design could offer the entire First Nations community. The belief that curriculum could help tell a school’s story was an exciting prospect to contemplate.

“They were very intrigued by that,” says Monsma. The idea that their story, as First Nations Metis Inuit people, could come through in the curriculum they used, was a refreshing change from the way that many members of their community had experienced education in the past.

That was important for Monsma to keep in mind while working at Peerless Lake School, located in the Northland School District. Monsma met with the school’s principal, some of its teachers and two elders from the community. One of his goals was “to help them understand how we do curriculum and how it might impact or be a part of what they wanted to do,” he says.

“I walked through a design model of how our Christian schools design curriculum, explaining how we identify our story and frame it within a transformational world and life view, and some of the language we use to do that.”

“I could show them examples of what we were doing in our Christian schools, but then would have to ask them: what’s your world view?  Our key pieces are creation, fall, redemption, restoration … but what are your key pieces?”

During the lively discussions, Monsma explained that within a TfT framework teachers aim to give kids glimpses of how God calls people to live: whether that be as justice seekers, beauty creators, or community builders (to name a few). These discipleship concepts (referred to as Through-lines) are the qualities or characteristics that students are invited to develop as God is revealed to them.

Monsma encouraged the Peerless Lake teachers to think about the essential Through-lines, or big picture concepts, that they wanted their students to embrace.  The group came up with eight of their own Through-line posters, some similar to the ones used in Christian school communities, but also particular to their own experience as Cree people. For example, instead of the community building Through-line, the group created one about kinship, based on the concept of wâhkôhtowin,“a very deep, rich word that captures much more than the word community” says Monsma.

“We ended up with a Peerless Lake Cree values circle diagram that captures some of the TFT structure within their culture,” says Monsma.

One of the group’s desired goals was “to create pride within their community about who they are, acknowledging that so much of what they learn and what they know about is something to be celebrated as well,” he notes.

Although he had his own unique perspective to offer, Monsma says that his primary aim was to create opportunity for mutual learning.

“I wanted to sit and learn and listen to one another,” he says. “Having them listen to our story, and us being able to hear their story was a humbling experience. That element of relationship and trust and story is just a beautiful gift.”

Looking back, Monsma is thankful for the way that ideas and philosophy drove the process rather than time and agenda. His reflections are a powerful reminder that good work can call us to slow down, experience the joy of meaningful conversation, and take us to places we might not expect.

[caption id=”” align=”alignnone” width=”567”] Above: Peerless Lake School, located in the Northland School District.[/caption]