How to amplify indigenous voices in the classroom

Indigenous peoples and their perspectives have been historically underrepresented in the education world, resulting in a lack of belonging and safety for Indigenous students. When any student feels undervalued or different from their peers, a disconnect can occur, which can cause students to feel anxious or insecure. This lack of connection can have adverse effects on student learning which can bring about absenteeism, a lack of motivation, poor academic performance, or mental health challenges. 

As educators seek to better reach all students and create more equitable learning experiences, there has been a growing emphasis on building culturally inclusive classrooms where students are seen, heard, and valued equally. Through this heart-centered approach towards cultural inclusivity, Indigenous students will feel more acceptance and acknowledgment in the classrooms that embrace and celebrate diversity. Yet, while educators may be eager to create culturally inclusive classrooms, they may also feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. Luckily, there are many culturally mindful ways to amplify Indigenous voices in the classroom. Here are just a few steps you can take to integrate Indigenous voices into your lessons and to support Indigenous students.

How to Incorporate Indigenous Voices into the Curriculum

1. Do your research.

Educators can’t become experts in a culture that is not their own (nor should they be asked to be experts), but they can become culturally informed by learning, listening, and asking questions. By asking questions with an open heart and learning about common Indigenous values, educators can transform their instruction into one that is culturally informed. Through research, educators can weave their knowledge of other worldviews and different perspectives into the curriculum, other than their own. When Indigenous worldviews are reflected in instruction, all students can be supported.     

Takeaway: Ask, listen, and learn about Indigenous people and groups.

2. Ask for local guidance.

Each Indigenous Nation has their own unique knowledge system and way of being, and while there may be common threads that Indigenous cultures might share with one another, each Indigenous Nation is unique. Because of this, it’s important to consult local voices to ensure accurate representation. As most teachers are not experts in Indigenous curriculum, it’s best to reach out to your local communities for guidance, particularly by bringing in Elders or other Knowledge Holders, so that authentic local voices and perspectives can be heard. Educators can start this process by searching online for their local Nation, and by reaching out to their local office for guidance.

Takeaway: Consult Elders and Knowledge Holders in your local community.

3. Be culturally mindful of how Indigenous peoples are represented in the curriculum.

Educational content around Indigenous peoples often focuses on the Western perspectives of historical events. This curriculum often brings awareness around some of the historical wrongs that have occurred over time. However, focusing solely on the traumas and painful history of Indigenous peoples can subconsciously imply to children that the only thing identifiable with Indigenous people is victimhood. Educators must be mindful about this and strive to also teach about the flourishing cultural traditions of Indigenouse peoples, such as Powwows, Potlatches, or Storytelling traditions. Indigenous peoples’ resiliency and success should be taught, just as much as bringing awareness to historic wrongdoings should be learned.

Takeaway: Teach about both historical events and the thriving cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples.

4. Teaching without appropriation.

Many states and provinces require educators to teach Indigenous-related curriculum, yet educators are also wary of culturally appropriating the activity or information. Appropriation occurs when an aspect of culture is copied without context, trivialized, or devalued. To avoid this issue, educators can:

  • Explicitly acknowledge the culture or perspective that you are teaching
  • Learn about your local Indigenous groups
  • Acknowledge when you don’t know something, and learn with your class together
  • Read culturally diverse picture books
  • Include Indigenous authors in your classroom library
  • Learn and teach the Medicine Wheel Teachings
  • Learn and teach the Seven Sacred Teachings
  • Highlight Indigenous leaders, heroes, and artists during applicable holidays and events.
  • Include Indigenous perspectives into seasonal events

Takeaway: Create cultural learning opportunities that do not appropriate or trivialize Indigenous cultures.

How to Build Classrooms that Support Indigenous Students

Numerous studies have shown that when Indigenous students feel a sense of belonging within their classroom community, they are more likely to thrive in their educational journey and increase their academic performance. Fortunately, there are numerous strategies that educators can employ to help create this sense of belonging and safety for Indigenous students.

1. Use Diverse Educational Materials.

            One of the simplest ways educators can increase cultural safety within their classrooms is to include materials and resources that reflect racially and ethnically diverse people and their perspectives. By integrating books that reflect diverse populations, or by including books written by culturally informed people, Indigenous students will begin to see themselves in classroom materials, consequently will not feel so apart or marginalized from the mainstream society they live in. These books along with other materials can also aid teachers as mentor texts to more easily integrate Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum. Some books I suggest  include:

  • The Sharing Circle by Theresa Larsen-Jonasson (Primary)
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith (Primary)
  • Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie (Primary/Intermediate)
  • Eagle Mother by Brett Huson (Intermediate/Middle School)
  • Secret of the Dance by Andrea Spalding (Intermediate/Middle School)
  • The Medicine Wheel: Stories of a Hoop Dancer by Teddy Anderson (Intermediate/Middle School)
  • This Place: 150 Years Retold by Brandon Mitchell (Middle/High School)

Takeaway: Use diverse educational materials to create an inclusive community where all students are reflected and represented.

2. Be Mindful of Terms.

 Terminology used to describe Indigenous peoples and groups has continued to evolve over the years as our society evolves with selecting inclusive and appropriate language. However, while the term “Indigenous” is currently the accepted form to refer to the first peoples of their respective lands, your local group may actually prefer another term, such as Nation, band, Native American, Aboriginal, or Indigenous. While it may feel awkward to ask, research and respectfully learn about your local group’s preference for terminology. More importantly though, learning preferred terminology shows Indigenous students that they matter to their teacher, and that their teacher wants to learn more about them and what is important to their community. 

Takeaway: Research the appropriate terminology for your students’ local Indigenous groups.

3. Provide Alternative Learning Opportunities.

Some Indigenous groups may have different learning styles and values around education. For example, many Indigenous groups value holistic learning, collaboration, real world tasks, visual or auditory learning, and reflective heart-work learning. Once again, it is  important to reach out to your local Indigenous groups to learn what values are important in the education of their children. Educators are time-crunched already, but learning different teaching methodologies, particularly around traditional Indigenous styles of education, can improve individual teaching practices as well.

Takeaway: Be mindful of cultural values or learning styles and provide learning opportunities that take those values and styles into account.

4. Create meaningful relationships

A common shared value among many Indigenous cultures is to create meaningful relationships between individuals, families, and communities. It is common for many Indigenous groups to share the mindset of collaboration over competition, and community is often an important part of everyday life. To facilitate these meaningful relationships with Indigenous students, educators can create space for building meaningful bonds with families by communicating often, staying informed of cultural events that may be coming up, and through caring about the student’s overall well-being.

Takeaway: Create meaningful relationships with students and their families.

Eurocentric teaching models and biases can sometimes unintentionally exclude specific students. As educators we have the responsibility to include culturally relevant curriculum and implement supports that encourage success and happiness for our Indigenous learners. Through mindful action and reconciliation, educators can create culturally inclusive classrooms that amplify Indigenous voices, and create heart-centered spaces where Indigenous students feel they belong and are valued.

Jen Beaupre of One Curious World.

Jen is an Indigenous (Métis) educator with over 10 years of classroom teaching experience. She resides in British Columbia, Canada, and has worked extensively with Indigenous children and youth over her career.  Her passion is to help students and teachers increase their sense of well-being through heart-centered mindfulness and social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies, so that they can increase their self-regulation and compassion to become happier and more resilient people.

Connect with Jennifer Beaupre on FacebookInstagram, or her blog for more inspiration and tips on teacher wellness and social-emotional learning.