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Culture Matters

A professor and a Native educator learn to join standards with tradition.

mural
A mural by students at Anishinabe Academy.

Nigozis, a third grader at Anishinabe Academy in Minneapolis, could barely read. He often disrupted his class by veering off task. He knew he lagged far behind other students, and he lacked self-worth. But when his teacher began incorporating more Ojibwe words, cultural teachings, and Native American principles of behavior into class lessons, his attitude changed.

Nigozis went through a dramatic transformation at school that included his reading skills. He started speaking Ojibwe well, eventually rising to the top of his class in language ability. And he now carries himself entirely differently—with fresh confidence in himself and his capacity to learn.

“It’s been a profound growth,” says Ida Downwind, program facilitator for the school district’s Department of Indian Education, on special assignment at Anishinabe. “He engages me in Ojibwe, he’s reading at his grade level, and he volunteers to read aloud. That’s not something I saw him doing before.”

Anishinabe Academy is a magnet school that focuses on Native American culture and language. A new Urban Indian Education Partnership among Anishinabe, Minneapolis Public Schools, and the College of Education and Human Development is creating ways to improve student performance by fully integrating academic instruction with cultural teachings and American Indian approaches to learning.

Developing the method for infusing culture and academic rigor wasn’t always easy. Along the way, Native and non-Native educators had to find a way to address differences in culture and in perspectives on improving student outcomes.

With test scores that chronically fall below other students and a graduation rate of 44 percent in 2010—compared to 90 percent for whites, 83 percent for Asian Americans, 64 percent for African Americans, and 61 percent for Latino students—the need to improve outcomes for Native American students in Minneapolis is critical. American Indian community leaders clamored for the Minneapolis Public Schools to do more. Bernadeia Johnson—then chief academic officer of Minneapolis Public Schools, later named superintendent—asked Jennifer McComas for help.

McComas, the Rodney Wallace Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, had helped students at Lucy Craft Laney School on Minneapolis’s Northside. After intensive one-to-one tutoring, the students in McComas’s project made significant improvements in literacy. Johnson asked McComas if she might try a similar approach with American Indian students.

“Well, I don’t really know anything about Native American students, but I don’t think they learn differently from white or African American students,” she said. “Kids learn like kids learn; I can’t imagine their skin color is going to affect my ability to help them learn to read.”

Actually, McComas also had a lot to learn, starting with the fact that skin color and culture are not synonymous. McComas would have to not only overcome the lagging academic performance of American Indian students, she would have to navigate a culture unfamiliar to her. She needed to learn Native approaches to learning and build relationships with educators and leaders at Anishinabe Academy and in the community.

The district paired McComas with Downwind, an American Indian elder with more than 35 years of experience in education. Together they gathered a team of educators and leaders to create the Urban Indian Education Partnership. Two years in the making, the partnership has already proven its point: American Indian students improve scholastically when teachers marry cultural elements and challenging academics.

“I knew that good instruction without cultural elements would not work, and Jennifer knew that cultural elements without good instruction would not work,” says Downwind. “We learned together that both good instruction and cultural elements are necessary, and neither alone is sufficient.”

Inawendiwin (Relating)

relating
Students at Anishinabe
learn how to communicate
and relate.

In 2006, Minneapolis Public Schools and the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors signed a landmark Memorandum of Agreement that sought to vastly improve the education of the district’s American Indian students.

“Educational failure has condemned generations of Indian people to poverty and diminished life opportunities,” the memorandum stated. Some of that failure is deeply rooted in past practices of forcing American Indian children to assimilate by stripping them of their language, culture, and spirituality.

As part of the agreement, the district created three Indigenous “best practice” schools that emphasize Native American culture and languages along with academics—Anishinabe, Anne Sullivan Middle School, and All Nations at South High School. Through the agreement, progress was made, but by 2009, the changes were not making a significant impact on academic performance. That’s when Johnson reached out to McComas.

At McComas’s first meeting with Anishinabe leaders, staff from the district’s Department of Indian Education, and other stakeholders, she admitted she didn’t know much about Native culture. She asked many questions and did a lot of listening. After the first two or three meetings, McComas came away surprised at the pace of decision-making—her first introduction to cultural differences.

“I’m a solution-oriented person: define a problem, generate solutions, pick a solution, go with it, and adjust as necessary,” says McComas. “I wanted to have a meeting and define objectives. But that wasn’t the way it was at all.”

Her colleagues in the Department of Indian Education tended to be process-oriented, she observed. They considered issues carefully before decisions were made. They moved a lot more slowly, she thought, but very deliberately, she realized.

“It’s really about relationships,” says McComas, “respect for different perspectives and different ways of doing things, and being willing to allow time and space to think things over, sometimes talk to other people, and meet again before decisions are made.”

Learning to work with her new partners took remarkable adjustment on McComas’s part.

“I had to really learn to not do all the talking in meetings,” she says. “For seven or eight months, I had to almost literally sit on my hands and bite my tongue.”

Downwind advised McComas to be patient as individuals deliberated about the various aspects of the project.

“I would say, ‘Can you wait a little bit?’” Downwind says. “She was very bold, but now I would use words like brave. But something about her said to me that she’s got heart and so I worked through it with her, often saying, ‘Can you get out of your head for a minute? Let’s connect it to your heart.’ We’d have a lot of conversations saying, ‘Do you mean this or do you mean that?’ It was a real mutual relationship.”

For six months, McComas spent two and a half days each week at Anishinabe, talking with Downwind and others in the building, attending staff meetings and Ojibwe culture and language classes for teachers and staff, assisting or observing in the classroom, and getting to know teachers. Finally McComas believed she was on the right path and had built enough trust to begin to address the partnership’s goals to support educators as they implement best practices to improve and sustain the achievement of American Indian students throughout the district.

Izhichigewin (Doing)

Downwind had already laid some of the groundwork for the partnership. She developed a way to integrate the district’s Principles of Learning—a uniform framework the district uses to help educators design and analyze instructional quality and opportunities for all students—and the Anishinabe Ways of Knowing that include Thinking, Doing, Behaving, Relating, Responsibility, Language, and Knowing. These Ways of Knowing are how the Seven Grandfather Teachings—love, truth, honesty, bravery, humility, respect, and wisdom—are shown in daily life.

Downwind wanted educators to see the Principles of Learning from an Anishinabe and Dakota worldview by blending common academic principles, like self-management of learning, organizing for effort, and academic rigor, with such Anishinabe and Dakota tenets as responsibility, thinking, language, and behavior.

“It’s what we call the ‘how’ of our work together,” says Downwind. “I was trying to frame it for the teachers who work with a large student body of Native students. There had to be a way to describe what we were looking at and put it simply so people wouldn’t feel like they are doing three or four separate things. They are doing one thing if they can gain this understanding.”

Carrying Downwind’s work further, the team devised a tagline for the Urban Indian Education Partnership: Niwiidookodadimin—Ojibwe for “We will work together to learn.” The tagline reflected the team’s intention to learn from one another and from students, teachers, parents, and community members.

Next they began developing a tool for examining the relationship between teacher practices and student outcomes. Impatient to begin observations and collect data, McComas took a crack at creating the tool using standard educational practices, including a strong focus on systematic instruction and verbal praise.

She learned quickly that she should have observed even more carefully in the classrooms and gathered input from the Native community.

“I was getting feedback that the tool was completely inadequate,” she says. “‘It doesn’t have anything to do with Native kids or culture,’ was the response of some of the teachers.”

Downwind and McComas instead developed a new observation tool to evaluate a blend of standard and Native instructional practices. For example, the best practices encourage teachers to use a lesson plan based on Minnesota state standards that includes layers of Ojibwe and Dakota words, culturally based materials, and the nonverbal communication that is a key component of Native culture.

“We agreed that what we needed was for teachers to integrate cultural teaching, not to teach the culture,” McComas says. “It’s cultural teaching with academic rigor.

“For example, you would encourage students to work together and learn from one another while giving instructions in Ojibwe or Dakota for things like—be still, all eyes on me, or listen to each other,” she says. “Acknowledgement and appreciation are more often shown through a nod of the head or some other nonverbal gesture than through public statements of praise.”

Becky Simondet used the methods to teach literacy in her first-grade classroom at Anishinabe. For example, she chose a Creek story called “How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun” as part of a unit to teach students how to summarize a text. The text layered a cultural element with students’ emerging knowledge of storytelling.

“It’s taking what needs to be taught, but instead of always using traditional books, you take cultural readings so you can solidify a concept and understanding through the culture,” says Simondet.

Simondet has embraced the partnership’s methods for incorporating more cultural teachings and language instruction into her lessons. As one of the non-Native teachers at the school, she tells her students that she is learning Dakota along with them and that they can teach her as well. Using richer cultural materials and more language have made a marked difference in her classroom, she says, by creating a cooperative learning environment.

“The overall climate of my room changed,” Simondet explains. “I noticed that the children started using the language with each other and connecting it to the work we did. They listened better, and it helped us build a classroom community and family.”

Parents of Anishinabe students also noticed big changes, which included academic improvement. They saw the enthusiastic, respectful CEHD interns and graduate students as strong allies for their children’s education, according to parent council member Deanna StandingCloud.

StandingCloud is also the parent engagement coordinator for the district’s Department of Indian Education. She fully supported the partnership’s work to incorporate cultural teachings with academic principles.

“The Seven Teachings we have as a culture […] are so aligned with the school’s Principles of Learning that it really makes sense to teach that way,” says StandingCloud.

McComas, Downwind, and the team spent the remaining part of the 2009–10 school year observing and examining the relationship between specific teacher practices and student outcomes. In 2010–11, they offered weekly professional development to teachers who were new to the methods and to help strengthen the work of already engaged teachers. In addition, McComas used money from the Bruininks/Hagstrum Endowment Fund for Education and other sources of support, including the University’s Office for Equity and Diversity, to fund several graduate students to collect data and to provide supplemental instructional support for second- and third-grade students in the area of reading.

“The data have revealed significant correlations between teacher practices and student outcomes,” says McComas. Furthermore, when teacher practices were separated into culturally specific and non-culturally specific (i.e., ‘standard’) categories, there were no significant correlations; only when the practices were combined were the correlations significant. “The data showed us that, indeed, culture and academic rigor are both necessary, and that neither one alone is sufficient to produce desired outcomes for students,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”

Of the 16 teachers at Anishinabe Academy, about half embraced the partnership’s approach, with about half of the Native teachers embracing the partnership. One challenge has been to overcome some non-Native teachers’ concerns about teaching a culture that’s not their own. Some Native teachers were resistant because they felt embarrassed about not knowing more of the language or culture themselves. “We’re telling teachers, ‘You are teaching through a lens, not teaching about the lens,’” says Downwind about the culture. “That makes a difference.”

At the end of the 2010–11 school year, McComas, Downwind, and other partnership members held a feast to honor the participating teachers. They offered traditional ceremonial gifts to request that the experienced teachers be peer mentors to others who had been reluctant to participate. By accepting, each of the teachers agreed to assist in shifting away from the elder-based coaching model and toward a more peer-based coaching model, McComas says.

During 2011–12, partnership members are designing model units to demonstrate how to include best practices in infusing culture and academic rigor across curriculum areas and grades, including high school.

Gikendaasowin (Knowing)

The Urban Indian Education Partnership is expanding its work to other schools with significant populations of Native students, including All Nations at South High, during the 2011–12 school year. The partnership will also work with teachers from across the district who have attended Department of Indian Education professional development seminars, where they learn how the district’s Principles of Learning relate to the Anishinabe Seven Ways of Knowing.

The CEHD facet of the partnership goes far beyond McComas’s role. It is vital that all the graduate assistants, interns, and practicum students who work on the partnership learn about how essential culture can be to effective instruction. McComas hopes that some of those students will expand on the lessons learned as they enter and advance their own careers. With the project now in its final year, she is also seeking funding to continue the partnership.

The Memorandum of Agreement is being reauthorized this year and—based on the findings of the Urban Indian Education Partnership—the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors and Minneapolis Public Schools officials have agreed that instructional practices identified by McComas and Downwind will be part of the reauthorization. McComas and Downwind hope it will lead to further implementation of the best practices and improvement in student outcomes.

“We’re seeing in our data and data collected from other studies across the country that the more enculturated students are, the more likely they are to succeed,” says McComas. “Wouldn’t it be something if we demonstrated empirically that the integration of good academic instruction and cultural teaching practices is an important practice for closing the achievement gap between white students and their peers from culturally different backgrounds?”

We are Here

Sources: Minneapolis Public Schools; Minnesota Department of Education

Story by Suzy Frisch

A new five-year agreement between Minneapolis Public Schools and Indian leaders was approved in January 2012. The University's work with colleagues at Anishinabe Academy was cited in news about the agreement.



This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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