Nimkii Lavell has a lot of experience reading for children. He used to work as a school librarian and is now the shore learning leader for the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
But after years of reading aloud countless books, he recently got his first: a picture book in which he is the main character.
Lavell is the star of Ice fishing with Nimkiiwhich was created by the literacy non-profit organization Innovations for Learning Canada, in partnership with the board of education.
“It was a fantastic and wonderful surprise,” Lavell said.
“To see myself and the children I work with represented in this way, what a joy.”
The book describes a simple story about taking a group of children out on the ice and teaching them Anishinaabe traditions.
“Nimkii is a star on the Wiikwemkoong Board of Education,” said Fabrice Grover, executive director of Innovations for Learning Canada.
“So it was a natural fit for our collection of stories.”
Ice fishing with Nimkii is one of the first in a series of 14 books being published by the nonprofit organization that focus on indigenous innovation and land-based learning, all as part of an effort to provide culturally relevant reading material for students. , and celebrate and share indigenous stories.
Improve reading scores
Wiikwemkoong Junior School was the first school to partner with Innovations for Learning when it expanded to Canada in 2018. Since then, the nonprofit has partnered with other schools on Manitoulin Island and has expanded across much of the country.
The organization works to help at-risk students read on grade level by the end of third grade. Offers short, intensive daily phonics tutoring as well as weekly tutoring sessions with volunteers from companies that partner with the for-profits.
“The combination of those two things means that kids who normally wouldn’t complete the year at grade level do,” Grover said.
“When you’re not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, you’re four times less likely to graduate from high school. And by the time you’re 12, that’s a five-year gap. That’s why we’re focused on these young kids.” , because we want to close the gap before it starts.”
Since partnering with Wiikwemkoong Junior School, Grover said, there has been a “dramatic” improvement in reading scores, with about 80 percent of students now reading on grade level, compared with less than half before. of the association.
Celebrating culture, language
As a former librarian, Lavell knows firsthand the challenges of finding culturally relevant books to share with students.
“It was almost impossible. Either the depictions of First Nations people were just complete stereotypes, you know, and cartoons, with no meaningful content, or they were set in some sort of historical context that meant our kids couldn’t see themselves. themselves in these stories.”
Lavell said he has seen the benefit for students as the school board has put a greater focus on traditional land-based learning in recent years. Activities like ice fishing, building a canoe, and learning about making maple syrup are part of the school year and enhance the curriculum.
Lavell hopes that having books that describe those activities and stories will also make a difference.
“Being able to see their own faces and stories reflected in a book is very enriching.”
The book also includes words in Anishnaabemowin, which complements the school board’s focus on incorporating the language as much as possible into the school day.
As Lavell read to a group of second graders, they began counting in unison with him on Anishinaabewomin.
“When I first came to Wiikwemkoong, I remember hearing from high school students that they wished they had the language sooner, so they could pass it on to their children. And this to me shows that that is happening. So they are just amplifying and supporting the work that the school is already doing,” Grover said.
‘Get away from stereotypes’
A limited number of printed books were printed and distributed to students at the school. Ice fishing with Nimkiiand the other books in the series are published primarily as e-books, which will be freely available worldwide.
Comments are already pouring in, both from near and far.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen someone I know in a book,” said Daxton Wabano, a second grader at Wiikwemkoong High School.
Grover said positive reviews are pouring in from students and families in places from the Moose Factory in far northern Ontario to Florida.
Lavell said it’s “fantastic” to think that the book has a scope beyond Wiikwemkoong.
“One of the other kinds of benefits of this story is that it represents our people as real, right? We’re moving away from stereotypes,” Lavell said.
“And I think if other First Nations in Canada read this story, they will recognize elements of their own stories in this one. They all have an uncle like Mr. Nimkii.”