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Sensitivities in the Classroom

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Martha Amadeo, a high-school English instructor at the Navajo Academy in Farmington, N.M., has noted some changes in students during her 12 years as a teacher of Native Americans. "The girls no longer wear their hair long," she says. "It's all coifed and modern."

"A few years ago I had an interesting experience," Ms. Amadeo relates. "We had a textbook they disliked and for awhile I couldn't figure out why. It turned out that it was the snake symbol on the cover; it made them uncomfortable."

"Teachers don't have the easiest job right now," observes Shirley Plume, a member of the Pine Ridge tribal council in South Dakota. "Now they also have to answer to the parents."

Sally Hunter, an Ojibway Indian and a public-school teacher in Minneapolis, concedes that the need for teacher sensitivity creates complex challenges.

"Where my kids go to school," she says, "I've asked the teachers to be aware of the fact that we consider the Bering Strait theory just that, a theory. Our people believe that we originated here."

"At the same time," Ms. Hunter adds, "teachers need to recognize that many Indians come from nontraditional or dysfunctional families, and they may not know their traditions. If they're asked to get up in front of the class and do a native dance, it will only embarrass them.''

Dennis Gaspar, who conducts inservice training for non-Indian public-school6personnel on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, says that teachers are often inhibited because "they feel they don't have a deep enough understanding" of Native Americans. He argues, however, that faculty members do not have to be experts on traditional cultures to be successful.

"All children come from different backgrounds," Mr. Gaspar says. "If you're a good teacher, you find ways of integrating what each of them brings into the classroom, how they perceive the world and process experiences."

Some educators suggest that schools have overreacted in their desire to keep Native American students involved by giving them preferential treatment and allowing a deterioration of discipline.

"They used to be some of the best listeners I ever had," says Twila Hahn, in her 45th year in Indian education. Ms. Hahn contends that students today are less attentive because schools have less authority to punish them.

Linda Golden, a Santa Fe, N.M., social-studies instructor, agrees that discipline in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system has deteriorated during the past two decades. Those schools are only now emerging from an "era of permissiveness," she says, although "it was nothing philosophical; it's just that the bia lost control."

Likewise, at the Pine Ridge School, Superintendent Imogene Horse says: "The last few years we were content just to get them in to the classroom. This year we're cracking down. We've suspended the 10 to 15 troublemakers who kept us from operating the way we should."

But what some consider to be behavior problems, others view as improvements. Several studies in the 1960's described Indian students as withdrawn and uninvolved, often sitting at their desks with their heads down and their gaze constantly averted from that of the teacher.

"Their behavior isn't as apt to be teacher-pleasing as it was in the past," agrees Sheila Sievers, a high-school teacher in Gallup, N.M. "But they're verbalizing more and thinking for themselves more, and that's a good sign."

In the fall of 1987, for example, high-school students on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota walked out of school 10 minutes before classes ended for the day. They were protesting the fact that, unlike many of the state's public-school students, they had not been allowed to watch the Minnesota Twins world-championship parade on television.

The walkout went unpunished. "We're trying to get the kids to be a little more assertive," explains Principal John Eggers.

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