Culture Shift
Author: Melissa Steineger
Posted: February 4, 2013

Today, Terri Reed passes on the values of community and respect that she learned from her Chickasaw and Irish family to the Native American students she teaches. Photo by Kelly James.

American Indians are bringing Native teaching practices into their classrooms.

TERRI REED was just 8 years old when her third-grade teacher stared at her light brown face, black, almond-shaped eyes, and asked in a voice that sounded cruel to the little girl, "What are you?"

Reed had known for a while that others thought she was different. But to have an adult seemingly accuse her of being alien felt overwhelming.

Reed, of Chickasaw and Irish heritage, dropped her eyes and from that moment on, the once lively little girl shut down. At least at school.

Reed's story illustrates how the predominately European-American culture of many U.S. schools can overwhelm youngsters of other cultures. In Reed's case, the once inquisitive and imaginative kid who loved to learn, learned to become invisible.

Now, after benefitting from a new program at Portland State, Reed MEd '11 is helping bring American Indian and Alaska Native educational practices into the classroom, so she can help other "different" children learn to love school.

In 2010, PSU was one of eight colleges and universities in the nation, and one of only two non-tribal schools, to receive a four-year federal grant to increase the number of Native teachers. PSU partners include four Oregon tribes—Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde—that are recruiting students for the program and developing financial sustainability to continue the program after the grant ends.

The Portland metropolitan area has one of the largest indigenous populations in the United States, and 2.1 percent of youngsters in K-12 schools are Native American, but only .06 percent of teachers. In 2005, only 15 teachers in the entire state were Native American. The new program, The American Indian Urban Teacher Program (AIUTP), aims to more than double that.

The AIUTP, in the Graduate School of Education, will help 18 students earn teaching certificates and master's degrees. Support includes fully paid tuition and fees, $1,000 toward a laptop and books, $1,500 monthly as a living allowance and $300 a month for childcare. Just as important, the program provides personal support.

Marie Tenorio, project director, says personal support is crucial. Only 35 percent of Native American students who start college graduate within six years, the low number reflects a lack of support networks taken for granted by many non-native students.

To help AIUTP students succeed, Tenorio and other program staff establish close ties with students from the moment they apply for the program. They help each student with whatever is needed, including course counseling, career advice or just a friendly ear.

In return, students agree to spend their first year teaching in a school district with a significant number of Native American students, which isn't hard to do in Oregon. Tenorio says 90 percent of Native youngsters attend public schools, not reservation schools.

In addition to required education classes, students learn to design culturally responsive curriculum and help children overcome cultural dissonance in school, something Reed had experienced herself, but that didn't come home to roost until her own son began school.

Her son was active, she says, and needed to be able to learn experientially, which she understood from her own childhood. But his school wasn't able to accommodate his needs, and he struggled.

"I saw teachers not teaching with students in mind, but rather the structure," she says. "I decided I needed to help change things not for myself, but for my community... When I heard about the (AIUTP) program, it was like the angels began singing."

For Reed, the program helped her focus on bringing the educational style of her childhood to her students.

"Teaching is a natural part of being Native," she says. "The whole culture is about teaching."

In third grade, Terri Reed realized how different she and her family were from her classmates and teacher.

IN HER CHILDHOOD, Reed's extended family—parents, 11 aunts and uncles and their families—got together every weekend and holidays at her grandparents' home in The Dalles to harvest whatever might be in season, to share stories, to cook meals, and to informally teach.

"We would lie on our backs looking up at the night sky," says Reed, "and learn about the stars."

When a child asked a question, adults would turn the question into an investigation. "They tried to broaden your thinking," says Reed. "They would ask what you thought about something. Or if you didn't think broadly enough, they would ask questions to draw you out.

"I wish everyone," she says, "could have that."

Reed's making a dent at Gause Elementary in the Washougal School District in Washington, where she teaches a class of children labeled emotionally and behaviorally disordered—although she prefers to call them active.

While some classrooms might focus on having kids sit quietly, Reed is more interested in making sure that her students are respectful of the classroom community and still asking the questions that help them learn and think for themselves.

"They're kids," she says. "It's okay to be active, to have opinions. If they need to stand at their desk while I teach, that's okay, so long as they're respectful. My goal isn't to stop their behavior, but to make it appropriate and transfer their natural behavior into the classroom. My class is highly structured, but kids are part of the structure."

Each morning, her class of first- through fifth-graders sits in "circle time" to talk about their behavioral goals for the day. One youngster might need to practice raising his hand before speaking; another might need to remember not to interrupt others.

As each child talks about his or her goal for the day, Reed asks the other students to consider ways to help the student achieve that goal. Just as in her own upbringing, she says, teaching involves the community.

At the end of the school day, the class again forms a circle and talks about what worked and what didn't, with all students participating as a community in helping each other reflect on how they did in making—or not making—progress toward their goals.

When Terri Reed's mother and father married in 1963, it was still illegal for a "white" person to marry a Native American in much of the United States. They married in Oregon, where all laws banning interracial marriage were repealed in 1951.

"It's very Native to bring the entire community into the process," says Reed. "As a community we focus on helping each other succeed in our goals. It's part of your DNA. You don't think, 'How can I be separate from you?' You think, 'How can I be part of you?'"

WHILE EACH NATIVE TRIBE has its own customs, Reed sees common threads. The family unit and respect for elders, she says, are common to all tribes. And while specific legends and stories are different, all tribes embrace storytelling, often to pass down their history and beliefs. And tribal people favor experiential learning, she says, an approach she uses in her classroom.

For instance, when her students were learning about the solar system, Reed had them make planets out of clay as she talked. "You have to do that with Native kids or they will get lost," she says, "but it helps all kids."

The AIUTP also emphasizes the need to educate communities about Native American culture. Reed did just that during her first year of teaching in Oregon's Dallas School District. Her class of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, had never been on a field trip, which Reed decided to rectify. But she didn't take just the class; she made it into a family event.

Terri Reed's grandmother and aunts and uncles posed for this photo in Oregon in 1948, a time in the state's history when Native American children were sometimes taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools.

Each child was accompanied by at least one adult family member, whether a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. And Reed asked each family member to bring food to share.

"I created something my family would have done," says Reed. "'Let's all get together and bring food.'"

Because of limited district funding, Reed paid for the trip to a ranch specializing in therapeutic horses for children. The event was a success for the kids, and for the adults who, she says, saw the children having fun and socializing happily with each other—a rarity when a child bears the label "emotionally or behaviorally disturbed."

Reed also introduced all the adults to one another, and, as was common with her own extended family, suggested making play dates for the children. This, she says, helped parents see how to continue the process after the field trip.

She sees such community building as part of the tradition of her family and her culture. "In what I do," she says, "I'm honoring those who came before me, who taught me, and I'm passing that on."

Melissa Steineger is a Portland freelance writer and a regular contributor to Portland State Magazine.