TC² @ 25
Focus for This Month
Success Stories
Next Steps
Media Release
TC² @ 25
Focus for This Month
Success Stories
Next Steps
Media Release

The Moccasin Game: Engaging Students in Unexpected Ways


Shy-Anne Bartlett

Seeking the right challenge

Teaching an endangered Indigenous language is an important but difficult task. After some professional development provided by The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC²), I wanted to develop a critical thinking challenge to engage my grade 7 and 8 students. My hope was to generate a holistic understanding of how language, culture, and tradition are interconnected. At the same time, I wanted an activity that would spark laughter and help my students enjoy what they were doing. I decided to challenge them to re-design a traditional Ojibwe game called “The Moccasin Game” and to play it using only Ojibwe.


Challenging students

Usually, I would have explained the game and taught all the vocabulary students would need. This time, I did neither. Instead, I posed an over-arching question: “Are playing traditional games important to learning Indigenous languages?” and then took them through the following challenges.

  • I first prepped students by having them decode simple Ojibwe books. They were to pick out words that might be useful for playing a game and infer what unknown words might mean.
  • I then invited students to use their new vocabulary to figure out the Moccasin Game from a set of Ojibwe instructions. They could do other research if they wished.
  • Students then had the opportunity to rework the game.
  • To demonstrate their learning, students taught the game to students in other grades or students not engaging in this particular challenge.

A turn down an unexpected path

At the start, I felt like a goose flying lost up North in the winter. Students weren’t engaging. I felt the challenge was too broad and too narrow at the same time. Many times, it looked like the students were just meeting the surface requirements.

As the inquiry progressed, though, we began to dive into some really interesting topics. Consider the discussion we had after a student drew information from a site that told about the Moccasin Game from a colonial perspective. The student stated that he had found out it was a gambling game, and the other students responded with, “No, that is what the white people THOUGHT.” What ensued was a passionate discussion that ranged from cultural and physical genocide to residential schools. I was not expecting—or prepared for—this discussion, but allowed it to play out, impressed with the level of engagement.


Debriefing leads down yet another unexpected path

The next day, I wanted to debrief students to be sure that our discussions had not upset anyone. This sparked yet another lively discussion, as students wrestled with the question “What does Indigenous look like?” It was quite an experience to see students fully engaged, thinking critically about their own assumptions of Indigenous identity.

When I planned the Moccasin Game challenge, I had no idea that discussions would follow the pathways that they did. I was expecting students to think historically, by considering the pre-colonial context to really understand the game. I’m discovering, though, that critical inquiry engages students in surprising ways, as evidenced by what happened in my classroom. Everything that resulted—the rich discussions, the unexpected questions, and the deeper thinking—had come about because I had framed the whole activity as a critical thinking challenge.


Now everyone wants to play!

The students all have a pretty good understanding of the game now, and they laugh so hard as they play. Our learning isn't over, as students haven’t quite mastered speaking Ojibwe (with no English) while they play. We still have a way to go, but, oh, what a lovely, unexpected and worthwhile journey it has been.

Shy-Anne Bartlett
Native Language Teacher
George O’Neill Public School
Superior Greenstone District School Board
Marathon, Ontario