Every Child Deserves to Feel Loved. Teaching young children about residential schools.

By Colleen Devlin, teacher Aboriginal K / 1 Program at Ecole Puntledge Park, Courtenay, B.C.

Colleen Devlin is the Indigenous teacher for K/1 programming at École Puntledge Park, a Legacy School in Courtenay, B.C. She has been doing amazing work with younger children in teaching them about residential schools from an early age, creating a safe space for these important conversations.  

After DWF’s first virtual sharing circle, Colleen was kind enough to share her article with us so we could share it with other early primary teachers. It was originally shared within her school district along with a mini workshop to give primary teachers enough knowledge and courage to teach this important topic to their students. Colleen is happy to share her article further as she said, “the more educators feel comfortable teaching this topic, the more our kids learn.”  

Walking for Wenjack at Ecole Puntledge Park with young students provides opportunities to talk and ask questions.

Canada’s true history with residential schools is a topic mandated in the B.C. curriculum for every grade including kindergarten. Given the difficult subject matter, it is important for educators to take time for self-care after teaching lessons on the topic, whether it is going for a walk on the beach or talking with a friend or family member over a coffee break. When starting to teach about the subject, it is important to start by doing some background work – know which of your students  are in foster care or who may be having a difficult time, so you know who might need extra attention and care. Remember this is not ancient history – the last residential school closed in 1997. This article is a good resource that has some great early primary books, art projects, and ways to weave in kindness and generosity to structured lessons. 

We are constructing the building blocks of knowledge for further study in the upper grades. The history of residential schools is difficult to discuss for anyone, however it is especially challenging when talking to youth. Pictured here are the mainstay books I would use when talking with children.  

Amik Loves School is a gentle story. As you read it you could say, “Imagine if the Elder you know (the Ni’noxsola assigned to your school) couldn’t share her culture language or special songs with us because she wasn’t allowed to do so when she was at school. For some people this happened in schools like the one in this book.” Unless the class has more questions, I would leave them with that thought.  

With Shi Shi Etko, many pages lead to further discussion about the land and rich culture which allows you to invite children to think of what they would gather from their favourite places, and what memories they enjoy with their grand parents or important people in their lives. As Starleigh Grass says, “We will never understand the richness of what was taken away for seven generations unless we deeply understand the value First Nations place on land stewardship and multi-generational learning.”  

A brand-new book called The Train, is a special reflection of those who attended residential schools, as a Survivor visits a place with important but sad memories of relatives and friends that never came back. It is gentle and full of love, despite the challenging subject matter and personal story.  

Throughout of all our lessons, conversations, and art projects, we reassure children that they are loved – loved by their families, their people at school, and in the community. 

As you can see, these are all small steps; for the most part, I like to let the children take the lead by asking questions. Be prepared for some questions that come later as the students process the lesson. Parents may also have questions; in which case they can be referred to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website. 

Doing an art project after these discussions gives you a chance to circulate and check in on each child. Painting rocks or making orange handprints, making a Heart Garden with each heart bearing a special message to Survivors written by each child could help the kids connect with the material. The other art idea (pictured here) was inspired by George Littlechild – he had the class brainstorm feelings about going to residential school and being away from family. The children then choose a photo to add to their painting – very powerful.

George Littlechild had the class brainstorm feelings about going to residential school then they choose a photo to add to their painting.

Interweaving themes of love and compassion will help the children feel like they can enact change – Monique Gray Smith has beautiful books that help teach about kindness and generosity. Young students know what social justice is – they may be moved to actions like baking cookies for a soup kitchen or making donations to a local Indigenous organization. It is through these actions that we all bring about change for our future. 

Remember to prioritize your own  self-care. Indigenous Education Departments can also suggest books and lessons for you to support your teaching.  

Check out the Legacy Schools resources for more ideas as well. 

Check our calendar of events for our next virtual sharing circle