Teaching about the Witness Blanket

What is the Witness Blanket and how can it be used in the classroom? That is the question I began with at the start of this process. I knew to be able to answer this question I needed to start by self-educating myself about Indian Residential Schools. It wasn’t enough to visit the Witness Blanket display once and think I could create an authentic learning experience for my students. I decided I needed to look at this project as a learning journey. I needed to find ways to expand my learning. I did this in three ways: visiting with emerging elder Joseph, reading My Name is Seepeetza, and watching the film We Were Children. I reflected on all three of these experiences and Joseph was able to guide me in a direction that I could take this assignment.

I started this project by introducing the grade eight class to the Witness Blanket at the University of Regina using the website. The short video on the website is powerful. Not only does it explain what the Witness Blanket is and how it was created, but it also makes an audience think. The narrator says, “individually [these artifacts] are paragraphs of a disappearing narrative, together they are strong and formidable collectively able to recount for future generations the true story of loss, strength, reconciliation, and pride.” That is the question I used to prompt the students to start a discussion. This led to the students creating a graffiti wall using a roll of paper. The idea behind the graffiti wall was for the students to brainstorm their ideas, thoughts, feelings, and questions about the witness blanket and residential schools in general. I really enjoyed this activity because it allows the students to unpack their ideas in a risk free way. After discussing the students’ ideas, I asked them what they thought blankets represent universally. Some of the words that the students came up with were: safety, protection, and comfort. If I were to teach this project again, I would put more emphasis on symbolic meaning behind blankets and use it as the basis of the global issues assignment.

Students were given the choice to research a global issue of interest to them and were required to create a short write-up to share to the class. The students were also required to bring or create an artifact that represented their global issue. This artifact was used to create a classroom “Witness Blanket” on global issues currently affecting our world. Reflecting on the research portion of this assignment, I wish I had more time to revise the students’ write-ups. First, I would have had the students partner up and read their write-ups aloud to for self-editing. I then would have had them give their write-ups to a classmate to revise, and finally I would have looked over the students’ write-ups for one final revision. I think this process would have made the write-ups more clear and concise. It also would have allowed students’ to add any missing information to their write-ups.

I was so happy that the class was able to take a field trip to the University of Regina to view the Witness Blanket in person. Dr. Shauneen Pete led the grade eight class in a very engaging tour of the Witness Blanket, where she provided historical background on residential schools, gave the students an opportunity to spend time looking at the Witness Blanket, and a de-brief to unpack any remaining questions the students had. I think that seeing the Witness Blanket in person allowed an authentic learning experience for the students because they were able to see the artifacts in person, as opposed to pictures.

I was impressed with the global issues the students researched about, but more importantly I was impressed with how many of the students were able to connect the past to the present. They were able to reflect on the injustices of Indian Residential Schools, and connect those injustices to issues that are currently taking place around the world. One of the student made a comment about how if we can learn from the past, why are we still making similar mistakes? I thought this was a powerful insight t for a grade eight student to make. If I were to create another witness blanket with a class, I would take a picture of each individual artifact so that we could create something that could be preserved.

Overall I was pleased with the Witness Blanket project and I would like to do it again with a future class. As Joseph suggested, I think it is beneficial to connect ideas being taught to the lives of students to make it relevant. When students are able to make a connection to their own surroundings, the learning becomes more authentic. This was even noticeable when the students were able to see the Witness Blanket in person. The students, especially the boys, were instantly engaged because the learning became real. As educators, isn’t that what we strive for, real life learning experiences?