How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow - AZEdNews
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How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow


Students, Staff And Family Members Take Part In A Round Dance At Salt River Elementary School In 2019. Photo Courtesy Of Salt River Schools

During National Native American Heritage Month, Native language and culture teachers in Arizona share how including students’ cultures is essential to creating a positive learning environment and increases students’ confidence.

Culture Teacher Wynona Larson says her third- through sixth-grade students at Indian Oasis Elementary Primary and Indian Oasis Elementary Intermediate schools are eager to learn about Tohono O’odham culture and language, and are “open to practicing in their homes and their communities.”

The school in Baboquivari Unified School District serves students living about 60 miles southwest of Tucson in Sells, Ariz., in the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“Being Tohono O’odham, everything that I teach comes from our Him:dag (Culture) and Neok (Language),” Larson said. “It is important that all lessons reflect our Him:dag and Neok, so that it can be passed down to the next generation.”

Students, their families and their elders often tell Larson that they enjoy learning Him:dag and Neok “when we see each other at the store, post office or gas station, this is when we have conversations about their family and how they were raised as Tohono O’odham.”

“Teaching our Culture and Language is essential to creating a positive learning environment because it supports our students in their self-identity and their view of mainstream society,” Larson said.

“Reminding our students that they are going to teach others, the way I am teaching them, gives them a higher purpose at a younger age,” Larson said.

2020 Arizona Teacher of the Year Lynette Stant on National Native American Heritage Month

Stronger relationships lead to increased engagement

Many Arizona school districts are finding that being culturally inclusive helps build stronger relationships between staff, students and the communities they serve, which often leads to more family engagement and increased students’ academic growth. c

Salt River Schools and the Education Native Language Culture department work hard to ensure the O’odham and Piipaash languages and cultures are part of daily learning for students, families, and staff,” said Sophia McAnlis, Salt River Schools Education Native Language Culture Director.

Salt River Schools serves students who live in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

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Salt River Schools Education Native Language Culture teachers. Photo courtesy Salt River Schools

“It is vital that we reach our students’ families about the O’odham language and culture,” said Teresa Gonzales, Salt River Elementary School O’odham Language Teacher. “This helps make our students feel comfortable in the classroom, and our parents are important for making connections to build a strong, cultural family and Community.”

Before COVID-19, Salt River Elementary had parent and family language lessons once a month and Gonzales hopes they will start again when students return to in-person learning.

“During our Open House, students hear their families talk positively about learning Piipaash, and that’s crucial, because it helps the students become more open-minded and more attentive and engaged at school,” said Hilary Richards, Piipaash Language Teacher at Salt River Elementary.

“They say of their students, ‘Oh, that’s good! They are Maricopa (Piipaash) from so and so’s side. That’s good for them to learn that side of themselves,’” Richards said.

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Round-Dance-SRES-2018
Students, staff and family members take part in a Round Dance at Salt River Elementary School in 2019. Photo courtesy of Salt River Schools

Larson encourages “other educators to include their students’ culture or heritage in their curriculum to show the student and their families that they care about who they are and not just whether they can do math or read and write.”

“In supporting the student’s self-identity, they open up doors and discourage bias or discrimination between students and staff alike. This also creates a positive learning environment,” Larson said.

Seipe Flood, a Native Language and Culture Teacher at Salt River Accelerated Learning Academy, agrees.

“I think teachers should embrace diversity and really listen to students’ input,” Flood said. “They are very aware of the world around them, and we are available to help them navigate the future with confidence.”

Flood teaches at Salt River Schools’ alternative school in Scottsdale designed to meet the needs of at-risk students ages 16-21 who want to earn a high school diploma.

“As a history and language teacher, I have a blast celebrating diversity in the world as it relates to course curriculum and incorporating cultural information into the love of language-learning,” Flood said. “Because I am a Native American teacher teaching on the reservation, I make sure to celebrate Native American culture daily, be it in reference to the Community as it relates to class material, or in class activities.”

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Students’ families take part in Family Language Night at Salt River Elementary School. Photo courtesy Salt River Schools

Salt River Schools’ McAnlis said, “When we hold evening events or events out in the Community, we usually get a good turn out with lots of positive feedback. Families share stories about their students’ use of the language at home.”

“Learning about the O’odham and Piipaash cultures and languages should always be a positive experience,” McAnlis said. “The students are learning about who they are and the Community in which they belong.”

“ENLC teachers consistently stress the importance of being respectful to the language and culture, and that they will never be criticized for any attempts they make when learning the language,” McAnlis said.

Navajo Culture and Language Teacher Jennifer Tsosie, who instructs kindergarten to sixth-grade students at Canyon De Chelly Elementary School in Chinle Unified School District in the Navajo Nation, said “students return home with the projects we create and they tell their parents of what they learned” and parents talk to Tsosie about it at parent teacher conferences.

Canyon De Chelly Elementary serves 333 students and currently provides virtual instruction, said Principal Jeanna Dowse. The school and school district are located in Chinle, Ariz. in Apache County about thirty miles west of New Mexico and 60 miles south of Utah. About 97 percent of the 4,000 students the district serves are Navajo, or Diné.

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Jennifer-Tsosie-and-students
Jennifer Tsosie and students during a pageant at Canyon De Chelly Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Tsosie/ Canyon De Chelly Elementary School

“Some of the information they tell their parents, the parents themselves never knew about. So the students also become teachers about their culture,” Tsosie said.

“This is empowering to me, because I see that what I am teaching is creating an effect to where parents are learning and are wanting to learn more to help their children,” Tsosie said.

“The language and the culture is not going to end. Parents make these comments like that. They say, ‘I remember bits about this from growing up, and I am glad my child is learning it. It encourages me to do my part in talking to my child about the language and culture.’ That is so positive in my eyes,” Tsosie said.

Embed languages and cultures in learning activities

Chinle Unified teachers are encouraged to use Navajo stories and history as they teach the standards, because “this is what they know and are around every day,” said Tsosie, who shares Native American materials from her classroom with teachers to use in their lessons.

“The Chinle Unified School District culture teachers are a great team who have collaborated to create a curriculum that benefits all students of CUSD,” Tsosie said.

Before the pandemic, the school held cultural events for students and their families, Tsosie said.

“I’ve made Navajo foods for them, we invited schools to come showcase some traditional dances, we’ve had Canyon De Chelly National Park Service Rangers come read Native Author books, we sponsored a Read with Royalty night and a Read with a Navajo Cadet night,” Tsosie said.  

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Read with a Navajo Cadet Night at Canyon De Chelly Elementary School. Photo courtesy Jennifer Tsosie/ Canyon De Chelly Elementary School

Tsosie enjoys teaching a Clan Unit, which creates a bond among students and teachers.

“They find they are related to each other and began greeting and treating each other in a different matter due to it,” Tsosie said.

“I also enjoy teaching the Winter Story Unit because they get to interact and discover the purposes of the traditional games and stories,” Tsosie said. “You can see the bonds they create and it does away with the whole bullying issues that arise.”  

Salt River Elementary School’s Hilary Richards taught a favorite Piipaash lesson during Native American Heritage Month to fifth graders pre-COVID and in-person.

“First, I teach a few colors in the language associated with Fall: Yellow, orange, brown, and green. Sometimes purple and pink<’ Richards said. “I brainstorm with the students and ask what makes them proud to be Native American, then write all their answers on the board.”

“Then I hand out construction paper using the colors we learned, and the students trace their hand and cut out the shape,” Richards said. “They decorate the paper hands by writing why they are proud to be Indigenous. The decorated paper hands are then glued to make a wreath.”

“The reason I like this lesson is because sometimes fifth graders are at an age where they start to lose interest in their culture,” Richards said. “This lesson serves as a reminder to them of who they are and why they should be proud of themselves.”

“Also, I like that the students can take their wreath home to their families as a keepsake of a time before they ‘grew up,’” Richards said.

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Proud-to-be-indigenous-on-SRES-playground-1024x767
A student made banner that says “Proud to be Indigenous” on the playground at Salt River Elementary School. Photo courtesy Salt River Schools

Another lesson Richards teaches during Native American Heritage Month involves reading out-loud Joseph Bruchac’s book “Jim Thorpe, Original All-American,” to sixth graders over the course of the month.

“While reading, I stop and talk to the students about certain aspects of Thorpe’s life and ask them to compare that to their own,” Richards said. “It’s really cool to see the look on their faces, because you can tell they are genuinely interested.”

“The reason I like this lesson is, because, again, students at this age can be indifferent,” Richards said. “So hearing Jim Thorpe’s story, being Native American, the strength and accomplishments he had — I hope to inspire all the students to chase their dreams, put in the work, to love and be proud of themselves.”

​Richards knows students enjoyed her lessons during in-person classes, because they were smiling and having fun during the activities.

“Now during remote learning, students comment on my lessons and I respond, letting them know I am proud of them and use emojis to try and show my enthusiasm,” Richards said.

One of Flood’s favorite cultural units is Know Your Native Tribes, where students explore in detail the style of as many tribes as possible across the United States.

“We learn regional music, fashion, and food tastes, as well as how our local tribes came to share and adopt new and new-ish practices,” Flood said.

“We also explore the experiences of those who shaped America through determination and helped create the American Dream by surmounting the most tragic of obstacles,” Flood said.

As a lifelong learner, Flood hopes to instill the love of knowledge in students and enjoys students fascination, laughter and comments as well at their ideas for new topics to explore.

“I feel that the easiest way to begin learning about the world –  past and present –  is to appreciate the world we’re in, and that will help us work toward our dreams for the future,” Flood said.

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Students-plant-indigenous-flora
Students plant indigenous flora. Photo courtesy of Salt River Schools

Salt River Elementary’s Teresa Gonzales said she enjoys teaching students about legends.

I love to tell stories to the students, especially the O’odham legends, because they are the traditional stories passed down from our ancestors,” Gonzales said. “They open up a collection of characters, O’odham language, and some moral lessons to be taught.”

Parents often comment about the language students have learned in classes and it is encouraging when “I see the students themselves using the language they learned outside the school,” Gonzales said.

McAnlis enjoys teaching the family units, “because the students enjoy sharing about their families, and for some it’s a chance to have conversations about their families at home, to learn more about their family history.”

“These units tend to happen around November, since this is a time of year that families get together, and we also tie in food units, which everyone loves,” McAnlis said.

Clovia Martin, a Tohono O’odham culture and language teacher in Baboquivari Unified School District created simple food tutorials during July and early August when I’:bha (Prickly Pear) was blooming.

“This was a great time to teach my three children how to harvest and prep I:bha Lemonade,” Martin said. “The next day, I created a PowerPoint for my students.”

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Student-and-prickly-pear-fruit-576x1024
A Baboquivari Unified student works with prickly pear to make I:bha (prickly pear) lemonade. Photo courtesy Clovia Martin/Baboquivari Unified School District

Martin said the results from students a few days later were inspiring.

“Students presented pictures and shared their process in different ways of techniques,” Martin said.

Martin created another food tutorial for Cowboy Cemiat as a way to teach her kids and the neighbors’ kids, and then assigned it as a weekend project to students who shared pictures and stories about creating it.

“There was one student that got up at 4 a.m. with her Mother. Her Mother had to be at work by a.m.,” Martin said.

“It was inspiring to hear that parents also teach their children how they had used different ingredients than what I had presented, which was perfectly fine, because some families may have their own traditions of how it is done,” Martin said.

The next food demo Martin plans to make is about making hummus from Bawi (Brown Tepary Beans).

“Students will have this dish for their families on Thanksgiving,” Martin said.     

How including Native languages and cultures helps students learn and grow Rock-Point-Community-School-Dances-3
Rock Point Community-School showcases some traditional dances at Canyon De Chelly Elementary School. Photo courtesy Jennifer Tsosie/Canyon De Chelly Elementary School

For Baboquivari Middle School students, Martin assigned them daily greetings to learn in O’odham Ñeok, such as  “Good Morning,”  “Good Afternoon,” and more and included I audio that Baboquivari Unified Supt. Dr. Edna Morris suggested.

“Since then the students’ pronunciations of O’odham words have improved,” Martin said.

 “A student was having a difficult time just reading the phrase and asked me to read it. So I did,” Martin said. “This student stated she can speak and have a conversation, but has not had the opportunity to learn how to read or write in O’odham.”

One parent told Martin that when she gets home, she will randomly say a term in O’odham to her child, and that encouraged Martin to assign short sentences and basic terms to students.

Martin’s class has worked on O’odham greetings for a week and when she asks students to please unmute their microphone and tell her how to stay Good Afternoon in O’odham she has been pleased with the results.

“Hearing students and hearing their parents encouraging their students’ pronunciations and speaking up – was so cute I did my happy dance,” Martin said.  

What to keep in mind

To help their students in learning their language and culture, teachers should get to know each of their students as much as they can, McAnlis said.

“Just because two students are both O’odham does not mean they have had the same experiences with learning about their culture and language,” McAnlis said.

The same advice holds true for working with students’ families, McAnlis said.

“It is safer to ask than to assume on how much of the culture and language they know,” McAnlis said. “ENLC works hard to offer several opportunities for our families to learn the language with students; we often seek their input into the types of parent involvement and language learning topics they are interested in.”

It is important to include students’ cultures and languages more in all classroom learning and school-wide activities, Gonzales said.

“We need to involve everyone, from education leaders and teachers to students and families,” Gonzales said. “It can seem like a hard task, but with small steps and encouragement it can be done.”

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A student’s beading project. Photo courtesy Jennifer Tsosie/ Canyon De Chelly Elementary School