Sid Bobb – Co-Director of Aanmitaagzi, Photo By: Bettina Vollmerhausen
This month I wanted to take the time to celebrate and share the heart and mind transformations that my students and I received from working with Aanmitaagzi at Big Medicine Studio on the Nipissing First Nation.
I decided to pull out an excerpt from our book to share with you about one of our experiences there. In our book, we highlight Aanmitaagzi as a model for how to bring about deep change individually and collectively, so that we can shift the culture of our learning communities and grow a more inclusive world. Aanmitaagzi sheds light on how change comes from bringing us closer to our humanness and the humanity of one another. This organization is rooted in relationship and weaves the arts, play, working in nature, and community building together to transform our understanding of our humanness, and of one another. I have been blessed to learn and grow in so many ways from these incredible leaders and wish to highlight the important work of this Indigenous organization and all they are doing to create change in our world. This is a model that we can look to as we seek ways to help us come together and to heal our world.
The power of bringing it all together: a story from Big Medicine Studio
I have been fortunate enough to bring my teen students to Big Medicine Studio on the Nipissing First Nation multiple times. We have three- or four-day retreats with the arts organization Aanmitaagzi, which is housed in Big Medicine Studio, in the woods next to Lake Nipissing. Aanmitaagzi is an Ojibwe word that means “he/she speaks.”
Every time I go there, I am reminded of how different models of learning can be set up to bring about discovery and connection. This organization brings together so many healthy aspects of community building that the experience of being there is life-changing. There is no separation of ages or subjects; education is relationship-based. We work in the studio as well as outside, creating in nature and with nature. We cook together, clean together, and play together. This is not set up as experiences for the students. The students are not there to learn while the teachers wait and chaperone. It is multigenerational: teachers, Elders, the families of the directors of Aanmitaagzi, and students all experience every activity side by side. It seems so simple and so healthy—this model is one that can unite us and hold us together.
I’d like to give you a glimpse into one of our winter trips to Aanmitaagzi. One year, we went when there was tons of snow. One of my students had never been outside of a city; this was her very first experience going to the woods and being in nature. She was more nervous than excited, and we all tried to be as supportive and reassuring as possible. We gathered snowsuits and mittens and carpooled to the Nipissing First Nation. I had a minivan full of exuberant teens. We played music and chatted and it got very loud (as it can when groups of teens come together!). Halfway through the four-hour drive, they all fell asleep while I drove the remainder of the way. The other vehicles carpooling with us arrived at the same time. Many sleepy students got out of the cars and began to gather. We walked towards Big Medicine Studio, and as we opened the door to go in, we saw people lined up in the entrance to welcome us: the directors of Aanmitaagzi, Sid Bobb and Penny Couchie, along with their children and the Elders from their community, and other artists. There were big hugs for us, and it didn’t matter that they did not know us yet—just a big, warm welcome for each of us. They were so comfortable reaching out to us that my students quickly became comfortable too, laughing and welcoming the hugs.
We were brought in right away to enjoy a meal together. The adults and Elders did not sit separately but among the students, inviting them into conversation—showing genuine interest in their lives and entering into relationship with them. Across the four days, we explored drama, visual art, dance, music, and voice. We listened to the stories of Elders and we shared our stories as well. These moving experiences were woven together—our stories were danced and drawn and spoken as we listened to each other while we sat in a circle or cooked our meals. But one of our experiences stands out to me. I hold this experience in my heart and draw on it from time to time when I think of ways to experientially awaken caring and connect my students to me and one another.
We were led through a workshop on the myth of the sturgeon. We were put into groups and each group was to reenact a specific part of the story. We would share these that evening on the frozen lake under the night sky.
We prepared all day. We started by making our sets out of branches we collected in the woods and tying them together with string into a makeshift set. We had no plan for how it was going to look, but as we created it, something took form. We made lights by pouring water into tin foil pie plates and then adding twigs and pine cones. We let these freeze across the afternoon and then popped them out in the evening. They looked like round stained glass. We propped these up with tiny tea lights under them and scattered them all over the frozen lake around our twig set.
When night came, we gathered together, all bundled up, and walked down to the lake. It was true magic. All of us stood in awe. My student who had never been to the woods, or anywhere where one might feel this sense of incredible wonder at how truly beautiful and vast our world is, just looked with large eyes. Everything was quiet. There were millions of stars sparkling. We stood together on this frozen lake, in what looked like an infinite field of snow and an endless sky of diamonds, and we began to share our stories through drama and movement.
We gathered as people of many ages, religions, cultures, backgrounds, and abilities. Each group was a mix of students and teachers. Together we acted out our part of the myth. These were not memorized or practiced. We just roughly knew the part of the story we were to act out. We did not bring music, but if a group wanted some, then they could make their own. Some groups used a drum, others picked up two rocks and rhythmically hit them together to form a soundscape backdrop. Some groups acted out theirs in silence and all we could hear was the wind and the crunch of the snow beneath their feet. There was no audience. There was no clapping. There was no pressure. We did this for us. In the quiet of the night, we played together through the arts. We listened to one another and we listened to nature. That evening, we truly fell into wonder and were opened up by it.
My class was never the same after that. We were connected in ways that are hard to put into words. We had shared art together. We had experienced our humanity together. As we gathered together in the quiet snow, in the dark, under millions of stars, we knew we were all connected. We felt it. Children, adults, wherever we were from—we were now a “we.”
As we look to ways to build more emotional and social health for our students, it can be helpful to look to other models that seem to be doing this well. It might be worthwhile to reflect on another model of education, even for a moment, so that we may understand how different policies can create different results. Because even if we cannot change our schools or school boards, we may be able to mirror what is going well with other educational models and use some of these ideas to support our own smaller-scale internal changes.
We can do this too: simple ways to bring it all together
Reflecting on the Indigenous world view brought to life on the Nipissing First Nation at Big Medicine Studio is incredibly moving for me. It sheds light on a different way of learning together. We may feel disheartened because many of our learning environments do not feel so connected, but if we look closely at how this model provided change, it was refreshingly simple. It was not by providing students with the latest high-tech computer programs or learning labs. This model is grounded in relationship, play, the outdoors, and expression, and these elements are woven into daily learning.
This is why we provided an online activity handbook (which includes one of the community-building group art activities from Aanmitaagzi) as a part of our book. Activities grounded in relationship that support release, expression, and connection can be woven into our own classrooms. And these simple activities can have big effects. Small experiences matter a lot; in fact, I would argue that small experiences on a regular basis are the most important. It’s the consistency of experiencing heightened senses that bring us to our feelings and support connection that in turn change our students and communities. In the intimacy of our classroom, we can lead these playful and powerful experiences that can bring it all together for our students.
We need to work with our students’ minds and hearts.
As we look to creating more inclusive learning communities that celebrate the richness of our diversity, let’s remember that we need to work with our students’ minds and hearts. Our minds need to be educated so that we may understand the history of colonization, systemic abuse, and racism. This is vital. And our hearts must also be opened as our hearts are the home of our feelings. And when it comes to creating change, our feelings matter. Knowing something intellectually is not enough. We must also feel and be brought to our interconnectedness. This is why we need to find ways to keep our feelings alive to one another.
In Canada, June is National Indigenous month. We set aside this month to honour the history, heritage, and diversity of Indigenous peoples of Canada. Wherever you are located, I encourage you to look to Indigenous people and organizations near you so that you may learn from them as well as celebrate their incredible contributions in our communities. Today, I specifically celebrate the work of Aanmitaagzi and thank them for all they do for our students, our schools, the community, and our world. I have grown from working with them, not just as an educator, but as a human.
PS: If you are interested in immersing yourself in an experiential workshop that can awaken feeling and build community, feel free to join Tamara (my co-author) and I for a day long hands-on workshop online on August 5, 2020. One of the activities that we will explore together that day, is a reflective art workshop that I am grateful to have learned from Aanmitaagzi. We would love you to join us. Register here.
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