Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Figuring out the problem

There was a great editorial in the Anchorage Daily News, written by a teacher from Bethel.
She addresses the breakdown of family as being the real problem:

What is killing our Native cultures is not our schools but the breakdown of our families.

I agree with much of this, but I think this is also one of the "either/or" kind of views. Either it is the outside world, or it is the family that is hurting/can help. Either it is my control, as a parent, over my children's lives, or it is TV/video games/school.

Although people don't like to think so as much (doesn't make for a very passionate stand) the truth is somewhere more in the middle.

I especially disagree with her statement:

It is true that the curriculum doesn't reflect Native ways -- and it shouldn't.

Schools should not, as she says, be teaching hunting to children. Unfortunately, what happens then is these children who grow up in a hunting culture are taught in ways they can't relate to. My dad, for instance, says when he was a kid, they used to play that game, "Red Light, Green Light." Only they didn't know why they had to be those colors, there being no stoplights in the village he grew up in, so they'd change them up. "Purple light! Orange light!"

I'm not saying children should be sheltered from all information - but certainly relevancy in what they're learning is important! Why does a child care about being able to calculate how fast a train is going if the smoke is going this way? Has that child ever seen a train? We are reinforcing again and again that the outside world is much more important than their world - and then wonder why they all want to leave.

Maybe they will care more if it is taught in a way that is relevant to his life. The small word problems like that end up being the most important daily influence of a child's education - why not make them reflect a child's life?

I don't think you can hijack an entire curriculum and only focus on a minority of students. But here in Anchorage, if nearly 20% of the student population is Native, could we try and make even 10% of the curriculum more relevant to culture? This doesn't mean you make the whole class learn to make sealskin drums (though what a treat!) It means that the lessons you are teaching anyways are taught in a way that honors the culture you are teaching to.

I have a Yup'ik friend I respect a great deal as a person, but especially as a mother. She is raising her son to speak Yup'ik, living in Anchorage. When I asked her if she used both languages at home (when her son was still a baby) she said no. He was going to learn English from the environment no matter what. She would speak to him in Yup'ik, and just by growing up in Anchorage, watching TV, going to school, having friends, he was going to learn English.

She was totally right. No matter what she did in her own home, he is now fluent in both, and has no problems, in school or at home, jumping between the two, and excelling in life. OR - the family was entirely bent on one outcome, but the culture was powerful enough to be just as much an influence. Family cannot be the only answer. It is the most important one, but to ignore the influences of the past and present is seriously hindering the solution.

Dennis Zaki of AlaskaReport.com did a recent video interview of a teacher in Emmonak, who addressed relevancy in the classroom, showing the child how things relate to his life.

Outside of school, it is somewhere "in between" as well. Although I am happy that the issue of family is addressed, I also think that outside influences have not gone away. The effect of what happened in the past have been crippling, as a people, and we cannot just shrug it off. Although my greatest admiration goes to those who, in spite of it all, are making meaningful, healthy triumphs in culture and education, I'm afraid to say that, by and large, it is more the exception than the rule.

I would encourage everyone to read Harold Napolean's book, "Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being." Napolean - not at all a model of what we should be, as Native people, examined, in prison, why the Native cultures can be this way. In short - the spiritual and mental crippling that occurred, and why that occurred.

What I don't mean is that everyone has an excuse. People choose whether or not to teach cultural ways to their children. People choose whether or not to drink. People choose, if their parents have not taught them, to learn things as adults.

But here's where it becomes more complicated. Sure, it's a choice. I used to be pretty critical of elders who did not teach, or know the Native language. Why aren't they teaching us? Until I heard the first hand story of just what happened to this generation if they tried speaking their own language. Humiliation, pain, violence, and all because the Native people's words were "dirty" and they were "worthless." Would you knowingly bestow that pain upon your children?

In other words, entire cultures did not, in one generation, decide simply to stop teaching and learning these ways. There were reasons behind it. To ignore these reasons and simply say, "Heal thyself" is not only unrealistic, but going to do a lot more harm than good.

I think blaming anyone else is useless. But you cannot fix the problem if you don't know where it started.



sandra said...

I just read on another site that the teacher in Zaki's video left the school with one day's notice. Is there still an opposition to teaching for continuing the culture?


Writing Raven said...

Do you know which site that is? This is the first I've heard of it.

Really, I can only speak for the teachers I've known in rural areas, and no - pushing for cultural curriculum in schools has been encouraged. At least for the individual teacher to take it on.

This is strange...