Looking forward to sharing Indigenous ways of teaching and learning
As the start of a new school year, many students and staff will experience milestones. From a kindergarten student’s first day at school, to a Grade 12 student’s first day of their last year, this series of “firsts” will look into those particular experiences. Follow along Tuesdays and Thursdays for the month of September 2021 as we share stories from Vancouver School District students and staff.
Marlee Cultum joined the Xpey’ Elementary School this year as a School and Student Support Worker (SSA) where she is forging a new path in a unique role.
“The school is unique in Vancouver and probably the entire lower mainland, because it is an Indigenous choice-focused school.” Her role is also unique in that she works with students in all the classes, which is slightly different than the traditional SSA role that sees staff work with a handful of students at time in their classrooms.
In the mornings, Marlee spends time connecting with families before dropping in to the Kindergarten and Grade 1/2 class to offer support. “I also hang out with students in grades 4, 5,6 and 7 at recess and lunch, so I work with most of the students every day.”
With a background of Cree on her father’s side and of Scottish and British-decent on her mother’s side, Marlee grew up in Vancouver with two older siblings and her twin. She remains on a continuing journey of understanding her culture and sharing her gifts and teachings. Being at Xpey’, she says, is a really great opportunity to connect with Indigenous adults – teachers and parents – and especially with the children.
Marlee spent her early working years with children – as a nanny, tutor and volunteering with the Vancouver School District. She continued her personal journey by enrolling in the first Indigenous cohort of the educational assistant program run by the Burnaby and Vancouver school districts. “That changed the environment a lot and it was meaningful to have those connections throughout the program,” she says. Returning to school to further her career was not an easy decision or process. A 2012 graduate of Prince of Wales, Marlee says her secondary school experience was challenging having attended several schools. Through the EA program’s Indigenous cohort program, she gained and formed deep connections that helped her stay positive throughout her post-secondary education.
Like her classmates, Marlee brings an approach of student empowerment and shares her gifts and teachings with the school community.
“Indigenous educators share a style of hands-on learning, particularly outdoor learning,” she remarks. “This includes plant-based knowledge and medicines, traditional ways of teaching and oral language, and how that’s passed down, and, how important that is.”
Marlee explains that it is the cultural aspects of Xpey’ that are the most amazing. Collaborating with school and District staff members, Marlee helped to create an all-Nations room which includes an elder chair, drums, star blanket and smudging area with sweetgrass growing in the window. It is in this very special room where students can take a break from their classrooms to engage in activities connecting them with their cultures. Following classroom mapping work with the education team at Xpey’, Marlee and her colleagues can now focus on which students could further benefit from supports like a 20-minute body break outside with Marlee or time doing a smudge or artwork in the all-Nations room.
“The vibe of the school is oozing with culture,” says Marlee. “I hope that this will be a bit of a forefront for the rest of our schools in the District. It shouldn’t be looked at as a different way of learning or teaching – for me, it’s the way it’s been for so long.” She continues noting that this way of learning, which was taken away for so long, is something she and others are trying to bring back and share with students.
“I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to branch out and have Indigenous workers at all schools and that we will make a slow shift,” she says, noting the idea of seven generations. “It might not seem like the impact is huge right now, but it is huge for future generations.”
While the new school year is still relatively in its early phase, Marlee says she hopes this year she can help students deepen their social justice literacy. “With history, the way it is and how many wrongs have occurred to Indigenous folks, I think it’s really important that our youth understand what their rights are, and the value of traditional Indigenous practices.”
“I really want kids to feel like they are worth it and that’s what I’m really looking forward to sharing here this year.”
To read more of these stories, follow the District’s Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter accounts. This series of “firsts” will be posted every Tuesday and Thursday for the month of September.