When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton




This lesson is a guided reading experience designed to accompany When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. Lesson content, written by Zapoura Newton-Calvert, was created to start or deepen anti-bias conversations in families and other learning communities.


My great-grandmother Florence Vera attended the Morris Industrial School for Indians with her siblings and cousins in the early 1900s. While my family spoke of her time at boarding school, I don’t think any of us really understood what the practice of taking Indigenous children from their families and placing them in either state or religious-run schools to assimilate them into white culture really was until I started researching further. I dedicate all of my work on this topic to my great-grandmother to honor what she endured and who she was.

Eight-year-old Olemaun, a member of the Inuit community, knows the rhythm of the seasons and the animals. But she wants to learn to read in English like her big sister who went to the outsider school. She finally begs her father so much that he gives in and lets her go, but school is not what Olemaun expected. The nuns running the school cut her hair, give her scratchy clothes to wear, name her Margaret, and force the children to work. Somehow, even with this oppressive treatment, Olemaun is resilient and keeps her sense of self. This is a story of the real history of trauma from residential schooling in the U.S. and Canada and of resistance from a small girl determined to read but not to lose herself in the process.


Here is a YOUTUBE read-aloud version of When I Was Eight . We recommend that you also purchase or check out a physical copy of the book if you can. Purchase from the Reading Is Resistance Book Shop list “Decolonizing Your Bookshelf” to support our work and independent bookstores across the country.


This guided reading lesson is designed to be part of a larger life-long commitment to anti-racist teaching and learning for the student and the facilitator. Reading Is Resistance sees reading as an opportunity to seed deeper conversations and opportunities for action around racial equity in our communities. We hold the belief that being anti-racist is a process of learning (and unlearning) over time.

The Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards (focused on Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action) serve as guides for our work.


The Teaching Tolerance Standards and Domains referenced during discussion question development in this lesson are for Grades 3-5. This book, however, can be used with a wide range of ages. Here are the domains used to create the discussion questions.

Identity Domain #1 I know and like who I am and can talk about my family and myself and name some of my group identities. Diversity Domain #7 I can describe some ways that I am similar to and different from people who share my identities and those who have other identities. Diversity Domain #10 I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.Justice

Justice Domain #12 I know when people are treated unfairly.

Justice Domain #13 I know some true stories about how people have been treated badly because of their group identities, and I don’t like it. Action Domain #19 I will speak up or do something if people are being unfair, even if my friends do not.


While reading or listening to When I Was Eight, ask yourself and the young person/people you’re reading these questions. Answer them together.

  • Name some of your group identities. Group identities may include the “Big 8” socially constructed identities and more. Identity Domain #1

  • Think about the list of group identities you have come up with. Which identities are your individual identities? Which identities are part of your family’s history and culture? Identity Domain #1

  • Name some of Olemaun’s group identities that you can discern from the story. Recognize that books may give us one look at a character’s identity and that there are probably more group identities that an individual holds. Diversity Domain #7

  • Do you have identities in common with Olemaun? Do you have identities that are different from Olemaun’s? How does this affect how you understand her story? What is easier or harder to understand? Diversity Domain #7

  • Olemaun describes the many things she knows at the beginning of the story. What are the things she talks about? How does she know these things? Diversity Domain #10

  • What do you know about the seasons? How have you learned this information? Diversity Domain #10

  • When Olemaun arrives at school, what is she hoping for and excited about? And what does she learn about school once she arrives? Justice Domain #12

  • When you read the scene where Olemaun’s hair is cut and she is given scratchy clothes, how does it make you feel? Justice Domain #13

  • What feelings come up for you when you read about Olemaun’s experience in school?

  • You might talk about the scene with the red stockings or the scene when Olemaun is put in the basement.

  • Even though Olemaun is treated badly, how does she show her strength, her love for her culture, and her resistance to the outsiders? Action Domain #19


In Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to officially task the government with compiling information, stories, and data on residential schools and the harm they caused to Indigenous communities over decades. In the U.S., while boarding schools for Native American children functioned in the same way and with similar violent impact, this country has not taken official measures to truth tell or to reconcile. Therefore, it’s up to us to tell the truth, share the information, repair harm, and never forget.

Orange Shirt Day (September 30) was established in Canada as a day to remember and honor students of residential schools. Learn more here:


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