Connection to aboriginal culture helps Nanaimo students succeed

Thu. Nov. 28/13

An alternative learning program is helping keep aboriginal high school students on track toward graduation as they learn life skills along the way.

Aboriginal Outreach – more commonly referred to as AbOut – targets vulnerable First Nations students in Nanaimo school district who might otherwise drop out of the school system.

The program, now in its sixth year, is paid for from a Healthy Schools Network grant and focuses on Grade 9-12 students to help them complete all of their course requirements for graduation. There are currently about 38 students in the program.

“Our approach is to do so through outdoor education, sustainable living and a strong connection to aboriginal culture,” said Brett Hancock, one of the program’s instructors.

Hancock said the program was originally for First Nations students, but is now open to everyone.

AbOut takes students out of the traditional classroom and gets them working outside doing light construction, landscaping, maintenance and gardening, some of which happens at the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre and housing complex grounds on Tenth Street, the Young Professionals of Nanaimo’s community gardens, and with the construction class at Nanaimo District Secondary School.

Last week several students worked with Richard Carlton, an artist carving a protection pole for the centre’s daycare. The students have been part of the project for several months.

Carlton’s life experiences help him empathize with the challenges the students face as they spend time with him learning about spiritual aspects of their culture through carving and how to handle the power tools they’re using to shape the pole.

“When I was a kid, I kind of lost everything and being a teenager and not having mentors I could look up to I kind of lost focus, like a lot of kids do nowadays,” Carlton said. “We express ourselves in so many different ways and carving is part of their culture and it’s kind of becoming lost. Hopefully it will inspire some of these kids to express themselves in a different way.”

The students learn from just a couple of instructors who act as mentors and become constants in their lives.

“We’re looking at different ways to engage some of these students who have become somewhat disengaged with the mainstream school system,” Hancock said. “This a chance for very student-centred learning, which allows them to have a lot more input as to what they would like to see in their educational path.”

AbOut also focuses on the students’ relationships with their families. Combined with physical activities and mentorship the program provides, the students also gain the tools to help build their self esteem. It translates into improved school attendance, attitude and better classroom work habits.

Tyson Daniels, 17, who has been with the program since 2010, said he had difficulty at the school where there was little taught about First Nation’s history and culture and where each class change through the day meant learning from different teachers, each with different personalities and expectations. He said he finds it easier to learn from one teacher with one perspective.

“When you come here you get Brett every day,” Daniels said. “He connects with all of us better than with normal teachers – just teaching all of us as one.”

Daniels graduates in June and plans to continue his education at Vancouver Island University to become a child and youth care worker for aboriginal students.

Not all the students have set goals for their futures. Some are still mulling it over while others just want to graduate and see where life goes from there.

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