For Navajo children, a rigorous program draws on tradition to spur achievement
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Mar 21 00:37:03 UTC 2007
A Culture Put to the Test
For Navajo children, a rigorous program draws on tradition to spur
By Mary Ann Zehr
Fort Defiance, Ariz.
Ask Marilyn Begay why the Navajo-immersion school where she is a 5th grade
teacher has fared well in meeting student-achievement goals under the No
Child Left Behind Act, and shell say its because the school integrates
Navajo language and culture into its curriculum. Put the same question to
Maggie Benally, the schools principal, and shell credit instruction driven
by analysis of students test scores. The Navajo Language Immersion
SchoolTshootsoo Din Bilta, to use its Navajo namemade adequate yearly
progress in all subgroups under the federal law last school year, Ms.
Benally said, because the teachers know exactly where their students are
in terms of data.
The hybrid is viewed as a model in Indian Country and elsewhere. The
school has attracted visits from members of Apache, Cherokee, and Pueblo
Indian tribes, and its teachers and administrators have given
presentations at national conferences sponsored by the U.S. Department of
Education and the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual
Education. Its easy to see why. Tshootsoo Din Bilta (Tseh-HO-Tso Di-NEH
Bi-OL-tuh), which means the Navajo school in the meadow between two
canyons, has made AYP while many schools that serve Native American
studentsincluding three of the four other elementary schools in the Window
Rock districthave not.
Nationally, only 30 percent of the 184 Bureau of Indian Education schools
run by the federal government on reservations and formerly called Bureau
of Indian Affairs schools are making AYP, the central gauge of performance
under the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind law. In Arizona, 55 percent of
the 141 regular public schools on American Indian reservations made
adequate progress last year. Educators at the Navajo-immersion school, in
which 71 percent of students are from low-income families, have embraced
state academic standards and federal accountability requirements under the
law through a school improvement plan.
But the school also teaches standards for Navajo culture published by the
tribe and operates a program intended to teach literacy and improve oral
proficiency in Dinthe word Navajos use for their people and language.
Kindergartners and 1st graders receive all instruction in Navajo. Lessons
in English, including reading, begin in 2nd grade and occupy an increasing
amount of class time with additional grades. By 6th grade, children
receive half their instruction in each language. There is no question that
school leaders see the infusion of native culture and language as a key to
This staff is saying, We can compete with anyone in America, and we can do
it in two languages, said Thomas A. Jackson, the superintendent for the
2,900-student Window Rock school system. Cultural Preservation The
Navajo-immersion school started in 1986 as a strand of classes spread out
among several schools. A 2003-04 school year study showed that students in
the immersion strands scored significantly better on the state assessment,
Arizonas Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, than did their peers
who were receiving instruction only in English. Three years ago, the
immersion classes were consolidated into one school, which became
Tshootsoo Din Bilta.
Navajo-Immersion Schools Test Performance In the 2005-06 School Year
The percentage of students passing the reading and math portions of the
Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, the state assessment, was high
enough for the school to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child
Left Behind Act. Saving an indigenous language often is the primary
motivation for immersion programs, according to William G. Demmert Jr., a
professor of education at Western Washington University, in Bellingham,
Wash., who is leading a study of four indigenous-language-immersion
schools in the United States, including the Navajo school.
That's certainly been an issue in Window Rock. The loss of the use of
Navajo has been so great that English is the first language of all the
children who attend the Navajo-immersion school. A language survey by the
school district shows that in 1979, 89 percent of children entering
kindergarten in schools in Fort Defiance were fluent in Navajo, but by
1989, that proportion had dropped to 3 percent. Few quantatitive research
studies have been done that measure the impact of a culture-based
curriculum on student achievement, said Mr. Demmert, whose team developed
the indigenous-language test used as the benchmark given by the
Navajo-immersion school three times a year. But Mr. Demmert, a member of
the Oglala Sioux and Alaska Tlingit tribes, believes that culture-based
education is promising for Native Americans, many of whom havent done well
in conventional schools.
When you talk about an extended family in the Native American community,
you talk about clans and tribes, he said. What some of these schools are
doing is creating a new kind of extended family that includes parents,
students, teachers, school administrators, and the leaders of the
community. They work as a group, as a part of this extended family, to
make sure that the students do well. For culture-based schools to survive,
they have to pay close attention to state standards, said Jim Barta, an
associate professor in elementary education at Utah State University, in
Logan, who has studied how to make mathematics culturally relevant for
Native American students. But he also lamented the failure of many other
public schools to integrate the culture of students and their communities
into the curriculum.
We have minority kids, Native Americans in particular, who are at the
bottom of the list in terms of national data in realizing math potential,
Mr. Barta said. If our culture-less instruction worked, we wouldnt be
having this problem.
Parents say they are sorry about the loss of the Navajo language in their
own generation and are happy their children are helping to revitalize it.
While many schools on the reservation teach a class in Navajo language and
culture, Tshootsoo Din Bilta is the only Navajo-immersion school. Some
think the school is the Navajo Nations best chance to save the language.
But parents are also concerned about student achievement.
Along With Praise, a Note of Caution
While the Navajo Language Immersion Schools blend of traditional culture
and modern assessment enjoys widespread community support, its popularity
is by no means universal. Delphine Chief is one dissenter. Listen to an
interview with Chief . A Navajo and a devout Baptist who home-schools her
four youngest children, Ms. Chief said that in teaching the Navajo
language, teachers often convey traditional Navajo beliefs that she
contends are contrary to her familys Christian faith. "I dont have any
belief in it, she said of the ceremonies that are an important part of
Navajo culture and spiritual practice, and which Ms. Chief said often are
featured in a Navajo-language classroom.
Ms. Chief, who lives in Window Rock, a few miles from the school, said her
children get enough exposure to the Navajo language through their church
and interaction with a grandparent. She and her husband, Wally Chief,
speak Navajo with their children about 5 percent of the time, she said.
One of her sons, who is 15, attends Window Rock High School and takes a
Navajo-language class there. Ms. Chief would rather that he didnt and said
she warns him not to put stock in any myths that he might be taught. But
Marilyn Begay, who teaches 5th graders at the immersion school, said some
parents confuse culture with religion. Religion is ceremonies and songs
and prayers, Ms. Begay said. We don't do that here [in a public school].
Since language and culture are linked, she describes ceremonies to the
students. Usually, I tell them, if you are Christian, Im just telling you
about this; Im not telling you that you have to do this, Ms. Begay said.
That way Im safe. She also said that some Christian families send their
children to the immersion school and see its value in reinforcing
childrens self-identity. Mary Ann ZehrWhen Laurinda Davis Moore first
looked into enrolling one of her daughters, Lailauni, now 13 and in 7th
grade, she worried about whether it would be too demanding for the girl to
study in two languages. I spoke with the principal, Ms. Moore recalled.
She said, Dont worry. Their test scores are quite good.
She and her husband, James Moore, now have four children enrolled in the
school. Both parents are high school graduates of Window Rock schools and
wish they had had a chance to learn Navajo in school when they were young.
Ms. Moore speaks fluently in English and Navajo, but regrets that she
never learned to read and write in Navajo. Mr. Moore grew up speaking only
English and said his children are helping him learn Navajo. Ms. Moore said
the school reinforces her familys interest in keeping up Navajo
traditions. For example, the family held a traditional Navajo-language
puberty ceremony for Lailauni at the sheep camp owned by Ms. Moores
Nancy Yazzie, another parent, said she has monitored the achievement of
her daughter, Shandiin, now a 5th grader, in the Navajo school. Shandiin
read at below grade level in English in 3rd grade, she said. Ms. Yazzie
was concerned, but by the middle of 4th grade, Shandiin was once again
reading on grade level.
Teachers who use Navajo in their instruction also have been teaching their
fair share of state content standards. They decide each year which will be
taught in Navajo and which in English at each grade level. Marilyn Begay,
who teaches several subjects to the schools 5th graders only in Navajo,
has been helping students improve in mental math, an area that has been
identified as a weakness of all students on the AIMS.
Two recent mornings in a row, she started the day by having her students
try to solve a word problem. They worked from a problem written in
English, but class discussion was in Navajo. Ms. Begays block of time for
literacy instruction on one of those mornings reflected many of the kinds
of activities that would occur in a class in English as a second
language--except that, in this case, the second language is Navajo. Most
of the 5thgraders test at the low-intermediate level in spoken Navajo,
which means it is hard for them to discuss some subjects fluently in
class, Ms. Begay said.
She read the children a story about a sheep herder who is bothered by a
glzhii, or skunk. She taught them vocabulary and had them practice
pronunciation of vowels. The children read the story aloud to each other
in pairs and then wrote paragraphs on their own. Lastly, Ms. Begay had the
students test themselves on how fast they could read another story about a
skunk. Timed readings are an important part of the benchmark tests the
students take three times a year in math, reading, and writing. Teachers
say the results of those tests, given in Navajo or English, depending on
the grade, and introduced three years ago by outside researchers, are a
good predictor of how well the students do on the AIMS.
Staying true to the immersion schools mission, Sherri Miller, who teaches
social studies, reading, and writing in English to 7th and 8th graders,
chose Navajo beliefs about sickness and healing as a theme for her lessons
on a recent day. She designed learning activities around a Jan. 21 article
in The Denver Post about Ronnie Tallman, a Navajo who joined the U.S.
Marines and then wanted to obtain conscientious-objector status so he
could leave the military and become a medicine man, or healer.
Ms. Miller read the article to a class of 7th graders, and they then read
a section about Navajo medicine men in a textbook. In addition to its
cultural component, Ms. Millers lesson aimed to teach specific skills, as
she had the students browse opinions on the talkback section of the
newspapers Web site about Mr. Tallman and copy down five strong
statements. In meetings with teachers and other staff members, Ms. Miller
had learned that the schools students did poorly on the persuasive-writing
section of the AIMS. Her lesson focused on that type of writing.
Even some of those who admire the achievements of Tshootsoo Din Bilta
caution that the results may be difficult to replicate. John L. McIntosh,
the principal of the 527-student Window Rock Elementary Schoolwhich failed
to make AYP with a similar populationagreed that the immersion schools
performance shows that a bilingual approach can work. But the fact that
it has fewer special education students put it in a better position to
make AYP than other Window Rock elementary schools, he said. Delia Pompa,
the vice president for education for the National Council of La Raza, a
Washington-based Latino advocacy group that runs a network for charter
schools, sees a connection, though, between culturally relevant curricula
and school success. If you use relevance as a big umbrella, you cant leave
out culture and be successful, Ms. Pompa said. We need to look at culture
in broader terms, beyond ethnic culture. We need to look at culture as
inclusive of community values and of youth culture.
In the Window Rock school system, tools such as surveys have informed the
district about what local parents want for their childrens education.
Right now, our states set the standards; we dont, said Jennifer Wilson,
the federal-projects coordinator for the district. But here, because we
are on the Navajo Nation, we are teaching our children through the culture
Vol. 26, Issue 28, Pages 25-28
The American Indian Education Foundation, an advocate for American Indian
education, coordinates programs to support American Indian students in
The Office of Indian Education Programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs
posts information and resources on American Indian education.
The Arizona Department of Education sponsors initiatives to improve
academic achievement for American Indian students in Arizona.
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