Dr. Leyton Schnellert
Associate Professor, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy
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Q&A with Dr. Leyton Schnellert
What are key opportunities in educating students in small and rural communities?
Small, rural, and remote communities are conducive to engaging in place-conscious, land-based, service-based, and community-based learning. Students have rich opportunities to learn in and with their community, with and from multiple perspectives. As a result, they develop a real connection and responsibility to “place.”
In rural communities, educators often teach students for multiple years and get to know their students’ interests, strengths, contributions, families, and more. The sustained connection educators develop with their students provides incredible mentorship and support opportunities, and students feel connected to educators.
Learning and integrating Indigenous perspectives and local Indigenous ways of knowing is an important opportunity for educators and students in rural education. Proportionally, rural communities have more Indigenous youth than urban communities and hold strong ties with members from Indigenous communities. Because of where we are and who our students are, educators and learners in rural communities have tremendous opportunities to engage in Land-based learning and place-conscious learning with local Indigenous peoples.
What are the critical challenges in educating students in small and rural communities?
Recruiting and retaining teachers in rural communities can be challenging. In some cases, we have teaching positions that we are not able to fill. Rural schools also are smaller than urban schools and often have classes with multiple grades. Consequently, urban approaches imported into rural settings rarely work. Furthermore, rural communities face identity challenges that need to be addressed and supported, as rural students are often framed as being behind their urban peers.
Students in rural communities face proximity and access challenges to post-secondary institutions, often having to leave their home communities to study at college or university. Many find it difficult to connect with the community in which their new school is located, and then choose to return to their home communities after a first year away.
What are the key pillars of participatory, place-conscious and culturally sustaining practices?
Participatory practices engage in critical thinking-oriented teaching, which welcome students’ voices as curriculum co-creators. Educators practising responsive teaching, building what and how they teach based on their students, community, and opportunities. Place-consciousness education requires learning from multiple perspectives, with sociological, historical, environmental, and sensory lenses. Culturally sustaining practices allow, invite, and encourage students to not only use their cultural practices from home in school, but to maintain them. Diversity-positive teaching and learning are hallmarks of place-consciousness and culturally sustaining practices.
Pedagogically, I focus on open-ended teaching strategies, inquiry-oriented teaching strategies, circle-based teaching strategies (which are democratic and practical) and metacognitive teaching strategies. These approaches welcome students funds of knowledge and identity.
Where do place-conscious teachings intersect with diversity and inclusive education?
The meaning of rural often differs in relation to where you are situated. From remote island communities to the Kootenays to Fort St. John to the geographic centre of British Columbia, Vanderhoof, and elsewhere, references to “rural” can have very different meanings.
Rural communities are diverse and you learn from and with the diverse cultural groups in your place. It’s important to look at your community and recognize your community’s offerings, opportunities and challenges, and where the learning comes from.
Place-conscious learning comes from context—the opportunity to learn about your context, your unique place, and help take care of it. There are diverse perspectives in each place and you can begin to explore the history of the place, whose voices are heard, and whose voices are not being heard.
We are working to decolonize a colonial system that advocates that the teacher knows best and teaches the student. You can and always should start from the land and your local Indigenous peoples. Already, that’s challenging the dominant discourse and, in a way affirms that diverse voices are already here. Then, we can grow in attentiveness, supporting and acknowledging the diversity that we have.
Recognizing that we are not all the same and that we all have different strengths is part of circle-based Indigenous teachings; Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers in British Columbia have called us to recognize and nurture the different gifts of every child.
You can also approach diversity and inclusivity from an ecological perspective in which ecosystems have different elements that function in different manners. We are all interconnected and needs each other to learn and thrive.
David Sobel shares that you cannot change a place until you learn to love it. So, we learn to love our place and ask, What can we do? What do we notice? What are the tensions? In so doing, we empower our rural learners to be creative and critical thinkers.
As we work towards a more equity-oriented education system, we need to build student and community agency. When we recognize and nurture the capacities of all students from a strength-based lens, rural and remote educators and students can disrupt deficit perceptions, and lift up many diverse voices in their communities.
What role does technology play in education in small and rural communities? What has the pandemic brought into sharper focus?
Technology presents opportunities in small and rural communities for learners to connect with learners and access experts in neighbouring communities. For example, two students in one community could potentially join six students in a neighbouring community while taking the same virtual class.
While technology has the wonderful ability to connect people who live far from one another, not everyone has a computer or access to the internet. As classes shifted from in-person to virtual during the pandemic, many communities struggled. The pandemic required small and rural communities to increase their technological capacity in order to make technology more available to families and learners.
While educators are incredibly creative in nurturing the great potential of learners, but there are fewer resources in rural communities and the lack of funding often presents challenges. Educators can build educational infrastructure, but do not always know when or where funding will come from, whether from the local community, government, individual families, or elsewhere.
Educators in rural communities are aware of pandemic-highlighted equity issues that contribute to a lack of thriving, irregular school attendance, and the risk of not finishing school.
During the pandemic, rural communities and school districts articulated the inequities rural learners face and their plan to address these challenges. However, the voices of communities with denser populations are loud and rural communities are not always heard. We need to recognize the needs and potential of rural learners and put in place resources that ensure rural learners have the same opportunities as urban learners.
Collaborative inquiry has been a key way to identify issues and generate place-based solutions.
What is an example of collaborative inquiry?
Collaborative inquiry means educators work together to transform educational practices (edcan.ca/articles/collaborative-inquiry).
For instance, I facilitate education change networks that nurture educators’ professional development through collaborative inquiry. Educators come together through these professional learning networks several times a year and explore a shared focus or question that everyone works on in order to develop related plans. Educators then apply aspects of the plans in their communities, and when they return to the following education change network convening, they share the experiences and other educators provide feedback.
Collectively, educators learn and plan iteratively, engaging in the cyclical endeavour of action and reflection that help drive change and transform education. The process imparts a sense of ownership as educators develop and apply plans, seek and receive feedback, and share lessons learned to the unique context of their communities.
How can education change networks be encouraged to take up multiple perspectives?
Focusing on equity, diversity, inclusion, decolonization, and belonging is essential to education change networks. That begins with supporting participating educators to recognize their own strengths and also the power and influence they have. Sometimes the more important learning we can do as educators is to consider how our biases and assumptions impact our teaching and students learning. In education change networks educators focus on welcoming learners’ voices and helping build, consolidate and affirm the identities of our students and families. In our work together, we are not transmitting the curriculum in a power-over relationship. Instead, we are welcoming learners’ knowledge and building the curriculum together.
My recent work with Indigenous scholars and communities helps ensure that we learn with knowledge keepers and elders. As we work to welcome Indigenous ways of knowing, it is imperative to partner with Indigenous communities, learn from and with them, and make change together. In turn, we honour and embrace our learners’ diversity. If you want to learn more about this work, you can read the blog authored by Dr. Sara Florence Davidson and myself.
What could educators or learners do today that would make a difference?
Your community is filled with incredible learning opportunities that are right there waiting to be peeled back and uncovered. Get out into your place, learn from the land and learn local Indigenous ways for knowledge sharing. Engage with community members and ask, What is this place where we live? What do we want to learn about in this place? What is the history of this place? What was here before? What’s here now? What should we change? What can we do to restore this place or to make positive change? How can we learn from the land, learn from our community, and learn from local Indigenous communities and knowledge keepers?
When you engage in your place with an inquiry mindset, your curriculum is right there waiting for you in ways that build connection, community, and agency. When you love and feel responsible for your place, you start wondering how you can take care of your place. You become a citizen in ways that are open-minded, seeking diverse perspectives, and developing a feeling of stewardship and care for others and the land.
How can we provide better educational opportunities to educators and learners outside of urban areas?
“Rural education offers us this idea [that] the community is the curriculum, we ourselves are the curriculum… Rural teachers, rural kids, rural communities have so much to teach urban centres. We really are these places of innovation where we’re problem-solving and sense-making and trying things out.” – Dr. Leyton Schnellert