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[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.

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