Welcome to Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we will dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.
Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller
Today, we are celebrating the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation for the first time. This is a day to recognize and commemorate the legacy of residential schools and make a renewed commitment to the reconciliation process. We can use this day to start a conversation in our classrooms that lasts all year long.
Books are a powerful tool for teaching towards reconciliation. Guided by the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, teachers should seek out learning resources that teach about treaties, the legacy of residential schools and Indigenous peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada. Teachers should make sure to include books that celebrate Indigenous cultures, including languages, arts, medicines, storytelling, and ways of living on the land.
Being a non-Indigenous educator, I have a responsibility to bring Indigenous voices, perspectives, and ways of teaching and learning into my classroom every day. Teaching with authentic Indigenous texts is one way to “integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods.” Books from Indigenous authors and illustrators show me how to address the topic of reconciliation in ways that are accessible to young learners and full of hope. Having conversations about what we read helps us build “intercultural under-standing, empathy, and mutual respect.”
Indigenous Peoples have their traditions in storytelling and it is important they tell their own stories. There are so many talented Indigenous authors and illustrators creating books and stories for young readers. It’s more important than ever that we support these stories and give them space and attention in our classrooms. As a teacher, I am deeply grateful towards Residential School System Survivors who are sharing their stories and the authors and illustrators who take such care in telling them.
Together, let’s take September 30th to reflect on and renew our dedication to reconciliation. Then let’s bring diverse Indigenous perspectives and voices into our classrooms all throughout the year.
Here are some exciting new books from Indigenous authors that you can share with your students this year.
Note: Prepare to discuss the complex emotions and feelings that may arise in conversation for many students of Indigenous descent. Students may need time and space to process, so plan ahead to provide needed support. Find a way to finish every lesson with a moment of hope and look towards the future.
In The Train by Jodie Callaghan, young Ashley meets her great-uncle by the old train tracks near their community in Nova Scotia. When she sees his sadness, he shares with her the history of those tracks. Uncle tells her that during his childhood the train would bring their community supplies. Then came a day when the train took him and the other children away to Residential School. After sharing the difficulties he faced away from the comfort of his family, he tells Ashley how happy she and her sister make him. They are what gives him hope. Ashley promises to wait with her uncle as he sits by the tracks, waiting for what was taken from their people to come back to them.
The Train is now available in a dual-language edition, in English and Mi’gmaq. Dual-language books help introduce young children to the idea that different people can use different words to express the same ideas.
In class: Take the time to point out some words from the Mi’gmaq language and help students practicing their pronunciation. This will be a meaningful exercise for all students, especially those who may have a connection to the Mi’gmaq people. All students will benefit from exploring the emotions of The Train. Guide students by asking “Why is Uncle sad at the beginning of the story?”, “How do his feelings change?” and “How does Uncle feel about Ashley and her sister?”
Teachers can check out this video interview with Jodie Callaghan to learn more about the story and the meaning behind her work, including Callaghan’s personal family history and connection to residential schools.
When Maddy discovers an old photograph of two little girls in her grandmother’s belongings, she wants to know who they are. Nan reluctantly agrees to tell her the story of two sisters, taken from their home, forced to travel 1,600-kilometre by riverboat, mail truck, paddlewheeler, steamship, and train, to Lejac Residential School. Aggie & Mudgy: The Journey of Two Kaska Dena Children is based on the true story of Wendy Proverb’s biological mother and aunt.
This book puts the focus on family, showing how the forces of colonialism separated families and how the descendants of residential school survivors are reestablishing familial bonds.
In Class: The telling of this story is inspired by a single photograph. You could invite students to bring a photograph from home that tells a story about their family. They could practice writing this story and sharing it with their classmates. Ask students what is it that holds families together? Teachers should emphasize our connection to history and how actions of the past still affect families today.
This stirring graphic novel is based on the true story of Betty Ross, an elder from Cross Lake First Nation and her experience of being taken away to Residential School at eight years old where she was forced to endure abuse and indignity. In Sugar Falls, a young Betsy recalls the words her father spoke to her at her home, words that gave her the resilience, strength, and determination to survive. This 10th-anniversary edition now includes beautiful new colouring and a moving forward by Senator Murray Sinclair.
In Class: Use this tool to find where the closest Residential Schools were to your community. Remind students that the last Residential School didn’t close until 1996, only 25 years ago. Discuss the importance of honouring the stories of Residential School System Survivors. As a class, create a list of ways to honour Survivors in your communities.
A Teacher Guide for Sugar Falls is also available from Portage & Main Press.
A small book with big lessons, Treaty Words: For As Long As The Rivers Flow by Aimée Craft shows us that relationships are the foundation of all treaties. Near the riverbank, Mishomis sits with his granddaughter to pass on teachings about Creation and treaties, reciprocity and renewal— teachings that endure for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow. An Anishinaabe-Métis lawyer and professor from Treaty 1 in Manitoba, Aimée Craft writes with expertise and nuance in describing an Indigenous perspective on treaties. Evocative images of river and landscape from Luke Swinson remind us that the Land is a part of all of our agreements and commitments.
In Class: Have students discuss or write a response to the phrase “we are all Treaty people.” Then have students research their local treaties and agreements with Indigenous communities (make sure to explain the implications of living on unceded territory). Another approach to help students understand the role of treaties is to work together to design a classroom treaty with agreements on how best to treat each other with respect.
William Epps Cormack, a Scottish-Canadian explorer, recorded his story in a journal. Later published, this journal details how in 1822, with the help of a guide, Cormack trekked across Newfoundland in search of the remaining Beothuk camps. In the journal, Cormack referred to his guide only as “My Indian.” Now, hundreds of years later, Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill are reclaiming this history by rewriting the narrative of Cormack’s journey from the perspective of his Mi’kmaw guide. My Indian follows Sylvester Joe from birth and early life in his community (in what is now known as Miawpukek First Na-tion), to his journey across the island with Cormack.
In Class: This work of reclaiming stories and histories is an important part of reconciliation. Before reading this novel, you might discuss how history is recorded and ask “Who gets to tell the stories of history?” After reading and learning about Sylvester Joe, students should be encouraged to learn more about the history of the land they live on. Challenge students to compile a list of resources they could use to learn more about local Indigenous history, from an Indigenous perspective.
Watch as author Mi’sel Joe talks about the new book and his connections to Sylvester’s story.
Spílexm: A Weaving of Recovery, Resilience, and Resurgence by Nicola I. Campbell is a powerful reflection on what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of the Residential School System. Through both poetry and prose, Campbell shares her journey of overcoming adversity and colonial trauma, finding strength and resilience through creative works and traditional perspectives. Stories and poems are rooted within the British Columbia landscape, showing how the lands and waters also shaped her growth. The book includes words in the Syílx and Nłeʔkepmx languages, with definitions included in the text.
In Class: Campbell shares how creating art and writing helped her to find strength and resilience. Challenge your students to be creative and write a letter or poem in response to this memoir or about a past adversity of their own. Campbell also shows how her life is shaped by the land she lives on. You might have students write a response to the question “How is the land shaping your life?”
To grow students’ ability to make intertextual connections, pair your reading with Stand Like A Cedar, a recent picture book from Campbell with similar ideas about resilience, sustainability, and connection. Challenge students to find as many thematic links as they can between the two texts.
I hope that you will use the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to invite the spirit of reconciliation into your classroom. Remember that suffering and Residential Schools are only part of the story. Reconciliation also means appreciating the contributions of Indigenous Peoples and celebrating Indigenous cultures. Exploring contemporary Indigenous artwork and literature is just one way to get started.
Check back for a new blog post each month along with preview videos throughout the year for more recommendations for your classroom library and beyond! We would like to thank our partner 49th Teachers and our funder Ontario Creates for their support of the Top Grade project.
Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s liter-ature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.