Brown Quarterly - Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1996)

Teachers Talk

"I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my personal approach that creates the climate. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I have a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized."

This quote is one of my favorites as it is a reminder of the importance of my role as a teacher in my daily interactions with my students. Native American children are no different from children of any other culture in our classrooms. They have a right, like all students, to be educated in schools that validate their self-worth by reinforcing the value of the culture in their homes.

The following comparison by E.H. Richardson from "Cultural and Historical Perspectives in Counseling American Indians" in Counseling the Culturally Different (1981), shows the cultural differences between Native American and Anglo-American children:

Native American
Elders to be honored
Learning through legends
Sharing-everything belongs to others
Immediate and extended family comes first
Carefree-unconcerned with time
Expects few rules
Avoid looking in the eye
Dance is for religious expression
Family centered
Question which culture for identification
Great respect for elders
Patience and passive temperaments
Speak softer to make points
The future lies with youth
Learning found in books and schools
Ownership rather than sharing
Think of oneself
Structured-be aware of time
Expects rules for every contingency
Shows listening by looking directly in the eye
Dance is for expression of pleasure
Peer centered
No question about cultural identification
Elders not in the "real world"; respect for youth
Impatience, active
Speak louder to make points 

 D. Sanders article "Cultural Conflicts: An Important Factor in the Academic Failures of American Indian Students" in Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (1987) examined and found these differing cultural orientations between Native American students and their predominantly Anglo-American teachers:

Native American
Speak softly, at a slower rate
Avoid speaker or listener
Interject less
Use fewer "encouraging signs"
Auditory messages treated differently-delayed responses
Nonverbal communication
Group need considered more
Present goals considered important
Encourage sharing
Privacy and non-interference valued
Patience-allowing other to go first 
Speak louder and faster
Address listener directly, often by name
Interrupt frequently
Use verbal encouragement
Use immediate response
Verbal skills highly prized
Personal goals considered
Plan for the future
Need to control and affect others
Aggressive and competitive 

The above information will hopefully lead us into more culturally sensitive perspectives when dealing with our American Indian students. The curriculum of the school should infuse, whenever possible, local (tribal) stories and accurate Indian history to teach reading, language arts and social studies. As Native American Indian students get older, they need to be introduced to the wider non-Indian world in such a way that does not make their own cultural world seem inferior or superior.

Studies on the learning styles of Native American students present evidence that they approach tasks visually; seem to prefer to learn by careful observation preceding performance, and seem to learn in their natural settings experientially. Research by Philips and Dumont indicates that some Indian children are more apt to participate actively and verbally in group projects and in learning situations where they can participate voluntarily. Cooperative learning fits this mode nicely. Also, these Indian children are less apt to perform on demand when they are individually "put on the spot" by teachers who expect them to answer questions in front of other students.

Education involves the teacher and the student as well as the home community. Students can become empowered only when education becomes a true enterprise involving an equal partnership between educators in the school and the children's families. It is not enough to focus only on a student's classroom experiences; expanding the focus is a critical component of the change from an orientation conformed to an Anglo perspective. There are no easy answers for implementing changes. It will take dedication, ingenuity and a commitment to experiment for a successful answer.

I chose to share some hopefully insightful information with you regarding Native American learners. There is an excellent Teacher's Activity Guide that goes along with the book 500 Nations: Stories of the Native American Indian Experience (also available from Microsoft, windows compatible). The categories of study of Native Americans it covers are: architecture and housing; arts and crafts; balance; broken promises; ceremony; first encounters; government; leadership; symbolism; trade and technology. These are some topics on which to base your objectives, discussions, activities and extensions. As educators we have a critical job in teaching the future. May we all face each day with the courage and understanding needed to "humanize" students in all situations.

Submitted by:
Valeria Ramirez-Howland
Broken Arrow Elementary
Lawrence, Kansas