"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
HALL, IdahoSherman 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 K3 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.
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.
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 aidesometimes an ISU student teacher, a foster
grandparent, or a parent volunteerworks 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.
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.
through Thursday, "we hit it hard," says Wolfe. "They
are worn out." Fridays are fun days, taking the subject matteralways
culturally relevantand making an art project out of it.
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."
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.
focuses on K3 students, but intensive work in reading is a
schoolwide emphasis. So is the use of culturally relevant material
and teaching styles.
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.
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."
In Washington, educators have developed a curriculum that does what
Klug and Whitfield urge, integrating Native culture into the classroom.
They've designed three unitsThe Canoe, The Drum, and Hunters
and Gatherersfor 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-K20."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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."
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.
new curriculum is fine, but aren't teachers today loaded down with
too many new demandstesting, accountability, and state and
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 standardsWashington
Assessment of Student Learning or WASL.
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?"
teachers, and tribes in Idaho and Washington are showing how to
make it happen.