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This article was published in the Spring 1993 issue (Vol. 4, Num. 4) of Tribal College: The Journal of American Indian Higher Education on pp. 26-32 and is reproduced here with the permission of Tribal College.

A Specialized Knowledge Base for Teaching American Indian and Alaska Native Students
By Jon Reyhner, Harry Lee and David Gabbard
Copyright © 1993 by Tribal College Journal

As tribal colleges add teacher education programs, those involved with shaping the content of such programs are presented with many exciting opportunities and challenges. Though there may be pressures exerted by accreditation agencies and state departments of education to adopt the basic structures of established teacher education programs, tribal college curriculum developers need to act with caution and be aware of the ideological orientation reflected in those structures.

This paper outlines a proposed additional knowledge base that can be adopted by beginning teachers of American Indian and Alaska Native (hereafter referred to as Native) students. This additional knowledge base is above and beyond what is now in most mainstream teacher education programs. First, we discuss the idea of a knowledge base for teacher education and explain the need for a specialized knowledge base for Native education. Second, various aspects of that specialized knowledge base are outlined. We begin with the area of educational foundations, and then we describe specialized instructional methodologies and curriculum appropriate for Native students. Finally, we describe needed internship and student teaching opportunities.

All people have a basic human right to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate education for their children. We argue that there is not one type of training needed for all teachers, but rather a need for culturally appropriate approaches for different groups.

The Need For Specialized Native Teacher Training Programs

There is an unquestioned need for well trained teachers to teach Native students. Native students are among the most "at risk" students in our schools with the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in the United States (Indian Nations at Risk, 1991). Increasingly, research is showing that the reasons Native students do not do well in school has to do with the nature of schools, education, and teachers in the United States. Researchers are increasingly rejecting the old "deficit" ideas about the cultural deprivation and/or intellectual inferiority of Native students (see for example Reyhner, 1992b, 1992c).

In addition, mainstream colleges and universities have been unable to graduate the large numbers of Native teachers needed to fill positions on reservations. As a result tribal community colleges are stepping forward to fill the void. The tribal college movement began a quarter century ago with the founding of Navajo Community College. Since then this movement has grown till in 1992 the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) listed 29 members. Recently, Sinte Gleska University and Oglala Lakota College started four year teacher education programs. Navajo Community College and Haskell Indian Junior College are now developing four year teacher education programs.

As these institutions develop their teacher education programs, the question is should their programs mimic the ones in non-Indian colleges? Higher education accreditation requirements push tribal colleges to follow traditional patterns, while teacher certification requirements of both public and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools reinforce that trend. But research in Native education in particular and minority education in general indicates these institutions should develop unique programs to meet the special needs of Native students.

In the past few years the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) has required member institutions to articulate what their students need to learn. Central to this effort is the establishment of a "knowledge base" that all professional educators must know. The rhetoric of "professionalization" promises to promote greater social and financial status for classroom teachers. But this solution to the alleged crisis in American education contains a hidden agenda. For the demand for an articulated "knowledge base" is little more than a sophisticated means of standardizing teacher education programs.

The Knowledge Base for the Beginning Teacher (KBBT) was published in 1989 in an attempt to articulate "the state of the art" (Gardner, p. ix). In the introduction, William Gardner argues "For the most part the substance and structure of teacher education have been drawn from conventional wisdom" (1989, p. ix). In other words, teachers teach the way they were taught and take "common sense" approaches to their work. A problem with Native education is that non-Native teachers and Native students do not share a common culture within which to work and find mutual understanding.

The KBBT recognizes the special needs of ethnic minority children. However, these needs are dealt with in amazing brevity and tend to follow a deficit model. That model does not recognize and value the cultural knowledge Native students bring to school (Pugach & Leake, 1991). For example, the KBBT has only one paragraph about bilingual education where it cites James Banks on the importance of the teacher speaking the home language of the child. Obviously, a real knowledge base for teachers of non-English speaking children would go far beyond the information contained in the KBBT. Some states recognize this fact with special certification standards, but such recognition is not universal.

In keeping with the idea of a single, universal knowledge base suitable for all teachers, the U.S. Secretary of Education's Indian Nations at Risk (INAR) Task Force wrote goal six of their ten national goals. That goal states that by the year 2000 "the colleges and universities that train the nation's teachers will develop a curriculum that prepares teachers to work effectively with the variety of cultures, including the Native cultures, that are served by schools." The INAR Task Force did not define that curriculum. In addition, there is a conceptual difficulty with the idea that a, meaning singular, curriculum can adequately prepare teachers to work with a variety of cultures.

We need to change our thinking about this singular approach. We need to adopt a metaphor that can provide an alternative approach to thinking about the process of developing a curriculum for a teacher education program. The metaphor of a "knowledge base" invokes images of universal standards that lack spatial and temporal limits. It is an industrial/factory metaphor reflective of the same sort of mass production mentality that has dominated the culture of schools throughout this century.

Accordingly, pedagogical models grounded in this mentality are destructive of the cultures in which schools are embedded. In their commissioned paper for the INAR Task Force, Berg and Ohler wrote "As a factory produces standardized products, public schools strive to produce children with standardized minds for an industrial society" (1992, p. 2). Vine Deloria (1990) accused these factory-like schools of indoctrinating rather than educating Indian children.

In contrast to the old assimilationist approaches to Indian education, tribal colleges are formulating a multicultural/ecological educational approach. Oglala Lakota College's "Philosophical base of the teacher education program" states:

We believe that by learning a second way of life, without forsaking reverence due to one's primary group, personal understanding between individuals and cross-cultural understanding between groups will be enhanced. This approach to life needs to be integrated into all areas of education that affect Indian students on and near the reservation. (Oglala Lakota College, p. 1) On the Rosebud Reservation a Tribal Education Code was enacted in 1991 to get culturally appropriate instruction for Lakota children (Knowles, Gill, Beauvais, & Medearis, 1992). Recently the Vice President of Navajo Community college told a group of teachers,

We are developing the teacher education program within the natural education processes of the culture, and we wish to be respected as we observe the critical issues and power dealing with this type of development. . . .

We believe that the knowledge of Navajo culture, language and S'a' ah Naagh'ai Bik'eh Hozh'o'on is necessary for anyone involved in the Teacher Education Program. We are attempting to set this development programmatically within our knowledge system so that it addresses real issues facing real people through a living curriculum and pedagogy. . . .

Our traditional cultural roots are now being nourished and nurtured into full growth of amplifying or philosophy, S'a ah Naagh'aa'i Bik'eh H'ozh'o'on through comprehensive curriculum and pedagogical transformation. (Lewis, 1992, pp. 1-2)

The Navajo have used a corn plant metaphor to illustrate their educational philosophy. This natural and generative metaphor is in sharp contrast to the static and abstract idea of a knowledge base and the industrial metaphors used in education today. The Navajo Nation adopted their own Tribal Education Code in 1984. However, as Tribal President Peterson Zah found out, it is one thing to pass a code and another thing to get it implemented in schools (Zah, 1992).

Based on a review of Native education and related research, we outline below the various subject matter that we think needs to be included in the knowledge base for Native teacher preparation programs. Our findings are divided into the traditional areas of teacher preparation programs: educational foundations, instruction, curriculum, and internship/student teaching.

Foundations of Native Education

To start with, teachers of Native students need an understanding of the findings of anthropology, sociology, and history. This need has long been recognized by those who have carefully studied Indian education. For example, Robert Havighurst, who directed the National Study of Indian education from 1967 to 1971, found evidence to suggest that "teachers of Indian children should be systematically trained to take account of the sociocultural processes operating in the communities and classrooms where they work" (Fuchs & Havighurst, 1972, p. 305).

Anthropological Foundations: Teachers of Native students must appreciate the influence of culture in and out of the classroom. This includes the background and meaning of concepts such as ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, assimilation, and acculturation. This foundation also allows Native teachers to explain the non-Native world to their students. This is important for two reasons. First, Spindler (1987) suggests that the disproportionate school failure of ethnic and racial minorities in schools is based on cultural discontinuity (differences) between home and school -- not on environmental or cognitive deficits. Second, Ogbu (1987) maintains that racism in and out of the classroom is the deciding factor that aggravates this cultural discontinuity into educational failure.

In Spindler's thinking, teachers do not know how to relate to culturally different students and communities. In Ogbu's thinking, students do not see education as a ladder that can be used to overcome racism and lead to opportunities for personnel success. For example, Deyhle (1992) documents both the racism in a bordertown community and how Navajo and Ute high school graduates make no more money than high school dropouts. When they find jobs, both high school dropouts and graduates work for minimum wage. Thus Native students do not necessarily see better job opportunities open to them even if they work hard in school.

Many students from minority groups experience a language and cultural environment at home that differs significantly from the language and culture represented in the school. According to Jordan, when the culture of the school and the culture of the child are incompatible, "the school fails to teach and the child fails to learn" (1984, p. 61). At times, the home and school languages and cultures differ so much that the students are forced to choose between them.

Students lose by either choice. If they reject the school's language and culture they lose future academic and occupational opportunities. If they choose the school over their families, they lose the personal anchor that a strong family background provides. Lilly Wong Fillmore (1991) documents how the rift between parents and students can lead to tragic consequences if the students reject their home language and culture. She writes,

What is lost is no less than the means by which parents socialize their children: When parents are unable to talk to their children, they cannot easily convey to them their values, beliefs, understandings, or wisdom about how to cope with their experiences. They cannot teach them about the meaning of work, or about personal responsibility, or what it means to be a moral or ethical person in a world with too many choices and too few guideposts to follow. (1991, p. 343) It is bad social and educational policy to force students to choose between home and school. To ensure the success of minority students in schools, teacher-education programs need to focus on the importance of incorporating students' home language and culture into the school.

When teachers come from the same culture as their students, they are subconsciously aware of the way their students have learned to learn. However, in our increasingly pluralistic society, teachers are more and more likely to face students from different cultures. In these multicultural situations teachers ignorant of the cultural component of knowledge and knowledge acquisition will be guilty of educational malpractice. Of course, this malpractice has been performed on Native students since European educational practices were first introduced to this continent.

Sociological Foundations: Another source of knowledge for beginning teachers is the field of sociology. In a draft position paper developed in 1992, the Committee on Academic Standards and Accreditation for the American Educational Studies Association defined the social foundations of education. The committee defined them as "those socio-cultural conditions, including social institutions, processes, and ideals, which underlie educational ideas and practices" (Toward a New Consensus, 1992, p. 1).

This particular definition of the social foundations of education (and the accompanying justification for their inclusion within teacher education programs) is vitally important for those engaged in tribal college curriculum development. For example, when we consider emphasizing the use of computers in teacher education programs, we need to keep in mind the linear forms of rational process and problem solving that computer technology promotes. In addition, we need to keep in mind the economic interests served by the increased use of computers.

An emphasis on the use of computers fits in to the European approach to education that involves a classroom management model that is technological, industrial, and mechanistic (Bowers & Flinders, 1990).1 This approach has a masculine orientation of "autonomy, separation, and distance" that devalues a holistic feminine approach of "nurturing, caring, listening, empathy, and responsibility" (pp. 6-7). Bowers and Flinders further describe a "technicist approach" to education that includes a view of rational process as culturally neutral, language as a conduit, and learning as individually centered (1990, p. 9). These are viewed as Western-European cultural assumptions rather than objective reality.

The present technicist view of education leads to training teachers to teach to age-appropriate objectives and to regularly monitor student progress. The authors put forward an alternative teacher training model. That model makes students aware of how culture determines our understanding of the world, patterns our social interaction, and gives us a set of prejudices about taste, sound, and color. Furthermore, most of this cultural knowledge that controls our life is taken for granted. When students behave in terms of the cultural knowledge we acquired growing up, we consider it normal behavior. However, if students act differently because they grew up in a different culture, we consider their behavior abnormal and often bad.

Bowers and Flinders (1990) argue that "an understanding of the dynamics of primary socialization . . . is really at the heart of the teacher's professional knowledge" (p. 25). Furthermore,

The challenge for the teacher, as a gatekeeper in the cultural transmission process, is to help students rethink those aspects of the culture, those traditions of thought and practice formed in response to an earlier set of social and environmental circumstances, that are based on assumptions that sanction the domination and exploitation of the environment. (p. 29) As discussed above, a knowledge of culture and society is essential for beginning teachers. They need this knowledge to begin to understand and appreciate the conflicts and problems Native students face in America, and especially in American schools. This knowledge can be expanded and illustrated using study of the history of Native education as discussed below.

Historical Foundations: Beginning teachers of Native students also need to know the historical background of Native education as well as that of mainstream education. Most often they will not get this in standard educational histories. It is not unusual in those histories to have no mention at all of Native education. For example the second edition of Joel Spring's (1990) popular The American School 1642-1990 does not contain any mention of Native students.2

Many different approaches to Native education have been tried through history. The knowledge of past successes and mistakes will help the new teacher with ideas about what will work and what will not. In addition, a knowledge the history of Native education will help the new teacher to sort through the maze of federal Indian education programs (such as "Title V" and "JOM") and to know the intent of those programs.

In the study of this history, students need to learn about missionary activities, government efforts, and tribal initiatives. They also need to read autobiographies of Native teachers and students to begin to appreciate the complexities and difficulties of Native education. After a grounding in the foundations of Native education, students are ready for the study of professional teaching methods and materials.

Instructional Methodologies for Native Students

Culturally Responsive Teaching: New teachers need to know about how Native children "learn to learn" at home so that they make sure the "work contexts and social interaction requirements of the classroom" are "made compatible with work contexts and social relationships in the culture" (Jordan, 1984, p. 62). For example, researchers found the following things worked well with Native Hawaiian students:

a culturally compatible, small group, classroom organization, use by the teacher of culturally compatible social reinforcement and social control techniques, and culturally compatible teacher-child and child-child interactions patterns in the learning tasks. (Jordan, 1984, p. 62)

Swisher and Deyhle (1992) describe a variety of culturally specific approaches for adapting instruction to the ways Native students have "learned to learn" at home.

New teachers need to learn to be culturally responsive. Students who know the language and culture of the teacher and the textbook can do well in a classroom of a non-responsive teacher. But responsive teachers are especially important with Native students because they are willing to respond to students needs and reshape the curriculum. They are more likely to talk with their students and adapt curriculum accordingly, to focus lessons on meaningful topics, and to allow students to practice language and thinking skills in real interactive situations. By allowing students to talk in group work, responsive teachers allow students to use language and to develop their competencies through communication.

A good general approach to responsive teaching is the experiential/interactive methods described by Cummins (1989, 1992). The "experiential" part harks back to what John Dewey (1938) wrote about in his book Experience and Education. Teachers need to get students out of lecture halls and textbooks and get them involved in "real" experiences. The "interactive" part refers to how teachers must listen and respond to the concerns of their students. Hirst and Slavik (1990) and Little Soldier (1989) give examples of how students can also be allowed to work together cooperatively. Sinte Gleska University realizes, and,

research indicates that many native Americans tend to be global/holistic, reflective and visual/tactile learners who achieve better in a cooperative rather than in an individual competitive setting. However, we find that traditional curriculum and textbooks teach to the sequential, linear and auditory learners who do well in a competitive setting. Many problems that native American students encounter may be caused by being taught to their weaknesses instead of their strengths. (Knowles, et al., 1992, p. 22)
Bilingual Education and ESL Methodologies: There is a tendency by mainstream trained teachers to assume that minority students with educational problems can be successfully diagnosed using English language tests and be treated in a prescriptive fashion through remedial special education and Chapter I programs. In these programs the curriculum may be segmented into a series of discrete, "basic," skills that are taught in a very behavioristic and mechanical way (Savage, 1987).

Treating educational failure as a student-centered problem is a "blame the victim" deficit mentality that focuses a teacher's efforts on testing and remediation. What is needed is a focus on finding meaningful curriculum materials and culturally appropriate ways to teach and motivate students that build on the cultural knowledge students bring to school. This new focus will lessen the cultural discontinuity between home and school.

To learn and read well in any language, young students need to become fluent speakers of the language. Native students who appear to be proficient in English may only have conversational proficiency rather than the cognitive/academic proficiency required for successful school work (Cummins, 1984, 1989). Students with a conversational proficiency can use English in "context-embedded" situations on the playground and in the classroom. In such situations there are many clues that the student can rely on to provide meaning.

However, in "context-reduced" situations (whether it be textbook work, teacher lectures, or other classroom activities requiring higher order language skills) the conversation-only proficient student is Limited English Proficient (LEP) and at a disadvantage. Students who speak a Native language well but who are LEP can obviously benefit from teachers trained in bilingual and ESL teaching methodologies. What is not so obvious is that students can transfer their proficiency in speaking and reading their Native language to English. Citing evidence of a common underlying language proficiency for bilinguals, Cummins (1984) suggests that experience with either language can foster development of the proficiency underlying both languages--if adequate motivation and exposure are provided in or out of school.

As indicated above, teachers of Native students need a knowledge of both first and second language acquisition theories and practices. Students also need to study exemplary Native education programs. The maintenance bilingual program at Rock Point School on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona is one example of an exemplary Native bilingual program (Reyhner, 1990; Rosier & Holm, 1980). Because most students at Rock Point School enter speaking only Navajo, their first reading instruction is in Navajo while they receive oral language instruction in English. By second grade the students can speak English well enough to begin reading instruction in English. Students can transfer most of the skills acquired learning to read in Navajo to reading English.

Teachers of Native students who have lost their Native language need to be familiar with the international research on language restoration efforts (see for example Fishman, 1991; Reyhner, in press). Through such efforts, the school can become a valued part of the community, where without such efforts it is viewed with suspicion. McLaughlin (1992) describes the important process of indigenization that makes a Native community feel ownership in what were once considered "Washington's" schools. Fishman (1991) points out that language restoration efforts restore culture and a sense of personal identity. This development of identity and reinforcement of traditional family values is probably the most effective way to combat social problems such as alcohol and drug abuse.

Whatever methodologies that teachers of Native students choose to use, they need to either choose or develop their own teaching materials to complement those practices. The following section focuses on teaching materials for Native students.

"Nativizing" the Curriculum

Currently, American education is very textbook dominated. It has been argued that education for all students should be less textbook dominated, but for cultural minorities, it is critical that textbook instruction be de-emphasized and supplemented. Commercial curriculum materials are often irrelevant to minority culture students. This is because these materials often do not relate to the students' experiential background and reflect a form of cultural imperialism (see for example Apple, 1992; Reyhner, 1992a).

The not so subtle message to the students of teachers who use only these commercial materials (and who are not responsive to the socio-cultural background of their students) is that the culture of the school is more important than the culture of the children's homes. Teachers need to study and know their students' home cultures and to encourage school librarians, administrators, and boards to acquire supplemental curriculum material appropriate to their students' background. Teachers need to learn about Native literature suitable for classroom use (both oral and written), how to integrate Native history and government into social studies curriculum, and how to utilize ethnoscience and ethnomathematics in their classrooms. For example, at Sinte Gleska University students are taught to "develop culturally-relevant thematic and holistic units that address learning styles and cultural values" (Knowles, et al., 1992, p. 22).

Learning Through Internships and Student Teaching

Learning about the local culture is done most effectively in a tribal college while the new teacher is in an intern capacity in a local school. It is also important that these local schools used for practicums and student teaching assignments reflect the best teaching methodologies and curriculum available for Native students. For this, they need to work in close partnership with the college education faculty to be model teaching environments. School districts need to recognize the importance of locally appropriate curriculum and teaching methods. And they need to give appropriate credit to teachers that have Native education training in tribal colleges as they would for any other inservice or college training, whether it is at an undergraduate or graduate level.


It is imperative that accreditation agencies such as NCATE that monitor teacher education programs and state departments of education that control teacher certification recognize and support the need for culturally appropriate teacher education programs for teachers of American Indian and Alaska Native students. If they are unresponsive, then AIHEC needs to continue its exploration of the possibility of creating its own accreditation agency, and tribes need to explore establishing their own teacher certification standards. One possible compromise is the Navajo example where a regional office of the Northcentral Accreditation Agency was set up at Window Rock. In the same way, AIHEC could have their own accreditation office associated with one of the more comprehensive accreditation agencies.

Whatever the mechanism or agency, the accreditation process needs to foster the improvement of Native education. This can be done by getting teacher-education programs for teachers of Native children to integrate information on Native educational history and philosophies into foundations classes, to integrate research findings of successful minority education programs into methods classes, to introduce students to the wide variety of Native education materials, and to provide field experiences with Native students in exemplary schools. In addition, teachers of Native students need course-work in bilingual and ESL teaching methods and the history, language, and culture of the Native groups in their vicinity.

This article has concentrated on the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native education on reservations. But it is obvious, with three-fourths of Native students living off reservations and the increasing cultural pluralism of all American schools, that all teachers graduating from all teacher training programs in the United States need to be introduced to the specialized knowledge base described in this article. Many of things said and the research cited in this article hold true for all ethnic minorities, not just Native students. But wherever a specific ethnic minority is concentrated (whether that minority be Native, Black, Hispanic, or Asian), nearby teacher education programs need to give extra attention to the culture and needs of that group.

Jon Reyhner, Harry Lee, and David Gabbard teach in the School of Education at Eastern Montana College, Billings, Montana.

1This section is taken from a 1992 book review by Reyhner and Gabbard that appeared in the Journal of Navajo Education, 9(3), 52-55.
2The forthcoming third edition of this book will contain information on Native education.

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Berg, P.K., & Ohler, J. (1992). Strategic plans for use of modern technology in the education of American Indian and Alaska Native students (Commissioned paper for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education)

Bowers, C. A., & Flinders, D. J. (1990). Responsive teaching: An ecological approach to classroom patterns of language, culture, and thought. New York: Teachers College.

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Spindler, G. D. (1987). Why have minority groups in North America been disadvantaged by their schools? In G. D. Spindler (Ed.), Education and cultural process: Anthropological approaches (2nd ed.) (pp. 160-172). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

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Toward a new consensus among social foundations educators. Draft position paper of the American Educational Studies Association Committee on Academic Standards and Accreditation for discussion and revision at the annual AESA conference, October 1992, Pittsburgh, PA.

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