Alternative Education for American Indian Students

Jeffries, R. B. & Singer, L.C.  (2003).  Successfully educating urban American Indian students:  An alternative school format.  Journal of American Indian Education, 42(3), p. 40 – 57.


In Rhonda B. Jeffries and Lyndon C. Singer’s (2003) article, “Successfully Educating Urban American Indian Students:  An Alternative School Format, the researchers explore the benefits of an alternative school that serves a significant population of American Indian students.  Black Raven High School “was created in 1994 by concerned American Indian professionals, parents and affiliated entities in response to the high academic failure and dropout rate of American Indian high school students in the public school system” (p. 45).

Black Raven High School employed 10 teachers:  3 American Indian, 2 African American and 6 Anglos.  Both the principal and assistant principal were American Indian.  And, the majority of support staff, tutors and volunteers were also American Indian.  The majority of the 9th – 12th grade students between the ages of 14 – 18 identified as American Indian.  The American Indian students that enrolled had either already dropped out or were at risk of dropping out.  Referrals for student enrollment came from other schools and the students’ families.  Student enrollment was limited to 80 students, however, about 70 students would show up on any given day.  Class sizes did not exceed 15 students, with the average being 7-8 students.  Black Raven’s developed a philosophy of values that promoted “a sense of community, self-esteem, ethnic identity and pride, and an appreciation of all cultures and their relevance in today’s society” (p. 46).

Data were collected through observations and “life history interviews with students, teachers, the administrative assistant, and the principal” (p. 46).   The data for this study included perspectives from 1 administrator and 3 students.  The case study was centered around one educator “whose use of culturally relevant curricula has made a significant impact on a randomly selected sample of American Indian students’ lives” (p. 46).  Data were analyzed through the creation of verbatim transcripts, coding the transcripts to develop thematic frameworks using the constant comparative method, and then recoded for confirm the themes initially established.

The data revealed “significant factors contributing toward American Indian/Alaska Native student success” were “(a) small school size, (b) flexible school formats, (c) governance structures, and (d) culturally responsive teachers” (p. 52).  When school size and flexible schedules uncontrollable, the study found that culturally responsive teachers were enough to “create conducive environments” (p. 52).


I appreciated the researchers desire to examine non-traditional education as it pertains to the education of American Indian students.  Much of the research that I have discovered has been focused on traditional educational systems such as public schools and Bureau of Indian Education schools.  I think too often researchers are focused on the traditional educational systems’ lack of equity and quality that they are unaware of the assets that do exist within the system.

However, I would like to know if the researchers considered examining a rural alternative school.  I would be interested to know if they were able to come up with similar findings.  And, if not, what were the reasons for the differences.

I would also like to know the impact this school made in regards to the initial concerns of academic failure and dropout rates.  Did the school create an increase in academic achievement and retention to graduation?

My other concern was the small number of participants in this study.  Only 1 administrator, 1 teacher and 3 students were included in the case study.  I would have liked to read the perspectives of the other administrator, the other 9 teachers, and the other 77 students that made up the school body.  Again, I am left to wonder if the researcher limited her data to these 5 individuals because it proved what she wanted to prove.

I would also have liked the data collection to include interviews and perspectives from graduates.  How did this school change their lives and lead them to graduation, which they may not have accomplished otherwise?

I would also have liked to see the statistics over the course of its existence that included student enrollment numbers, pre- and post-test scores, and attendance, dropout and graduation rates.  I understand that students enjoy the non-traditional approach, but did it have an effect on the data?  If not, then what is the point?  If so, what other interventions did the school provide for the students to achieve this?


As I read this article, I found myself writing in the margins “I need to do this” or “how can I do this?”  I am always looking for ways to improve our program.  And, hopefully, this year, with a new staff coming in, we will be able make significant changes.  However, I know the scope to which we can make these changes will be limited by administration.  But, I will fight for them anyway.

Because I work in an alternative school on the reservation, I was interested in what the study would find.  However, these are all things that I think would benefit any student both Natives and non-Natives.  Culturally relevant teaching should not only pertain to American Indian culture.  It did give me some ideas as to how we may be able to incorporate non-traditional activities into our curriculum.  How I am going to this, I am not sure exactly considering I have 7th – 12th grade students in my classroom at the same time and each is working on coursework specific to them.  I am interested in the new perspectives that will be coming in that may be able to assist in this process.

I especially appreciated this point that Jeffries and Singer addressed “we must remember that American Indians/Alaskan Natives represent over 200 distinct cultures.  What works beautifully on the Navajo Reservation falls flat on the Rosebud Reservation and may be inapplicable in an urban setting representing 60 different cultures” (p. 54).  It is critical that researcher and educators keep this in mind.  I do not like the generalizations that literature often makes about Native Americans.  And, this is precisely why I am only interested in focusing on my tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation.  It is the community in which I live and my family is from.  It is the community in which my children will attend school.

Losing Language

Chapter 5 in Humanizing Research, “Activist Ethnography With Indigenous Youth:  Lessons From Humanizing Research on Language and Education” by Teresa L. McCarty, Leisy T. Wyman and Sheilah Nicholas, resonated with me.  Indigenous languages are quickly fading.  I see it every day in our youth.  Not all youth have the desire like Jonathan and Justin to learn their Native languages.  Their identity is reflected through their knowledge of their history and their language.  I have had a Jonathan and a Justin, but they are few and far between.

I have talked extensively with my students about learning the culture and the language.  All of them are proud to be Tohono O’odham.  But, very few participate in traditional activities.  They have all taken culture classes in elementary, middle and high school.  In fact, Tohono O’odham History and Native American Studies are required courses for graduation.  In addition, the high school offers Tohono O’odham language classes.  However, the access to these courses is limited in all grade levels.  I think a large part of this is due to the small number of culture and language teachers that we have in the district.  At the very same time, I wonder if we would have more teachers if the district wanted more teachers.  But, that’s a whole other story.

In 2012, the State Board of Education adopted the Native American Language Certification Policy R7-2-614J, which was developed by the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona’s tribal nations (  This policy allows for traditional language speakers to obtain teaching certification through a non-traditional route.  Tribal nations are responsible for developing their own assessments for measuring proficiency.  And, with a passing score on the assessment, a fingerprint clearance card and an application fee, Native speakers are eligible for the Native Language Teacher Certificate (

I know that some of the culture teachers that we have had have utilized this alternative teaching certification.  I believe that this has been extremely beneficial to our district, and, more importantly, our students.  Like McCarty, Wyman and Nicholas (2014) learned from their studies, students are disengaging in their Native languages at a rapid rate and very few are committed to learning their language.  I have experienced this with the youth that I work with.  While many know some vocabulary, stringing together sentences seems like a task not worth attempting.

For the last 3 years, I have had a young woman, now 18, who knows O’odham relatively well and is interested in learning the language.  But, it is something that she keeps very close to herself.  She will not speak it in front of her peers.  When I ask if anyone knows how to say such and such in O’odham, I will glance at her.  If her classmates are around, she will just shrug and say that she does not know like many of my students.  In private, she will tell me what I asked for earlier.  I have asked her several times about this and she said that she does not want to get made fun of for speaking the language.  I have even encouraged her to take the language courses offered, but she refuses because she knows she will have to speak it in front of other students.  She said that she only speaks it at home with her grandpa, which seems to be the trend across Native cultures, according to McCarty, Wyman and Nicholas (2014).

How can we change this?  I honestly have no idea.  I wish I knew.  I wish our youth would see the value in learning our language and culture.  But, I also understand their perspective.  Who else values their language besides other O’odham?  Facebook is not in O’odham.  Television programs and movies are not in O’odham.  Google does not translate English to O’odham.  And, their education is not offered in O’odham.  I know parents/guardians who do not know O’odham either, therefore, they are unable teach their children.  So, whose responsibility is it to teach our youth their language before it disappears forever?

McCarty, T. L., Wyman, L. T., & S. Nicholas (2014).  Activist ethnography with Indigenous youth:  Lessons from humanizing research on language and education.  In D. Paris & M. T. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research:  Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 81-103).  Los Angeles, CA:  Sage Publications, Inc.

Silva, L.  (2012, Aug. 28).  Native American language teacher certification.  Retrieved from

Policing of Native Bodies and Minds

Quijada Cerecer, P. D.  (2013).  The policing of Native bodies and minds:  Perspectives on schooling from American Indian youth.  American Journal of Education, 111(4), p. 591-616.


In Patricia P. Quijada Cerecer’s (2013) article, “The Policing of Native Bodies and Minds:  Perspectives on Schooling from American Indian Youth,” Quijada Cerecer analyzes “how school policies and leadership practices have assimilationist underpinnings that create hostile environments for these youth, negatively affecting their identities as learners.”  Using four of the nine Tribal Critical Race Theory tenets, Quijada analyzed how “colonization is endemic to society,” “U.S. policies toward Indigenous peoples are rooted in imperialism, White supremacy, and a desire for material gain,” Indigenous peoples occupy a liminal space that account for the political and racialized natures of our identities,” and “educational policies toward Indigenous peoples are intimately linked around the problematic goal of assimilation” (Brayboy, 2005).

The study involved 21 high school Pueblo youth (11 female and 10 male).  Participants must be students at the public high school and have lived on or near the reservation for at least 10 years.  The author decided upon this requirement to “capture perspectives of students who had lived on the reservation for most of their lives” (Quijada Cerecer, 2013).  Data was taken from the qualitative study that spanned over the course of 5 years.  The data were collected from interviews, focus groups, and observations with students, families and community members.

Quijada Cerecer said, “the research unveils a narrative that runs counter to the ‘neutral’ tone embedded throughout institutional policies alleging to foster healthy academic identities for all students; instead, the youth’s experiences and voices illustrate how campus climates and institutional policies restrict and control Native students.”  This was supported by the leadership decisions to hire a police officer to work on campus even though there had not been a history of violence or gangs on campus.  It was also supported by the implementation of a dress code, in which all students had to wear khaki pants, and, again, there had never been an issue with gang-related activities.

The study found that “leadership practices and curriculum did not reflect Native views of the world or lived experiences” (Quijada Cerecer, 2013).  This was reflected in Arizona’s banned books initiative, which included some Native American authored books, such as Sherman Alexie.  William, an eleventh grader, also posed important questions to the researcher and his peers, “’Why do we have to learn the White man’s way?  Why can’t we learn our way?’” (Quijada Cerecer, 2013).  Quijada Cerecer wrote, “his question underscores the notion that schools expect Native American youth to learn and adopt a white identity as students learners.  In other words, schools expect Native youth to assimilate.”  She also found that, for the most part, students were not actively involved or encouraged to become involved in ways to improve the school’s policies or leadership activities.


I appreciate Quijada Cerecer’s requirement of having lived on or near the reservation for most of their lives to get a more accurate perspective of what schooling has been like for these students.  I also thought it was a great idea to have the study span over a 5 year time period.  However, I would have liked to read more dialogue that occurred between her and those she interviewed, students, families and community members.  It seems as though she selected snippets that would support her research.  Out of the 21 students who participated less than a handful were presented in her article.  This leaves me wondering if they had seen and felt the same divide as the ones she did include.  Or, if their perspectives did not support her research.

Because I like visuals, I would have liked to see a record of her data, either in the form of a chart, graph, or diagram.  I would imagine that she would have extensive data to share considering her study lasted for 5 years.  I feel like the numbers would have made this article more impactful.  Instead, I feel like she molded her data into what she wanted it to be.   Which led me to question, again and as we have discussed in class on several occasions, is there such a thing as objective research??

Quijada Cerecer mentioned Arizona’s ban on books that was a result of the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies Department in Tucson Unified School District.  However, I questioned whether or not this had an impact in New Mexico.  If not, then why mention it?  Unless it was just to support her research, which led me to wonder if her data was limited or non-existent during the course of her 5-year research.


As I began to read this article, I immediately connected with it because this is something that I am very interested in.  For the purpose of this blog, I did not delve into the story of Mr. Thompson, a white English teacher, because he would have consumed this entire blog.  While I understand Quijada Cerecer’s desire to include his racist perspectives, I wonder about the other teachers.  I wonder if there were other teachers that did their best to include culturally relevant material in their classrooms.  I wonder if other teachers valued their students and built positive relationships with them.

I remember when the controversy with the Mexican American Studies Department in Tucson.  I worked in its sister department, the Native American Studies Department for 4 years.  I saw their classes in action, and it was nothing like it was portrayed by the opposition.  I was saddened when they had to dismantle the program because I knew what the students walked away with.  And, it most definitely was not trying to find ways to overthrow the U.S. government.  They did not walk away with hatred for other races.  They walked away empowered by their culture, knowledge of their own history, and an appreciation for others.

This study has made me think about how I could do something similar with my students, their families and community members.  I am truly interested in learning more about their perspectives and how they have changed over the years, if at all.  One of Quijada Cerecer’s suggestions was to form both student and parent councils that report to an administrator.  I wonder if this is something that my principal or superintendent would be open to doing.  If not, I will find a way to make someone listen.  Our school need a voice.  And, I know my students want to be heard.  I am going to make this happen, one way or another.

Brayboy, B. M. K.  (2005).  Toward a tribal critical race theory in education.  The Urban Review, (37)5, p. 425-446.

Quijada Cerecer, P. D.  (2013).  The policing of Native bodies and minds:  Perspectives on schooling from American Indian youth.  American Journal of Education, 111(4), p. 591-616.

The Uncertainty of a New Environment

As I read Michelle E. Jordan and Reuben R. McDaniel, Jr.’s (2014) article, “Managing Uncertainty During Collaborative Problem Solving in Elementary School Teams:  The Role of Peer Influence in Robotics Engineering Activity, I began to reflect on how I have dealt with uncertainty from kindergarten until now, a current doctoral student.  Jordan and McDaniel (2014) define uncertainty as “an individual’s subjective experience of doubting, being unsure, or wondering about how the future will unfold, what the present means, or how to interpret the past.”

All of this brought me back to the 5th grade, when I had attended 5 different elementary schools!  Yes, FIVE!  Two in Houston and 3 in Phoenix.  I spent kindergarten through 4th grade in the same school so making the transition to a new school, in a new state, terrified me.  But, because I did not have a say in the matter, I walked into my new 5th grade class.  It was definitely a culture shock.  I thought there was no way for sure that I would ever fit in…we were so different.  Jordan and McDaniel (2014) stated, “social interaction is a primary means of expressing uncertainty and can also be a source of uncertainty.”

I remember all of the students listening to my every word.  I did not understand why, but they just kept asking me question after question about where I came from.  But, then a boy asked me, “why do you talk so funny?”  Me?  I talked funny?  Are you kidding me?  Have you heard what YOU sound like?  And, that is the first time I remember feeling out of place.

From there, it just got worse.  My neighbor downstairs asked me if I wanted to go play with her in the bayou and catch crawdads.  I didn’t know what a bayou or a crawdad was…but, I didn’t say that I didn’t know.  I just said, “sure.”  As Jordan and McDaniel (2014) would say, my uncertainty stemmed from my “partial knowledge and understanding” (I knew that it was going to involve “playing”) and “the negotiation of social roles” (I just wanted to make a new friend).  When we got to the bayou, I was confused.  Then, my neighbor skidded down the side of it and began running her hands through the water.  She picked up some creature and popped it into a jar.  Yep, that was the crawdad.  Talk about weird!  But, you know what?  After a few weeks of refusing to step foot in that bayou and try and catch crawdads it became my new favorite thing to do!  Go figure!  After reading Jordan and McDaniel (2014), it appears that I had received some support from my peer and was able to learn from her that it was the “cool” thing to do.

Then came the biggest culture shock of them all…line dancing!  I didn’t have the slightest idea of what it was and this was actually a part of our school day.  I remember watching from the sidelines and I did not have the slightest idea what they were doing.  I even asked my teacher if I had to learn how to line dance.  And, I got a very firm, “yes.”  I stumbled my way through line dancing and, eventually, I actually became good at it.

And, then, WHAM!, I was hit with another foreign task…SQUARE dancing!  Except this was different…I had to dance with someone else…a boy!  Not only was I faced with “content uncertainty,” but “relational uncertainty” as well (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  Like line dancing, I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was, and I remember wondering why would anyone want to dance in a square?  On top of that, I had never danced with anyone before.  I tried to avoid participating for a couple of days and asked if I could just watch.  Once I understood the lingo, I was able to start to make a connection with the content.  I practiced what I remembered at home.  But, once I began participating, it was clear that I had no idea what I was doing.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I remember some kids making fun of me because the girl from Arizona didn’t know how to square dance.  I remember some of the boys saying that they didn’t want to be my partner because I couldn’t dance.  The unsupportive responses (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  But, I also remember the boys and girls who volunteered to be my partner.  I remember them walking me through every move of every song until I got the hang of it.  The supportive responses (Jordan & McDaniel, 2014).  And, eventually, I did, but it definitely wasn’t my cup of tea.

Later that year, we finally moved back to Arizona because my mom couldn’t take being in Texas anymore.  Thank goodness!  Looking back on it now, while I was back in familiar territory, I ended up attending three different schools in two very different areas of town.  I wish I remembered more about what I experienced in those schools, but it was one crazy school year and everything is a bit hazy.  But, I will never forget learning about bayous, crawdads, line dancing and square dancing!

Jordan, M.E. and R.R. McDaniel, Jr.  (2014).  Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams:  The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity.  The Journal of the Learning Sciences.  (00)0, p. 1-47.

Constructing Meaning About Violence, School and Community

McIntyre, A.  (2000).  Constructing meaning about violence, school and community:  Participatory action research with urban youth.  The Urban Review, (32)2, p. 123-154.


Alice McIntyre’s (2000) article, “Constructing Meaning About Violence, School and Community:  Participatory Action Research with Urban Youth,” aimed to engage sixth grade students in an urban school through the use of “creative techniques” with a goal of “better understanding the individual and collective nature of young people’s experiences living in an urban setting and, in response to those experiences, developing action programs that would support and foster youth-initiated strategies for community well-being.”  The primary focus was on violence, not only the type that involves crime, drugs, violence and weapons, but also the idea of “environmental violence, which is characterized by trash, pollution, graffiti, abandoned houses, and drug paraphernalia in the streets” (McIntyre, 2000).

The team began their research in October 1997 with 17 students.  By November, the classroom size increased to 26 students, but at the end of the year, only 24 students remained.  The participant information reflects the end of the year total of 24.  Twelve were boy and 12 were girls, ages 11-13.  Most of the students lived within walking distance and others were bused in from other neighborhoods. The ethnic makeup of the students was as follows:  11 African American, 4 Puerto Rican, 2 Haitian, 2 Jamaican, 1 Dominican, 1 Columbian, and 2 biracial (Puerto Rican and White).

At the beginning of the project, the research team also began to develop relationships with various entities including “business people, churches, local residents, teachers, parents, other school personnel, and university-based participants” (McIntyre, 2000).  Three of the researchers visited the classroom weekly, where they observed and participated in the classroom, to develop a rapport with the students.  The team “conducted community resource inventories” to engage them in various activities to get them talking about what their community meant to them.  Students created collages, told stories and used photography to facilitate discussion about their community.

Almost all of the students reflected on the amount of violence that occurs on a daily basis throughout all three projects.  The students created collages that reflected the community through their eyes.  Their collages reflected an array of things, such as guns, drugs, careers, music and education. Their discussion of the collages ranged from guns, drugs and violence to the dirtiness of the community to the positives their community offered (McIntyre, 2000”.

For the photography project, students participated a training to learn the basics of photography and a university photography course.  The students ended up taking more than 650 pictures that reflected how they perceived their community.  Students chose three of their photographs to include in a “school-community exhibit” (McIntyre, 2000). The majority of the photos “reflected their concerns about the environment,” such as trash and dilapidated housing, but also included photos of friends and family (McIntyre, 2000).  Their photography exhibit was later moved to a community center and then to McIntyre’s university where she taught.

During group discussions, they exchanged stories of the deaths, beatings, and drug dealing that they had seen, heard about, and/or how it directly affected their families.  Oftentimes, the storytelling became a means of one upping the previous stories.  The research team attributed some of these stories as ones that were dramatized, but acknowledged that many of them did indeed witness these events.  McIntyre stated that she was disturbed by how easily the students could bounce between discussions of horrible events, such as the brutal death of an 11-year-old girl, and a basketball game while appearing unaffected by the acts of violence (McIntyre, 2000).  “This way of being in the world resonates with Martin-Baro’s (1994) description of ‘normal abnormality’ (p. 125) and results from engaging in daily life but with ‘a sixth sense’ that one is never really completely safe and that violence is the organizing principle in one’s life” (McIntyre, 2000).

Through their collages, storytelling and photography project, students were able to develop action plans with the goal of improving their community.  They developed a “clean up project that will be maintained and sustained by the community in collaboration with city officials, businesses, and other local residents.  They also codeveloped a short-term career exploration program last fall which assisted them in exploring educational and occupational goals” (McIntyre, 2000).


McIntyre’s use of Martin-Baro’s idea of “normal abnormality” was crystal clear in her findings.  I think that this played a critical role in the work the students produced.  Even though students created their own works of art and told about their own life experiences, “normal abnormality” was the dominant theme in their work as a whole.

I understand the need for selecting a school that has issues, which are usually low income and racially diverse schools, but I wonder about her method for selecting this school.  It is a no brainer that the researchers knew what kind of community they were walking into.  With this knowledge, it is not a surprise that students reflected on these problems.  I am not sure what else the researchers expected to find.

While the study provided partial transcribed dialogue of some of the discussions that occurred, I am interested to know the numbers of the various topics that were produced through the students work.  For example, 10 students used an image or words that referred to drugs.  I would be able to develop a clearer picture of what was actually reflected in their work.  For all I know, 6 out of 12 students may have referred to drugs or was interpreted by the researchers as a reference to drugs.


I was intrigued by idea of participatory action research (PAR) that we read in Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza and Matthews’ (2013) article, “Participatory Action Research and City Youth: Methodological Insights From the Council of Research.  So, I decided that this was something that I wanted to explore even further because I want to try this out when I conduct my research.  I stumbled upon McIntyre’s article and was drawn in by the title.

We, my students and I, live in a community (our reservation) that is rampant with violence.  It is not uncommon to hear that someone was shot/stabbed and killed or someone’s house was a target of a drive by or that gangs walked the streets looking to cause trouble.  As I read the article, I was able to connect much of what McIntyre’s participants went through to my students.  The environmental violence resonated with me because I often drive through our villages and am appalled by all the trash strewn about on the sides of the road, the graffiti that is tagged on anything that could be tagged, and the terrible state of some of the homes.

The idea of the “normal abnormality” exists here.  The community as a whole knows that it is unsafe to walk alone at night.  And, if they have to, they are armed with some type of weapon.  It is a “normal abnormality” for our youth to participate in illegal activities with their parents/guardians.  The array of flyers for wakes and death anniversaries cover our public bulletin boards.  For my students, serving time in juvenile detention is not out of the ordinary.  And, you are weird if you have not been incarcerated in any of the 31 years you have been alive (yep, that’s me!).  Becoming a teenage parent seems expected of our youth.  I can list 15 of my students (both current and former) whose child(ren) will start elementary school at the same time or within a year of my 13-month-old son.

I am excited to learn more about PAR.  It seems like a daunting task, but one that would hold so much value.  It is my hope that I can incorporate this type of research somewhere down the line.


Bautista, M. A., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C.  (2013). Participatory action research and city youth : Methodological insights from the council of youth research. Teachers College Record, 115(100303), 1–23.


Creating Culturally Relevant Communities of Practice

I have to say…I love Etienne Wenger’s (2000) article, “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.”  Why?, you ask.  Because I have realized how broken our communities of practice are in my community…not only with the administration, teachers and other staff, but with our students and community members as well.

When I think about the various communities of practice that are visibly present, I come up with two very distinct ones, the tribal members (insiders) and the non-tribal members (outsiders).  I navigate between the two communities of practice on a regular basis.   As Wenger (2000) would call me, I am a “roamer” who has the ability to make connections with members of other communities of practice and bring to them the knowledge from other communities.  I can relate to the outsiders because I’m an urban Indian, meaning I grew up in the city.  And, I can relate to the insiders as I am a tribal member.  Wenger (2000) talks extensively about the boundaries that communities of practice create that are both positive and negative.  In this case, oftentimes, the boundaries established by the insiders create a great disconnect between itself and others.  More often than not, the outsiders’ personal experiences and their competence about Native American culture, in my case Tohono O’odham culture, is so disconnected that fostering learning can be very difficult.  The boundaries are not meant to spotlight what you do not know, but the very idea of communities of practice require it (Wenger, 2000).

Is it possible to create a community of practice that involves both the insiders and outsiders?  I am pretty sure we could.  Of course, both the insiders and outsiders would have to connect enterprise, mutuality and repertoire with engagement, imagination and alignment (Wenger, 2000).  This not only applies to the outsiders learning about the culture that they serve (the insider’s culture), but it will require the insiders to understand the different cultures the outsiders bring to the Nation.  I, unfortunately, have only been looking at this from an insider perspective…the outsiders must learn about our students and our community.  I really did not see a value in it being the other way around.  And, now that I have, I am intrigued by the idea of creating a community of practice that involves both sides who truly have an interest in becoming one cohesive group that all have the same goal in mind…providing the best education possible.

These very boundaries and the ability to access an educational community of practice may very well be as the cause of lack of parental support.  Education itself has its own set of boundaries.  Gregory Cajete’s chapter titled, “Seven Orientations for the Development of Indigenous Science Education” in Denzin, Lincoln and Smith’s (2008) book, Handbook of Critical Indigenous Methodologies, Cajete wrote “the sustained effort to ‘educate’ and assimilate American Indians as a way of dealing with the ‘Indian problem’ inevitably played a key role in how American Indians have historically responded to American ‘schooling.'”  He later writes, “early missionary and government teachers naively assumed that American Indians had no education at all and that their mission was to remedy this ‘great ignorance'” (Cajete, 2008).

Unfortunately, the assimilation process that many of our elders experienced in boarding schools has created a great dislike for the education system.  The way the American schools operated were very different than the way Native American’s education system operated.  Native Americans education was “characterized by observation, participation, assimilation, and experiential learning rather than by the low-context, formal instruction characteristic of Euro-American schooling” (Cajete, 2008).  Thus, many of our parents and grandparents (who may be legal guardians) do not care to participate in the communities of practice within the educational system.  They have no vested interest because of the disconnect between their personal experiences and competence in the modern educational system.

By possibly creating new communities of practice that do not initially have a focus on education may be a way to draw in our community members who do not see education positively.  These individuals would have to connect with other community members in the same way that the insiders and outsiders as mentioned above.  Communities of practice cannot make an impact if they do not have buy-in from all members.  As relationships continue to build and mutuality is strengthened by engagement, imagination and alignment, the direction of this new community of practice can begin to shift its focus on educating our youth.  This community should include administrators, teachers and staff (both tribal and non-tribal), parents/guardians, students and community members.  Much of what people learn about what is going on in the community comes by word of mouth.  If we can create a strong community of practice, the word will get out and we can then begin to expand it to reach and include more members.

Redefining communities of practice on our Nation will be critical to changing the mindsets of all administrators, teachers and staff members, as well as community members, in regards to the educational system present on the reservation.  In order for us to build a successful school system, all of us must meet in the middle to ensure that we are preparing our students for the best possible future.  And, who doesn’t want that?


Cajete, Gregory.  (2008).  Seven orientations for the development of indigenous science education.  In N. K. Denzin, Y. S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of critical indigenous methodologies (pp. 487- 496).  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

Wenger, Etienne.  (2000) Communities of practice and social learning systems.  Organization, (7)2, 225-246.

Are American Indian Administrator Preparation Programs Needed?

Christman, D. E., Guillory, R. M., Fairbanks, A. R., & González, M. L. (2008). A model of American Indian school administrators: Completing the circle of knowledge in Native schools. Journal of American Indian Education, 47(3), 53–72.

As I explore the realm of Indian education, I have been inundated with all kinds of research topics.  This past week’s class made my head spin.  I went from knowing exactly what I want to do to wanting to do the exact opposite.  I really wanted to explore the impact that non-Native teachers have on Native American students in reservation schools or schools that serve a high population of Native students and how that affects student achievement and the development of student identities.  Or, something like that.  But, through our extensive conversation in class, I began to wonder if us Native people, students and staff, have an impact on our own achievement and identities by not embracing the cultures that come to teach in our schools.  What if we changed the way we treated, valued, and responded to non-Native teachers’ and administrators’ culture.  Does this have an impact in the way that non-Natives see us, treat us and value us?  Would student achievement increase if we did just what we expect non-Natives to do?  It’s a lot to consider, I know, but something completely worth thinking about.

Then, I stumbled upon this article, “A Model of American Indian School Administrators:  Completing the Circle of Knowledge in Native Schools” (2008) by Dana Christman, Raphael Guillory, Anthony Fairbanks, and Maria Luisa Gonzalez.  Having participated in a program very similar to the Model of American Indian School Administrators that Christman, et al. (2008) referenced, I began to wonder if I could blend the two ideas in my non-administrative position, though I do have a principal certificate.  There are many, many reasons why I am not at administrator yet, but that’s a whole different story.


In Christman, et. al.’s (2008) article, the researchers explored “the experiences and perceptions of American Indian pre-service administrators as they make their way through an educational leadership preparation program at a large, public research university.”  Their hope is that the study will help other colleges and universities develop culturally appropriate educational leadership programs to explore the “history behind how education is viewed and how it affects tribal nations” (Christman, et. al, 2008).

Their theoretical framework was surrounded by the notion of “cultural imperialism” (Christman, et. al., 2008).  The researchers identified four key concepts to identify cultural imperialism:  a modern world system that implies capitalism; society, a concept that implies that countries and communities outside a specified area are considered underdeveloped than the dominant culture; “dominating center of the system,” which refers to dominant societies; and, “values and structures, which “refer to the culture and actual organizations that originate from the dominating center and are foreign to other countries or areas considered to be lesser developed than the dominating center” (Christman, et. al., 2008).  The researchers stated, “a society is brought into the modern world system when its dominating level is involved, compelled, coerced, or even suborned into shaping its social foundations to correspond to, or even promote the values and structures of the dominating center of the system” (Christman, et. al, 2008).

In essence, the dominating center can and will overtake a system based upon the dominating culture.  If we apply this concept to teacher and administrator preparation programs, how many of them use curriculum that is specific to the needs to Native American populations?  We are not the “dominating center,” therefore, according to cultural imperialism, we are the lesser, underdeveloped culture, which requires the assimilation to the “dominating center.”  Thus, we have Native American history.

This qualitative study used information from participants through focus study groups with the goal of determining how they made meaning of the program and in their own personal progress.  There were twelve participants, three males and nine females, whose ages ranged from their late-twenties to mid-fifties.  The participants worked in rural to semi-rural preK-12th grade schools.  Three worked in high schools, 2 in middle schools, and seven in elementary schools.  Five worked in public schools and seven worked in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.  At the time of the study, the cohort was about half way through the program (Christman, et. al., 2008).

Three focus group sessions were conducted that were based on an “open-ended, semi-structured questionnaire” (Christman, et. al., 2008).  Each session was audio recorded and transcribed verbatim by one researcher.  All researchers evaluated the audio recording and transcripts to ensure accuracy.

After analyzing their data, the researchers were able to identify five major themes based on the responses from the focus groups (Christman, et. al., 2008):

  1. Relationships:  a major source of support came from building relationships with their cohort members.
  2. Outside influences:  the participants were encouraged and supported to begin and continue the program by their family members and colleagues.
  3. Getting prepared:  the preparation the participants were receiving was important as to allow them to take ownership of their own education and how to apply what they were learning to their classrooms.
  4. Altruism:  this program was more than just a means of moving up, the participants saw this as their “calling” and if anyone was going to become an educational leader, it might as well be them.
  5. Concern for family:  participants took their families into consideration when they decided to apply for the program.  In turn, they were also concerned about how much time the program would require them to be away from their families.

Strengths & Critiques

The topic of this study is of great importance to me, as a Tohono O’odham educator.  I have found that the teacher and administrator preparation programs do not take into consideration non-mainstream education, in this case, American Indian education.  I hope that researchers will continue to research the need for culturally relevant teacher and administrator preparation programs.  This study has made light of its need and the critical student connections that they made to the coursework that was designed to prepare them to be successful in their place of work.

I am intrigued about the notion of cultural imperialism and its effects on the educational system and how it has impacted Indian education at a deeper level than I know.  Though the thought of reading about Native American cultures as “lesser developed” societies is sure to ruffle my feathers.  But, quite possibly, something positive may arise from delving into the deeper realms of education.

While I do value the time that the researchers dedicated to this study, I am left to wonder if this was worth all the time and effort that it took to complete.  The findings were rather generic, which could be applied to any type of cohort, or even to a particular individual.  Their findings about relationships, outside influences, getting prepared, altruism and concern for family are sure all things that we have thought about when we decided to take on this program, minus the American Indian pieces.  I know I took all of these things into consideration without even thinking about the program’s curriculum.


As I mentioned, I have been a part of a teacher and administrator preparation programs that were geared for Native Americans.  And, really, I cannot say that those cohorts made me better prepared to work with Native students.  Granted, there were some discussions that about how our perspectives as Native people could interpret some readings.  But, our courses were not approached from a Native perspective as a whole, like this one.  And, we definitely did not have any Native American professors!  Now, I wish they had taken this into consideration.

I am still stuck on Howard’s (2003) article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection.”  I am wondering if we would be able to incorporate the idea of critical teacher reflection into both teacher and administrator preparation programs geared towards American Indians as a means to develop fully rounded educators.  Native educators would be equipped with the knowledge to help non-Native teachers critically reflect on the impact their non-Native culture can negatively affect Native students, as well as begin reflections processes about how they (the teachers) and students can impact the views non-Native teachers have on them and the community.

A lot to ponder, I know…but, that just makes the journey I am about to embark on that much more exciting!

The Power of Believing in Cultural Capital

“If I am willing to look in that mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge – and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject….In fact, knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.  When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are.  I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my own unexamined life – and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.”  (Palmer, 1998 as cited in Howard, 2003)

Where has this article, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy:  Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection” by Tyrone Howard (2003), been all of my professional career? This is critical information that I have tried to explain to my fellow colleagues over the years.  To the ones who simply do not understand the need for culturally relevant pedagogy and to those who do not understand that their own cultures often overrule the cultures of those they teach, both consciously and subconsciously.  If they aren’t going to listen to me, maybe they’ll listen to a peer-reviewed journal article…you know, since us teachers are more inclined to place more value in research data than one person’s opinion.

Research recognizes the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.  Research understands the importance of setting aside one’s own beliefs in an effort to understand the needs of another culture’s beliefs.  Research supports that the best way to teach a student is to know the student.

Howard (2003) stated “teacher educators must be able to help preservice teachers critically analyze important issues such as race, ethnicity, and culture, and recognize how these important concepts shape the learning experience for many students.”  It is important to note that this understanding cannot be superficial, as in being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct. It’s about having the desire to open your mind to new cultures, beliefs and lifestyles and a willingness to accept them as equally important as your own.  It’s about truly valuing the “cultural capital” that walks into your classroom each and every day (Howard, 2003). I love that phrase, “cultural capital.”  Absolutely looooove it!  Capital is an asset.  Cultural capital means that culture is seen as an asset.  What better way to think about the diversity of our classrooms?  A room filled with cultural capital…including our own!

It is also about getting to the core of who you are by engaging in the “critical reflection” that Howard (2003) talks extensively about.  As stated in the opening quote, if you cannot understand yourself, you cannot understand your students, which, in turn, means that you cannot achieve the success that you wish to achieve with your students.  Critical reflection requires us to dig deep within ourselves to shed light on our belief systems and to be honest about what we believe and why we believe in them.

This task can be very difficult, especially if you hold beliefs that you don’t want to admit.  And, really, that’s ok.  But, to get to the core of your being, you must acknowledge they exist.  Critical reflection isn’t used as a mean to criticize your beliefs, but is used to foster a deeper understanding of those beliefs.  We have all learned what we know and believe in from sources that are important to us and through our own life experiences. Whether or not you are comfortable speaking about them openly, self-reflection is not about letting the world know or attempting to change your beliefs, it’s about engaging in honest and in-depth reflection about how your “positionality” can influence your students, both positively and negatively, and how it “can shape students’ conceptions of self” (Howard, 2003).

I often joke with my students that I am just as much a part of their families as their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins!  After all, I do see them all day, every day five days out of the week.  If we take a minute to think about that, this should speak volumes.  What kind of influence has our own families had on us?  What did they teach us and how has that molded us into the adults that we are today?  Have the people closest to us seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, yet, have continued to love us, believe in us and encourage us to achieve great things?

We have this type of influence on our students.  We can build up or break down any one of our students.  That’s how much power we have.  But, we also have to be careful that we preserve and appreciate each students’ individual cultural capital.

Once we have a full appreciation of who our students are and have reflected on how our own personal beliefs can impact our teaching, then we can truly begin to effectively teach them.  Howard (20030 stated that we must “construct pedagogical practices in ways that are culturally relevant, racially affirming, and socially meaningful.”  How motivated would our students be if they felt like their beliefs/culture/life experiences, etc. matter, are important and are worth learning about?  Just think about why you are in this program and what you hope to accomplish…


Howard, T. C. (2003). Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.