Education practices have always involved responsiveness and adaptation, but those tenets have taken on new meaning this year. Along with a quick transition to online learning, conferences and professional development events have been reimagined for virtual settings.
The Island Institute’s annual Island Teachers Conference for professionals from coastal and island schools and community organizations had as its theme “Striving for Equity: Rural Educators as Courageous Leaders” in response to feedback from well before COVID, but amplified by events of this year.
Yvonne Thomas, the Institute’s education specialist, has helped organize the past six conferences and has been attending the annual event since 1994. “We’ve always tried to maximize personal connection at the conference,” she said, “and it was a challenge to create meaningful interactions in the virtual setting. On the other hand, it allowed us to include different people, presenters, and content which we could not have if we were in person.”
The presentation tells the story of the 450-year colonization of the indigenous people of Maine…
At the heart of the conference was a workshop called “Interacting with Wabanaki-Maine History” presented by Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural collaboration that supported the State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2013-2015. Today, REACH (Restoration-Engagement-Advocacy-Change-Healing) continues the educational and truth-telling work recommended in the commission’s final report.
Maine-Wabanaki REACH has developed and presented the interactive history workshop throughout Maine to over 2,000 participants. The presentation tells the story of the 450-year colonization of the indigenous people of Maine by Europeans and their descendants. The goal is to increase public understanding of colonization through the indigenous educational format of oral tradition.
Robin Chernow of the Institute’s education team had participated in the REACH workshop in 2018 and 2019.
“Both times were in-person, powerful experiences, in which the participants physically moved around the room interacting with a map and props to represent moments in history,” Chernow remembered. “Each time, I learned new details and wrestled with challenging emotions as I acknowledged difficult truths in the history.”
Because of COVID, Wabanaki REACH staff member Heather Augustine and her team spent the summer of 2020 redesigning their flagship workshop. When Chernow and her colleagues reached out to the group about bringing the workshop to the virtual Island Teachers Conference, Chernow says she “was curious to see how the REACH team would adapt the highly participatory, physical map experience into an online format.”
After the conference, Chernow expressed gratitude for how the Wabanaki REACH staff and volunteer team found “creative ways to ensure each participant was active and supported in learning.”
The support included a “hotline” that participants could call to process emotions with a trained volunteer. The thoughtfully crafted script took advantage of visual features of a Zoom video meeting. Participants were instructed in advance to bring a blanket, a piece of paper with the word “Resistor,” and a sticky note to cover their video screen to represent death and loss of Wabanaki people through the centuries.
As one participant shared, “The Wabanaki presentation spoke to my heart. It’s nothing that I didn’t pretty much know already, but it was the way they presented the material that had such a great impact on me.”
Olivia Eckert, a college senior from the University of Maine School of Social Work and current intern with Wabanaki REACH, also participated in the virtual workshop at the conference. Frustrated at the great discrepancy between her childhood learning and the historical facts shared in the workshop, Eckert noted: “My education simplified our arrival on this land to Native people welcoming us with open arms, teaching us the methods of hunt and harvest. I was taught that Thanksgiving was a day that the two parties came together, made peace, and moved forward in union.”
One participant summed up the impact on her work as an educator: “It was important to keep in mind why I needed to learn this—not just for my own understanding but to invest myself in the equity and justice work that this knowledge calls out for.”
Given the limitations of remote education, REACH staff—like most educators —look forward to resuming in-person programming. In the meantime, they are grateful that the truth-telling workshop continues to reach more Mainers, and the Island Institute is grateful to have been able to include this invaluable learning experience at the Island Teachers Conference.
Christa Thorpe is a community development officer working on education programming for the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.