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Cree School Board refines learning techniques for isolated students

BY Patrick Quinn May 5, 2020

As the Quebec government implements a plan to reopen elementary schools and daycare centres in the coming weeks, the Cree School Board announced April 23 that its schools will remain closed until at least the fall. 

In collaboration with local government and health officials, the CSB determined that bringing students back to school before fall posed too great a risk to communities. They also felt it was important to make a firm decision before families left for Goose Break. The clarity enables the CSB to focus on supporting student success in other ways, such as its new online learning platform – available at eeyoueducation.ca/youth/students/olp.

This digital platform now features projects, stories and activities for all grade levels in Cree, English and French. With a steadily expanding range of content, the platform has been drawing 1,500 viewers a day, half of which are unique. Prepared in a matter of weeks, it compares favourably to similar platforms offered by other school boards.

“The fact that it was developed and implemented so quickly is really a testament to the great team we have in place at the Cree School Board,” said CSB chairperson Sarah Pash. “The board has always been a pioneer in development and so taking that into the online environment has been a logical next step. The crisis has been a good illustration of why we need to be able to do things differently and have different modes of delivery.”

As it became apparent that the school year might not resume, the CSB looked at online resources developed across Canada and the United States for ideas to bring to their communications consultant and web designer. With extensive effort, they developed the robust tool according to the region’s diverse needs, ensuring that Cree language and culture were integrated in engaging ways. 

“All the teams that worked on it felt very emotional when it finally went up,” said Kim Quinn, the CSB’s director of school operations. “It was a lot of work but well worth it. They made it look really good.”

The platform combines resources from the CSB curriculum with relevant selections from the Quebec education ministry and resources found on the web. New links and activities continue to be added, introducing parents to resources they can explore with their child or have them work on independently. 

On the landing page, there is a wealth of resources for parents, child-friendly information about the coronavirus and downloadable PDFs of activities to do in the bush. Quinn suggests reading provided assignments before Goose Break, as conversations and experiences in the bush can serve as the foundation for future projects.

“The ability to use those resources on the land is an opportunity to engage in something we always say is important, land-based education,” Pash told the Nation. “Traditional education was led by the family. Children learned about culture from their parents and Elders – how to relate to each other, all the things that are important to who we are as Eeyou.”

Secondary 4 and 5 students can now borrow laptops to keep up with their assignments. As their graduation or promotion is based on performance in these types of projects, adapting course content into digestible portions with student-friendly language was painstakingly prepared.

Either the CSB or individual schools contacted more than 260 potential graduates to inform them exactly what they need to complete their year. Generally, it’s an integrated project related to the current pandemic. Teachers are checking in with students at least twice a week to support their efforts, even helping with setting up email accounts and connecting them with a tutor when necessary.

“One thing I’m proud of is a great number of teachers have volunteered to tutor our students, helping them through these learning packages, especially focusing on the graduating class because we really want them to get their credit and graduate,” said Pash.

For the younger grades, a variety of interactive stories, puzzles, songs and games keep the education fun. There are numerous literacy activities and even dancing and yoga to encourage exercise. One assignment related to critical thinking asks young students questions about commercials they’re watching. 

Parents exploring other “edutainment” resources may be interested in APTN’s new streaming platform Lumi, which is offering its commercial-free Indigenous children’s content for free. Among its 12 programs for children is Between Two Worlds, which features Nation editor Dan Isaac.

“With everything going on in the world right now we’ve decided to open up our kids programming for free on that platform,” said APTN Chief Operating Officer Sky Bridges. “It’s a great opportunity to learn a language. You can’t find our programming anywhere else.”

Cree language activities on the CSB platform include matching words to images and finding a missing syllabic that corresponds to a given picture. There are stories told in both northern and southern dialects, while Cree teachers and retirees appear in videos performing songs for children.

The downside for some parents is that they don’t have internet access. To help bridge this digital divide, the CSB is working with schools to print learning packages for these families. Nonetheless, most students are adapting very well to the online instruction, and the board is exploring options for expanding technological interactions in the coming year.

“We’re going to come out of this period with a number of tools,” Pash explained. “We needed to be innovative – it’s shown us there are new ways we can work. Our students are so resilient. What we’re doing now is not only foundational but will set us up really well for moving into another crisis from a position of strength.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.