Learn in Beauty
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|Chapter 3 (pp. 21-34) of Learn in Beauty: Indigenous
Education for a New Century edited by Jon Reyhner, Joseph Martin,
Louise Lockard, and W. Sakiestewa Gilbert. Copyright © 2000 by Northern Arizona
University, Flagstaff, Arizona. Some Navajo text from the printed version
of this article was not included in the html web version because of
difficulties in creating Navajo characters in html. Also available as a pdf file.
Racing Against Time: A Report on the Leupp Navajo Immersion Project
This paper describes a U.S. Department of Education Title VII funded language preservation program at Leupp Public School in the Navajo Nation. Funded in 1997 for five years, this school-wide project is designed to help students become proficient speakers, readers, and writers of Navajo while enhancing their English language skills and preparing them to meet state academic standards. The program combines Navajo immersion with ESL inclusion, literacy initiatives, sheltered English/Navajo, parental involvement, and take-home technology. Academic content and state standards are initially presented from a Navajo perspective via four global themes with a unifying concept of hozho or "peace, beauty, and harmony." This paper (1) presents the need for the program and how it was developed with staff, parental, and community involvement, (2) presents a program overview, (3) discribes the Navajo-specific curriculum, and (4) discusses some of the inherent challenges in developing and sustaining a language preservation program based upon a Navajo-specific curriculum in the English-only era of high stakes testing.
In the fall of 1978 I started my teaching career at Chinle Junior High School on the Navajo Reservation. By this point in time, the English language had made significant inroads on the Navajo Nation. John Travolta was wooing my junior high students in Saturday Night Fever and the rock group KISS was very much in vogue. Nevertheless, while I never conducted a formal survey, I would say that 90% of the students at Chinle Junior High could still speak their tribal language. Back then, Navajos living on the reservation spoke Navajo. It was a given. I do know for a fact that every one of the teenagers in the church youth group I supervised could speak Navajo quite well. Any time they wanted to make fun of my bilagaana mannerisms or Quixote countenance they whispered vociferously among themselves in their native tongue. (I was an easy target, by the way.) If someone had told me then that within a generation the Navajo language would be dying a swift death, I would have scoffed: "No way, John Wayne!"
Now flash forward 18 years. It is the 1996-97 school year, and I am the director of Bilingual and English as a Second Language programs for the Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD). One of the 18 site-based programs I supervise is located 45 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona, on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation. Leupp Public School serves about 270 students in grades K-8, 99% of whom are Navajo. Almost all of the students come from low-income families, and the community's unemployment rate is 58%. In addition, about one-half of the students are limited in their ability to use the English language. Demographically speaking, Leupp is a typical reservation community.
I say this with great misgiving. There is no question that the statistics on American Indians are abysmal. For years, they have led the nation in negative indicators, including: highest dropout rates (Swisher, 1991); highest unemployment rates (Szasz, 1991); highest poverty rates (Hodgkinson, Outz, & Obarakpor, 1990); and highest suicide rates (Bowker, 1993). Add to these the fact that American Indians have inordinately high instances of alcoholism, fetal alcohol syndrome, depression, and substance abuse (Szasz, 1991), and it would be hard to argue with Coombs' (1970) charge that our nation's educational system has placed the American Indian "at the absolute bottom of the barrel among the country's ethnic minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged groups" (p. 11).
In the case of Leupp, there are other disturbing statistics. As the only reservation school in the FUSD, Leupp has occupied the cellar in standardized test scores for several years now. For example, in 1995 Leupp 4th graders scored 25, 21, and 16 percentile points lower in reading, language, and mathematics, respectively, than students at FUSD schools in town. The differential among 7th graders was even more pronounced, with in-town students outperforming Leupp students by 27, 27, and 23 percentile points in reading, language, and math.
As educators, we know that if a child does not develop strong literacy skills at a fairly young age, that child will be academically crippled throughout his or her school career, however long or short that may be. For graduates from Leupp Public School, educational careers tend to be shorter rather than longer. Although they represent only 7.5% of the student body at Sinagua High, the feeder school for Leupp graduates, 25% of the school's dropouts are from Leupp.
These statistics are not presented to throw you into a state of hopelessness and despair. If you have worked in Indian education for any length of time these figures probably sound all too familiar. I present them as an argument for a different type of educational program for indigenous minorities. The starting point is to reclaim that which has been taken away. I am not talking so much about land as I am about the heart of a people. And the heart of a people is passed down through the generations via language. Language, of course, is the primary vehicle through which we express poetry, literature, genealogy, history, philosophy, and religion. It is through language that we define who and what we are, and our unique place in the universe. On a more direct level, Reyhner and Tennant (1995) have claimed that language is inextricably bound to one's cultural values, and cultural values are "psychological imperatives" that affect one's self-awareness, identity, interpersonal relationships, self-confidence, and success in life. They argue that,
giving young Natives the opportunity to keep and learn their tribal language offers them a strong antidote to the culture clash many of them are experiencing but cannot verbalize. (p. 280)This is why an even more disturbing statistic than the ones previously mentioned is the light-speed decline of the Navajo language. A 1994 study revealed that only 45% of Navajo Headstart children had any knowledge of the Diné (Navajo) language, and most had only limited knowledge (Bippus & Bray, 1994). Other reports have indicated that lack of knowledge of the Navajo language to be as high as 50% in reservation and bordertown schools (Division of Diné Education, 1996). Unfortunately, data for Leupp Public School painted an even grimmer picture. Navajo language proficiency tests in the fall of 1996 revealed that only 7% of the students could speak Navajo fluently, while 11% had limited proficiency, and 82% had no proficiency (FUSD, 1997).
So we go back to 1996. Ironically, the FUSD is embroiled in a bitter lawsuit filed by members of the Leupp community who have accused the district of discriminatory practices. Specifically, they have charged that the FUSD has failed to provide Leupp with facilities, services, staffing, equipment, and materials that are equitable with those of the 17 in-town schools. While the Leupp lawsuit does not force the district to pursue a native language program at Leupp, it certainly helps to create an environment for proactive change. So did the Leupp principal, Joan Gilmore. The daughter of George Kirk, a Navajo Code Talker, Gilmore is passionately committed to preserving the Navajo language and culture. She is a stark contrast to her bilagaana predecessors, one of whom eyed me warily when I suggested a bilingual Navajo/ English program at Leupp 15 years ago: "We don't want any of that here."
Gilmore and several other staff members were shocked by the 1996 test results: less than one out of ten students can speak the language. There was a sense of urgency. We knew that we had to do something and do it fast. We started with a survey of parents and community members to determine two things: (1) Do the parents and community of Leupp want a Navajo/English bilingual program? (2) Will the parents and community support a bilingual program if it is offered? We know that if the parents do not back the program, or simply do not care, our efforts will be fruitless.
The outcome of the survey was as shocking as the results of the Navajo proficiency tests. Over 95% of the parents "greatly favor" a bilingual program. One hundred percent indicated they would support the program if it was implemented. Although some faculty and staff at Leupp School opposed the initiative, we argued that a few individuals do not have the right to deprive Navajo children of the opportunity to be taught in their tribal tongue, especially if this option is supported and valued by their parents and their community.
In the spring of 1997, we applied for and were awarded a $1.5 million Title VII grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a Navajo/English bilingual program. The icing on the cake came in December 1997 when the Leupp Chapter House signed a resolution to formally endorse the program.
The Leupp Project
The heart of The Leupp Bilingual Education Project is to provide all Leupp students with Navajo-based education delivered largely via the Navajo language. However, there are other key components that supplement the Navajo language initiative, including:
In addition to these components the following initiatives are implemented to improve student literacy at Leupp:
There is not much controversy surrounding the above mentioned components of the project. For the most part, they are viewed by teacher and staff as desired additions to the existing programs at Leupp. The Navajo language initiative is a different story.
The Navajo Immersion Program
In the fall of 1997, a committee consisting of Leupp faculty, staff, parents, and community members was formed to review and develop a blueprint for the Navajo language program. Most committee members agreed that it is best to teach students through the Navajo language rather than about the language. However, the amount of time that should be devoted to instruction via Navajo elicited a lengthy and lively discussion. Opinions ranged from those favoring full immersion in Navajo to minimalists who feel an hour a day of Navajo is sufficient. The former camp agreed that full immersion is necessary to jump-start Kindergarten students in their Navajo language development. The minimalists feared that English language development will suffer in a Navajo-only program. In the end, the committee arrived at a compromise: Leupp students would be taught subject matter through the use of the Navajo language for at least half of the school day. The committee also agreed on program goals and assumptions upon which the program is predicated:
The Navajo Immersion Curriculum is Navajo specific, meaning that subject matter is taught initially from a Navajo perspective. For example, one of the district's Kindergarten Social Studies goals states: "Students will show respect for others." Students in the Navajo Immersion Program are taught traditional Navajo forms of respect, including how to enter a hogan and how to greet people in the Navajo way. Building upon this foundation knowledge, the formalities and etiquette of the mainstream culture are later taught within a broader context.
In the unit on plants (Nanise'), students learn about the importance of corn to the Navajo, as well as traditional uses of plants (i.e., for food, dyes, the arts, tools, medicine, and ceremonies). Students participate in the traditional practice of running to the East to greet the rising sun as part of the unit on exercise (Naa' azdilts ood). The unit on astronomy introduces students to Navajo constellations and Navajo beliefs about the heavens as well as the western view of astronomy.
Central to the Navajo culture is the concept of hózhó, or maintaining a life of "peace, beauty, and harmony." Likewise, hózhó is the unifying theme of the Navajo Immersion Curriculum. All objectives and activities are designed to help students develop themselves intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially so they may "walk in Beauty." The curriculum is organized in fours, the sacred Navajo number.
Subject matter is presented holistically through four global themes, each representing one of the Four Sacred Mountains of the Navajo and its corresponding cardinal direction--HEALTH: EAST (Mt. Blanca): LIVING THINGS: SOUTH (Mt. Taylor): FAMILY & COMMUNITY: WEST (San Francisco Peaks): EARTH & SKY: NORTH (Hesperus Peak). Each global theme is designed to be presented over a period of about nine weeks.
Four thematic units have been developed for each global theme. Each thematic unit includes a goal, objectives, key vocabulary, and suggested activities. Objectives are correlated with the Arizona State Standards, and suggested activities are cross-referenced with the unit objectives.
The following is a sample thematic unit from the global theme family and community:
Global Theme: Family & Community Global Goal: To develop an awareness of self and to perpetuate the Navajo language, culture, and traditions relative to family, friends, and community.Subject matter is taught in an integrated manner. For example, the following Suggested Activity, Visit local hogans; keep a sketch book of types, integrates four subject areas:
Figure 1. Sample web showing unit activities (FUSD, 2000)
In the summer of 1998, two individuals were hired by the FUSD, each of whom play a very different but significant role in the future of Leupp Public School: Mrs. Amy Begay and Mr. Larry Bramblett. Begay, a Title VII-funded Bilingual Resource Teacher, is responsible for implementing the new Diné immersion curriculum at Leupp. In addition, she serves as the Navajo language teacher trainer, materials developer, and program specialist. Bramblett, on the other hand, was hired as the new superintendent of FUSD. Bramblett was impressed with the Navajo Immersion Program. He was also convinced that Navajo children can succeed in school if expectations are high and equal opportunities are provided. Within a year, Leupp Public School received a make-over. A green lawn and a sign chiseled out of adobe now greets visitors in front, and crushed red rock and juniper trees landscape the exterior. In the spring of 1999, Principal Joan Gilmore was replaced by Louise Scott, Leupp Public School's second Navajo principal. Scott shares Gilmore's commitment to preserve the Navajo language and culture and brings with her several years of experience with Navajo transitional, dual language, and immersion programs.
In the fall of 1999, Scott presented Superintendent Bramblett with a proposal to create a Navajo Cultural Center to be constructed on the grounds of Leupp Public School. FUSD committed $30,000 to the project. The purpose of the center is to provide students with an educational experience that integrates academic subjects, vocational skills, and Navajo culture with traditional arts, crafts, dance, music, and storytelling. The Cultural Center will serve four functions:
In other words, raising sheep, tending a garden, performing Navajo songs and dances, and learning about traditional science, arts, crafts, and storytelling will be part of what students do when they attend Leupp Public School. State and district standards will be taught through these activities. What we are striving for is a different way of teachinga marriage between the Old Ways and the New Ways. This union is exemplified in our Cultural CD ROM Project, where Leupp students interview Navajo elders about their personal stories, videotape traditional weavers and artisans at work, and document various cultural traditions. This information is presented on the CD-ROM in Navajo with a voice-over in English. Using modern technology, Navajo students can work collaboratively with their elders to preserve their history, language, and culture.
Challenges, problems, concerns
At the end of the third year of this project,Navajo language instruction has been implemented in Kindergarten and first grade and was expand to second grade in the fall of 2000. An additional grade will be added each year until all students at Leupp are taught bilingually. One student shadehouse project has been completed, as well as the male and female sweatlodges. Construction on the hogan center started in the fall of 2000. On paper it appears as if things are progressing smoothly. However, we face many of the challenges common to language revitalization projects throughout the world. These include:
1. Lack of Certified Navajo Teachers: At Leupp, we have six bilingual instructional aides and three certified Navajo-speaking teachers, one at Kindergarten, one at first grade, and one at second grade. In the past, the bilingual aides provided Navajo language instruction for part of the day as an enrichment activity. However, this sent the wrong message to the students; i.e., that Navajo is a subordinate language, an add-on if we have time for it. Consequently, we are committed to having certified Navajo teachers in each immersion classroom working collaboratively with the Navajo-speaking aides.Some recommendations
Some of the aforementioned problems are internal or local issues that need to be addressed in-house. Others, however, could be resolved if the various Navajo immersion and bilingual programs throughout the reservation and the bordertowns formed a consortium to address common concerns, provide training, share resources, and collaborate on the development of Navajo assessments, materials, and curriculum. This collaborative effort could reduce duplication of labor and free up time and resources, allowing us to create far more instructional and testing materials than any one program could possibly develop alone. However, this type of collaboration will require a certain level of standardization in terms of language, Navajo terminology for the academic content areas, and curriculum goals and objectives. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it may be an essential next step if we are to petition the state to provide the AIMS test in Navajo. It may also be essential if we are to preserve the language.
The problem with language loss is that it can happen so quickly and effortlessly, without much hoopla or high drama. There was a time when the U.S. Government actively tried to eradicate American Indian languages. The strategy was simple: kill the language and you kill the culture. Kill the culture, and you eliminate the people. This was the Government's solution to the so called "Indian Problem." So in BIA boarding schools young American Indians were often punished for speaking their native tongue.
But compulsion has never been as successful as persuasion. English has become the lingua franca not only because it is the language of money but also because it is the primary tongue of Hollywood, MTV, and the NBA. And with these come glitz, glamor, hype, and all things cool and wannabe. We as educators can rant and rave about how important it is to preserve the language, but to a seven year old child it is the moment that counts, not the blood and tears of their ancestors.
In 1978, my first year on the reservation, many Navajo still lacked electricity and running water. Today, if you travel to the most remote corners of the reservation, you will see satellite dishes sprouting from the rooftops. Today, federal legislation protects indigenous languages. American Indians cannot be prohibited from speaking their tribal tongue. They can, however, be persuaded not to speak it or simply lulled into a state of denial or indifference about its death.
In March 2000, I had the opportunity to visit some of the highly successful Maori Immersion schools in New Zealand. Thanks to Professor Timoti Karetu, I was also able to participate in a marae, or traditional gathering. In my informal conversations with Maori immersion teachers, I was impressed by their passionate commitment to their work. They told tales of broken treaties and their bitter struggle to create Maori language schools. I sensed that back in the 1970s, the Maori people had reached a point in time--do or die, so to speak--when they realized they must either fight to preserve their language and culture or allow it to be consumed by English. They chose to fight.
The Navajo have reached a similar crisis point. If they do not act now and galvanize their efforts to revitalize the Navajo language, it will be lost within another generation. And if Navajo, the most widely used of all our American Indian languages, dies, what hope remains for other indigenous languages in this country? I realize there are concerns and apprehensions about using Navajo as the primary language of instruction. "How will our students pass the AIMS test?" "They'll fall even further behind in English!" Yes, it will require a leap of faith. It will require an appeal to history. We have tried "English Only" with the Navajo for over 130 years, and the results have been catastrophic. With Navajo immersion programs, we cannot do worse, and most indicators suggest we will do much better.
But as I write this, my thoughts keep returning to the image of a young Navajo watching the TV screen in awe and wonder as the currently famous basketball player Michael Jordan flies through the air. I think it is safe to say that the macro-culture is not going to ride off into the sunset and magically disappear. It is here to stay, and it will become even more prevalent as we progress through the new millennium. The challenge for the Navajo will be finding a way to Walk and Learn in Beauty despite encroachments from the world beyond the mesa. This is not news to the Navajo. For centuries their culture has not only survived but flourished largely owing to their ability to selectively borrow things and ideas from the outside and adapt them in ways that remain uniquely Navajo. But language is the key.
Ultimately, it is through language that we not only preserve what we have but create and re-create that which is to come. And if we can ignite the fire of everyday life back into the language, we will no longer be racing against the clock, but instead trying to outrun the sun: the former quest is finite, the latter eternal.
Bippus, S. & Bray, S. (1994, August 22). Letter from Central Consolidated School District, Shiprock, NM.
Bowker, A. (1993). Sisters in the blood: The education of women in Native America. Newton, MA: WEEA Development Center.
Coombs, L.M. (1970). The Indian student is not low man on the totem pole. Journal of American Indian Education, 9(3), 1-9.
Division of Diné Education (1996). Diné culture and language curriculum framework (1996). Window Rock, AZ.
FUSD (1997). Title VII proposal for a school-wide bilingual education program. Flagstaff, AZ: Flagstaff Unified School District.
Hodgkinson, H., Outtz, J., & Obarakpor, A. (1990). The demographics of American Indians: One percent of the people--fifty percent of the diversity. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.
Littlebear, D. (1990). Keynote address. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Effective language education practices and Native language survival (pp. 1-8). Choctaw, OK: Native American Language Issues.
Native American Languages Act. (1990). 104, 25 U.S.C. 2901-2906 (P.L. 101-477).
Reyhner, J., & Tennant, E. (1995). Maintaining and renewing Native languages. Bilingual Research Journal, 19, 279-304.
Swisher, K. (1991). American Indian/Alaskan native dropout study. Tempe, AZ: Center for Indian Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 343 126)
Szasz, M.C. (1991). Current conditions in American Indian and
Alaskan native communities. Washington, DC: Department of Education. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 343 755)
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