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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 17, 2004 - Issue 111


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Creating a Culture of Readers

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"She wasn't supposed to be in college
and she wasn't supposed to be as smart as she was
and she wasn't supposed to read the books she read
and she wasn't supposed to say the things she said.
She was too young and too female and too Indian to be that smart."

—Excerpted from "Search Engine,"
Ten Little Indians, a collection of short stories
by Sherman Alexie

BookwormFORT HALL, Idaho—Sherman Alexie's fictional character, Corliss, loves books, an obsession that sets her apart from family and friends on the Spokane Reservation where she grew up.

Throughout the Northwest, teachers of Native American children are looking for ways to cross cultural boundaries and help youngsters discover, as Corliss did, the thrill of reading books. In today's environment of testing and measuring, it is a must-do task.

Educators know that reading and language skills are essential building blocks to student success. For Native American children, however, language and reading too often are stumbling blocks. For example, figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that reading proficiency rates for American Indian and Alaska Native fourth-graders in the Northwest last year were anywhere from one-fourth to one-half as high as their white classmates.

Reasons for this achievement gap are many and complex, but research on Native American learners points to one key strategy for changing the status quo: Bridge the cultural gap between Native American students and their learning environment.

Concrete examples of how to do that can be found in a classroom at Ft. Hall Elementary School near Blackfoot, Idaho, and in a new reading curriculum developed by Washington researchers.

Partnering for success
Ft. Hall Elementary is on the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho, near Pocatello. All but 3 percent of the 167 students in kindergarten through fifth grade are enrolled tribal members.

Faced with low test scores, Principal Ryan Wilson decided to try something different. In fact, Ft. Hall began doing a lot of different things. Four years ago, it became one of nine schools in the Partnership School Program of Idaho State University's College of Education.

The program involves a number of strategies: training existing school staff in local culture and Native language; emphasizing school as a "community of learners"; and infusing the system with ISU student teachers and interns. Also central to the partnership program is building and maintaining connections with students' families and other members of the local community.

It seems to be working. Attendance at Ft. Hall has grown from 68 percent to 97 percent. The parent-teacher organization has been revived; local residents are using the school for activities such as making fry bread, beading, and quilting. Parents are encouraged to attend an evening computer lab and some are volunteering as teacher's aides. Last fall, so many families turned out for the annual school-sponsored powwow that it had to be moved outside.

"If teachers make the effort, the community responds," says Wilson. He beams with pride about the accomplishments, even though he now has a new assignment, principal of the middle school. Wilson seems most proud of progress in reading. In the fall and spring, students in grades K–3 are assessed through the Idaho Reading Initiative to determine their reading level. Results are scored on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being at or above grade level.

At Ft. Hall, Wilson notes, most kids start at level 1. Before introducing an intensive reading program, "a good year was having 20 percent at level 3 by the end of the school year." In spring of 2003, all but a few of the 42 children were at levels 2 or 3. "It's just outstanding to move them that far," Wilson says.

Reading specialist Brenda Wolfe may be one reason for the progress. To the visitor, her classroom looks like organized chaos. Forty first-graders are divided into eight small groups and seated at small tables. A teacher or aide—sometimes an ISU student teacher, a foster grandparent, or a parent volunteer—works with each group. Some groups are reading, some are coloring, others are wearing headsets at the listening station. At Wolfe's table, children are working with large, colored letters changing "plate" to "plane." There's not a worksheet in sight.

Children rotate through the reading room throughout the week. First-graders spend two hours a day, others one hour. They work in small groups, receiving lots of interpersonal contact and focused attention on the words and language skills expected for their grade level.

Monday through Thursday, "we hit it hard," says Wolfe. "They are worn out." Fridays are fun days, taking the subject matter—always culturally relevant—and making an art project out of it.

Wolfe, who is non-Indian, has a passion for what she's doing. The reading room/coach idea grew out of the success she had with a summer school program. "If I were a millionaire, I'd still do this," she confides, "because it works." Thanks to Wolfe's gentle yet firm demeanor, organization wins out over chaos. "We have rules and we have consequences," she states. "There are no threats. I mean what I say and they know it."

The intensity spills out of the reading room in the form of homework. "Homework is a challenge for Indian culture," observes Wolfe. "We start it in kindergarten so kids and parents know they have certain things to do." Children take the assignment home in an envelope with a note explaining the task. On the outside, the envelope lists what the child is expected to know by the end of the year, and this advice for parents: "Say it. Spell it. Write it. Read it. Repeat it." Children are expected to return the homework in the envelope with the parents' signatures.

Wolfe focuses on K–3 students, but intensive work in reading is a schoolwide emphasis. So is the use of culturally relevant material and teaching styles.

Through the partnership with ISU, Ft. Hall teachers have deepened their understanding of how Native American children learn. Faculty receive training in classroom techniques that emphasize the use of visuals and plenty of activity. Dr. Beverly Klug, the ISU partnership liaison, assists teachers in the use of culturally based curricula and encourages them to fill hallways and classrooms with objects and posters representing American Indian life and culture.

In her book, Widening the Circle, Klug and coauthor Patricia T. Whitfield write that "teachers, not just students, need to become bicultural," so that they can operate effectively "within the cultures of their students." They assert that "if teachers are not sensitive to their American Indian students and do not attempt to integrate their cultures within the classroom, school, and curricula, they will have failed their Native students."

Integrating cultural traditions
In Washington, educators have developed a curriculum that does what Klug and Whitfield urge, integrating Native culture into the classroom. They've designed three units—The Canoe, The Drum, and Hunters and Gatherers—for Native American students from kindergarten through second grade. "A good teacher," notes Denny Hurtado, director of Indian Education at Washington state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), "could use it pre-K–20."

Indeed, the material is rich in its cultural detail of Northwest tribes, including the role of myths and legends, an introduction to the intriguing "trickster tale," and hunting and gathering as a way of family and tribal life.

The curriculum grew out of a research report prepared by Magda Costantino, director of the Evergreen Center for Educational Improvement at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, and Joe St. Charles, a center researcher.

Their study, Reading and the Native American Learner, was published by OSPI in 2001. They conclude, much as Klug and Whitfield do, that mainstream teachers of American Indian children can help their students by learning more about the children's communities, culture, and language use and by adopting teaching practices best suited to the learning styles of their students.

Costantino and St. Charles emphasize the negative impact of what they call "discontinuities between cultures and languages" of mainstream classrooms compared to Native American students' homes and communities.

An example of a "discontinuity" occurs when a mainstream teacher confronts what seems to her "a confounding degree of silence" from a Native American student. Costantino and St. Charles explain that the silence is most likely a mixture of cultural norms, discomfort with expectations of classroom behavior and language, conformity to different standards of etiquette about speaking up, and general resistance to the school and teacher.

Another critically important discontinuity has to do with learning styles. St. Charles and Costantino cite research that shows American Indians tend to learn in cooperative environments and by watching and doing, "perhaps practicing in private." The typical classroom, however, is based on trial-and-error learning with a lot of direct instructional discourse.

Since Native American children are at a high risk of having reading difficulties, the challenge for mainstream teachers is to recognize the reality and pitfalls of discontinuities and develop strategies for overcoming them.

Hurtado, a member of the Skokomish tribe, says the key is to help Native students improve their English language skills, which are essential to future success in school and beyond, "while at the same time avoiding casting these students' home language in a negative light."

The new Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum is designed to link the language development process with subject matter of interest and relevance to Native American children. According to Hurtado, "We wanted to do five things: Develop a Native American reading curriculum; encourage the use of technology; motivate Indian students; develop trust between tribes and schools; and embed the curriculum with an emphasis on involvement of tribal communities and families."

The last two goals were central to the development of the curriculum. The project is successful, says Hurtado, because it was a true collaboration, not only between his office and Costantino, but also with Washington's tribes, Indian educators, and specialists in culture, reading, and curriculum. Collaboration, which is highly valued in Indian culture, helps to build trust and acceptance of the outcome. In this case, collaboration involved the production of 22 original stories by Native American authors and illustrators.

A new curriculum is fine, but aren't teachers today loaded down with too many new demands—testing, accountability, and state and federal standards?

"No Child Left Behind is no excuse for not using the new curriculum," answers Hurtado. The material is based on the latest research about learning to read and is aligned with the state standards—Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL.

Wouldn't it be something if book-crazy Corliss, the fictional character created by author Sherman Alexie, could be seen as a role model rather than an oddball? What if today's Indian children could break through the stereotype that is the basis of Alexie's story about Corliss—"too smart to be Indian?"

Researchers, teachers, and tribes in Idaho and Washington are showing how to make it happen.

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