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Culturally Responsive Teaching, Belonging and Inclusion with Native American Students

In identity safe classrooms, students’ social identities are validated. The Stanford Integrated Schools Project research in 84 diverse elementary classrooms demonstrated the effectiveness of identity safe practices. Results indicated that when students’ race, ethnicity, gender, and other social identities were considered assets rather than barriers to learning, students performed better academically, felt included, and liked school more (Cohn-Vargas, et., al, 2022).

This blog applies the seven identity safe principles to teaching Native American students.

1. Colorblind teaching that ignores differences is a barrier to inclusion in the classroom.

Ignoring differences makes students feel othered and less than their peers. They experience stereotype threat and worry about being negatively stereotyped. For Native American students, colorblind teaching can be particularly harmful.

Conversely, when educators validate Native American identities and culture, students feel valued as contributors to the community. This blog describes some commonalities that most Native American tribes share. With over 500 recognized tribes in the US, we suggest avoiding generalizations about Native cultures. Aim to learn about the experiences and traditions of your students and tribes in your community.

2. To feel a sense of belonging and acceptance requires creating positive relationships between teacher and students and among students with equal status for different social identities.

Traditionally, Native cultures emphasized relationships as part of interdependent connections to community well-being. Paula explains that fostering relationships with caring, approachable teachers who expect excellence is the best way to support students. Non-native teachers must work harder at trust-building after generations of Native people were forced to attend boarding schools, causing distrust of non-native people and the government. Paula explains that once students trust you, they’ll be open to learning from you. However, she warns not to break promises or let students down. Once lost, it’s harder to regain trust. Paula recommends Zaretta Hammond’s “Trust Generators,” which highlight expressing care and interest in students’ lives while finding areas of commonality. Also, strengthen relationships with students’ families and the community (toolkit).

3. Cultivating diversity as a resource for learning and expressing high expectations for students promotes learning, competence, and achievement.

When students don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum, it sends a message that they don’t matter. Validate Native identities with authentic opportunities to share cultural practices from their lives and families. Honor Native students’ need not to be singled out or put on the spot. Try these strategies:

Avoid assuming what Native students know about their culture. Three generations of Paula’s family attended boarding schools that suppressed their language and traditions. Some students live in assimilated urban environments, while others are from remote, more traditional villages. Also, counter societal stereotypes about Native peoples. Ensure that every interaction, lesson, and assessment respects their cultural styles.

4. Educators examine their own social identities to feel a sense of identity safety and convey that feeling to students, creating an identity safe environment for them.

Educator self-reflection also includes dismantling explicit and implicit biases. For Non-native educators, this involves learning about Native ways of being. Paula shares several cultural differences.

  • Eye contact: Native students may interpret direct eye contact as aggression. Paula suggests standing to the side of the student and speaking softly. As relationships build, students feel safer about looking directly at teachers.
  • Wait time: Native Americans approach time differently from mainstream culture. Their circular perspective of time flows with the seasons instead of a linear view guided by the clock. Paula suggests giving the students wait time with an “indigenous pause,” allowing time to respond.
  • Sarcasm: when teachers make sarcastic remarks, Native students may feel that you are laughing at them, not with them.
  • Avoid spotlighting students: When educators ask the whole class questions, evaluating whether they’re correct, Native students may feel embarrassed if they know the answer or shame when they or their peers don’t. Public praise may make Native students uncomfortable because they don’t want to show off or appear boastful.

Learn more: West Ed Online Course: Culturally Responsive Instruction for Native American Students

5. Social and emotional safety is created by supporting students in defining their identities, refuting negative stereotypes, countering stereotype threat, and giving them a voice in the classroom while using SEL strategies.

Listening to Native students’ voices creates belonging, strengthening confidence.  Curriculum with Indigenous content from their tribe fosters pride and a sense of emotional safety. Formulating ideas and challenging themselves leads to a robust academic identity. When educators treat mistakes as learning opportunities, and we don’t publicly call out errors, Native students will be more willing to take risks.

6. Student learning is enhanced in diverse classrooms by teaching for understanding, creating opportunities for shared inquiry and dialogue, and offering a challenging, rigorous curriculum.

Paula explains that process-based lessons match the natural way of teaching used in Native cultures for millennia. Deep understanding emerges when lessons focus on process rather than product. Additional practices that support Native American values include:

  • fostering cooperation and interdependence
  • highlighting oral traditions using stories
  • drawing on real-life local needs relevant to students’ lives
  • incorporating service-learning that promotes community well-being

7. Schoolwide Equity flourishes in schools where the climate, structures, practices, and attitudes prioritize equity, inclusion, and academic growth for students from all backgrounds. Leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence, attend to student needs, address racism, bias, and privilege, and serve as the architects of ongoing change.

A schoolwide approach honors the value of community in Native cultures. In conclusion, equitable, student-centered teaching grounded in their cultural ways leads to identity safety and academic growth for Native students.

Written by

Becki Cohn-Vargas, EdD, has more than 35 years of experience as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Her educational mission is ensuring identity safe classrooms where teachers strive to assure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom. Partnering with identity safety researcher Dorothy Steele, she coauthored Identity Safe Classrooms Grades K–5: Places to Belong and Learn; followed by Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6–12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning, with Alex Creer Kahn and Amy Epstein. Her third book, co-authored with Kahn, Epstein, and Kathe Gogolewski, Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders, focuses on school transformation and was published August 17, 2021. Currently, Becki is an independent consultant and presenter. She was hosted at the White House by President Obama’s Education Staff and has worked to create inclusive climates in over 150 schools across the U.S.

Paula Rabideaux is the Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Wisconsin RtI Center.  Her Menominee name, Kamewanukiw (kuh-may-wih-new-kee), translates to “Rain Woman; she’s a Menominee Nation Turtle Clan member. Becki Cohn-Vargas approached Ms. Rabideaux to identify ways to support identity safety for Native American students. With a career devoted to culturally responsive teaching, she knows the importance of belonging first-hand. As a young child, she felt unseen and invisible at a school where most students were white. However, everything changed after transferring to a Menominee school on the Reservation. When her culture was validated, she flourished and soared. She attributes the support she received there to her decision to attend the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and become the first graduate with a Native American Studies degree.

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