Forever Humbled: My Students as Models for Learning

Last month, seven students in Grade 6 self-identified as having indigenous heritage, participated in a school-sponsored hand drum-making workshop. The day and a half workshop, led by our spiritual mentor, Metis elder Donna Wright, and our local knowledge-keeper Ann-Marie Smith, witnessed the students spend an entire day soaking and stretching the hides, weaving the leather strips, making drum sticks, building beautiful medicine pouches, listening to (and sharing) stories, singing, laughing, and transforming. From the initial opening prayer to the closing ceremony the power of indigenous ways of learning and knowing held sway. And I continue to be humbled by my students as they learn, navigate, and support each other.

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Students working together to connect with each other through their learning.


Here’s a snapshot of my learning (courtesy of my students) over the day and a half:

  • Never, ever underestimate the power of doing. The connection to doing and story is tens of thousands of years old. We settlers call it ‘experiential learning’; indigenous cultures understand it as a fundamental way of knowing, learning, and being in the world.
  • The self-confidence and pride of the students grew over the course of the workshop. The change was palpable. These students were transformed through their active participation in the process.
  • There is no replacement for genuine mentorship. Two very dynamic and strong aboriginal women supported all of the students with laser-like focus and conscious openness. The energy and commitment offered was not lost on the students who listened with respect, but shared with tenacity. They relished the newly formed connections with their elders.
  • Story is elemental. The meaning and purpose of the drum to indigenous peoples were shared, but just as powerful were the stories from the students themselves. These stories leaked out over the course of the workshop and many shared about wanting to know more about their aboriginal heritage while others confidently shared their indigenous origins with the group. In the end, our story is all we really have.
  • Rites of passage and ceremony do matter. If there was any doubt in my mind that rites of passage was an optional exercise for our youth to undertake, watching these moments unfold soundly dispelled the misconception. As new students to our school they had found place, purpose, and support in our aboriginal education program. The workshop represented a passage of sorts. A movement into middle school. And they craved more opportunity to connect!
  • Individuality is essential to understanding commonality. After the emotional drum awakening ceremony, several of the girls felt that the process was not complete. Their drums were not finished. The drums needed something else. Individuality. Like their new owners. A hastily organized painting session was arranged and the students followed their muse as they decorated their drums with aplomb. A horse here. A dream catcher there. A gorgeous mountain landscape on another. All unique. All just perfect in their own way. Similar and unique.
Elder, Ann-Marie Smith, shares her knowledge with students.

Afterwards, Wright, a great grandmother herself, shared that she “always learns something from the young people every time” she works with them. Without a hint of guilt she then noted, “That’s one of the things that keeps me going. Watching our young people learn our ways. Grow. And become stronger and have more resilience.”

As always, the wisest know.


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