This is what it looks like when teachers affirm their students’ heritage

It’s a weekday in mid-September, and most of the students on my reservation are out of school for the day. This free time for students is business as usual for teachers and administrators, who honor a gentleman’s agreement to attend the teacher training day provided by the Tribal Education Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. These tribes reside here on the Flathead Reservation, in part of their aboriginal homeland, and the core of my students belong to these tribes.

This day is crucial for teachers new to our community to learn about the culture and history of the tribes, and supports veteran teachers by helping them renew their commitment to the students of this community. When teachers incorporate culturally relevant instruction here, it’s not just a nod to the place where we live; it’s full inclusion of students and affirmation of their heritage.

This is the story of a school district that has made so many of the right moves.

First, the Arlee School District has long served as a flagship for districts across the state in the integration of tribal culture and mainstream curriculum. Teachers in our elementary classrooms regularly use Salish words to give students directions, teach them Salish numbers and use Salish names for months–months whose names correspond to seasonal rounds and events. It’s not a dual language program, but it does provide enrichment and a dynamic acknowledgement of the culture surrounding us.

Students also learn specifically and deeply about culture and history in Salish language class and Indian Studies classes, required in grades K-6 and offered throughout grades 8-12. These classes are taught by Native American instructors possessing the appropriate cultural training, teaching licenses and community knowledge. In fifth grade, students do a close read of the Hellgate Treaty, which created our reservation, and discuss it in a Socratic circle: “Was it a good idea to sign this treaty?” “What did the tribe gain and lose as a result of this treaty?”

Our upper-grade teachers also make a coordinated effort to incorporate tribally sensitive topics and lessons that emphasize the importance of place into our curriculum. For example, the high school biology teacher and I co-teach the novel Wind from an Enemy Sky, a tribally authored historical fiction chronicling the Little Elk tribe’s struggle with the construction of a hydroelectric dam and the reservation-wide system for irrigating homesteaders’ fields. This unit incorporates history, science, and language arts within the framework of cultural relevance.

Why is all this so important?
When Native American parents comment that incorporating their children’s culture into the daily routine makes a difference to them, you hear why it’s important. When former students come back from college to serve their community, because it’s a healthy place to live, you understand why it’s important. When a student transfers from another school and tells you, “I’ve never seen myself in a book before this class,” then you feel why it’s important.  

What do you think?
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Anna Baldwin

Anna Baldwin

Anna Baldwin is a high school English teacher at Arlee High School and has been teaching on the Flathead Indian Reservation for the past 17 years. She designed and teaches Native American Studies for the Montana Digital Academy and taught English methods courses at the University of Montana for four years as an adjunct assistant professor. She was a 2015-2016 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow and studied teacher preparation experiences during the fellowship. Dr. Baldwin is the recipient of several awards, including the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Distinguished Educator Award and the Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching from Teaching Tolerance. She was the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year.

  3 comments for “This is what it looks like when teachers affirm their students’ heritage

  1. Jim
    September 23, 2016 at 5:27 am

    Maybe you ought to frame your story from the position as an outsider. This isn’t “your” reservation. It’s ours. It was born out of a pain and suffering that is evident to this day. This land is the last vestiges of a time no longer here. If we want to say something about who we are then we will say it. We do not need a great white savior to say it for us. You are speaking as if you’ve always been here and have suffered along side of us. You haven’t. Thank you for your anthropological study and view on us but please refrain from acting like an expert on who we are and where we are from. There’s things about us you will never understand.

  2. William Swaney
    September 24, 2016 at 10:22 am

    With all due respect I work with Anna and have for the past ten years and she never comes across like that. If all our teachers took her approach we would have many fewer problems with insensitivity in our schools. Blog on Anna!

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