“Whose English Counts? Indigenous English in Saskatchewan Schools”

After our class talking circle on February 3, 2014 I was sparked by what Night shared. To refresh all of your memories, she talked about her university professor calling out her accent in front of the entire class. My first thought was, what accent? My second thought was what kind of teaching practice is that? We should be celebrating differences and not ostracizing our students for them. Night mentioned that she still is bothered by that today and that shows the impact that teachers have on learners.

Andrea Sterzuk’s article “Whose English Counts? Indigenous English in Saskatchewan Schools” also highlights the impact teachers, speech pathologists and educational psychologists have on our most disadvantaged students. This article was written in 2008 and contains a lot of data from 2004 but it is still relevant because the education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students is a current concern, which is addressed in the Continuous Achievement and Improvement Framework and the First Nations and Metis Education Plan. We cannot ignore these issues because “by 2016, First Nations and Metis children will make up 46.6% of the student population” (Sterzuk 9). If we do not find ways to include diverse learners and their diverse experiences “it is only a matter of several decades before half of the population of Saskatchewan will not have access to the necessary skills and education to gain access to employment” (Sterzuk 10), which is one of the main purposes of education. What will happen if the majority of our people are being suppressed like a minority?

I was very aware that education was used to assimilate First Nations individuals, for instance at Residential Schools. However, I never thought of the linguistically oppressive practices and procedures that have negative effects on Aboriginal students (Sterzuk 11). That is the thing about being a person from the majority: you are not forced to realize all the ways in which you are benefiting. Sterzuk expresses that “Indigenous English differs systematically from standard English on phonological, morphological, and lexical levels and in terms of pragmatics, syntax, and non-verbal language” (13). Not only does this mean some of our students will have an accent but they also learn differently. Indigenous English speakers learn more through storytelling and listening (Sterzuk 12). When these learning styles are ignored, Aboriginal students often fall below grade level and require additional support.

Since my future goal is to become an Educational Psychologist, I was very interested in the piece about biased assessment and misdiagnosis. In my inclusive education course about assessment we often discussed the bias found in standardized tests used to diagnose and label students. Some common tests that assess general intelligence levels are the WIAT – III and WISC – IV. Current tests that assess written and oral language are the TOWL – IV and TOLD-IV. Written spelling is assessed by the TWS. Throughout the course we got to deconstruct these tests and find their strengths and weaknesses. Although all of these tests are assessed numerous times to make sure they are unbiased, it is true that making an unbiased test is almost impossible to do. However, more than one test should be used to assess learners to help detect errors. Furthermore, the results are impacted a lot more by environment, the fairness and accuracy of the test giver and the current mood of the child on that day. If these factors are not considered then the child could be misdiagnosed. It is important to note that testing is never a first resort and it often takes up to six months for the testing process to start. Although there will always be misdiagnoses, the current team approach often combats these issues. It is the responsibility of the teacher and the LRT to keep data on a student and to apply tier 1 interventions (Response to Intervention) if they notice a problem. Testing only occurs when many strategies fail to work over a long period of time and the goal is never to label a student but to help them. I do believe that people are misdiagnosed but I would suggest that First Nations students are marginalized more by exclusive English teaching practices because very few learners go through the testing process, yet many of our First Nations students are struggling. Also, because of federal jurisdiction on aboriginal education, testing, which is provincially funded, is often very hard for First Nations learners to access (which is another problem entirely).

As teachers we need to make sure we are varying our teaching strategies. We need to consider how all of our students learn best and incorporate these techniques as much as possible. Sterzuk states that “students should not be penalized for their differences” (14) and I would expand that idea because differences should be celebrated and encouraged. Sterzuk calls for a document that “outlines the characteristics of Indigenous English” (16) but I have not seen such a document. Would it not make more sense to differentiate instruction and not penalize someone for their accent? I mean, characteristic sheet or not, I should be able to teach all my students effectively and a learner inventory will let me know how my students learn best. It is our job as educators to teach without bias and to find ways to help our students succeed. No student deserves to be called out because of their differences and everyone deserves to be in an inclusive learning environment that supports their learning style. Our class seems very passionate about including First Nations learners and I have no doubt in my mind that we will include First Nations resources, differentiate our teaching strategies and assignments and not judge our students based on how they talk.

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