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March 1, 2001 Beadwork is ethnomathematics for Native educators







Students in a workshop on using beadwork to teach mathematics.

Trina Slapcoff, a Concordia student, and Cathy Sewell, from the University of Alberta, in a workshop on using beadwork to teach mathematics.


Students take part in a workshop on using water in the science curriculum.

Virginia Hall and Geoff Black, who are both from Actua, the umbrella association for summer science camps, take part in a workshop on using water in the science curriculum.

Photos by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Eilis Quinn

It is time to challenge the idea of math and science as sets of abstract laws and principles and start approaching them as skills we use naturally in our day-to-day lives.

This was the message that rang out in many of the workshops offered to math and science teachers of aboriginal students at the DreamCatching 2001 conference which took place February 7 to 10 in the Henry F. Hall Building.

Workshops covered areas such as the integration of information technologies into science lessons, instruction tools to help teach hands-on science in the classroom, and career planning for aboriginal students. But workshops also touched upon the education of younger children and the well-being of teachers, as part of a total approach to education.

At a workshop titled “For the Seventh Generation: Connecting Mathematics and Aboriginal Culture in the Classroom,” the possibilities for developing an understanding of mathematical concepts through aboriginal beadwork and patchwork were explored.

Dr. Jim Barta, from the Department of Elementary Education at Utah State University, described his approach as ethnomathematics: the relationship of math to culture. In the workshop, Barta promoted the idea that all mathematical concepts appropriate to elementary students can be illustrated with beadwork.

“The way we teach math and science often causes many obstacles,” Barta said. “In the way we teach native kids, we turn them away from who they are. What we should be saying is, ‘You’re a gifted beadworker and that already makes you a gifted mathematician.’”

Half-way through the workshop, participants Allan Bork, a teacher at Sherbrooke School in Edmonton, and Darren Googoo, Education Director in Membertou, N.S., were already planning how they were going to implement the workshop’s ideas into their lesson plans.

Bork, who teaches at a school that is 95-per-cent aboriginal, even hoped to include beadwork in the final exam.

“Look at this!” Bork said, holding up the multicoloured beadwork. “You’ve got everything here, percentage, ratio, graphing — even algebraic geometry!”

Googoo, intrigued by the whole subject of ethnomathematics, saw an opportunity to adapt some of the traditional Mi’kmaw dice games of his region to the curriculum.

“We haven’t allowed our children to see enough of their culture in the classroom,” he said. “Culture isn’t static. They need to be able to see it, change it and make it their own. That’s what this can do for them, along with getting them hooked on mathematics when they are young.”

In a workshop titled “WECHE Teachings for Challenging Expectations,” Elmer Ghostkeeper stressed the balance of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual elements of teaching.

“Students can see whether you love what you are doing or not,” Ghostkeeper told the teachers. “If students see that you are balanced and committed, they will give that back to you in the classroom.”

Ghostkeeper asked teachers to come away from the workshop challenging the Western approach to science as theoretical and fragmented and to look at science as it is in native culture: a series of relationships and cycles, part of everyday life.

By the end of the conference, teachers enthusiastically described how workshops had inspired a wealth of new ideas to take back to their communities.

Barbara Muller, a teacher of secondary level math and science at Ullurniaq School in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Northern Quebec, echoed the sentiments of many DreamCatching 2001 participants. She said, “The holistic approach [to education] has given me a lot to think about.”
The conference was sponsored by Concordia’s Native Access to Engineering Program (NAEP), which is in turn sponsored by several departments of the federal government. The event started with the official launch of Distributed E-Learning for First Nations Science Education (profiled in the last issue of CTR, February 8).