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Celebrating community identity

By Ashley Aoki (she/her), teacher, grateful to be living, playing, learning, and working as a settler and guest on the traditional, unceded, ancestral territory of the Okanagan syilx’s peoples, and in particular the Penticton Indian Band

Teacher, May/June 2023

Until recently, I didn’t quite understand why creating a class-room community centred around equity mattered to me. I grew up in a white neighborhood, and most of my classmates were white. It took a long time for me to even admit I was embarrassed that my family didn’t look like other families in my school. During my graduate studies, I was reminded how important it is for children to see themselves mirrored in their learning and have a window to others’ experiences. Seeing oneself reflected in the curriculum can help validate and strengthen BIPOC students’ concepts of self and identity, and help build classroom community, connection, and empathy. I aim to evoke these elements in my instructional practice by looking for connections in the curriculum and finding links between subject matter and self-exploration.

My instructional practice is guided by the First Peoples Principles of Learning, and the project discussed in this article is centred around the principle that “Learning requires the exploration of one’s identity.” I’ve also adopted the mindset that “Learning involves patience and time,” and that projects won’t necessarily be completed simply because a term ends. This shift in my thinking has allowed me to travel to deeper places of learning with the students. We have the opportunity to breathe life into learning topics that often feel rushed and slow down in the places that deserve extra time.

I was inspired to introduce a name and cultural identity project while looking at a world map and asking myself, “Who are my learners?” and, “What are my learners’ stories?”

In pursuit of answering these questions, I developed two assignments for my learning community. The first invited my students to learn about who they are in relation to their names. Recognizing that some of my learners might not have access to all of the stories about their name, including the answer to “Why were you given the name — ?” I chose to instead ask them questions such as, “What do you like about your name?” “What are three important facts about your name?” and, “What does your name mean?” Several of these questions could be answered by researching online, and many learners chose to extend their research by working on the assignment at home with their families.

During the first phase of the project, Bonny-Lynn Donovan, Indigenous literacy support teacher, joined our class regularly to share a variety of stories authored by Indigenous and/or BIPOC peoples that connected to our name project. For example, she shared How Names Were Given (a syilx story), The Name Jar (a Korean story), and I Like Who I Am (a Mohawk story) with the class. Learners shared reflections and asked questions about each author and the stories. The questions were written down and answered in follow-up lessons.

Bonny-Lynn also shared important information about the authors, including what lands they were from and the stories of who they are. She reminded us that a person’s context (and story) matters and influences the stories that they share with their audience. Through each story shared, learners deepened their understanding about their own story and the stories that exist within our classroom community.

I was inspired to introduce a name and cultural identity project while looking at a world map and asking myself, “Who are my learners?” and, “What are my learners’ stories?”

The second activity invited students to learn more about their cultural identity. Because they had spent quite a bit of time learning about their name, several had learned that their last name was often connected to a country of origin (unless the spelling of the last name changed). Learners researched questions about their families’ countries of origin, learned facts about the types of meals that are typically eaten, and shared what makes their cultural back-grounds unique. When the second activity was complete, students wove the two activities together in a formal piece of writing titled “All About Me.”

To display the pieces, I wanted to visually represent each learner’s cultural roots. It would become my “launching point” when discussing the fur trade, why people emigrate/immigrate, and the communities on Turtle Island (presently known as Canada) that have been affected by settlement and colonization. I designed the display with special attention to each child’s identity. Their pictures were taken on Orange Shirt Day and placed around the outside of the atlas. A piece of string connected them to one of the countries named in their picture. This display has been outside of our classroom for a couple of months now, and other children stop and ask questions about the display such as, “What country is that?” Some students will look at the pictures and trace the string back to the student’s country of origin. I love that this learning display generates wonder and connects learners in my class to the broader school community.

After spending over four months on this project, I knew I wanted to create time for learners to celebrate who they are and what they learned. I suggested that on Valentine’s Day, we hold a cultural celebration, and each person could bring in a dish that connected to their cultural identity. When I brought the idea forward, one of the students raised his hand and asked if we could create a cookbook with all the recipes. It was a perfect request to celebrate the unique and beautiful cultures in our community! On February 14, 2023, food that connected to the children’s cultural identity was brought in. Everything from waffles, egg tarts, karjalanpiirakka, and more. My parents joined us and several of the students made Japanese rice balls, which is a special recipe that connects to a tradition shared by my late Grandpa Aoki.

After our cultural celebration, I asked families to email me the recipes that were brought in. I wove all the recipes together into a cultural celebration cookbook. At the end of the cookbook, I took photos of each child and created a mosaic of photos, which is now the end piece of our book. A remarkable wrap up, for an even more remarkable project, tying each of us together while celebrating the uniqueness we bring to the community!

About the author

Ashley Aoki (she/her) is an elementary educator in School District 67 (Okanagan Skaha). She holds a graduate degree in Literacy and Language Arts from the University of Victoria and is in the process of completing her Educational Leadership Certificate from Queens University. On her paternal side, Ashley is fourth generation Japanese Canadian and on her maternal side she’s fifth generation European (German and Swedish).


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