When the Medicine Wheel and Singing Bowl Meet: Can mindfulness support indigenous students in Canadian schools?
A colleague of mine recently made me aware of the work that she had been doing in her district on the “Keeping Aboriginal Students in School” (KASIS) project, a study investigating the challenges that indigenous learners face regarding life in school and what helps to keep them engaged and enrolled.The report is interesting to no end, and set me to thinking on the connections between indigenous learning approaches and mindfulness-based interventions, and the role that mindfulness might possibly play in supporting indigenous learners in K-12 contexts. A quote from the KASIS report was particularly powerful and resonated with me:
I've been taught in the Cree language the phrase “ni nimoya isketen” which translates to English as “I know nothing”. The meaning behind this phrase is more complex than may appear. When I say these words it reminds me about the importance of humility and to accept lessons that are given, at the time they’re given. These words tell me that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that every person‟s part is of equal value to the whole. (Wallace, 2016, pg. 20)
First, the phrase “I know nothing,” and Wallace’s first reflections on its meanings reminded me a lot of ideas like ‘beginner’s mind’ and how mindful practices can help learners to separate themselves from their preconceptions to develop curiosity, openness to learning, and understanding of interconnectedness (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Wallace goes further in her reflections of the meaning of the phrase:
The words tell me that the privilege assigned to me through the color of my skin is significant, and actively subverting that privilege is part of what I do to be a culturally safe person. Finally, in the context of reconciliation, these words have a literal meaning - I do not know. I don’t know what it is like to be a scared lonely child starved of their families love and affection; I don’t know what it’s like to be at the intersection of oppression, domination and discrimination; and I don’t know what it’s like to fight for my constitutional and human Rights, only to be denied them. (Wallace, 2016, pg. 21)
It resonated with me in a number of ways. Cushner (2016) suggests that the skills required to experience positive interactions across cultures are curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy, and the ability to cope with the strong emotions that may result (pg. 2014). Wallace’s reflection on reconciliation contains a number of Cushner’s skills in action. Mindfulness programs, by design, seek to promote empathy and compassion (Mindful Schools, 2016, pg. 4). These connections make me curious as to the role that mindfulness training for teachers, students, and leaders might have to play in discussions and initiatives related to reconciliation as it is addressed in K-12 contexts.
Of specific and personal interest to me are the challenges that young indigenous learners from remote northern communities face when attending school in southern schools away from their home communities. My hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has been in the news a lot lately in articles bringing to light instances of institutional racism towards the city’s indigenous residents. Much of this was brought out in the open after the tragic passing of a number of young indigenous students living temporarily in the city to study at high school. Unfortunately, many students have no other option but to leave their families and travel to the city if they wish to complete their high school studies (“Deaths of 7 Indigenous students in Thunder Bay the responsibility of all Canadians: author”, 2017).
Since the story broke, there have been so many heartbreaking interviews with young people sharing their stories, feelings, and fears. These young indigenous kids face many challenges in addition to the racism endemic in the community, many of which mirror those faced by international students. Hayden (2012) states that students face challenges when their native culture is not represented in their school life, and issues of identity resulting from lack of stability in their environment (pp. 64-67). Students involved in mindfulness training report that feelings of community, relationships with others, and a greater sense of ‘place’ are central to their experience, offering the possibility that mindfulness may help address such issues (Cheek, Abrams, Lipschitz, Vago, & Nakamura, 2017, p. 2564). Students also reported “getting in touch with their inner self” and “feeling an intuition for me”, indicating that mindfulness training may support positive identity forming as well (p. 2573).
The KASIS report describes IK-SEL as “two ways of knowing and being, with a bridge”. Mindfulness has been shown to support SEL programming for teachers and students (Garner, Bender, & Fedor, 2017; Bakosh et al., 2016; Meiklejohn et al., 2012), and indigenous participants in a previous study in Manitoba related to a mindfulness-based intervention program in the field of health and well-being found the practices used to be effective and culturally acceptable and suitable (Dreger, Mackenzie, & McLeod, 2015). Furthermore, recent studies of mindful engagement with the natural world suggest that it can heal feelings of separateness from the land and that parallels exist between cognitive and spiritual outcomes in secular mindfulness practice and indigenous land-based spirituality (Crews & Besthorn, 2016; Dylan & Smallboy, 2016). I’m very interested to learn the thoughts of indigenous educators regarding the possible utility of mindful learning practices to form a part of that bridge in IK-SEL classroom applications. If there are any Indigenous educators out there reading this, please comment below!
Bakosh, L. S., Snow, R. M., Tobias, J. M., Houlihan, J. L., & Barbosa-Leiker, C. (2016). Maximizing Mindful Learning: Mindful Awareness Intervention Improves Elementary School Students’ Quarterly Grades. Mindfulness, 7(1), 59–67.
Cheek, J., Abrams, E. M., Lipschitz, D. L., Vago, D. R., & Nakamura, Y. (2017). Creating Novel School-Based Education Programs to Cultivate Mindfulness in Youth: What The Letters Told Us. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(9), 2564–2578.
Crews, D., & Besthorn, F. H. (2016). Ecosocialwork and transformed consciousness: Reflections on eco-mindfulness engagement with the silence of the natural world. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 35(1-2), 91–107.
Cushner, K. (2015). Development and assessment of intercultural competence. In M. Hayden, J. Levy, & J. J. Thompson (Eds.), SAGE Handbook of Research in International Education (pp. 200–216). London: SAGE.
Deaths of 7 Indigenous students in Thunder Bay the responsibility of all Canadians: author (2017, November 18), CBC News. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/topic/Tag/First%20Nations%20student%20deaths%20inquest
Dreger, L. C., Mackenzie, C., & McLeod, B. (2015). Acceptability and Suitability of Mindfulness Training for Diabetes Management in an Indigenous Community. Mindfulness, 6(4), 885–898.
Dylan, A., & Smallboy, B. (2016). Land-based spirituality among the Cree of the Mushkegowuk territory. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 35(1-2), 108–119.
Garner, P. W., Bender, S. L., & Fedor, M. (2018). Mindfulness-based SEL programming to increase preservice teachers’ mindfulness and emotional competence. Psychology in the Schools, 55(4), 377–390.
Hayden, M. (2016). Third Culture Kids: the global nomads of transnational spaces of learning. In T. Bunnell, M. Hayden, & J. Thompson (Eds.), International Education (Vol. 3, pp. 59–77). London: SAGE.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
Meiklejohn, J., Phillips, C., Freedman, M. L., Griffin, M. L., Biegel, G., Roach, A., … Saltzman, A. (2012). Integrating Mindfulness Training into K-12 Education: Fostering the Resilience of Teachers and Students. Mindfulness, 3(4), 291–307.
Mindful Schools (2016). Mindful educator essentials: Week 3 integrating mindfulness and
social-emotional learning programs [pdf]. Retrieved from: http://www.mindfulschools.org/courses/mod/book/view.php?id=31295&chapterid=28497
Wallace, S. L. (2016). Factors in Aboriginal Student Success: Final Report on the research project: KASIS - We’re in This Together: Keeping Aboriginal Students in School. School District No. 57 Aboriginal Education Department.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.