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In a city facing tough questions about racism and reconciliation, educators hope new authors in the curriculum can offer different answers

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At St. Patrick High School in Thunder Bay, 16-year-old student Alyssa Lentz raises her hand. Her English class is learning about Indigenous poets and authors.Photography by David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Rather than read The Great Gatsby, students in John Power’s English class are studying something written a bit closer to home – the poem of a young girl stripped of her language at a residential school.

It’s a dramatic shift away from the literary mainstays here in Thunder Bay that educators hope will encourage students to reflect on not only what is playing out in their own schools, but also beyond the classroom walls.

Mr. Power’s school district, the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, has moved to devote the Grade 11 compulsory English class to Indigenous authors. No longer do students study Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but are instead reading Rita Joe’s poem I Lost My Talk and Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse.

Increasingly, school boards across the country are revisiting their English curriculums to reflect a culturally diverse student population. Those changes are more pronounced in Thunder Bay, a city that has come under the microscope in recent years for its struggles with systemic racism and reconciliation with Indigenous people.

“This course is an opportunity to tell a different story, a story that’s really important in our country and especially in Thunder Bay,” said Mr. Power, a teacher and the instructional lead in English at St. Patrick High School. “Everything that we do with the content has real, visible implications.”

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Teacher John Power fields a question from Alyssa in his Grade 11 English class. They are learning about the poetry of Rita Joe.

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Ms. Joe, a Mi'kmaq poet from Nova Scotia, was orphaned at a young age and sent to a residential school.Writers Federation of Nova Scotia

On a recent Thursday, students in Mr. Power’s classroom sat in a circle and rolled a ball of yarn across the floor to form the pattern of a dream catcher. While they did this, they greeted each other using the Ojibway language.

The poems the class were studying dealt with Indigenous language. In I Lost My Talk, Ms. Joe wrote about attending a residential school, and having to relearn her native language. “Let me find my talk, so I can teach you about me,” the poem ends.

Mr. Power said the exercise with his students was a lesson in how language connects people, and to explore the challenges of speaking or writing a second language.

“Out of everything I teach, this one is the most meaningful for me. In this one, I feel like I’m part of real positive change,” he said, adding that this course would not exist in the same way a decade ago because the issues weren’t part of the national conversation to the same degree.

Still, Tesa Fiddler, the board’s co-ordinator of Indigenous education, said there were concerns from some teachers and students when the district first proposed the change. How comfortable would non-Indigenous educators be teaching the subject matter? Would the curriculum be rigorous enough for students who move to a Grade 12 mainstream English course?

Those concerns, she said, didn’t last long. The teachers received training; the literature taught students similar skills. Further, she said that the board believed the course was important because it helps educate students on the issues around racism present in Thunder Bay. It also follows one of the recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action on making Indigenous contributions part of school curriculum.

“I think that it’s necessary that this work happens,” she said. Educators teaching the subject at other grade levels in high school are also starting to become more comfortable using Indigenous literature, she said.

“It’s not about educating just Indigenous students. It’s about educating all students around Indigenous issues and about the history from an Indigenous lens, so that we can make sure that communities can start to address the systemic issues that still exist,” Ms. Fiddler added.

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'I think that it's necessary that this work happens,' school-board official Tesa Fiddler says of the Indigenous education being done in classrooms like Mr. Power's.

Several boards across the province, including the Lambton Kent District School Board in Chatham and the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board, are starting to take a similar approach to their Grade 11 English course. Their Indigenous populations are smaller than at the Thunder Bay Catholic board, where about 17 per cent of students self-identify as Indigenous (educators say the number is higher and many families choose not to self-identify).

School boards receive more funding from the provincial government for offering courses on Indigenous topics. The Thunder Bay Catholic board said the money goes toward native-language classes and other initiatives focused on Indigenous education.

Students in Ontario are required to take an English course every year of high school.

Curriculum changes such as those done in Thunder Bay can cause tensions with students and parents.

A story in The Washington Post in 2015 detailed how a teacher in an inner-city school in California spoke out against teaching Shakespeare to her students because she believed it did not speak to her diverse class. Another teacher responded that Shakespeare still spoke to the human condition.

Closer to home, trustees at the Peel District School Board, defeated a motion in April that the book To Kill a Mockingbird no longer be required teaching material in schools. Some trustees at that meeting argued that the book taught lessons on not being a bystander, and it was not up to them to decide which books are used in the classroom. (Last year, the board sent a memo to English departments that the book should not be taught in high schools, “unless instruction occurs through a critical, anti-oppression lens.”)

Damien Lee, an assistant professor in sociology at Ryerson University and a member of Fort William First Nation, said it is important that educators move toward changing curriculum that is reflective of students. He said the change to the English curriculum at the Thunder Bay Catholic board is “a great step,” especially during this era of reconciliation.

“That kind of mainstreaming of Indigenous authors opens the space to see the humanity of Indigenous peoples for what it is rather than just as a novelty,” Prof. Lee said.

The public board, Lakehead Public Schools, said it piloted a Grade 11 Indigenous class last year, but found that it needed to provide more training to teachers, and that some students required supports to deal with some of the content. Sherri-Lynne Pharand, a superintendent at the board, said the plan is to roll out changes to the course in the next academic year.

“We don’t want to jump into it. We want to do it slowly and carefully,” she said.

At St. Patrick school, Grade 11 student Alyssa Lentz said she has been told stories by her grandparents about Indigenous culture. Her grandmother is a residential-school survivor. The English course will help her understand the stories she’s been told “more deeply," the 16-year-old said.

“It’s something we can learn and take with us,” she said, comparing it to reading Shakespeare. "The stuff we’re learning here can be applied [outside] of school.”

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Alyssa Lentz says she believes the Indigenous curriculum offers lessons that she and others can apply outside of school.

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