In the days leading up to giving student tours of the Witness Blanket, I worked hard to prepare myself – researching, reading, furthering my knowledge so I could be prepared if students had questions. My biggest fear – not being an adequate tour guide for these students. What would happen if I were unable to answer some of their questions? How would their perspective of me shift if they saw me as inadequate? All of these thoughts overtook my mind,,, I was well aware that there would be no way I could come close to being an ‘expert’ on the Blanket; however, I wanted to try to be the best version of myself upon giving the tours – I did not want to let the students down.
“What do the students know and how can we continue this learning together?”
My insecurities quickly vanished once I was with the students – I do not know why I put so much pressure on myself… we are all learning! I began with a brainstorming session, where I had the students gather around a few poster boars. Their task was to write down everything they knew about Residential Schools – no thought or idea was wrong! The point of this activity was for me to gain a better understanding as to where the students were at in terms of background knowledge – I would then adapt my teaching as required. I was shocked to see how much the student actually knew; my feelings of inferiority slowly crept back in, but for a different reason this time…I had underestimated what the students would know and was worried I would not be able to teach them anything new! The dynamics shifted as we began to discuss what they had written down through brainstorming – I quickly realized that in this experience, they would be the teacher and I would be the learner…quite an empowering experience to say the least!
As we began to explore the Witness Blanket itself, the students were so excited; I began by allowing the students time to explore the artifacts before digging into the information (activity before content). The Witness Blanket can be overwhelming, as there is so much to take in, but at the same time powerful, as the beauty of the pieces speak for themselves. Some students chose to take a step back and view the Blanket from afar, while others took a more ‘up close and personal’ approach with the blanket – I was understanding of both experiences, as I had felt a multiplicities of emotions thus far in this process (hesitancy, fear, excitement, interest, etc.). Once the exploration began to wrap up, we dove right into discussion. The students had so many questions and it was a refreshing experience to have an informal conversation about things the students and I had both been wondering about lately.
Our session ended by unpacking our thoughts, perspectives and conversations. I truly believe that this reflective aspect of the experience was vital – spending time with the Witness Blanket is an overwhelming venture, reflecting is key. We revisited our initial brainstorming and began to discuss what we are now wondering. I was, again, surprised at some of the things the students had to say and was at a loss for words when trying to respond to some of their questions thoughtfully:
“Why can’t we just move forward? Why can’t we forget about what has happened in the past? Like the Treaties. Why do we still have Treaties when it is not fair for everyone? Why can’t we re-write the Treaties and make things better for everyone now and in the future? It’s just not fair. I wish that I could take some of the pain so our First Nations people can start to feel better.”
I am sure at this point my jaw hit the floor; I was so moved by each student’s expression of empathy. If nothing else, I know that this experience has tugged on the heartstrings of many as we discussed the ways in which we can move forward as one – reaching a point of reconciliation. I may not have been an expert coming into this experience, but that is okay. I may have learned more than I actually taught during the time spent with the students. I now see the power behind conversation – dialogue helps us to expand our perspectives and grow in ways we might have never imagined. It is through conversation that we find ourselves and others coming together, walking together; navigating this journey as one.
It is truly amazing how one sole entity, such as the Witness Blanket, can evoke a multiplicity of emotions while bringing so many people together. I am now able to see the importance of this piece in response to reconciliation – when you spend time with the Witness Blanket, it really makes you think about what has happened in the past. It really makes you wonder why our history tells itself like it does. It makes you feel a glimmering sense of hope for the future; it allows you to begin to see yourself within this narrative past, present and future – an empowering entity all on its own.