On Bringing Spirit Back into School… A Holistic Perspective

It was about ten years ago that a little boy asked me:

“What is my spirit?”

Never having to answer that question before, it made me stop and think deeply about my own understanding of spirituality.

The little boy also had a disability that affected his abstract thinking. This often left him frustrated and angry when he didn’t understand what was being taught. I knew that meant that in order for him to understand what I was saying, I would have to make his ‘spirit’ something he could experience. The explanation I came up with was:

“Close your eyes. Now without saying anything out loud tell yourself I love you.”

The little boy closed his eyes and was quiet for a minute and then looked up at me with questioning eyes, “Is that my spirit?”

I nodded, “It is that voice inside you that only you can hear. That is your spirit. That is the part of you that will never die, even when your body gets sick or gets old that piece of you will be there.”

When I began teaching, my philosophy was fundamentally tied to the holistic Cree value that a person is made of four aspects of self – mind, body, spirit and emotion. All of these are equally important in the development of a person as a whole. This is what I was taught by my grandmother, and this is what I teach my own children.

To put this into perspective, we can look at an athlete. An athlete with only physical talent will make it only so far in reaching a goal. If we look at athletes that have reached the ultimate level of performance, they have done so by managing all four aspects of self. In order to succeed an athlete must learn techniques and strategy (mind), an athlete must learn to visualize and focus through high stress situations (emotion), an athlete must learn to build strength and control movement (body), and an athlete must learn to find quiet and push to better themselves from within (spirit).

To clarify, when I write about spirituality I am not writing about religion. I am not discussing a particular belief system that a person chooses to follow. I respect all religions, and the people that dedicate themselves to their beliefs. What I am recognizing that we can do in the school system is to teach individuals to find and use a voice within themselves that is responsible for their inner peace.

The first time I was asked how I was going to address the spiritual aspect in an educational setting I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I was teaching in a public school and it was made very clear to me that there would be no practice of a specific ceremonial ritual in my classroom. I had asked to have a weekly smudge, it was not allowed. A smudge is a Cree ceremony, to learn about the ceremony I would refer you to seek out a Cree ceremony knowledge-keeper as it is not for me to write down.

After being told the smudge would not be permitted I had to figure out another way to acknowledge the spiritual aspect in my teaching. I remembered the little boy, and I remembered the look on his face when he recognized that he had a voice that was his own inside of him. I chose to use activities that would bring about the use of my students’ personal voices in my classroom.

What came about from incorporating these activities was a group of students who were not afraid to speak for themselves, used communication rather than acting out on emotions, and had little to no behaviour issues. Some examples of activities would be yoga, meditation, outdoor walks in silence, and if possible, moments of gratefulness. These moments of gratefulness can be done as a group, or they can be done as an individual time set aside for quiet thinking. An example of this would be to think, write, or speak about one thing that students are thankful for in their life. The act of recognizing thankfulness is a moment of connection between the students, the world that they have been given, and their own voice to appreciate their gifts.

Imagine how thought process changes when students begin to recognize things to be thankful for in their life.

Imagine students listening to the voice inside of themselves when faced with a challenge.

Imagine being able to teach students how to make that voice a positive influence in their life.

Imagine the impact that this has on dealing with peer pressure.

How does this fit in the education system? I would answer that question by saying, “Right now we are a reactive school system, sending students to counselling AFTER a problem occurs. By beginning to develop inner strength, to teach inner peace, and to help students develop a positive inner voice would be proactive and preventative. That is how re-engaging the spiritual aspect would benefit the education system.”

And I’ll tell you what happened with the little boy after I explained spirit to him. I watched him close his eyes when he was angry and frustrated. I imagined he was talking to himself. I didn’t know what he was saying. Maybe he told himself that he loved himself. He learned how to find peace in difficult situations, on his own, with himself. And maybe that’s enough.

On Education…

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate

I remember the first time that I read this quote as a novice teacher fresh out of University. I was working with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) on a curriculum for Peacekeepers. I spent an entire summer researching Indigenous history and leaders of change such as Martin Luther King Jr., Paulo Freire, and Nelson Mandela. The common denominator that I found in all my research was education. Education has been used as a tool for change worldwide for centuries.

A horrific example of this is the Residential Schools used in Canada in the late 1800s and into the next century. Education was used to destroy Indigenous people’s way of life, language, and identity. Stories from that time period are unbearable to hear; they affect my great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents. This, by far, is one of Canada’s most abhorrent acts as a country.

Learning about the history of my people, as a teacher working in the education system, includes recognizing this scar that we carry in our history. I look at the events and circumstances that my people have survived, and I think there are enormous changes that have occurred because of these schools. The education system that was Residential Schools left a lasting impression of what a horrible weapon of change education can be in a society.

And I want that to change. I want my people to recognize how education can be used to reawaken our identity as Indigenous people. We need to use education as a tool for positive change. We need to use the education system to revitalize Indigenous culture, language, and identity.

I’m a firm believer in the traditional Indigenous philosophy of education that learners are responsible for their learning. I am not alone in this belief, for years Montessori schools have functioned on the philosophy that children are born with curiosity for the world around them. Feed that curiosity, facilitate learning experiences, and guide the development of goal-oriented learning, and inter-generational connectedness are my philosophy of teaching.

I also recognize that traditional Indigenous education systems involved experiences mentored by all members of the community. The entire community was responsible for that child, and in that respect, responsible for the future of the community.

I began working as a teacher with at-risk Indigenous youth in 2006, and I continued in that position for four years. The most significant experience during that time was developing a unique program called Kihtwam to bring students who had left school or had very low attendance back into the school. The Kihtwam program was initiated to re-engage learners. I designed the program with the holistic philosophy of traditional Indigenous education principles to foster development in the four areas of self: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The students and I worked together in the classroom. I was a facilitator and guide. The students were responsible for their learning experiences and goal setting.

In my time working with Kihtwam I was able to interact with over a hundred students and to establish individual learning programs for all of them. My goal evolved from simply getting them through the system, to adapting the system to the needs of my students. Students who had not been engaged in school were now becoming proactive in the classroom and in the community. They began to reach out to change the circumstances that were barriers for them to attain their goals.

We organized a youth leadership council that met with the community leadership from the three communities that had students in the school. My belief is that if you give youth a voice, listen, and take time to see what kind of change they want, they will give insight into a whole new perspective on community.

I look back on my time at Kihtwam and I see how education changed the world for the students that were re-engaged. When they connected to learning experiences that helped them to recognize their identity, their voice, and their opinions, they became empowered.

Since recently completing my MFA in Writing, I have returned to the field of education as a writer of educational resources. I believe in the power of education to create change. I believe that if used within a holistic philosophy, with respect for the individual’s identity, education is a powerful weapon for the community to build leaders of change.