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Indian elders help write lessons that reflect culture, spur reading

By Lynda V. Mapes
The Seattle Times
Published January 6, 2005

SEATTLE -- They strain in their seats, stretching their hands as high as tiny arms can reach -- hoping to be called on to read.

"Oooo! Oooo! Call on me!" says a 3rd-grade girl, hopping in her chair. "I know! I know!" says the boy across from her, furiously wagging his hand.

They read aloud, some kids pressing hands to foreheads in concentration; others following each word with a finger, digging into the page as eagerly as if it were a bowl of frosting.

This is one public elementary school where the teachers can't wait to see their kids' reading scores at the end of the school year.

It's Chinook Elementary in Auburn, Wash. A public school where 63 percent of the students are from families so poor the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; the student body is minority white; and children from 31 tribes around the country make up one of the highest percentages of American Indian children in any public school in King County, Wash.

Classified in the 2002-03 school year as a failing school for low standardized test scores, administrators and teachers decided to try a new reading curriculum they say is helping detonate the status quo. By this school year, the failing-school designation is already history, and more than 65 percent of 4th graders are reading at state standard levels -- up from 43 percent just the school year before.

Six years in the making, the supplemental curriculum is based on content recommended by tribal elders and spiritual leaders. The program's major emphasis is on developing reading and writing skills using three elements that reflect the identity and cultural heritage of American Indian students: the canoe, the drum, the hunt.

The curriculum also invites elders, parents and people from the community to visit the classroom, where teachers use 22 original storybooks written and illustrated by Northwest tribal members. These are not the standard-issue readers most schools order from commercial textbook mills in Texas.

The old-standby methods don't cut it: Minority students have made big gains on state standardized tests since 1998, but still lag behind whites. By 4th grade, American Indian students are 21 percentage points behind white students in reading, 24 points behind in math. Nearly half of American Indian students drop out before the end of the 12th grade.

The new supplemental reading program works, teachers and principals say:

At Suquamish Elementary, 83 percent of all 4th-graders passed a state standardized test last year, confirming they are reading at or above grade level. Children are checking out books from the school library at younger ages, at record levels.

At Wolfle Elementary, family fun reading nights are packed; every parent and student takes home a book.

And at Chinook, more than 100 American Indian students are staying after school voluntarily four days a week for intensive reading classes.

Teacher Linda Middlebrook, at Wolfle, says the new curriculum is engaging all her students, not only the American Indian children.

"My native kids connect to the text, because it is about them," Middlebrook says. "And for my non-native students to be sitting next to a student from a culture that is just down the road, it makes reading real.

"That makes them all want to read."

When she heard a state board had made yet another "request for proposal" to boost minority enrollment in college, Magda Constantino boiled over.

"I thought, `Oh, great. We are all going to compete again for who can create the nicest, glossiest brochure for the 500 kids who survive high school.' Let's go back to the elementary schools; let's look at the curriculum, let's look at reading and find out how they will survive past 4th grade. If we can catch them, make them feel school is about them, maybe then we can keep them, and they will graduate."

An unlikely, six-year partnership was born: this Czech linguist and the state supervisor of American Indian education, former Skokomish tribal chairman Denny Hurtado.

He brought connections to American Indian country and the classroom; Constantino, director of the Center for Educational Improvement at The Evergreen State College, brought connections to the world of curriculum development and reading specialists.

Their goal was to address the mistrust and separation between the American Indian community and schools, and create a curriculum that doesn't treat American Indian kids like immigrants in their own country. These books and lessons would be about their own history and culture.

"It is the center of who we are," Hurtado says.

Together, they convened a year of meetings with tribal leaders to shape the core content of the curriculum. Then spent two more years gleaning original artwork and stories -- gifts from Northwest tribal members -- for the reading materials.

The next step was to marry that content and the storybooks to the format of a classroom curriculum.

Constantino turned to two reading experts, crack educators with decades of experience in public-school reading instruction.

The result, so far, is a hit.

At Wolfle Elementary, a rainbow of students sits raptly at Middlebrook's feet, reading aloud from "The Lifecycle of the Canoe."

They race each other to name all the materials they need to make a canoe and stick up a forest of hands when Middlebrook asks the kids to read aloud. "So many readers this morning!" she says.

A Suquamish tribal elder looks on from a comfy rocking chair that's kept in the classroom for visitors and, later, shows the students how to make American Indian ice cream from soap berries. Her demonstration underscores Middlebrook's lesson -- based on the storybook -- that text can explain a process, whether it's building a canoe or making ice cream.

"I never saw so many kids turn on," says Middlebrook of her work with the curriculum so far. So, she says, do their parents.

When Middlebrook suggested the children enact one of the canoe storybooks, the American Indian kids' parents provided authentic tribal regalia for every child in the class to wear -- including their non-American Indian teacher and classmates.

"Already we are talking about next year, and how cool it would be if we could make a drum," Middlebrook says. "I've never had such a connection, and I think it's because they can see themselves in books, where they have never seen themselves in books before."

Starting from familiar ground makes all the difference, says Linda Queen, a teacher at Hood Canal Elementary and Junior High School, on the Skokomish reservation, where the student body is nearly 40 percent minority, and 70 percent of the kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

"They just really feel so confident, they feel like they are stepping into it with experience and knowledge of their own," she says of students using the new curriculum. "That is so important when they are young, for them to feel, `I am probably able to do this.' Then they can concentrate on decoding, and phonics and sight words, they don't have to concentrate on what the heck this story is even about.

"Whenever we have free-choice reading, those are the books they choose. I had to [photocopy] them so the kids could take them home too. I've never had a group I felt so comfortable about sending off; they are exactly where we want them to be."

Elders and parents joining in the instruction and backing her up in the classroom have been part of that success, Queen says. "The folks' coming in was so crucial, and it was tear-jerking to see those grandmothers come into school with a positive feeling."

For some American Indian parents and grandparents, that was entirely new.

American Indian people have long had a culture of learning. Education was a sacred duty, shared by every adult, and every child was considered gifted. Teachings were passed on orally, through prayer, storytelling and memory skills.

High school junior Noel Purser says she listened with dread last spring as the students around her started snickering while reading a chapter in a history book that portrays Coast Salish women as filthy and sexually loose.

"It was kind of hurtful to read. A lot of kids were making comments, I wanted to crawl into a hole," says Purser, a Suquamish American Indian.

For Purser, the only American Indian in her class in a school where less than 1 percent of the student body is native, even basics can be an issue in the classroom. Her lowered eyes and lack of response when addressed by a teacher -- intended, in her culture, as a sign of respect -- have been misinterpreted as the opposite, Purser says.

The hot dogs are hot off the grill, and the children dressed for action, with traditional cedar-bark headbands and hand drums, both made in their 4th-grade culture class at Chinook Elementary.

The lobby of Auburn Senior High School is packed with a racial mix of proud parents digging into the hot dogs, talking, laughing and looking forward to the concert. A concert some American Indian parents say they never would have participated in, and family members wouldn't have shown up to watch, when they were in school.

When she graduated from Auburn High -- one of two American Indians to earn a diploma in the class of 1955 -- it was the only time her family members ever came to the school, says Lorraine Cross.

"They weren't welcome in the school, even in town. They didn't come here because they weren't wanted. That's the truth."

It used to be just expected that American Indian kids would drop out, to help support the family or go fishing -- a good way to make a living without a diploma.

"That's not true anymore," says Alex Baker, one of several Muckleshoot tribal council members who turned out for the concert. "We have to live in the white man's world. It's the only way to succeed."

Today, the Muckleshoot tribe, on whose ceded lands Auburn's public schools sit, telegraphs a strong, official endorsement of school and the importance of earning that diploma.

Every Muckleshoot who graduates gets a Pendleton blanket and a two-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, courtesy of the tribe.

And when the children from Chinook take the stage to perform, their parents, relatives, snowy-haired elders and tribal-council members are there to applaud along with the superintendent for the school district, many of the students' teachers and their principal.

The pop-music concert takes a new turn as kids from the 4th-grade culture class perform a traditional song, with its dignified dance, and drumming soft as the beating of their mother's heart.

The audience stills, as if to soak up the child's moment on stage. "So much of it is the self-esteem thing, feeling good about themselves," says Dennis Grad, who was principal at Chinook before moving on to a middle school this year.

He knew each Chinook student by name and greeted them as they came in the door every day. A much-sought-after prize for the kids was getting to eat lunch with Grad in his office.

He set a tone from the top that learning is fun: Each year, Grad promised to spend a day on the roof with Chinook's top two scholars, letting them squirt their classmates with a hose if the whole school scored enough points in advanced reading. The students sent Grad up on the roof in each of the past two years.

It's a long road to graduation for these elementary-school kids. But one of the top scholars on the roof the past two years has been Sandra Sicade.

A Muckleshoot American Indian girl.

Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune

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