KAIROS Blanket Exercise Education Resource Kit (Edu-Kit) Planning Framework

PLANNING CONCEPTS  |  The educator’s journey  |  Wrap a learning unit around the Blanket Exercise  |  School-wide approaches & student leadership  |  Issues of representation on Indigenous peoples  |
Welcome friends, brothers and sisters to a community of educators (teachers, elders, technicians, coordinators, knowledge keepers…) on the journey of truth and reconciliation in education.

4 Planning Concepts

This is a pedagogical framework for the KAIROS Blanket Exercise that evolved during a year of discussion with educators, community leaders and Indigenous partners. We encourage you to take them into your heart and use them to guide your planning as you work with the Blanket Exercise.

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise is an excellent focal point to inspire your students’ participation in a larger learning unit. The possibilities for follow-up lessons range across all subject and competency areas. But how can you choose a focus? How do you structure a learning unit around the Exercise? Which further resources should you draw on? And how do you make sure you’re being culturally appropriate and serving the spirit of reconciliation? Read on!

A Note on Holistic Learning

Holistic learning is a very important aspect of the Blanket Exercise – engaging the mind, AND moving bodies, opening hearts, and deepening relationships to others. These are interdependent learning modes which create a powerful, well-rounded learning experience.

Western classroom-based education differs significantly from holistic Indigenous approaches. Some communities have begun to formalize education Medicine Wheels.  Here is an excellent example from Kitigan Zibi.

It is beyond the scope of this kit to discuss Indigenous approaches to education; that is a knowledge best learned directly with knowledge-keepers and Elders. However, we do honour and offer guidance towards a more holistic, culturally relevant way of working with the Blanket Exercise by including 4 distinct learning modalities in the Educator Briefing Sheets.

Relating – Elders, cultural connections, and local partnerships
Knowing – Ideas, concepts & terms
Feeling – Experiential activities & debriefing
Doing – Gestures of reconciliACTION & service-learning projects

1. The Blanket Exercise takes the educator on a journey

Coming to the Blanket

Educators come to the Blanket Exercise with varying levels of experience teaching on Indigenous history in Canada, and from different life experiences. Within Aboriginal communities there are movements to recover the traditional teachings, language and oral histories and to heal together from the heart-breaking impacts of colonial trauma, past and present. For settlers (people who are not First Nation, Inuit or Métis themselves) you may have learned a very incomplete version of history from school textbooks.

Courage to Face the Truth

The tides are turning and many previously silenced stories are finally being heard. During the Blanket Exercise we experience a condensed, summarized version of the colonial history of Canada. It touches our hearts and souls with a taste of difficult truths – over 150 years of attempts at cultural genocide.

In 1996 The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples produced several thousand pages of historical information and recommendations, upon which the Blanket Exercise script is based. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) ran from 2010-2015 offering testimony and research to raise the Canadian consciousness about the Indian Residential School (IRS) system.

Some of you may have experienced Indian Residential School, or have family or friends who did. In this case personal and inter-generational trauma can be triggered. As you know, it’s important to work with the support of other educators, healers and Elders as you share the Blanket Exercise. To reduce vicarious trauma for younger generations, we encourage you to share your story in healing circles or counselling settings first.

Learning As You Teach

Few of us may have learned history in a complete or balanced way, and new information is continually surfacing. So, it is necessary to dive in and learn as we teach, to be comfortable telling students, “I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s find out together.”  However, while it is imperative that the truth comes into classrooms, conveying incorrect or over-generalized information can continue misconceptions which lead to on-going injustice. For example, ignoring the diverse perspectives of the many different First Nations perpetuates stereotypes.

So, there is a balance to be found here – between daring to take on this important work, while never presuming to be fully competent. We recommend you be as locally specific as possible in your learning units. For more information read Various Shades of Red: Diversity within Canada’s Indigenous communities 

Most importantly, we encourage you to invite cultural educators and elders into the classroom to help! Check with your school board or teaching federation which may offer in-class supports or connections to cultural speakers. If not, encourage them to begin working on this with you!

Finally, we encourage you to commit to your own on-going professional development in this area. The âpihtawikosisân website has a wealth of info for teachers, especially the ‘Indigenous Issues 101’. If you haven’t already, we strongly recommend you watch the four-part CBC show 8th Fire.

In the Curriculum Section “Educator Briefing Sheets we also offer adult-level resources. Check one or two out before launching into a learning unit with students.

Stay connected to others on the journey

Once we become a witness through the Blanket Exercise, we feel the weight of the truth in our hearts and carry it with us. These are not the kind of facts students forget after the exam, nor topics that you leave behind at the end of the day. We become responsible for sharing it. Although you may feel alone in your classroom or school, there are many of us together on this journey. Build relationships with others who care and can help you face any challenges that come up.

We welcome stories, pictures and videos from your projects. We may place these on the Blanket Exercise blog, so please send them with signed permissions from students’ families to share.

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2. How to wrap a learning unit around the Blanket Exercise

There are many ways to connect the Blanket Exercise to curriculum requirements and structuring a learning unit around the available resources. As we explain below, a learning unit can be as simple as a vocab lesson or myth-busting activity before the Blanket Exercise and one or two class hours the following week; or it could be a year-long course with an extended action project like making a book, or anywhere in between.

Educators working on this kit told us to avoid prescriptions and leave lots of room for them to adapt what is offered to the specifics of their current class (e.g., demographics/culture, provincial / federal requirements, age / grade level, subject area.)

We offer this broad structure to use as you plan your learning unit:

Step 1:  Prepare for the Blanket Exercise

  • Prep students
  • Prep families and other supporters
  • Prep time, space & materials
  • Prep facilitator, narrator & European character
  • Prep for emotional safety

Step 2:  Experience the Blanket Exercise
Step 3:  Expand learning into lessons on the 4 Learning Areas
Step 4:  Do a ReconciliACTION / Service-Based Learning Project

Step 1 – Prepare for the Blanket Exercise

While preparations can take time, it will pay off in a safe, powerful experience that inspires your students and others around you.

Prep students

The Blanket Exercise is most impactful with minimal explanation ahead of time. If the language in the script seems above their level, rest assured that because the Blanket Exercise is holistic, engaging bodies and hearts, it always has a powerful impact even if many terms are above their comprehension. This impact tends to be an opening of heart and mind, stirring up passion and engagement that will support interest in further lessons.

However, especially with non-Indigenous students, it may be helpful to do a lesson addressing myths and stereotypes that exist and introduce the Blanket Exercise as a chance to understand the true history. You could do a group brainstorming to assess students prior knowledge or if there is some prior knowledge, a lexicon activity covering words like ‘Indigenous’, ‘treaties’ and ‘colonization’ that are described in the glossary.

During the Blanket Exercise students will be invited to read scrolls aloud from the script. If those are challenging for literacy or confidence levels, consider selecting the reading participants ahead of time and give them time to practice. You can also pair students up to read a scroll together and even have them research a couple of the key-words so they better understand what they’ll read.

In a class with Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, it’s good to let Indigenous students know that you value and will make space for them to talk about their Nation, language, etc., and to share their cultural knowledge with classmates as much as they are comfortable. Some students may be proud and comfortable speaking about this, while others may need support, or be uncomfortable being drawn out. It’s a delicate balance in this situation to make space for the student without making them feel responsible for educating their peers. With sensitivity and respect you can bring this up.

Prep families and other supporters

You’ll want to make sure there is a support structure in place on the day. The Blanket Exercise can produce strong feelings, which most students manage well. In fact, many educators have noted that students who usually have behavioural difficulty in class are often the most engaged and respectful during the experience. Having a school-based counselor, Elder and/or other supports available is important.

Ideally the Blanket Exercise has already been done with all teaching staff at your school. (see planning concept 3: School wide approaches)  If not, share your plans with co-workers and your principal or centre director. Inviting the principal to attend on the day can set them up to respond to any concerns from parents with better understanding.

Especially if you decide to facilitate the exercise yourself, it is essential to have at least one other teacher or support staff person in the room, ideally someone who has experienced it before.

In an on-reserve school, or when there are a majority of Indigenous students let families know that you’ll be looking at colonial history including Indian Residential Schools, and who will be offering support. It’s highly recommended that all schools create a relationship with an Indigenous Elder or knowledge-keeper who is experienced in talking with children or youth about their culture and Indian Residential Schools. Inviting them to open with a prayer and close with a drum song or round dance is an effective way to enhance cultural understanding while leaving the students with a positive feeling of connection after the experience.

Prep time, space & materials

The Blanket Exercise takes between 45-60 minutes to run through, and it is essential that another 30-60 minutes be spent on debriefing, depending on the size of group and emotional impact. That could include a talking circle, art or writing time, something led by an Elder, etc.

That’s a total of 75-120 minutes!

Some teachers pair up with another teacher and do it on a day when their classes are back-to-back. This is when the support of co-workers comes in handy! Also, do your students a favour and ensure this activity isn’t followed by an important test or exam in the next period.

You’ll need a large open space to lay out the blankets. For one class you can usually use an open classroom by stacking desks at the edge of the room. With more than one class you can use a gym, but too small a group in that large space can lead to a scattered / uncontained feeling.

If you are having facilitators come in, ask if they have blankets. If you are facilitating yourself you’ll need to gather blankets (or sheets) and index cards and print the maps as described in the resource instructions. You will need one blanket for every 4 (big) – 6 (little) people. Pieces of fabric, tablecloths and curtains also work. You can ask participants to bring a blanket from home on the day of the workshop.

If you think you’ll do the Blanket Exercise in the future, making your own blankets is a great follow up activity for students. The love and care that goes into the blankets will have a positive impact on the makers as well as on future participants.

Prep facilitator, narrator & European character

You’ll need to decide who the facilitators will be. It’s highly recommended that you participate in at least one Blanket Exercise before you decide to lead it yourself. If you want to find a facilitator for your region contact KAIROS.

If you’re going to lead the Blanket Exercise yourself, watch the facilitator training videos. Many teachers successfully lead the Blanket Exercise with their own students. However in this case, co-facilitation and having other supportive adults in the room is key, especially to play the European and/or Narrator roles while you support class management.

While the teacher can serve as Narrator, it can be problematic for the teacher to take on the European role because once the exercise is over students may still project feelings of anger or injustice towards you. We recommend you have another teacher, technician or volunteer take on this role. Students should never be asked to play the European or Narrator unless they are taking on a leadership role after experiencing it once or twice themselves.

Prep for emotional safety

The Blanket Exercise covers a difficult topic and it can be emotional to participate. Spend some time thinking about how you will create a safe space. You can start by letting participants know ahead of time that emotions may surface and that this perfectly okay.

Before starting the Blanket Exercise, perhaps a day or two before, you can create a group agreement about a code of behaviour that everyone will adhere to during the exercise. This is a great chance to include a discussion about how to respect an Elder who is a guest to the classroom, and any other cultural protocols you’ve learned about.

Most importantly, ensure that you allow adequate time to debrief the experience immediately after the exercise ends. Consider what kind of debrief would work best for your students. For example, if they are very shy or group discussion is difficult, give them time to write or go into an art activity about what they are feeling. If you aren’t leading the activity yourself, communicate this in advance with your facilitators.

This could be a discussion, written or artistic reflection etc., anything that allows students to express their reactions (feelings and thoughts). Ask questions of both ‘head’ and ‘heart’: How do you feel? How did you feels when xyz happened? How does this relate to your own experience or your family’s? What new knowledge of history do you have? What facts surprised you?

A talking circle is an excellent, culturally relevant, way of debriefing. You go clockwise around your circle unless you are in Mohawk territory in which case the protocol is to go counter-clockwise. If you’ve never been in a traditional talking circle, invite an Elder or consult other resources.

Some students may take longer to process their experiences than others. Provide opportunities in subsequent days and weeks to refer back to the Blanket Exercise and reflect on the feelings and thoughts arising from their experience. Journals before and after and throughout a learning unit can be helpful.

Step 2 – Do the Blanket Exercise

It may take months or even a year to plan and prepare yourself, colleagues, students and Elders or other guests. But finally the day arrives when you lay the blankets out and ask students to remove their shoes and sit around the circle. It’s time to walk through the Blanket Exercise. Breathe. Feel the ups and downs – the fear, grief, anger and hope / excitement about the call to make a difference.

Some educators have noticed themselves wondering in the middle of the Blanket Exercise if students are “getting it”. For example students may protest about removing their shoes, or seem distracted during the activity, whispering to friends or making jokes, or conversely the room can get very, very quiet. But the debriefing never fails to reveal deep insights and great impact.

Step 3 – Expand learning into lessons on the 4 Learning Areas

Subsequent classes are the time to dig deeper into the content that flew by during the Blanket Exercise. We have created 4 Learning Areas, based on various sections of the script:

  • Pre-Contact
  • Early Contact & Treaties
  • Colonial Governance & Indian Residential School (IRS)
  • Indigenous Rights, Resurgence & Contemporary Colonialism

These are not meant to stand for clear cut divisions of time or discrete periods with beginning and end points. Each is also a theme that runs forward and backwards in time. Many cultural educators speak about Indigenous perspectives of time as cyclical rather than linear. We want to respect and echo that worldview as we offer these four areas.

For example, Learning Area 4 (Right, Resurgence, Contemporary) and 1 (Pre-Contact) are closely linked, though different. Resistance to cultural loss has taken many forms over the colonial decades. And, as modern ‘rights’ occur, the traditional knowledge, skills and teachings, including language and place-based stories, are a critical part of healing and resurgence for coming generations. Learning Area 2 (Treaties) is another continuous thread – treaty-making was part of life before Europeans arrived and today the treaties remain the basis of contested agreements about equity and land rights, part of contemporary colonialism.

It’s important to touch into all four Learning Areas* to gain a full context for your learning unit. For example, if you only look at Learning Area 3 (IRS), you might neglect the context in which such atrocity was able to occur, i.e. the preceding events leading from pre-contact and early contact, the making and then breaking of treaties.

Even if you choose to focus on one area, we’d encourage you to touch briefly on at least one key concept, term or short activity from the other three. See the curriculum page for a brief summary of each period.

For example, perhaps you want to focus on Learning Area 3 – Colonial Governance and IRS. You could touch on Learning Area 1 by spending a half hour talking about whose traditional territory your school is on and when treaties were signed affecting your local area, and/or having an Elder visit to share a traditional skill or story.  Then you could spend two or three classes looking at the Indian Act, or hearing age-appropriate testimony about IRS experiences. You could then devote a final class to Learning Area 4 by creating letters or art projects to educate others about the struggle for justice for IRS survivors.

Or, if you want to equally cover all Learning Area, you could devote one or more classes to each of the periods over several weeks or months. With older students you could also form small groups with each doing a short study project on one of the periods and then sharing back to teach the rest of the class (or school!) what they learned.

Step 4 – Do a ReconciliACTION / Service-Based Learning Project

Do something! Educators working with the material in the Blanket Exercise have found it stirs up a strong sense of the inequities of the past, which is important to channel into a sense of agency and engagement. Students truly benefit when they gain a sense of being able to make a difference. What can they do, here and now, in their school, community, country & world?!

This is not only an exercise for students to “feel better”, kids truly can make a difference, even without being able to vote. For example, kids campaigning for other kids is very impactful, such as the ”Our Dreams Matter Too” walks  for equitable education funding for on-reserve schools.

Action can be as short & simple as writing a letter or decorating memorial tiles, or more involved, like developing a local version of the Blanket Exercise script, or planning a cultural event at the school for parents and community.

For maximum impact, get students involved in selecting the type of action project! However, always guide them to be cautious of presuming to know what is best for others. You could help them to research local or national groups or campaigns to lend support to, or share a few for them to pick from.

A great discussion of “How can I help?” for non-Indigenous people.  Her main suggestion is to support projects led by Indigenous Peoples, and to be prepared to offer practical support. This helps to ensure actions follow the spirit of reconciliation rather than charity or further colonialism, even with good intention.

See the Educator Briefing Sheets for specific action ideas related to the Learning Area you are focusing on. But here are a few general action project ideas:

  • Sharing back what you’ve learned / produced with the wider school or community: through galleries or info displays; sharing online through a blog, slideshow or video; creating a gift for a local friendship centre; hosting a movie and discussion night; hosting an event and creating a press release.
  • Creating a local version of the script and leading it for others in the school or community. Note that including information about the territory should be done in collaboration with someone who is Indigenous to that territory.
  • Social engagement: writing letters to parliament about one of the causes highlighted by the Caring Society; organizing or participating in a walk or symbolic action; doing fundraising or collecting other types of donations for a struggling community, Indigenous organization or legal case.
  • Ask your students and be inspired by other students – there’s lots going on, check out the blogs here, on PoH and CTF actions.

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3. Aim towards school-wide approaches (& ideas for student leadership)

School-wide approaches

When more than one class or teacher is involved, it greatly enhances the impact of the Blanket Exercise. This is an effect of amplification not just quantity. Learning goes deeper and powerful changes occur when a critical mass of teachers or students is involved. The individual student and class are surrounded by the larger ripples in the learning environment. This new energy can then be directed towards what matters most – your local needs and school goals (e.g., impacting school culture, reducing bullying, promoting cross-cultural understanding, community-building, supporting community pride and healing)

Here are some examples of school-wide approaches:

  • Consider hosting a Blanket Exercise for teachers & staff on a Pro-D day before doing it with students. Teachers have found great support from a majority of colleagues using this approach.
  • Seek / Invite an ally from the School Board to attend as well.
  • Do the Blanket Exercise with multiple classes on the same day.
  • Support older students to become facilitators of the Blanket Exercise with peers or slightly younger students.
  • If you have a minority of First Nations, Inuit or Métis students in your class, use this as an opportunity to create openness and trust for them to share their stories and knowledge about their Nation, language, traditions etc… Look for opportunities that don’t put them on the spot. I.e. don’t push, invite them to invite their family in, pair them up, ask ahead of time, etc.
  • If you have a majority of First Nations, Inuit or Métis students it’s even more important to engage support structures and the community. Let parents know what’s happening, have a few support people for students to choose between and make sure they can access help afterwards.
  • Develop a relationship with an Elder, IRS survivor or cultural educator who has experience working with kids. If you invite them once, consider it the start of a relationship. Invite them back, help them connect with other classrooms, etc. Read guidelines for working with First Nations, Inuit and Métis Elders
  • Also go school district wide by networking student leaders from other schools in your region, and to participate in local extracurricular or community-based service learning projects.

Student leadership

Some schools have begun to demonstrate the power of student-leadership by supporting students experienced with the Blanket Exercise to lead peers or younger students through the exercise. And some students have even facilitated for adults – usually parents or community guests.

When students are facilitating it is essential that they have done the Blanket Exercise and extended learning units with the teacher. It is also imperative that the teacher along with an Elder and other supporting adults remain present in the room and available to help.

As with any facilitators, student leaders should become familiar with the script, keywords, etc, and practice projecting their voices with confidence. They can also watch the Blanket Exercise raining videos and discuss each one with the supporting educator and the other student facilitators. When students are facilitating, it can be especially important to have an Elder and other support present.

Help them understand and practice creating emotional safety for learning, especially how to help lead the debriefing. For debriefing tips go back to planning concept 2: Step 1 and the section on Facilitating Talking Circles.

It is especially helpful in preparation for their role to troubleshoot difficult scenarios, help them talk about concerning scenarios, and plan appropriate responses.

Tips for Troubleshooting Scenarios

  • Create a list of the challenging situations that may be encountered. For example: emotional reactions; participants not being respectful; time constraints…
  • Consider role playing these scenarios, coming up with a solution (or solutions) and role playing those as well. Start by discussing in pairs and sharing back ideas.
  • Or, if that is scary, you can also work in small groups to come up with solutions and then share and discuss those ideas with the larger group.

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4. “More Than That” – Understand issues of representation on Indigenous peoples (& how to support positive identity development for students)

Effects of Representation by non-Indigenous People

When representing the effects of colonization in the classroom, it is essential to spend a few minutes thinking about the potential effects – positive and negative – on Indigenous youth in your classroom. You also need to check the perceptions that non-Indigenous students are left with as you close the learning unit.

Repeatedly emphasizing only narratives of devastation and disempowerment can perpetuate stereotypes. Especially when the narrative comes from non-Indigenous authority figures (including educators), this can compound other experiences of injustice. At the same time, it’s important that (age-appropriate) testimony about experiences of Indian Residential School, and other facts of colonization, be faced in the classroom.

See below for suggestions to help ensure a positive impact while not ignoring the devastating details of colonial history.

Consider this example:

ABC (A US TV company) aired a series called “Children of the Plains”. The reporting is well-intentioned and tries to do the important work of addressing issues facing on-reserve communities.

However, some Indigenous youth from one of the communities depicted responded with their own video called “More Than That”.  In it, they offer their own counter-narrative. Positive words and aspirations fill the screen, and the message is clear – they want to be seen for their positive qualities and to feel their hope, resilience and community assets are recognized.

Strength-Based Identity Development

In 2013 a research project explored cultural identity, awareness and development for Indigenous youth in Toronto. Results contributed new insights to understanding the impact of culture and identity on personal development, school, and work. 

They found, not surprisingly, that access to Indigenous knowledge and education is important for fostering a positive cultural identity. And that cultural identity gives Indigenous youth direction and purpose, as well as increases the likelihood of positive futures (e.g. education, employment, having a voice in Aboriginal affairs).

However, the OISE researchers also found that individual instances of positive cultural identity are not enough, “Until Aboriginal youth heal from impacts of colonization, they will continue to be disempowered despite having a positive cultural identity.” This helps us to understand the important holistic link between supporting individual students in our classrooms and engaging students in action projects to have a positive effect their world.

We’ve noticed that students are especially engaged by campaigns addressing inequalities in their peer group such as, for example, unequal funding and physical conditions in federal First Nation schools on-reserve vs. provincial schools off-reserve.

Here is an excerpt from another excellent tool-kit  Engaging and Empowering Aboriginal Youth: A toolkit for service providers:

“Not a week goes by without a negative news story about the rates of problem behaviours among Aboriginal youth in Canada. Violence, substance use, suicide, gangs… rates of these behaviours are higher among Aboriginal youth than their non-Aboriginal peers.

However, these statistics do not tell the whole story. Rather than focusing on these negative statistics, we must shift our whole paradigm of intervention to a strengths-based approach. A strengths-based approach is critical for Aboriginal youth because it takes the Canadian historical context into account.

By placing the high rates of violence, substance abuse, and poverty experienced by Aboriginal families into the context of colonization and assimilation, this perspective shifts the perceived deficits away from the individual and allows us to focus instead on the resilience many of these youth have demonstrated.”

Read pages 63-81 of Engaging & Empowering Aboriginal Youth: a toolkit for service providers 

Tips for Educators by Educators

  1. Use the lesson idea “More Than That” with students.
  2. Be sure Indigenous youth in your classroom know their rights under the UN Convention:  
  3. Whichever period you focus on in your learning unit include stories and events that show resistance, resilience or examples of Indigenous leadership.  
  4. Invite students to research and present info on contemporary Indigenous youth voices in politics, art, media, spoken word, etc.
  5. If students are summarizing things they’ve learned or representing history or culture that is not their own, encourage them to use Indigenous references.
  6. In classes with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, make posters about the communities that they come from. Encourage them to share positive things, strengths and the wisdom held by community members.
  7. Make a “word wall” that translates words into several colonial and Indigenous languages i.e., common languages in your students’ family backgrounds.

And,The Public Health Agency of Canada offers other ideas on positive cultural identity, many can be implemented in classrooms.

This Edu-Kit was produced in partnership between KAIROS and the Community Learning Centre Initiative of LEARN in Quebec, with visioning and on-going advisory provided by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, community leaders and Elders.