Indigenous authors like Tanya Talaga will be studied in Grade 11 English in Durham Catholic schools. Photo by Wendy-Ann Clarke

English course to explore Indigenous voices

By 
  • August 30, 2020

When Grade 11 English students in Durham Catholic high schools receive their reading assignments this year, the works of Shakespeare and other conventional texts will be replaced with ones focusing on Indigenous voices.

The new course, English: Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis and Inuit Voices, will reflect the Durham Catholic District School Board’s commitment to the teachings of the faith and to fulfilling recommendations outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

“When we looked at our Catholic social teachings about really addressing those who have been marginalized, we really wanted to make this a priority in our board,” said Superintendent of Education Mariah O’Reilly. “We saw it as a tremendous opportunity to build capacity in our students and teachers around the really important issues of Indigenous education and to enrich our students’ knowledge and experience of our Canadian history and where we want to go moving forward.”

A team of educators and Indigenous advisors worked to develop the course and will provide support for teachers implementing the program throughout the school year. With this move, the board joins others in adopting the credit program which fulfills the mandatory Grade 11 English requirement for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

Vanessa Pinto, head of the English department at Loretto College Secondary School in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, helped to develop the course in her board and has been teaching it for the past 10 years. She says the incorporation of often marginalized perspectives has helped her diverse student body to not only engage but feel connected with the literature.

“Studying Indigenous content became a really beautiful experience that really started inspiring students,” said Pinto, who has a masters in Urban Indigenous Education. “I saw that they were more excited to read these texts than I’ve ever seen them when reading Romeo and Juliet in my time as a teacher. A lot of the kids that said they hated reading are reading now.”

Readings for the new course will include works by Indigenous authors such as Tanya Talaga, Jesse Thistle, Drew Hayden Taylor, Eden Robinson, Waubgeshig Rice and Lee Maracle.

Pinto says the movement away from the traditional Eurocentric canon of text speaks to the cry being heard in the wider society to include diverse perspectives into the mainstream.

“We’re not mandated to teach Shakespeare or The Great Gatsby, we’re mandated to teach the students a collection of reading materials, genres and a variety of novels, plays, poetry and non-fiction articles,” said Pinto. “As we’ve now moved into the 21st century, it is becoming more and more important that we include the voices of all people, in particular Indigenous communities and the voices of our African (and) Caribbean communities in our classrooms. This is not just in the classroom but also connects to what’s going on in the larger society and the world.”

In the development of the new course the board worked with Melanie O’Neill and Karli Robertson — members of the Indigenous Education Advisory Circle — and also integrated input from an Indigenous student advisory group. As a follow-up, the board will be working to incorporate more Indigenous voices in Grades 6 to 8 to enhance students’ base knowledge and to support Indigenous education at the high school level.

“We needed to make sure we had enough support within the Indigenous community,” said James MacKinnon, DCDSB academic services consultant. “We’ve been working on building relationships for the last few years, so when we had enough support, we were confident that we could do this successfully with Indigenous voices meeting us.”

In addition to studying Indigenous authors, the new course will explore documents such as the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action to build capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and respect. 

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