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Much is written, even online, about the damning statistics for American Indians in the educational system.  Although there are many exceptions, including young people who go on to careers in law, science, government, et cet., American education continues to fail American Indian peoples.  As far back as 1972, the Indian Education Act attempted to remedy what was still, essentially, the missionary-reservation system.  While the "melting pot" or "salad bowl" view of diversity has pushed the content in public schools in a more inclusive direction, the educational process itself still excludes native people.

In Valerie Ooka Pang's Multicultural Education, Pang links culture (for both the teacher and the student) to educational outcome:

What does culture have to do with teaching? Oftentimes you as a teacher might act as a cultural translator or mediator who understands the layers of culture (Bustamante-Jones 1998). For example, many Native American young people grow up in families where children are expected to listen rather than speak.  Young people learn to watch others before they do something that might make them look like fools.  Children are advised not to show off.  Therefore, some students have difficulty participating in class and may choose to withdraw instead of showing up for school, knowing that they must speak out or act aggressively.  Other times, Native American youngsters may choose not to participate because they do not trust or feel comfortable with teachers.  Some teachers may feel that this lack of participation shows disinterest in learning, though this is not accurate.

How many of you had at least one teacher who assigned points for participation?

Given some experience over time, the dilemma, described in the quote, may be at least picked up on by a non-Indian teacher on a reservation.  Teachers in Indian-majority communities tend to also have some targeted training to prepare them for culture shock. Diagnosing or treating this conflict becomes more nebulous outside of 'Indian Country.'

Incidentally, while the book is listing sources largely composed in the 1990s, there is a new paradigm that emerged in the last decade.  A majority of American Indians now live in urban areas, where they may be the invisible minority, may be or at least seem much more assimilated, and will be among ethnic and cultural groups with conflicting approaches to education.  

Increased focuses on diversity may have a band-aid affect: American-Indian students may hear or learn information about their own groups, and still not be in an environment where the information is actually trustworthy. The discussion itself may be uncomfortable or hostile. And more importantly, too often while the class may feel a general sense of satisfaction at multicultural efforts, the American Indian student may still faced with the reality of falling behind in a school system that goes through the motions of trying to be inclusive but never makes the bridge.

Many American Indian people are able to walk 'two roads' and maintain a strong sense of identity in a nation very much at odds with it, but many, perhaps more, fail at the overwhelming task.  

Clearly and Peacock (1998) also note that if the young adult chooses, to participate, he or she may have to take on a different cultural role.  This role may be uncomfortable because the students must disregard cultural behaviors and beliefs.  For example, the student might need to learn how to interrupt in order to be heard in a Socratic social studies discussion.  This can be extremely uncomfortable for someone who was taught that this behavior is disrespectful.  However, in many discussions, if a person does not interrupt, she or he may not have the opportunities to participate and be heard, and school culture rewards aggressive verbal behavior.  The school often mirrors the cultural values of mainstream society.

The difficulty in succeeding as a bi-cultural person exceeds the difficulty that poor students, in general, have in acquiring a new skill.  Assimilation goes fundamentally against the way many native peoples have grown up, contradicting both verbal, open life lessons as well as customs taught by silent example.  There is much about education this is often disruptive and, in my opinion, harmful about education for all races, especially minorities in general. Most poor Americans, while at a disadvantage in US schools, culturally and materially, still fundamentally believe values of self-assertion, rugged independence, (material) status attainment and competitive achievement that schools emphasize.  These values are highly useful in schools.  Here, the lesson is that many Americans have never assented to these values.  

For many students, the need to assert oneself becomes even more pronounced in college.  You can imagine the feeling of being in a brash, economics class where students are expected to speak up, introduce data, create and defend an argument.  For another layer, throw in that the teacher him or herself expects to debate the students.

Of course, this last quote also implicitly suggests negative implications for American Indians in the workplace and general society.

Jon Reyhner writes on his website about how to make schools more inclusive:

In contrast to the one-size-fits-all demands of NCLB, last October the National Indian School Board Association (NISBA) sponsored a three-day conference in Albuquerque on using effective schools research to better serve Indian schools. The conference was keynoted by Dr. Larry Lezotte who has researched schools that have better success serving ethnic minority students and what they do to achieve it. He and his associates found that the more effective schools have seven correlates: strong instructional leadership, a clear and focused mission, a climate of high expectations for success, a safe and orderly environment, frequent monitoring of student progress, opportunity to learn/student time on task, and positive home-school relations.

Also, Reyhner discusses something you may have been wondering about, in addition to students who tried to adapt and do not succeed: those who never tried because they feel alienated, entirely:

In schools this can be seen as peer group pressure directed at "nerds" who do well in subjects like math and science and who are accused of acting "white" and taunted with questions like, "I suppose you think you are too good for us now?" This can lead Indian and other ethnic minority students to direct their efforts at recognition in sports, which their community celebrates, rather than working for good grades.

As easy as it would be to argue that personal achievement can benefit that wider community down the line, the trade-offs for the gains give us pause.  And successful students don't tend to stay around the poorer places where American Indians usually live.

On Rayhner's website, there is a bibliography of links on how to address our disparity.

Originally posted to Native American Netroots on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 05:49 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Very interesting post here, Nulwee... (9+ / 0-)

    I have had the same dilemma with African-American students.  I have had students who come to me in private begging me to please not give them an "A" or to praise them in front of their peers because it would "make them look bad."

    Some students expressed to me that it would alienate them from their friends who would think they were "trying to act White."

    It was pretty shocking at first, well it's still pretty shocking, but at least I can deal with it on an individual basis.

    •  Thanks for that comment, David. (4+ / 0-)

      For most racial minorities, except Asians, the twin marks of "showing off" and "acting White" would seem to include academic performance.  It's a much more complicated problem than it sounds though.

      A reminder on grammar: even Shakespeare used "more better."

      by Nulwee on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 06:55:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Much of it has to do with issues of identity... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Nulwee

        To the majority culture, it may seem repulsive to us to hear people say that academic success equals assimilation.  But, in many ways it is.  

        You have to try hard to show them that education is empowerment and that it can be used to strengthen their cultural identity rather than assimilate them.

        The end result, sadly, is that it does become assimilative when one factors in other cultural aspects.  

      •  I think a factor too is the lack of role models (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Nulwee, TexMex, David Kroning II

        At the elementary level, there just aren't many men - and especially not black, hispanic, or native american men. Especially not academically inclined black, hispanic, or native american men.

        Where do these kids have a role model who shows them how to succeed academically and maintain their identities as strong young men?

        I know as a woman in engineering that the role models I found were as valuable to me - or more so - than all the calculus I learned. Knowing how to be - to be strong, to be myself, to be feminine, to have authority, to have the confidence of the people around me that a little blonde haired girl was indeed running the thermal vacuum test on a piece of NASA hardware that day and that everything was going to be fine.

        THAT was the most important lesson I learned early on. And I fear that lesson is not taught to young boys in our education system.

        Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

        by elfling on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 11:38:00 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Did you or your colleages find tactics (4+ / 0-)

      that worked better than others?

      A reminder on grammar: even Shakespeare used "more better."

      by Nulwee on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 06:55:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Sadly... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Nulwee, capelza, TexMex

        I work for an institution located in the South.  They don't even recognize it as a cultural element for the most part.  All of the professors are White and I've heard many of them just identify the issue as "black people making excuses."

        As far as I know it's something that individual teachers deal with with individual students.

  •  One time I had long conversations with this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, capelza

    Assiniboine fellow as we worked together walking. He'd been to Dartmouth. Never did talk to him about what it was like living in northern New England and going to a fancy college. He had a terrific dry humor, guy could play out a joke over hours.

    If an education can lead to thought I'd say it was worth it. We were on the reservation.

    "Don't fall or we both go." Derek Hersey 1957-1993

    by ban nock on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 07:11:30 PM PDT

  •  my daughter experienced the nerd attack in (7+ / 0-)

    school where her peers accused her of not being black enough and equating academic success with being white.  It is insidious when it occurs at the point in life where a young adult values peer group opinions over the teachings of parents

  •  I'm hoping modern communications will help (8+ / 0-)

    our kids have trouble reading because our society has always been verbal or oral. Plus many homes don't have books and kids don't see their parents reading for pleasure. I believe that if used right things like video can be great teaching tools on several levels.  

    Alienation can begin with the first handshake. Indians shake hands all the time. But there's a differnce in the way we do it. White people grip hard and look hard into each others eyes. Indians shake gently and glance away from the eyes. So it's easy to see how that first meeting between teacher and student may go bad. The student thinks the teacher is being rude or too 'macho' while the teacher thinks the kid is distracted and limp-wristed.

    But what I've mainly advoicated is for tribes to take full responsibility for our kids education. As long as we send our kids to others to educate it's going to be hard on them. We know our own culture and we know our kids so we must be their educators.

    Nice diary Nulwee, I appreciate it.

    America could have chosen to be the worlds doctor, or grocer. We choose instead to be her policeman. pity

    by cacamp on Tue Jul 19, 2011 at 07:21:12 PM PDT

    •  All kinds of cultural things cause us to be judged (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Nulwee

      I live in a French-speaking society, but I grew up in the US.  I speak French fluently, but since I'm well educated I don't like to make mistakes...so I've learned to speak softly in an attempt to mask my accent and any errors that I might make.  The result is that many perceive me as "mumbling" and just avoid talking to me.  It's made it hard to make friends or even find work here.

  •  adjusting to schools that are not taught (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, capelza, TexMex

    in your own language and culture is difficult, even if no minority status of the student is involved.

    I had to watch a child adjusting to French, German and American shools and it is a huge, exhausting effort, though you might think that the cultural differences are not that wide among "white western cultures". But it's really not that much different from what you descibe.

    What may be subtle cultural differences to many non whites, become sometimes very burdensome cultural difference to a young child in a school setting, where the child is expected to accept, adjust and understand the different cultural values the teachers might expose the child to that are different from what the child has learned or seen in his home, even if it is "all white cultures".

    There are not only children who can walk two roads, but these children, who walk on those roads, often don't know  where they are supposedly to end up. If you are forced to walk two roads, you are forced to reach two different locations in the end, and that's not possible without having some split personality disorders while trying to do so. (I don't know how to express myself better - sorry).  My father would have expressed it somewhat more down to earth language, saying: "you can't dance with one behind on two weddings".

    I feel that the children of Native Americans should be taught in schools with a curriculum designed and taught by Native Americans and for the recognition of their school curricula, there should be final standaradized highschool exit (graduation) exams that each student has to pass that are given independent from the school. There are many roads that lead to Rome, there are many possibly different roads to teach a student so that he can pass a standardized test and graduate with a recognized highschool diploma.

    But I speak just as a private person with no further knowledge of the specific situation discussed here.

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