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Native Intelligence

By Richard Seven — December 21, 2005 8 min read
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Linda Middlebrook and her 1st graders at David Wolfle Elementary School in western Washington State are talking about what they’ve learned from Uncle Jerry’s Canoe, a children’s book they’ve been reading. The tale, about a couple of American Indian kids who want to ride in the vessel with their grandfather, Jerry Jones, a canoe carver of the Tulalip tribe, is a simple one, but there’s subtle calculation in the fact that all three characters are Native Americans and that they launch a traditional canoe and not, say, a fiberglass sailboat.

Middlebrook, who speaks with a Long Island accent but wears a tribal art necklace, brings out a paddle to show the students, about 20 percent of whom are Native American. “See this design on the end? It’s the [Port Gamble] S’Klallam tribal symbol,” she tells them, pointing out part of the 3-foot-long specimen she carved from yellow cedar. “Remember how we talked about holding onto the paddle if the canoe tips over? Remember why?”

“Because it floats!” one boy shouts after she calls on him.

As the paddle gets passed around, the kids slide their palms across the smooth wood. They rap their knuckles on it. They trace the tribal symbol with their fingers. Then they set pen to paper and begin to write.

Amid concerns from tribal leaders that No Child Left Behind testing is squeezing out electives that have traditionally covered their history and cultures, an ambitious brace of programs is making Native America part of the core curriculum at Wolfle Elementary and other schools in the Northwest. By tapping into nontraditional learning techniques and original stories shared by local tribal members, the programs have given students at this school in Kingston, across Puget Sound from Seattle, a deeper sense of and respect for the native culture. But they’ve also lighted a booster rocket under its state test scores in reading, writing, and math.

In 1997, two years before local educators began putting together what would become a complementary set of native-themed curricula, one-third of 4th graders met state reading standards. Only 19 percent made the grade in writing, and just 12 percent cleared the threshold in math. Now, two years after implementing a pair of new programs, 84 percent of 4th graders are proficient in reading, 61 percent in writing, and 66 percent in math. It’s a success story, to be sure, but one that required Wolfle administrators to acknowledge the failures of their accustomed modes of learning and to look beyond the school’s walls for an alternative.

“It began a period of intense self-evaluation and new focus,” says Pat Bennett-Forman, a learning specialist at the school, where about 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

What Wolfle decided to focus on was a pair of programs, the Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum and the Canoes Upon Our Waters project. Both focus on raising achievement through awareness of American Indian culture.

Of course, similar approaches have been deployed before—class materials focused on African American and Hispanic heritage and culture have been used for years. But the effort to actively draw upon American Indian culture is thick with historical irony. From the late 1800s to the 1920s, thousands of Indian children were taken from their homes to U.S. government-run boarding schools in an effort to forcibly stir them into the Anglo-American melting pot. Separated from their families, sometimes for years, they were made to reject their traditions, language, and religion in favor of 19th century America’s version of normalcy.

‘The history of the boarding school was horrific for probably 95 percent of the native people. That still affects us today.’

“Our history affects how we view education,” says Denny Hurtado, a former chairman of the nearby Skokomish Tribe who directs the department of Indian education for the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s why, in 1999, he and Magda Costantino, director of the Evergreen Center for Educational Improvement at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, designed the Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum, now in place in at least a dozen schools in Washington state, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, and Canada. “The history of the boarding school was horrific for probably 95 percent of the native people,” Hurtado says. “That still affects us today.”

Even long after such centralized attempts at cultural erosion abated, bad memories and family stories about the evils of school, combined with a persistent racial animus, presented a formidable barrier between Native American children and education. “It was hard for us way back when I was a student in the ’70s. [School] was a prejudiced, prejudiced place,” says Dennis Jones, Wolfle’s Native American liaison.

Jones, a S’Klallam member, should know—he attended the preK-6 Wolfle Elementary. Now, he says, teachers come to his office and ask his advice on presenting a certain lesson, or whenever a student’s home life might be affecting his or her performance in class. In turn, he helps bring tribal experts to the classrooms and coordinates field trips to the reservations. “These teachers here have my kids in their best interests,” he adds, “and I am a lucky man for that.”

Recalling a grainy black-and-white photograph he and two classmates were handed by their teacher, Tamara Stone, at the beginning of the year, Zachary Caldwell says with satisfaction, “I figured out a whole lot of things about a tribe I didn’t know existed: the Wanapum.” As he gazed at the image of a small boy in a wide-brimmed hat standing in front of a long, low-slung canoe beached ashore, “I wondered who that boy was,” the 10-year-old recalls. So, with Stone’s approval, Zachary and fellow 4th graders Nikki Tatum and Brandon Halsey started finding out.

Using a ruler and a book of measurements on Washington canoes to estimate the length of the canoe in the picture, Zachary and his classmates were able to correctly calculate the boy’s height—about 3 feet—and estimate his age from that. Then they deduced that the pole seen by the hull was used for propulsion along the shallow waterways that characterize eastern Washington. Whether or not the kids realize how much math, geography, and history they’re learning in the process of their investigations, their teachers are quick to credit the pancurricular Canoes Upon Our Waters program for the progress they’ve seen.

“I’ve taught 28 or 29 years, but this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in the holistic sense,” Stone says. The math and science her class had been conducting in the classroom, for example—testing weights and the buoyancy of wood—was put into practice when Zachary, Nikki, and Brandon visited the Port Gamble S’Klallam reservation and rode in a traditional canoe there.

“We had to predict who would weigh the same amount and put them on different sides of the canoe to make sure it was balanced so it wouldn’t tip over,” Nikki recalls. “It was math because we had to make predictions of who’s the same amount of weight, and it’s science because it’s like an experiment.”

Educators are excited about the anecdotal feedback they’ve gotten so far: Formerly silent kids are raising their hands, and parents are packing conference nights.

Covering the historical and environmental angles, Stone used butcher paper to create a simulated classroom forest of the cedars from which such vessels are carved. When the class got to the era of clear-cutting in its studies, students pretended to chop down all the “trees.”

The lesson was deepened by an in-class visit from Angela Buck, director of the Wanapum Heritage Center and the great-granddaughter of Willie Buck, the boy in the photo. He “helped build that canoe,” Zachary and his teammates wrote in their report of the picture. “Angela Buck told us that when Willie got older, he was a very good hunter for deer and elk and at catching fish.”

Along with the rise in test scores since the programs were introduced, educators are excited about the anecdotal feedback they’ve gotten so far: Formerly silent kids are raising their hands, and parents are packing conference nights.

“It engages a Native American student because he or she sees that it is ‘about me,’ ” says veteran Seattle educator Nan McNutt, author of Uncle Jerry’s Canoe, who launched the Canoes Upon our Waters program in 1999 after getting input from tribal elders, canoe experts, and teachers. It has since been picked up by 15 schools in the Evergreen State. “Kids who aren’t native find it exciting and cool,” adds McNutt, a curriculum designer who works with the Washington State Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program, a private nonprofit organization at the University of Washington. “They learn about the world around them—the place they live.”

In Stone’s class this year, students are focusing on one small part of that world: “What do salmon tell us about ourselves and others?” To help answer the question, the class is collaboratively writing a play about the fish and its relevance to native ways of life. Just how relevant, Stone says, was revealed when a shy American Indian girl who’d never said much in class before inserted a single line about her uncle, Mike, who works at an area fish hatchery.

“That opened the door for me to call Uncle Mike and ask if he would talk to the kids,” Stone says. Following that invitation, another native family offered the class salmon eggs, and students began exploring the First Salmon Ceremony, a traditional Northwest ritual. In the process, they’re learning about history, the local economy, and ichthyology. “It is a very subtle curriculum,” Stone explains. “It weaves its way in small waves and winds up being very powerful.”

Brandon Halsey would agree. “I never knew about my tribe that much,” says the 11-year-old, whose mother is a S’Klallam tribal member. After learning about his tribe’s heritage in Stone’s class, he says, “I started to do my own dances, and I started learning my own language.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as Native Intelligence


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