A first for kindergarteners in Ontario

January 27, 2011
by Michelle Nash Source: YourOttawaRegion.com

A new kindergarten class offers children, their families and their community a chance to let their culture thrive.

Robert E. Wilson Public School has partnered with the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre to run the first-ever Inuit Kindergarten class in Ontario. The program has been running since October, 2010, and the school held an opening to celebrate the success of program last week.

The 15 children in the class, located at 224 McArthur Ave., have an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board teacher and a cultural teacher from the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre who work together to teach a curriculum that focuses on the board’s requirements as well as the cultural heritage of these children.

“At the age of our or five it is incredibly important to learn your heritage and know who you are,” principal Marva Major said of the program.

The children have been going to the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre since they were 18 months old and all know each other well. Bused from all across the city, these youngsters have the opportunity to go to kindergarten as well as learn their cultural language, stories, and lifestyles of their northern heritage. Jessie Kangok, mother of kindergartners Jonathan Lewis, has never been happier.

“Here, in this program, my son learns what is up there (in the North) in this classroom,” she said.

Kangok said her son is constantly bringing home tidbits he has learned in school. He has changed the walls of his playroom to show the geographic regions. He is spelling, reading, and constantly asking his mom to have his home changed to become more like his school.

“This class sees his spirit and let’s him shine,” Kangok said.

The children perform a story of Nanabush for the crowd of educators who came to the opening. Throat singing (a game where two people [usually girls] make sounds until one of them laughs), counting in Inuktitut and using their entire bodies to spell are all part of a normal day in the classroom.

Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre’s executive director, Karen Baker-Anderson explained that the program has been a year in the making and was created through great friendship and partnership with Major and Robert E. Wilson Public School.

“A friendship and partnership has grown and Marva (Major) has truly wrapped her spirit around this centre and this community,” Baker-Anderson said while choking back tears.

Baker-Anderson also mentioned the centre has been aware of the need to bring cultural heritage into the classroom and has a number of after school programs for children, but it was the parents who came to her and asked for this to happen.

Finding an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board teacher was a difficult task, as over 200 applicants applied for the opportunity. For Baker-Anderson and Major, Beatrice Ocquaye was the only one.

“She is an amazing teacher. She was a spirit that cannot just be teach,” Baker-Anderson said.

Ocquaye works alongside Jane Kigutaq to teach the children.

“As an immigrant, I know how important knowing who you are and where you come from is. Especially when you are four and five,” Ocquaye said.

The two teachers divide the work and needs of the students.

“Since October, we have been working off each other’s cues and filling in where needed. I think we have a great rhythm and I enjoy working with Bea (Ocquaye),” Kigutaq said.

For Kangok, she is now requesting an entire grade school, something she half-jokes about but both her and Baker-Anderson would love to see come true.

“We want to serve the children in the best possible way and certainly, if that is something people want to do, all we can do is try,” Baker-Anderson said.

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