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Preserving language key to keeping native kids in school


Incorporating native heritage in the classroom to keep aboriginal kids in school topped discussions between Ontario Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman and staff at the Seven Generations Educational Institute during his visit here last Wednesday.

Wilf Cyr, director of elementary and secondary support programs, stressed that preserving the language was key to helping native kids succeed.

Pointing to a recent U.S. study, Cyr said that when the traditional language was lost in favour of teaching English, it affected the language skills of three generations.

He added the study highlights one of the reasons aboriginal kids score lower on academic skills proficiency aspects of standardized language testing.

“This is the message that we are trying to bring to the public and the public district school board,” Cyr noted. “I believe if they look into that, they will see one of the serious problems in English.”

One of the concerns stressed by Seven Generations staff is that as a result of these lower test scores, the Rainy River District School Board could hold off on teaching Ojibway until Grade 4, as required by the province, instead of the current 20 minutes a day starting in Grade 1.

Laura Horton, director of post-secondary education for Seven Generations, said holding back on native language training could have serious consequences for students.

“They begin the process of dropping out by Grade 3, when they’re eight years old. They remove themselves emotionally and mentally,” she said.

Cyr said only about five-10 percent of aboriginal students actually make it to their high school graduation.

“The challenge is to get an education for the average kid,” Lt.-Gov. Bartleman noted. “The really smart ones always make it.”

Seven Generations staff said one way to keep students engaged—and hopefully in school—is to incorporate their heritage in the classroom with a modified curriculum.

They showed Lt.-Gov. Bartleman several units, including the seasons and one on wild rice that currently are being used in classrooms to study everything from science to language.

“Now the kids look at the pictures at say, ‘Hey this is me,’” curriculum development co-ordinator Denise Bluebird said.

Another way in which they promote native content in schools is with the “Quest 4 Knowledge” initiative—a game show based on “Reach for the Top” for students in grades 5-8 in which 18 teams currently participate.

After the meeting, Lt.-Gov. Bartleman said he was glad to see an organization was addressing the needs of aboriginal students.

“I’m very impressed with what they are doing at the Seven Generations facility . . . and their work to try and fill in the gaps in educating [aboriginal] students,” he remarked.

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