Assignment Paper: I-Search Paper - Out of Step: Inuit Youth and Dropout

Rebecca turns 16 and a couple of months later, she drops out. (Real names have been changed to protect the identity of the students.) Emilia has not come to school for the last three years and she is only 17 years old. Kevin, a bright eyed, smart youth who never had perfect attendance gradually stops coming to school at all and is asked to leave the system. Why do these otherwise normal Inuit students refuse to attend school? Why do they not value their education enough to make an effort to come to school? Why do so many students make the choice to dropout?

These and many more questions haunt me as a teacher and vice-principal. I have lived and worked in a small, isolated Inuit community in Nunavut for the past six years. Over this time I have seen many bright and potentially successful students drop out. It was once thought that the student dropout rate was high because students were forced to move away from their families in order to go to residential schools. Despite having a brand new community high school and many courses that use the traditional knowledge of Inuit culture as their main content focus, we still see a very high rate of early school leavers.

What is even more frightening is the high rate of suicide and abuse that is happening to youth at the high school age. Since I have been teaching in Taloyoak, I have witnessed seven suicides all under 21 years of age; within January to April in 1996 the nursing centre reported 23 attempted suicides. Very young students are starting smoking and using drugs. It makes one wonder what schools can do to keep these students in school and give them the skills they need to survive in a very confusing and complicated world.

Especially with the coming of the new government and territory of Nunavut, it is doubly important to get our Inuit students to graduate from high school and go into college level programs. The pressure is on our current students to fill the need for Inuit employees at all levels of the government. One would think that this would encourage students to stay in school, but that does not seem to be the case.

Rebecca, Emilia and Kevin are not fictional characters; they are real students making real choices to abandon school. They are my students. I am afraid for their future and the future of Nunavut. It is this reason that I want to find out all I can about the drop out issue as it reflects on the Canadian Inuit population. Hopefully, by the end of this process, I will be able to give recommendations to those people in authority who can make positive changes. This paper may even help other teachers understand the reasons behind student dropout. Moreover, by searching, I hope to gain a clearer vision of the situation and help my student become lifelong learners.

Being a teacher gives you an eye into today’s youth. Simply by keeping one eye and one ear open, you can begin to see and hear what problems face teens. I have been teaching teens over a period of years; my current homeroom is a group of students I originally taught in my first year at Netsilik School. I have been able to observe their changes in attitude towards school on both sides of puberty. At one time, I believed that younger students loved school and loved coming to school but now I see a different picture; last year our school had seven non-attenders in grade one alone. A non-attender is any student whose attendance is less than 40%. This figure is for truancy only, not sickness, vacation, extra-curricular or hunting excursions The apathy and indifference towards school is starting younger and younger each year. Some teenagers show their aloofness about school very openly whereas for other students I am surprised when they seem to suddenly stop coming to school. In September of 1998, of an enrollment of 229 students, there were 12 non-attenders, seven of which were from grades K -9 and five from grades 10 - 12. Therefore, over 5% of the school-aged children of Taloyoak are not attending school regularly. These figures are repeated all over the north and it has become a crisis situation in many areas.

What I do know is that there are many factors to the dropout situation. Inuit parents are relatively new to the idea of an outside authority educating their students. It has just been about forty years since Inuit families settled in communities year round. Inuit families were nomadic and children were taught by example from parents and elders. Although most parents respond favourably to southern teachers teaching their children, they show concern over the loss of the Inuit language (Inuktitut) and culture in the youth. (School staffs are mainly teachers hired from the south, although a higher number of Inuit teachers are graduating from a two-year Nunavut Teacher Education Program (NTEP). These Inuit teachers are currently being required to work on a Bachelor of Education to remain employed.) Parents are also confused about the pedagogy that is used to teach their children. Some parents were forced go to residential schools for their education (although few students managed to graduate) and they are thankful that their children can stay home. However, I consistently see parents unable to get their children to go to bed at night and wake up for school in the morning. The discipline at residential schools was very harsh and strict; however, parents seem to have difficulty imposing discipline on their own school-aged students. I have heard parents report that they love their son too much to wake him up for school. For a southern raised person, this statement leaves me very frustrated. On one hand parents are proud of their children doing well in school, but on the other hand they are unable to put any type of pressure or expectations on their child to come to school.

When students over 16 years of age become non-attenders, the school no longer gets funding for that student. At this point, students are asked to make a decision either to improve their attendance or dropout. This sounds harsh but I have witnessed students who were given many chances and opportunities to improve but are still unable to attend regularly and had to be taken off the register. At risk students less than 16 years of age are generally very poor attenders, coming to school only one or two days a week. It is impossible for them to find success at school when they miss so much of the daily learning that goes on in the school.

Little success at school echoes the low self-esteem that is apparent in many dropout students. I assume they have low self-esteem because they take so little care of themselves. When I ask my former students who have dropped out, "What are you doing with your days?" They give me blank stare. Typically, I see young teens walking around town all night, asleep during the day, smoking and reporting to do drug and drink. The previously mentioned suicide rate reflects high levels of self-esteem problems. High suicide rates are common all over the north, about four times higher than the national average.

All schools in the Northwest Territories (including Nunavut) use the Alberta Curriculum. However, we have additional courses based on the Inuit culture and many teachers are trying to incorporate culturally relevant material within their classes. We have a curriculum document (K - 12) called Inuuqatigiit which is the curriculum from the Inuit perspective from which teachers can draw information and ideas. Teachers are encouraged to invite elders into the classroom. Netsilik School teaches immersion Inuktitut from K - 3; it is still unknown what effect this will have on the later dropout rate.

There is a noticeable difference in attendance rates when compared to seasonal changes. Taloyoak is high in the central arctic and we experience 24-hour daylight from April - August and 24 hour darkness from November - January. This dramatic shift in daylight and darkness contributes to poor sleep patterns in all people living north. I see a change in student attendance and motivation in school during the both extremes. Students will wander all night and not sleep during either the light or the dark periods. They are proud to report that they are "staying up". This is not just a fad or a youth thing, adults do not sleep either and often stay up for nights on end just to experience the feeling. I have heard that traditionally Inuit needed to have this flexibility of sleep patterns because they needed to travel when the weather and the snow conditions were good, not necessarily when it was the right time of day to move. Perhaps this cultural aspect has filtered into the psychic of the modern Inuit. Nevertheless, students are not coming to school ready and able to learn; they are overtired and exhausted. Their brains are not open to learning.

Those people who are educated are often placed in challenging positions. Some of those employed in these positions may not have the necessary skills to hold the job because the demand for hiring is so great. These people often do not have a sense of job satisfaction and thus, they can be seen to do a great deal of career switching. High school students have difficulty seeing themselves in a satisfying job or career. Many students have the potential to do very well in post secondary courses but they do not seem to have future goals for employment. Some students report being afraid to graduate.

Instructional approaches and perceptual orientations (Caine & Caine, 1997) of teachers may also be a factor in explaining the high rate of dropout of Inuit students. Inuit are known to be very observant learners; traditionally, they are not overtly verbal. To survive, Inuit children had to learn skills and they learned by modelling their elders and parents. They learned by watching and doing. Some teachers from the south may not be using the Inuit students’ natural learning abilities to foster success. Instructional approaches 1 and 2 (Caine & Caine, 1997) do not value this type of learning. The conflict of teaching approaches and mental models from traditional and the southern teachers may be responsible for increased downshifting of students (Caine & Caine, 1997). My readings from Making Connections and Education on the Edge of Possibility by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine has opened my eyes to importance of considering brain based learning in my own teaching.

There are so many things that I still do not know. My focus of research will be on the factors that contribute to dropping out. I would like to know to what extent does school climate and culture intensify the desire to leave school. My definition of school climate includes: 1) the way teachers approach the learning of their students with regards to instructional approaches and perceptional orientations (Caine & Caine, 1997); 2) the way the school values cultural differences; 3) the elements of friendship and hostility between student - student and student - teacher relationships. There are many factors that contribute to dropping out that occur outside of the school domain; however, if teachers were able to make their schools and classrooms more conducive to at risk students, then perhaps there would be fewer students choosing to opt out.

My search begins at my own school in Taloyoak. I have been teaching at Netsilik School for since 1993 and have seen students struggle with staying in school. Attendance is very inconsistent for a large portion of students and by grade twelve there are only a handful of students left to graduate. Our kindergarten classes have approximately 25 students each year but by the time these students reach junior high (grades 7 - 9) there are only 18 students for virtually three grades. What is happening to our youth and their education?

I further my search to journals and articles written about North American Native populations. There is very little written on this issue with regards to Canadian Inuit populations. Most of what I can find describes experiences of North American Indians in United States. One journal in particular, Journal of American Indian Education, is very helpful in discussing the dropout issue. Despite historical differences in the Indian and Inuit experience, I can see many similarities when it comes to student success in school. Inuit contact with Europeans and generally white people is relatively new. Many communities in the Arctic were settled only 50 years ago. However, both Inuit and Indian children were forced to attend residential schools until recently. School success generally means that either students graduate from high school or that they leave school in order to enroll in another educational institution leading to a job.

Another approach to take in searching for information is simply to look at the dropout experience as a whole disregarding cultural differences. There is no culture that does not suffer from student dropout situations. Journals found at the University of Calgary and on the Internet take on this perspective and I discovered that they had much to offer on the issue.

I found that there are as many reasons for dropping out as there are students who drop out. I was overwhelmed with the amount of reasons or factors, which contribute to dropping out. For the purposes of this paper, I want to limit my discussion to factors that are within the boundaries of the school environment. Those, which I have grouped into three categories: 1) cultural racism; 2) student attitudes about school; and 3) teacher and school factors.

Caine & Caine (1997) describe the consequences of a high threat situation which results in what they term as downshifting. Students who face continuous threats of racism and a loss of cultural identity go through a process of downshifting which leads to dropping out or escaping. In a seven-year ethnographic study of Navajo and Ute youth, Dehyle (1992) found that students who dropped out felt unwanted and faced institutional racism. In the questionnaire, students reported that their teachers did not care and that the school was not related to American Indian cultures. The "school leaver perceived a cultural insensitivity or indifference on the part of teacher" (Dehyle,1992, p.26). Lin (1988) confirms these findings by reporting that hostility against them and the sense of isolation are greater for Indian students than White in a predominately white college.

Ledlow (1992) revealed that many teachers in these schools did not live on the reservation nor had even visited the place where their students lived. There is an element of cultural discontinuity or a clash of cultural perceptions within these schools. However, he argues:

There is simply not enough evidence to conclude that cultural discontinuity plays a significant role, but there is overwhelming evidence that economic and social issues which are not culturally specific to being Indian (although they may be specific to being a minority) are very significant in causing students to drop out of school (Ledlow, 1992, p.30).

From this research it would appear that the cultural racism is only one element in a complex web of factors that students face when dropping out. Caine & Caine (1997) would argue that any type of stress or high threat environment would lead to downshifting. Downshifting affects students in ways that prevents them from doing well academically or socially. Without a sense of success, it becomes logical to assume that students will not want to remain within the school system.

The second major body of research I found pertinent to this paper focuses on the dropout student, the student’s attitude towards school and the home support for education. It is often thought that students choose to leave school because they do not like learning; Dehyle (1992) found that many Indian students left school due to being "pulled out" because of family and community pressure or through being "pushed out" by an refusing Anglo society. Indian students are faced with the pressure of being "Indian" and doing well in a white school looks bad on their sense of family. Dehyle (1992) reported that in the Navajo culture teasing is used as a means to maintain a position of cultural solidarity and social control; students who did well in school were the objects of jealously instead of pride. Many felt that institutional racism imposed a job ceiling in their community whether or not they completed high school (Dehyle, 1992). Rosalie H Wax (quoted in Swisher & Hoisch, 1992) stated:

Many state explicitly that they do not wish to leave school and see themselves as "pushouts" or "kickouts" rather than "dropouts." As a Sioux youth in the sample put it, "I quit, but I never did want to quit." (p. 23)

Students who dropout often feel a victim of other’s misunderstanding.

Other research I found explored the relationship between motivation and academic achievement of Native American students. Despite an overwhelming amount of literature indicating that minority students underachieve because of "lack of motivation" and "having no desire to excel"; a study by Rindone (1988) found that this does not appear to be the case. Rindone (1988) reported that family (stability of traditional values) is the way to academic success of high achieving Navajos. Stable family life with traditional values becomes an important determinant of achievement in high school; parents and family were able to motivate and encourage children to succeed (Rindone, 1988). These finding support what Caine & Caine (1997) would believe to be true about the learning environment of the student; in considering the student as a whole being, the value of a support home and family is crucial.

Finally, the way in which teachers and school policies affect the dropout situation has to be explored. Backes (1993) investigated the effect that that learning style has on the learning success or failure of the American Indian Chippewa (Metis) as compared to non-Indian high school students. It was found that the dominate personal learning style of both Metis subgroups was abstract random (sensitive, emotion, personalizations, imaginations, interpretation, holistic view, flexibility , part of social group, discussion), whereas the dominate personal learning style of both the non-Indian subgroups was concrete sequential (orderly, step-by-step, structured, a reader, a researcher, evaluative, analytical , thinker, debater, studious) (Backes, 1993). The traditional teaching style coincided with this latter type of learning. It becomes apparent that teachers need to reevaluate their teaching style when dealing with Native students. In their book, Education on the Edge of Possibility, Caine & Caine (1997) challenge teachers to transform themselves into a Perceptual Orientation 3 mental mode, teaching with a variety of Instructional Approaches: "For us, brain-based learning depends on teachers being Perceptual Orientation 3 thinkers, with the capacity to use all three instructional approaches" (p. 224 - 225).

I think it is safe to say that there are still many teachers who teach directly to the concrete sequential learner and do not tap into the potential of other dominant styles. The most effective application of the study by Backes(1993) is the understanding of the need for teachers to adapt to individual differences, recognising and building on the strengths of various students. Hopefully, teaching in ways that Native students learn best will encourage students to come to school because their learning will be celebrated.

Reyhner (1992) confirms this hypothesis; he reports that critical factors associated with higher dropout rates include "large schools, uncaring and untrained teachers, passive teaching methods, inappropriate curriculum and inappropriate testing/student retention, tracked classes, and lack of parent involvement." Reyhner(1992) cites a enthographic study by Dehyle (1989) of Navajo and Ute dropouts; students who experienced minimal individual attention or personal contact with teachers felt neglected and believed that the teachers disliked or rejected them. This attitude and lack of respect for students transfers into a dissatisfaction for school and may result in dropping out.

Teachers who use passive teaching methods often rely on knowledge transmitted to students in the form of facts and concepts. Students are required to sit passively, to listen, read and memorize information. Caine & Caine (1997) would consider this method of teaching to be non-conducive to learning; this is termed as Instructional Approach 1 and is not considered appropriate for all students’ needs. Reyhner (1992) reports that students who refuse to sit quietly for long periods of time become considered discipline problems who "over time, are gradually encourage in a variety of ways to drop out of school." In essence, students are being pushed out of school.

An inappropriate curriculum also brings into question the relevance of the school experience for the Native student. Reyhner (1992) states that many textbooks are not written for Native students and they do not reflect the Native child’s cultural background; many texts are still demeaning to minorities. There becomes a gap between the student and the school, which is then evaluated using inappropriate standardized tests. Eventually, many students dropout to escape the invasion of their culture and Native experiences.

After summarizing my findings in such a way, I am forced to think about how these researchers were able to capture the experiences I have witnessed at Netsilik School. Our school is uni-cultural, all Inuit students enrolled; however there are a little over half of the teaching staff that is from the south. Although I am aware of instances of negative attitudes towards the Inuit culture by former staff members, overall I feel that institutional racism is not a major factor to students dropping out at Netsilik School. Many students I spoke to did not attribute racism by teachers or administration to their leaving school. Rindone (1988) reports that families with high traditional values have children who are high achievers in school. In contradiction, I think that if the Rindone( 1988) survey was used to study Inuit in my community it would find that the most successful (highest paid or most prestigious) Inuit come from a residential school backgrounds and may have lost their culture having reduced the strength of ties to the family.

I further agree with Ledlow (1992) who reports that there is more than cultural discontinuity that leads students to dropout. We have a new high school within the community; teachers live as citizens of the community. Our school promotes Inuit language and culture to the best of our ability at this point. We need qualified teachers to teach courses and until recently these positions have been filled by southerners. Compared to the past with residential schooling, our community schools are a great opportunity for students to graduate. Unfortunately, we are still struggling to keep students in the classroom.

Brain compatible teaching is relatively a new idea for many teachers on our staff. Some teachers see value in teaching in a variety of methods but as a vice-principal, I see Instructional Approach 1 (Caine & Caine, 1997) to be a primary method of transmitting information. Perhaps the awareness of the links between teaching methodology and dropout rate will spark teachers and administrators to promote brain compatible teaching in our schools.

Trying to pinpoint why students decide to dropout is extremely difficult. Many researchers have tried to come up with factors. I would like to see more research on Inuit populations. For the sake of Nunavut, it is important to make sure that the future government is run by educated people who believe in their culture and traditions. As teachers, we need to try all methods possible to make students decide to stay in school.


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