[Explore the MTBoS] Teaching Within a Culture

The Mission

The MTBoS Challenge for week 2 involves tweeting with some people you normally wouldn’t tweet with and then blogging about it. I saw Jason Buell (@jybuell) tweeting about Decolonization, and so I asked him about it to learn more and get his thoughts.

Decolonization: Brief Overview

The way I understand it, Decolonization is the idea that “settlers” and “colonists” who have moved in on another culture’s territory, should either remove themselves or proceed with every care to preserve the culture into which they’ve moved.  Specifically with respect to education, this emphasizes that your priorities, or the “white man’s” priorities, should not supersede the indigenous people’s priorities when it comes to educational practices, e.g. curriculum and required content. To put that in simpler terms, just because I think math is important does not mean I should “run over” another culture and teach math, or all the same parts of math, to that culture.

My Particular Situation: My School

This is a particularly interesting and important discussion to me because I teach in the midst of a Native American reservation, and so about 70% of my school’s population is Native American, primarily Navajo, but that figure also includes some Zuni Pueblo.

To complicate matters, I teach at a Christian School, which is an old school (we’re celebrating our 111th anniversary this year), and a boarding school on top of that.  The school has a very shameful and terrible past which includes things like teachers beating students for speaking Navajo instead of English, even outside of class. To give you an idea of the philosophy early in the school’s history, they used to follow a saying that went like this: “Beat the native out of the man and leave the Christian behind” or something like that.

Fortunately not only has our school turned from it’s past, but it has also repented and begun work on undoing the damage it did throughout it’s long history.  For example, we now teach Navajo, a dying language despite the fact that the Navajo population is growing, because we believe that a culture’s language is central to the preservation of that culture.  Another example is the school, just a decade ago, paid for a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper where they apologized for their past: even though all the people who perpetrated those crimes have long since passed away.

Where I Stand

So this school has come a long way, and yet has a lot of work to do yet. But I am not sure I totally agree with the philosophy behind “Decolonization” that I stated above.  Jason gave me some great links to follow to read more about it.  One of the links took me some reports and data which discussed “Redefining how success is measured in Aboriginal learning.”  The paragraph explains as follows:

Increasingly, Aboriginal communities are administering educational programs and services formerly delivered by non-Aboriginal governments. They are developing culturally relevant curricula and community-based language and culture programs, and creating their own educational institutions.

Yet as Aboriginal people work to improve community wellbeing through lifelong learning, they recognize the need to identify appropriate measurement tools that will help them assess what is working and what is not.

So I read that and I think they could mean two very different things.  What I hope they don’t mean:

Indigenous people do not excel in subjects such as math or English, so we should define what it means to be successful as an indigenous person, and make easier standards so we can assess students on those instead.

What I hope they do mean:

The current assessments do not take into account the traditions and history of indigenous cultures, and so, because we find that extremely important, would like to include that in assessments. Furthermore, the assessments have become culturally biased to the point that there is a distinct advantage of growing up in one culture over another on these assessments: they should be “normalized” or generalized so that specific cultural knowledge is not a requirement or boon for one culture over another.

And yet, even as I type that, I am worried that I am writing from too biased a perspective.  Who am I to decide that math is important for any young child?  I think that it is important, but is that too culturally specific?

At some point, I find myself putting my foot down and saying that some things transcend culture. Better healthcare, basic human rights, and a better understanding of logic are some of those things.

In the Navajo culture, there is a strong suspicious belief that “whoever tells you bad news is actually the cause of that bad news”, especially when it comes to babies.  Think about the implications of that for a second.  Mothers give birth to severely disabled babies and are totally unprepared for the consequences because doctors and nurses did not want to be the one who is seen as “responsible for the birth defect”, when a little knowledge could go a long way.

Another aspect of the Navajo culture is the stigma around death.  If someone dies in a house, you’re supposed to abandon the house and knock out a wall (I believe the North wall) to let the spirit out. I’ve talk to a doctor who has visited many very poor families, who only have one Hogan (house).  The doctor will “checks the pulse” of the person on their deathbed and waits to tell the family the person is dead until they’ve moved the body out of the house, just so the family will be allowed to keep their house.

The Navajo culture has some great and beautiful aspects, but a large part of the culture is centered around fear: from evil spirits to skin-walkers to superstitions, there is a lot to be afraid of in the culture.  And I believe it is the responsibility of people inside the culture to identify which parts of the culture are important and beautiful and which are damaging and unhealthy.

Wrap It Up, Will Ya?

So how should a belegana like me approach and interact with the culture and people of the culture? Form relationships.  Get to know people. Be respectful, of the people and of the customs. “What to teach” is actually not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of interacting with my students, some of whom have incredible needs (perhaps I should think of it more, so it’s good for me to reflect like this).

Instead, my thoughts are on the student who recently lost her only parent in a car wreck. Or the student who goes home to an alcoholic and abusive father. Or the student who is going to be a father, but couldn’t pass his classes before he had a child, so how is he going to keep up and learn anything now?

Perhaps I’m side-stepping the issue by focusing on individuals and not the culture, but I do think that anyone who decides to “redefine success” should be careful in how they do that.  Do not reduce rigor at the expense of a generation of students. (Is that the “colonist” in me speaking??)  Instead, identify what is important across cultures and keep that while changing the specifics of that rigor for various cultures.

Steam-rolling another culture is not the way to go, but neither is isolation.  Diversity is a beautiful thing when brought together, but you need differences for there to be diversity.



Filed under Teaching

4 responses to “[Explore the MTBoS] Teaching Within a Culture

  1. Wow, their beliefs are interesting. You must learn so much about their culture living so close to them. How do their beliefs have an impact on their education?
    I work at a school that is primarily Hispanic. Their cultural differences don’t seem to have much of an impact on education but now your post is making me think that maybe I don’t pay enough attention to the culture to know if there is an impact that I am missing.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for writing this. Sorry for not responding sooner but…life. There are a lot of good thoughts here. I think the stories you shared of the Navajo (bad news and death) are worth considering. What would be interesting to me is pursuing the genesis of these ideas. From a science perspective, I can see how knocking down a wall would develop. If someone dies at home, I would think that often this would be due to disease. Knocking out a wall would in effect air out the place. The north wall perhaps because the south would be the sun facing side so it’d still keep the home relatively cool. Now this is completely speculation but the point is rather than judge it’s worth it to understand. And in this case, you could realistically build a very good unit on germ theory framed around this. And the bearer of bad news brings to mind historical dealings with settlers, in which case the bearer/cause relationship would be strong. Again, I don’t think this is actually the genesis simply pointing out that understanding the culture and history of these beliefs is an important first step. Thanks again for writing this.

  3. Hi There,
    I am just finding you today and can’t stop reading! Thank you for all your thoughtful words and putting them out there for us to consider. You are so dang articulate. Again, I am just really moved. (Veteran Writer and Teacher speaking)

    Past practices, especially those that were based on superstition, have eventually been abolished through modernity and the age of enlightenment. So while we need to respect the cultures we come from and work within, we are also enlightened beings and need to move away from hurting people because of our superstitious beliefs (ie, burning witches and the like).

    Teaching math has two (at least) outcomes that work across cultures. It is relational and working within such a rich culture, surly the intuitive nature of math can be connected to the strong sense of relationship in the community (I mean ANYTHING from closed number systems, 1-1 functions, finding and making use of structure…). And giving students means to be successful and bringing good things including means of making a living, back to the community or bringing the community to light because you have skills and means that are appreciated the world at large. (ie, communication, and 21st century jobs skills).

    Keep at it young man! I have so much faith in you!

    • Thank you very much for reading and for your comments. I agree with the connections between math and relationship, as well as giving students a means to be successful. Most of my students will go to colleges that are more like the “world at large” and anything I can do to prepare them for that will be good for them.

      One thing I can do it continue working at and emphasizing the connections between math and community relationships. The more students see how math relates to their lives, even sometimes as analogies, the more it will impact them and the better they’ll remember it.

      Thanks again!

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