Sunday, March 30, 2008

April 1st

I remember the first time I thought about teaching in Nunavik. I was loitering in the stacks in Concordia's library, and I came across an MA thesis about teacher turnover in the North. The stats in the study were staggering. It seems that on average, people hired from the South were leaving after two years. Imagine being a student in a school in which one-quarter of the teachers leave every year (half of the teachers, the Inuit, do not turnover nearly as quickly). Just when you get to trust someone, they're gone, and you never see them again. It must be heart-breaking.

April 1st is the day by which a teacher in Nunavik has to decide whether or not he or she is coming back the next year, or will take a leave of absence, from which few come back. Today is the last day of spring break. The week off has given Sophie and I a lot of time to reflect on the pros and cons of coming back for another year. Tomorrow, I have to let the school board know of my intentions.

We decided to make a list.

The people are nice
The fall is beautiful up here
I can come home for lunch
I leave the house at 8:45 and come home as early as 3:45
I will be able to teach secondary next year
We'll be able to leave in March (more on this later)
I can play in the hockey tournament (possibly)
Sayard, Neil, Forbes, and Solange are all coming back
I'll have a reason to continue writing this blog
Berry picking
The scenery
We won't have to pack

Noah will see less of his grandparents and other relatives
Possible face/feces incidents
The rest of our friends are not here
I'll follow the boy who bit my foot to secondary
Winter lasts forever
2 hours of sun for two months
Our apartment in Montreal?

The dilemma has been appearing throughout our conversations in one way or another for months. Our dreams are to travel and to grow our own food (we can dream). We want to save to buy a house, yet we want to live in places that will impede our ability to save for one. I've been reading two books: Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson, an account of three trips through Europe, and A Place of My Own, by Michael Pollan, in which he recounts his experience building his house in the woods, a (post)modern version of Thoreau's Walden. This summer, we will travel out to Gaspesie where Sophie has some land upon which we will erect a place of our own some day. This was far too much for a simple list to solve.

Only a long bout with narrative can successfully resolve this particular manifestation of one of human nature's most primal decisions: to stay or to go.

Our need to explore and discover is apparent from an early age, but so is the desire for the familiarity of home. At Christmas, when Sophie and I were driving all over Alberta to satisfy too many people's desires to see Noah (that was the last time), the strength of the natural desire for home became apparent. We had slept in three places in as many nights, and had gone to friend's house for a dinner party. Noah was asleep in the car seat when we arrived at the party, so I just carried him in with a blanket over the car seat. Half an hour later, he woke up. When I pulled the blanket away to reveal yet another new environment, he was inconsolable. You should have seen his face. Only a boob would do.

The temptation to travel and the comfort of home both continue to haunt us as adults. As teachers, we have many, many options. A friend who is a principal in Uganda, Sophie used to teach in Japan, the superintendent of the Banff school board used to teach at Arsaniq school.... The desire to flesh out what each of these and many more possibilities holds is, I believe, exceptionally strong in both of us. I have lived in several different places in Canada and have traveled fairly extensively in Latin America. Sophie, well, she's been everywhere. But even our styles of travel reflect the two sides of this conundrum. When Sophie goes somewhere, she likes to go to one place and relax. The style I've adopted for the past ten years has been not to travel at all, but to live in as many different places as I can.

These contradictory desires have played out culturally throughout history. Ghengis Khan's nomadic raiders thought little of the sedentary peoples they conquered and slaughtered. The sedentary Chinese dynasties erected the Great Wall to keep the nomadic barbarian hordes at bay. Europeans, at the apex of an agricultural revolution, exported their sedentary ways to the new world in a contradictory display of both taking up and putting down roots. One of the final frontiers for this battle happened here, in Nunavik, some 60-odd years ago, when the Canadian government decided that there was only one way to "civilise" the nomadic Inuit: to make them stay.

Complicit in the latter though we may be, our decision has little cultural consequence when weighed against the grand forces of imperialism. Sophie once told me something when I was really struggling with what to do with a student, and with the fact that nothing I was doing was helping "on est juste des petites bibittes sur le terre". What we do is only more than superficially consequential to us, and us alone.

I'd like to say that we're on the horns of a dilemma. I want to take the feelings of the kids I teach into account. They have seen so many people come and go: teachers, nurses, sadly parents and friends too. I want to take the feelings of Noah's grandparents into account. How distant they must feel from their first grandchild. Granted, these things do matter a great deal to us. However, no matter how much I would like to think that altruistic reasons are what is driving our decision, it is the selfish reasons that weigh more heavily on our minds. And that's how it has to be. Otherwise, every decision would be far too overwhelming.

Call us crazy, but we want to keep Noah out of daycare and spend as much time with him as possible. These are things that are easy to do here in Wakeham. We want to be able to save some money on one full-time income. Also easy here. There is a teacher who will be on mat. leave until March. She teaches secondary English and Math, which will be a refreshing break from being a primary teacher, and will be more familiar waters for me.

So, for now, we'll stay. We've found a way to put off the decision, which is what every qalunaat teacher in Nunavik who has to actively decide to stay does. For the qalunaat who do not sire Inuit children (and sadly many who do) the decision is not whether to stay or go, but when to go.

It seems that imperialism has had some strange consequences up North. Before whitey came up here, the Inuit were nomadic, following their food and good living conditions. Now, it is the Inuit who live in houses and basically stay put while the qalunaat come and go, following their meal ticket.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why we live here

After reaching what was hopefully the nadir of my experience in the North last week, I have done a lot of soul searching. Sometimes, it can be hard, but we also get to do stuff like this:

I shot this from our front window. That is Sophie skiing. Not five minutes before, she said, "I think I'm going out."

And she went.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Noah's Video Picks of the Week

I tried shooting Noah climbing from several angles, including one from between the spindles on the banister. I thought it would be a good idea to try to look at the viewfinder, and hit my head hard on the second floor. I almost blacked out, and judging by my erratic beaviour in a meeting the next day I gave myself a mild concussion.


Sunday, March 09, 2008


I think it's timewe stop kidding ourselves. Teachers here do a tough job, sure. However, I think we are all fighting what is an unwinnable battle. Moreover, our ostensible goal, namely our students' graduation, may not even be that desirable. We have to change our definition of success, so we can change what we teach, and affect more kids positively.

I don't know what the actual statistics are. Former NHLer Joe Juneau quotes a statistic that 75 % of Inuit drop out of school. I think his statistic includes Nunavut, where the completion rates are higher. Makivik (Nunavik's crown corporation) put out a statistical survey of Nunavik in which something like 65 % of Nunavimmiut aged 20-35 had neither a high school diploma nor a skilled trade (which is a loose designation, we are not talking about journeymen mechanics here, although there are some of those). I don't know how to calculate the dropout rate. What I can tell you is that two years ago, Arsaniq school had one graduate who came from the village. Last year, we had one more. This year, we have none. Each year, about twenty kids go into kindergarten, and 2/3 of one graduates. By my math, that's a 97 % + dropout rate. Next year, we should have some more graduates, which will boost the average, but until they are actually walking on stage to collect their diplomas, I'll hedge my bets.

You can challenge my math, but I hope to make it a moot point. From a regular sector teacher's perspective, from which presumably high school graduation of students is the goal, and a measure of success, we are dismal failures. For me, the frustration has gotten to the point where every conversation I have at a meeting or with a colleague involves some questioning about the purpose of it all. As long as the goal of the school board is to a run a bunch of schools that only nominally recognise just how different life is up here, the school system will continue to fail, and fail miserably.

Let me give you an example. We have what is called "the reform" in Quebec. It is a framework made up by a bunch of academics in Quebec's universities and bureaucrats in Quebec city. The idea is that teachers stop grading on the content of what they teach in each specific subject and grade and instead assess along "cross-curricular competencies" in each "cycle". We are now to approach our teaching thematically, and integrate our different subjects to create more authentic learning environments. In English, that means if we are teaching about Mexico in Social Studies, we should read about Mexico in Language class, and talk about tortillas in our word problems for Math. It's what I did last week (we also went to the kitchen and made quesadillas, and Sophie taught them to dance "la raspa"). For many teachers, this is called "good teaching", and is really nothing new. Except, now, our teaching has to meet 127 specific criteria in order to be considered good. On top of that, its a half-measure. There is still standardized testing and percentage grades, and other things that subvert the philosophy of the "reform", but remain in the program nonetheless. It's mostly because of parents, who had grades, and cannot make sense of the wishy-washy hippie-dippiness of the "reform", like-minded people at our school board's head office, and many closed-minded teachers in the schools themselves.

It's ridiculous. I digress. So, The board has adopted "the reform", but the people at the head office are too thick to realise that many things do not exactly work up North, nor should they be asked to, such as the standardised tests Students are expected to pass the same secondary 5 tests that they have in the South. Sorry MELS (Quebec's education ministry), school is not that good here. It's not. Taima.

However, there are things we can do to get them to attend school and get them involved. Enter batucada:

One of the teachers brought a group of students from Wakeham to Gaspé last summer for a music festival. While there, she planted a seed with one of the band leaders. It grew into this. Students parading around in an arctic winter (-37 C with the wind chill) and drumming. Some of them are my students. We have been going to drumming workshops twice a week for the past three weeks, and my students learned to drum. They may not have learned any Math or Social Studies while drumming, but at least they came to school on time, and listened to some instructions.

So, the kids are now forming a band, and with the help of the animator and a couple of teachers, will hopefully put together a summer music festival and get to travel around to other villages, showing off their newly acquired skills. I'm not sure if the experience of doing this will meet the 127 criteria to be in line with the reform, but certainly, the students will learn more from this than from a couple of missed Math classes. In addition, a progressive, reform minded, or as I like to say, "good" teacher, could incorporate the drumming into their courses.

I'm not saying that we should be teaching the students to drum instead of to multiply. Kids here need to learn how to multiply. However, they do not need a a Southern education. They need something else. It might be drumming, or it might not. But drumming is better than dropping out.