Michel Blades Bird Transcript

My name is Michel Blades Bird and I teach at the Ranch Learning Center which is on Treaty 6 land, near the town of Lamont, Alberta. All my students are youth growing up in government care and this very unique program was created a few years ago with a second sort of mandate side to it that our classroom is responsible to support the cultural and spiritual life for Indigenous students in care and I’ve taken that very seriously. It’s my just about tenth year in the classroom — our classroom is the educational component to a treatment plan.

All the youth that we have in our classroom are placed in the same grouping because of significant complex trauma. And that can come from addictions at a young age, abuse or offending abuse, brain injury even, and always heightened emotions. So, our classroom becomes that sort of reconnection to education for a lot of them. A lot of them have had an interrupted educational journey and that is also why they’re placed into this grouping so we are looking to build that back. And in no way do I want to make that sound like it’s an easy task. When I’m a student’s teacher for five or six years, that is a significant relationship-building that goes on through that time. Some students will even start out that they can barely attend five to ten, twenty minutes a day and that’s a success, right? Then, you build on that.

We try to bring in as many aspects to the classroom that are an anchoring element and it isn’t always technology, right? Every kid, okay, technology, they have it at home, they’re good with that. It’s also removing those kinds of things so a child or youth can feel, maybe they don’t care for themselves that day, they have anger and a lot of times hatred for so much that’s going on in their life that they can care for the life of another.

Our class in particular, we have classroom cats and they come to school every day and they just live and sit in the class and hang out and sleep on the floor and all of that. So, hopefully you can connect to loving an animal but then we have the aspect of the plants, right? We have Garden Towers, it’s a big basin that has water that goes up a tower and each plant gets watered and that’s where we can connect our tobacco in, right? And, if you can’t care for yourself you may care for an animal or a plant, right? Walking in every day knowing that there will be a change to that plant but with it goes success and failure, right?

Just like we all experience in life — goodness, happy things but sometimes things that don’t work out and how are we going to come back from that, right? You may have to regrow things, you may have to do things differently to make it successful but also the idea of — especially when it’s a protocol, right? Tobacco is the protocol that you’ll offer an Elder for prayers in a ceremony that you have to come to that with good intentions. you have to come to that with good feelings and and some kinds of positive thoughts and it really helps each kid to sort of be present to what they’re feeling and it’s not a, ‘can’t go over there, you’re feeling angry right now’, right? It’s that presence of those plants to maybe help ease those feelings and also knowing that those plants one day will take them to a ceremony where maybe they can ask for healing and healing for their family, right? That’s connecting all of those things back.

We always are grateful our classroom becomes an intergenerational grouping. As much as we are the teachers and the students are learners, we become learners and they become teachers in their own right because they all bring those teachings that they have carried along the way and especially when it comes to cultural things or language things, we all learn our our things in our own way and that’s an opportunity for kids that maybe don’t connect themselves to math, LA [language arts] but to weave all these things together so they can feel that part of themselves. It goes through everything that we do, I weave everything into everything.

My language arts becomes part of my social and my social becomes part of our Indigenous education. It’s just making sure that every piece that we’re putting together for the kids is something that they’re going to connect to or they’ll remember far past, you know, the door of the classroom. I know our model is more than unique but I think it’s something that a lot more schools and education systems need to take a look at because, when I say Indigenous ways of knowing and doing, it’s not necessarily putting a symbol of a teepee inside your math problem.

It’s that entire process of doing things differently and it does remove some of those things like testing and credits our students probably attend more, complete more and are retentive more than a lot of classrooms and things where there are assessment pieces going on all the time. It’s just  training and teaching the education system to think a little differently.