- Gifted to Learn
In Gifted to Learn, Gloria Mehlmann recounts her experiences as a First Nations teacher in Regina public schools during the 1960s and 70s. She was a trailblazer in a time when there were no Aboriginal teachers in the education system to mentor her, and no Aboriginal programs to help deal with the stereotyping of Indians that shaped Canada's public policy and filled the schoolbooks of the day. Unhappy with how such material made one more a 'keeper of half-truths' than a teacher, Mehlmann went on to help develop a curriculum that better reflects 'a complete account of Canadian history and culture.' She discusses in detail how she went about this project and includes a brief methodology for teaching Aboriginal history. At the same time, while Mehlmann addresses how public schools tended to overlook the 'unique qualities that make up individuality,' the book does not read as an indictment of society or the education system. She does not dwell on the issues of racism and social divisions, but rather focuses on the difficulties and the success stories common to Aboriginal, Canadian, and immigrant students new to Canada.
Although the book is not a typical work of research and criticism, it does not disappoint the academic or historian. Illustrating 'how societal change and reactive policy affects teaching and learning,' Mehlmann chronicles several events of the 1960s and 1970s that provide a backdrop to her teaching career, including the first space flights, the computer age, the Vietnam War, social revolution, the economy, globalization, and women's equality. She reaches further critical depth with her ongoing reflections on how she lost her Indian status through marriage, and, witnessing the general breakdown of the traditional family unit, she [End Page 307] compares the experience of colonization on Indians to the effects that globalization has had on all Canadians. This leads her to recount her own crisis of faith and her views on the existential instability of identity.
Despite these weighty historical matters, Mehlmann spares the reader a tedious chronological narrative, but instead organizes her memoir into chapters that contain 'many rooms of psychological time where stories dwell.' From her passion for teaching, her early inspirations and doubts, identifying student learning patterns, engaging with parents, facing discrimination and finding success, she traces the many incidents that shaped her teaching. The book's form is not without its faults, though, as this type of psychological structure often lacks a coherent through line, and the work can meander and get caught up in too much reflection, almost losing its way at times. It can give the impression that we are learning from the same mistakes over and over, just in different ways. However, in a certain sense, this form may reflect the very message of the work - that teaching is a lifelong collaborative learning process, fraught with uncertainties, but always with a goal, even if it is not always direct. 'Real learning takes time' - and this point provides the fundamental pattern to the work, as each of her recollections is accompanied by related stories of her students, colleagues, and her own teachers, all interspersed with an epistolary correspondence with her closest friend and confidant. Thus, the book is not so much a work of analysis as an analogy guided by its main kernel of wisdom: 'Learning to teach comes with the children themselves.' In this way, all of her stories connect with what is most important in her profession: the students, and their remarkable resilience to overcome great obstacles.
Mehlmann writes with honesty and insight about one of the most important developments in Canadian education. The work is not only important to Aboriginal educators in Regina, but to educators across Canada, as well as to parents and students. Gifted to Learn is a gift to all learners.
Jesse Archibald-Barber, Department of English, First Nations University of Canada