The 2016 MATE cohort of English teachers with professor Sophie McCall (front row left) Deanna Reder (front row centre) and Rhonda Arab (front row right).

learning

Program’s focus on Aboriginal literature a first

May 13, 2016
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By Diane Luckow

In 1847 George Copway became the first Aboriginal person to write and publish a book in Canada. An Anishinaabe from Rice Lake, Ont., his autobiography is just one of the interesting Indigenous books and films to be studied during a special cohort of SFU’s Master of Arts for Teachers of English (MATE) program, which began this month.

The two-year, full-time program is offered through SFU’s Department of English for high school English teachers wishing to earn a graduate degree. This year, for the first time, the program focuses on Aboriginal literature.

Professor Deanna Reder hopes this new emphasis will encourage more English teachers to teach English 12 First Peoples, an alternative academic English course for all students that was incorporated into the B.C. high school curriculum in 2008.

“Even though it’s intended to bring in Indigenous content as an alternative, it is rarely taught in B.C., likely because most teachers feel ill-prepared to teach it,” says Reder.

Reder and out-going MATE program director Ronda Arab are focusing on Aboriginal literature in this cohort because they discovered that occasional, individual courses in Aboriginal literature offered during past cohorts have encouraged several teachers to begin teaching English 12 First Peoples.

“We thought that if teaching them one course on Aboriginal literature made them more confident, that we should offer an entire cohort based on Aboriginal literature,” says Arab.

Shirley Burdon, an English 12 teacher at Gladstone Secondary School in Vancouver, has been teaching English 12 First Peoples for the past four years, after taking a single Aboriginal Literature course during her MATE program.

She says the course gave her the background and confidence she needed to teach the new curriculum.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” says Burdon, who notes that the class is always fully registered.

“We have a very diverse ethnic mix at the school, and even though students who take the course may not have First Nations heritage, they certainly relate to being ‘other’—to living with two languages and cultures simultaneously. They really connect with those issues.”

Incorporating a focus on Aboriginal literature in the MATE program, or in the B.C. high school system, isn’t easy, as resources are scarce. That’s why SFU English professors Sophie McCall and Reder, along with alumni Dave Gaertner and Gabrielle Hill, a Métis artist, are producing an anthology of Aboriginal short stories for first- and second-year university English classes. The anthology should be published next year.