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Haida art, tablet computers inspire Exshaw School students

Modern technology and Haida culture have come together at Exshaw School as part of a project to engage students and help them overcome literacy challenges.
The Black Canoe literacy group at Exshaw School pose with their Haida-inspired masks.
The Black Canoe literacy group at Exshaw School pose with their Haida-inspired masks.

Modern technology and Haida culture have come together at Exshaw School as part of a project to engage students and help them overcome literacy challenges.

Exshaw School learning support teacher Craig Kestle is using Apple iPads and the monumental sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, the Black Canoe, created by famed-Haida artist Bill Reid, to inspire his literacy group – 11 boys in Grades 5 and 6 – and help them gain skills and confidence as learners.

Kestle described the Black Canoe, which sits in front of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. as the ‘perfect storyboard’ for teaching students how to tell stories, as Reid’s work features 13 mythological characters – from Raven to Eagle and Mouse Woman to the human chief – that fit within both aboriginal and Canadian culture.

“When you look at it, the first thing you wonder is who are they and why are they there? With this group of students it is a great springboard to look into developing story and looking at literacy in a different light, especially in light of some of their challenges and their strengths,” Kestle said.

The students in the Black Canoe literacy group are the first to use the school’s nine iPads as part of their education. And Kestle said these gadgets help students develop skills outside of the strict sense of literacy of reading and writing.

Instead, these technological tools provide students with options and other routes to learn and access information, such as podcasts or audio books, that help them compensate for a lower literacy level.

“Our reading level may be what it is, but our skill level can be improved and if we are not a reader at home and we’re not enjoying reading all the time, that skill is not going to improve as much,” he said. “Whereas if we are building skills with a tool like the iPad, the interest is there and the engagement is there, so therefore, the skill level – my hope for the students – will compensate for some of these significant challenges.

“The main thing for our students is it has given them literacy in a way that is not simply attached to the keyboard and word processing… and with 21st century learning, the way we know the world is moving and the expectations of our young students when they get to the age where they join the workforce, it’s a lot different than it was when we grew up.

“The iPad is a tool to help any learner, but especially learners with some significant challenges to find success.”

And while Kestle sees the technological tools as a route to help students achieve success, three of the students in Kestle’s class – Keagan Holloway, Kota Alexander-Hunter and Clinton Shortneck – all agreed the project and the iPads are fun.

Alexander said the iPad gives them a great way to show what they’ve learned, while Shortneck said he enjoyed using it to put the story together and hearing his voice and the voices of the other students in the videos.

The students, who meet with Kestle for 1 1/2 hours each school day, began the project in September by taking Reid’s story behind the sculpture – the characters essentially wandering about the ocean – and revising it by deciding they were fleeing ecological disaster as the fish and trees run out.

And from the list of characters, including Raven, Eagle, Grizzly Bear, Bear Mother and Beaver, each student chose the one that best represented themselves and their characteristics.

The iPads came into use as the students created digital comics exploring their characters and their story. They also made intricate and beautiful plaster of paris masks and extensive storyboards that will be used in the next stage of the project as the iPads will be used to make video vignettes that tell how the story ends.

The Black Canoe literacy project grew out of a small group of masters of education students studying at Simon Fraser University – including Kestle, who was teaching on Haida Gwaii at the time – exploring how they could use Haida culture as a teaching tool in a creative or imaginative way.

“The whole idea of finding – whatever you are teaching or learning – the story in it and bringing the story alive and doing it in a way that invites everyone to participate (by) becoming a character or finding a niche or role,” he said.

“Focusing on any of our Canadian First Nations cultures, it really brings in a great element of connecting spirit, land and past, present, future even.”

By the time the project comes to an end in February, along with the comics and masks, the literacy group will have created a storybook, a movie documenting their work and their journey and, with the masks and puppets, the video vignettes of their story’s future.

And then Kestle is planning to begin a similar project that explores the students’ own Stoney Nakoda culture.

“And that to me is more important because they are the experts in their culture, connecting in a way that brings it into the school, which is so important,” Kestle said.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to begin with your own culture, but then the reflection needs to go back to their culture. There’s no Mouse Woman in Nakoda culture, but the more they talk to their elders the more they are going to find out about their culture and uncover characters like that,” he said.

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