Bringing Traditional Ways of Knowing into the Classroom

As part of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada’s celebration of World Water Day back in March, we asked our blog readers to share their stories about working with Aboriginal youth and taking positive action to address a water issue in their communities. For the first part of the contest, we asked for stories from teachers and youth program facilitators.

I am delighted to introduce you to Nadine Lefort, our first Sacred Water contest winner (who is also one of JGI Canada’s Project Development Grant recipients!).

1.   Tell us a little bit about the work that you do with young people.

I am the Education & Outreach Coordinator with the Mi’kmaq Environmental Learning Centre. That means that I am in charge of all environmental initiatives that we undertake. All of our programs are geared toward Mi’kmaq learners of all ages from the five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia; however, my two main projects include planning a summer camp for high school students, which focuses on natural resources and traditional knowledge, and our Unama’KIDS program, which engages grade 6 students in environmental stewardship activities. The Unama’KIDS group is made up of representatives of youth from all five Mi’kmaq communities, which, this year, included seven schools. I facilitate workshops with the students, and organize events like hikes and tree-planting days, all of which include Elders and community members, and the youth take stories and lessons from these events back to their classroom to share with their classmates.

2.   What do you see as the role for educators when it comes to empowering youth to take positive action in their communities?

The best role educators can play is as facilitators, helping youth to recognize their strengths and passions, and to facilitate taking action in their communities. By encouraging youth to work with their own strengths, passions and ideas, educators enable youth to grow into leadership roles and to continue taking action on their own throughout their lives.

3. What are your thoughts on the Protecting Our Sacred Water learning guide that you won through our Project Blue contest?

I was grateful to have read through it throughout our Sacred Water project because it reminded me of ways to weave traditional knowledge throughout all lessons and activities, and to play a facilitative role, encouraging youth to take action based on THEIR ideas. Great resource!

(You can download your own copy of Protecting our Sacred Water here. For more information, contact the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada at

4.   What’s the best thing about working with youth?

Their creative energy! I love how—within seconds—a group of youth can go from staring at you with blank faces to wildly talking about what they can do to take action. Their ideas are not limited by money or logistics…they really let their imaginations go, and come up with some ideas that would never have occurred to adults.

5.   What advice would you give other mentors and educators about incorporating Aboriginal knowledge and traditional ways of knowing into the classroom (including those who could be introducing the ideas to students who may not come from an Aboriginal heritage)?

My advice is to not be afraid about stepping on toes. A lot of people don’t want to teach about things that include cultural lessons because they are afraid to insult a culture, but by NOT teaching it, it is doubly insulting. I would suggest finding resource materials and a resource person (if they don’t know any Aboriginal individuals, talk to the school board – they ought to have an Aboriginal resource person, or contact a local Friendship Centre), and ask them where to start. Another GREAT thing to do is, if an educator is working in a class with Aboriginal youth, ask the youth to present about their culture, or ask them for ways to incorporate traditional knowledge (plant names, ways of hunting/gathering, language, traditional activities) into a lesson. Also, encourage students to consider the contemporary benefit of traditional knowledge (instead of thinking about Aboriginal knowledge just being in the past).

6.   What gets your grade 6 students fired up? What really excites them, gets them motivated, makes them think critically and creatively about actions that they can take in their communities?

They love to move around, so I often take them outside and let them run their energy off a little bit, usually with an activity that weaves in something from a lesson, so we can debrief afterward. They get really excited when they’re allowed to tell stories—it’s an age thing, I think—they love to tell stories from their lives. So, I try to find a way that they can share stories, either with each other or with the whole group, or through drawing, etc. They also love to come up with an action plan. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds are usually not consulted on ways to problem-solve in their communities, so when we talk about community problems, and they are asked for what they can do to change it, they get pretty excited.

7.   What has been one of your favourite activities with them so far?

I’ve only been working with this particular group since February, so it’s been a brief relationship, but we just went on a hike at the end of May to an area that has traditional hunting and ceremonial significance. Unama’KIDS participants, teacher chaperones, Elders, and a guide hiked through beautiful Acadian forest, with teachings and games along the way. We all scrambled down a cliff to get to the river, tromped through the river (wet feet!), and rested for lunch on the shores of the Bras d’Or. The kids were all exhausted, and the climb down was scary to some, but no one complained, and everyone beamed with pride as we sat down to devour our lunches. Our guide, a local moose management expert, talked about the pride they should feel, having walked the same paths as their ancestors, and that they need to continue to do things like this hike to strengthen their hearts throughout their lives. It was definitely my favourite activity, because I could see them reflecting on the importance of (re)connecting with their culture, with their ancestors, with their environment. So heart-warming!

They also loved it. During the hike, one of the students said, “I am grateful to be in the woods. I don’t spend a lot of time here anymore, and it feels good.” Another noted the garbage in the woods and asked why people would put it there in the first place, but also why other people wouldn’t pick it up when they see it. “It’s easy,” said the student. “And we all have to do our part to clean up Mother Earth.” Yet another student said, “I can see why our ancestors thought this was a sacred place. It’s pretty special.”

2 responses to “Bringing Traditional Ways of Knowing into the Classroom

  1. Pingback: Get Involved with Roots & Shoots! | Change is in you·

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