As teachers and administrators all over the globe work tirelessly to further the education of young minds, in Kahnawake, there’s one subject that has proven to be even more difficult to teach throughout this pandemic.
The teaching of Kanien’kéha, a language whose significance to Kahnawa’kehró:non can never be adequately described, has been challenged even prior to this global health crisis.
“Despite all the hard times we had trying to raise money and keeping our staff paid, this year has been the hardest of all my years,” said Joely Van Dommelen, the administrator of Karihwanó:ron School, which a Kanien’kéha language program and alternative learning environment for children in the community.
Van Dommelen explained that moving online felt impossible at the beginning of last March since the building did not even have computers or any online tools for the students or teachers.
“Because we are teaching language and culture, we went old school. We were teaching our children here, as our ancestors did,” said Van Dommelen. “We never wanted to put computers in the classrooms because they are already all around us.”
Karihwanó:ron did receive a donation of laptops and tablets, for all of their students from Mohawk Online, making it at least possible to continue teaching while respecting health directives.
“We are a hands-on and oral program here. To even teach online was already a great difficulty for our teachers,” explained Van Dommelen.
She said that, unlike other subjects, there are next to no tangible books and textbooks that can be given to the children to take home, so it’s been almost impossible to continue the same level of learning as planned.
“Our teachers are doing a wonderful job and our parents are quite understanding,” said Van Dommelen. Although working online is not what Kanien’kéha teachers are used to, they are adapting the best they can.
Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) teacher Tewenhni’tatshon Louis Delisle is currently teaching Kanien’kéha to all high school students in 11 different classes, five in-person, and six online. Working as a teacher since 1975, Delisle’s strategy to keep his students engaged stems from encouraging participation.
“I told them, if you’re online every class, you get a mark. If you participate, you get a higher mark,” explained the educator. “So, if you’re online, you’re listening and you participate minimally, you’re at least going to pass.”
Delisle said that framing his classes this way is an attempt to build confidence and make studying Kanien’kéha more fun and less stressful than their other classes.
The language teacher has had to vastly alter his teaching methods. “This year has really been a crash course in terms of being online with the kids,” said Delisle, explaining that another issue he’s having is attendance. “ Today, five were absent, and 11 out of 16 is a great attendance,” said the teacher. “In the regular school year, you would have better luck. I’m hearing the same problem from different teachers as well.”
One strategy that Delisle uses to engage the children is to use their at-home environment to develop a dialogue in Kanien’kéha.
“I rely on oral assignments. I prefer to do everything while speaking. They have a dialogue about themselves, their parents, and things that are practical,” he explained. Delisle said that repetition is key when learning a language.
As frontline workers, teachers and administrators have to keep working extra hard to keep the language alive.
Despite all the obstacles of this year, Van Dommelen always knew that they were going to make it. “Karihwanó:ron is a part of me. I can’t just let it go,” she explained.
She said that even though the learning center is independent, she has felt supported from the other education systems within the community.
“Kahnawake always comes together when we’re in crisis,” said the administrator. “And here we are.”