The Region 15 Comprehensive Center, part of the federally-funded Comprehensive Center Network, is facilitating ongoing Community of Practice meetings that focus on rural education issues. State education agency staff, district and school leadership, and education associations from Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah have been meeting to share experiences from their states and ideas for meeting schooling challenges.
WestEd’s Senior Professional Learning Specialist Barbara Jones has been developing newsletters to share highlights and insights from these meetings. The following text is from Jones’ October 16, 2020 newsletter, following a conversation about school culture and climate.
Focus on Indigenous Education: Essential Understandings
On October 16th, our rural educators’ community of practice (CoP) met to participate in discussions centered on the theme of culture and climate, an identified topic of interest for our members. We focused on the work of member states as they work to address the needs of Indian students, specifically Nevada’s curriculum development work and use of essential understandings for Indian education.
To provide a context, Barbara Jones, from the Region 15 Comprehensive Center, first introduced the need for a two-pronged approach: Indian education for all and culturally responsive education for Native students. She stated that Indian education benefits all students in the support it provides them to develop accurate representations of Native peoples and to learn about contemporary and historical Native cultures and experiences. Native students also specifically benefit from having these accurate representations and essential understanding in school, in that they promote positive learner identity development and stronger relationships between communities. Using a culturally responsive approach to teaching and learning across the curriculum additionally supports Native student learning by honoring and leveraging the ways of knowing they bring to school with them. Barbara shared that this is particularly important due to the contrasting educational environment that Native students are often exposed to, a situation elaborated on in a recent National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) report.
Next, Fredina Drye-Romero, a member of the CoP and an Education Program Professional in Indian Education at the Nevada Department of Education, Office of Inclusive Education, shared information about these ideas in greater depth and described the current work occurring in Nevada to address issues.
She started with an overview of states’ current support for Native American K-12 curricula, based on the same NCAI report, Becoming Visible from 2019. From this, we learned that 90% of states say they have current efforts underway to improve the quality and access to Native American curriculum, but that less than half of states say that Native American curriculum is required in their public schools. Fredina shared that, “Arizona alone includes Native education in the standards and requires Native American curriculum to be taught in the K-12 system.”
She said that in Nevada, in 2012, they developed seven essential understandings, adapted closely from Montana’s Essential Understandings, intended to provide the foundation for all Native American curriculum in the state. In the presentation, Fredina shared Essential Understanding 1, and CoP members had the opportunity to read through the remaining six and discuss them in small groups.
Here are some of the members’ key takeaways from the essential understandings.
“Essential understanding two was looking at the issue of identity and human beings struggling with what their identity is throughout their lifetime. And the big takeaway on essential understanding number two was, there is no generic American Indian. And that was something that really resonated with many of us. We began looking at more of a cultural concept of identity, recognizing that ideologies and native tradition, beliefs, and spirituality persists into the current day and really creates that sense of a community identity. And just being cognizant of that, as we explore connecting with and partnering with these communities.” Dustin Loehr
[Related to Essential Understanding 5], “if you follow federal policy, you can see different periods over time. That history is important for us to know and understand. And more importantly, it’s important to see where policy and practice are not aligned in terms of what policy we’re supposed to be honoring to support good indigenous education.” – Lisa Young
[Related to Essential Understanding 6], “when we were going to school, our history books probably did not match up to what Native American history truly was. So it’s making sure that we have an understanding of the true history of the Native American community to be able to help understand and move forward. And the other one [Essential Understanding 7] is understanding that the American legal system, that Indian tribes are a sovereign nation, that they are separate and independent from the federal and state governmental rules….[We need] to be able to go in humbly, to be able to have a conversation with the various tribal communities to make sure that we are meeting them where they’re at and respect them for who they are.” – Sue Edman
After the breakout sessions, Fredina talked more about why education not rooted in these essential understandings is so damaging to Native students – that students hear stories about their people, culture, and history that are inaccurate, and that there is an omission regarding the positive contributions and cultural attributes that American Indian people have shared historically and today. She stated that, “Most of the time in the classroom, you probably receive only a tiny glimpse of the rich and diverse cultural histories and contemporary lifestyles of the native people.”
Fredina made the important connection between these types of omissions, disparities, and misrepresentations to lagging academic outcomes and low graduation rates for Native youth. She expanded to say that these problems “undermine children’s enthusiasm for learning and their belief in their own capacity to learn.” In remedying these issues by integrating Native American content across the curriculum, Native students benefit both directly and indirectly. NCAI noted that when Native American content is not integrated for all students, and instead, schools continue with practices such as having Indian mascots and logos for sports, intolerance and harmful acts are more frequently perpetuated against Native students.
In Nevada, to support change for Native students, the Nevada Department of Education developed a curriculum framework aligned with the essential understandings. This was put together by a task force made up of school districts and tribal groups. It’s primary purpose was to provide historical and contemporary background knowledge for teachers about tribes. The department also shares other instructional resources with LEAs that are aligned with the framework, such as Illuminative, Lessons of the Land and Native Knowledge 360˚ Framework for Essential Understandings about American Indians. Currently, NDE is working on moving their material into a digital format for easier use and accessibility.
CoP members next had the opportunity to discuss these issues in small groups. Their discussion questions were ones that Fredina posed as problems of practice. Here is an example of the solutions they proposed.
How do you take materials like these and get them integrated across the curriculum?
- Even though AZ is ahead in this work, we do need more capacity in this regard. We need more tribal specialists at ADE
- High quality professional learning
- Relationships matter — the tribal community and members from tribes who can come back
How do you create ownership over indigenous education across departments at different levels?
- Need to have everyone at the table
- Need to support LEA staff to make it their own, which requires follow up connection, which requires staff and time
- Working with other States
How do you make important mindset shifts about indigenous education?
- Getting resources directly from the tribe is a real asset
- Being more intentional in the work, working on relationships both internally and externally
- College and University: Pre-service to provide context, UT has some strong offerings in American Indian History
Barbara Jones is a Senior Professional Learning Expert at WestEd. For more information about her work, please contact her at [email protected].