For Erica Kirton, teaching her students about the grim history of residential schools is far more than a set of lessons or curriculum to go over in class, because for her it is far more personal than that.
“Residential schools hit home for me,” Kirton, a grade 6 teacher at Edmund Partridge Community School in North Winnipeg said on Wednesday, one day before Canada will for the first time observe the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
Teachers at Edmund Partridge have been spending all week talking to students about the history of residential schools leading up to Thursday, and when Kirton talks to her class about that history, she said she is able to connect with them because she has her own story of how the schools have affected her and her family.
“My grandma attended residential school, my in-laws did, my step-dad did, so I do want them to know that these schools were real things that affected real people,” Kirton said.
And because she has her own experiences to draw on, Kirton said it is easy to get her students involved in what can be difficult conversations.
“I feel with my students that as soon as they can relate what is being taught to them to real-life they are quickly engaged, so I always share my story,” she said.
“And then they are all ears and eyes-wide-open listening.”
Kirton said when teaching kids about the history of residential schools and about the path to reconciliation, she always talks about the importance of “listening with an open heart.”
“I encourage them to listen, and most importantly to listen with that open heart,” she said. “And I encourage that of everyone, because even if you think you know about residential schools already, there is always more to learn.”
Kirton’s students have also taken part in a number of special projects this week, including painting rocks orange and writing words and phrases on those rocks to communicate what the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation means to them.
Grade 6 student Voilet Rain Ayotte is one of Kirton’s students, and like her teacher, she comes from an Indigenous background.
Ayotte said she hopes that for students who won’t be going to class tomorrow, that the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is about much more than just a day off from school.
“I’m really going to try and spend the day educating myself by doing a lot be reading and a lot of talking to my family,” Ayotte said.
She also believes that learning the history of residential schools is important because she said she knows that previous generations didn’t always get a chance to get that education and get a full picture of that history.
“I’m so glad they are teaching us all of this because my grandma and grandpa told me that when they were younger and when lots of people were younger they weren’t educated about this stuff in school and it is so important.”
Edmund Partridge Community School teacher Ben Nein teaches Grade 8 at the school and said with the age group he isn’t afraid to get into some difficult conversations when talking about residential schools and the path towards reconciliation.
“I am having those conversations with them, and I am making sure they are having those conversations with each other,” Nein said. “I am working to help them however I can to understand what is a complicated issue.”
On Wednesday Nein had his students think about and write down what reconciliation means to them.
“We hear the word reconciliation, but I ask them ‘what does that mean to you? What does it look like? What does it sound like?”
Nein said he knows that the issue of reconciliation and the history of residential schools won’t be something he and other teachers move on from after this week.
“It will be talked about throughout the year,” he said. “It will be a continuing conversation.”
— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun