Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A wrap-up in images

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Final Thoughts

The last few days of our trip were a whirlwind that didn't leave much time for blogging. Let me recap what happened on Friday and conclude my contribution to this blog.

On Thursday night, the principal stopped by to say hello and she warned us that because of a very far away basketball game, a large portion of the staff would be gone on Friday. When we arrived at school the next morning, we were placed in rooms with substitute teachers so that we could run the classrooms and the students wouldn't just have a study hall. One substitute didn't even show up, so Alyssa and I subbed for a high school chemistry class. Great! Chemistry is my specialty! (Ha.) We decided to do a vocabulary exercise that I'd done with a couple language arts classes so that the students weren't just sitting there - the chem teacher hadn't left any plans. Surprisingly, the students never questioned what we were having them do - they eagerly and thoroughly completed the assignment, and not one of them gave us a problem. It was absolutely delightful. We'd been expecting them to see that we were giving them busy work, and I think that in many of the classrooms in which I've worked, the activity would not have gone over well. When we shared our experience with the principal, she commented that she wasn't surprised, because the students aren't used to having someone really teach them. The current chemistry teacher isn't certified to teach chemistry, so he's been instructing them straight from the book - AND he's been on personal leave since the semester started, so they've been teaching themselves from the book. It must have been so refreshing to be doing something mildly original. Alyssa and I were really pleased. :)

For a little while Friday morning, I had the opportunity to sit in on a first grade class, which is part of the Navajo immersion program. I was warned that absolutely no English was to be spoken in the classroom, so I went in prepared to remain silent. However, it quickly became evident that things weren't as I expected them to be. Although everything in the room was in Navajo, the teacher spoke Navajo to the students, and the students spoke Navajo to her, they spoke only English to each other - and to me. I walked in to a chorus of, "Who are you? What's your name? Are you Indian? What are you doing here? Can you help me with this? Are you a teacher?" etc. I didn't know what to do! I'd been told not to speak English, but here were these students speaking to me - should I remain silent? I did, until the teacher approached me and whispered in English that I could speak to them to answer their questions since I was only visiting for a little bit. From that point on, things were much more comfortable, but the students were dismayed when I told them I couldn't help them with the activity they were working on, since I don't speak Navajo. It was really interesting, and not what I'd been expecting at all. This immersion program is praised as being extremely effective and innovative in the field of bilingual education. It was clear that the students understood and were able to speak Navajo, but how do you control the language in which they speak to each other? You can't punish a seven-year old who feels more comfortable talking to his classmates in his native language, English - right? I didn't get a chance to talk to the classroom teacher about it, but I'd imagine it's very frustrating for her.

We stuck around after school Friday to say some very sad goodbyes to students, teachers, and administration. We chatted for a long while with the principal and our friendly security officer. The principal worked in Pittsburgh for a long time before coming to Rock Point very recently, so she's very familiar with Pennsylvania's school system. I hadn't thought about it before, but she told me that everything is very scripted, and that the curriculum is extremely structured - to the point where teachers get packets outlining what they should say when they're teaching and how students might respond. Wow. Not what I want to do. She recommended that I look into Columbus, Ohio, where the superintendent is very insistent on letting her teachers create their own classrooms. I'd really like flexibility with my curriculum, and it seems obvious now that it might be hard to find in large urban districts. I looked into Columbus today, and it looks pretty sweet. I'll wait to see what happens with Teach for America - I can check to see if I got an interview tomorrow - and if they'll take me, I think I'll stick with that. Otherwise, maybe you can find me in Ohio next year!

Saturday and Sunday were long days of driving, but they seemed to go quickly, for me, at least. I enjoyed the time we got to debrief the trip with each other.

I learned so much, but I there is one main idea that I think is most important. In my first post, I said that traveling and learning about different cultures create a more tolerant individual. I still agree with that, but in a different way. I think that the important things to recognize in other cultures are not the differences, but the similarities. I went into this trip with all sorts of expectations about what the Navajo would be like. Some of them were true, and some of them were not. Most importantly, I entered a community full of extremely friendly, generous, genuine people. Rock Point Community School and its students aren't so different from what I'm used to after all. They may have different values and traditions, but people are people.

There's one more thing: Robin had a conversation with the director of the school about employment there (!!) and the director said something that really stuck with me. (I hope Robin's not upset with me for sharing it before she does!)
"These students don't need saving, they just need help."
I'm not looking to save anyone, but I sure am ready to do what I can to help.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Airbrushing in Art

Rock Point has an entire art class specifically devoted to airbrushing... School staff would probably first think about the vandalism that could result in teaching the techniques that are also needed to be a good graffiti tagger. But hey, the kids love the form and the teacher is great at it. After removing the lockers from the school (because none of the students used them for anything beyond just being garbage receptacles), the teacher now has a bunch of canvas space for his own airbrush murals... and possibly also space for kids to display their work if they get good enough. For now, however, the advanced set of kids will be working car airbrushing and detailing in a new course offered this year. Personally, I think its a great idea and really tugs on the interest that many boys may have for art -- that is, decorating their wheels or even someone else's.

I got to start to trace/outline and shade my own canvas of Taz, the cartoon character and take it home as a memento of the last day's visit. I felt comfortable back in an art class: I think I've become too used to digital art renderings. I even joked with the teacher that my brain started thinking about and calculating the Photoshop settings that I would use for the strokes and found a disconnect with that information once I tried to put my physical, as oppsed to virtual, hand to the test.

Teaching current events

Walking into school today, I was asked if I wanted to teach a lesson on the Russian invasion of South Ossetia / Georgia this last August, 2008. First, I went over the geography of the region. I had been warned about the possibility of the kids having a narrow world-view... So, I was definitely up to the challenge; having been across the Atlantic a few times, this was pretty exciting for me.

I had only a few minutes to prep. I started by explaining the geography. The day before, I had been in the Geo class with Robin and Emily,frantically helping students one-on-one with reading maps. I then read the article aloud to the class, explaining the significance, step-by-step. We summarized, and then I handed out the article and realized that I should have done that from the get-go. I assigned students to small groups to answer a chunk of the worksheet, each assigned question had to do with asking about either the article itself or the importance of the event.

Finally, so that everyone got the answers, I talked about how a strong knowledge of current events (and thus, journalism) revolves around talking (or interviewing) people. So, from the groups, I selected an interviewee/expert who would stay in place as the interviewers would rotate for the rest of the hour, trying to share the information and getting all the details. In practice, I thought this would give the students a feel for how news can travel by just word of mouth. They hesitated with getting up at first, but once they finally got moving, their interest/enthusiasm seemed to accelerate.

With a few minutes left, students finished with their work and putting on their backpacks, I had them form two lines to summarize the main idea of the conflict. One side was to form the Russians and the other Ossetia, and before anyone could leave, a couple leaders from each side had to give me their side's interpretation of the events. The bell rang, they left, but fortunately some with smiles on their faces for having gotten energized with the activity.

In reflection with the classroom teacher, we both agreed I did talk too much from the get-go. That has a problem I have been aware of, and I need to just set a countdown timer for myself and treat my opening remarks as if I were in an impromptu speaking event on high school speech team... that way, once I went over time, I would at least know if I disqualified myself (in this case, from the interest of my students) by the time I was done talking. Otherwise, I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed trying to add some context to the events and trying to break down the motivations. The kids definitely showed me that they got my message when they picked up the 'punchline' of the lesson intro to explain why they were lining up in their lines as class ended: land = money.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jam-Packed Thursday

I think the lack of sleep and the excessively large intake of caffeine over the past few days has finally caught up with me. Today was just as enlightening and exciting as the last few days but I did not have the energy for it. So, because Emily has given a good overview of what we did today in the school and Robin detailed our after-school adventures, I’ll just add in my own personal insights/experiences rather than reiterating everything.

Like yesterday, I spent today exploring the school and other classes rather than staying in the same reading classroom that I spent Monday and Tuesday in. Robin, Emily, and I discussed the teachers and classes we had already seen last night and gave each other recommendations of classrooms to visit. I was a little concerned at the end of the day yesterday that I wouldn’t have time to see everything else today, but things went really well and I saw some neat stuff. The Navajo class was quite an experience; like Emily said, we couldn’t really understand anything, though the teacher did take a few moments to explain to us, in English, what was going on. I had been hoping to hear more spoken Navajo from the students and can think of a variety of reasons why I did not (first week of classes, nervousness in a small class, etc.). Also, I wonder if the students in these Navajo classes are really on the same page as their peer group. After talking with the teacher that I worked with on Monday and Tuesday about her family and experience growing up, I learned that the students at Rock Point come from a variety of backgrounds with respect to language. Some households still speak predominantly Navajo at home, others speak English, and some promote a combination of the two. Though the elementary program now does Navajo immersion, some of the current high school students did not go through it (as it is a more recent development). So, I wonder how the Navajo classes handle such a range of fluency with students. I would have liked to speak with the teacher about this, had we had enough time.

I adored the health class that we observed this morning. Our main motivation for going was that we had seen the teacher coaching the boys’ basketball team on Tuesday night and noticed how enthusiastic she was. The classroom was no exception to this enthusiasm, and she did a great job of getting the students involved in the discussion by relating the topics to the girls. My favorite part of the discussion was about gender identity. The teacher explained that women have the autonomy that they do in Navajo culture because they are not viewed as inherently female and males are not viewed as entirely male. Rather, each individual is the product of his/her mother and his/her father and is thus half his/her mother and half his/her father, thus recognizing no gender difference between a male child and a female child. I really loved this perspective and how enabling it must be for individuals to break out of typical gender roles.

The geography class that we attended (twice today) allowed for the most classroom involvement on our parts. The students were doing an activity that involved transferring information from a handout to a blank map of Europe. I was really hesitant to help at first (as my knowledge of geography is severely lacking) but it was a good reminder of how to handle teaching information that I am not confident about. I also was reminded of another weakness of mine: when I find a student that significantly needs my help (i.e. if I walk away, he/she will be immediately lost again), I find it impossible to walk away. This wasn’t too big of a problem today because there were enough people to help other students (the classroom teacher, Emily, myself, and Adam during one of two periods), but it will definitely be a problem when I have my own classroom and is thus definitely something to keep at the forefront of my mind and work on. Regardless, it was really rewarding to take a break from observing all day and actually interact with and help the students.

I won’t say too much about airbrushing, as Emily already has. The teacher was really great and patient with the students and made sure that they really knew what they were doing. For example, he had them practice taking the equipment apart and putting it back together with their eyes closed to really get familiar with it. I had never seen airbrushing before and thought it was awesome that Rock Point offers it, along with welding, weaving, web design, Navajo, etc.—all things that I would never have gotten to experience in high school. It really drove home the point that this school isn’t somehow primitive because it is on a reservation. Rather, it is just different (in a lot of good ways!).

My lack of energy had me contemplating a nap after school. However, over a wonderful lunch of Navajo tacos in the home ec room hosted by the teacher that I had worked with on Monday and Tuesday, we made plans for a guided climb of Rock Point and then do a group dinner in Kiva Hall, both hosted by this same teacher. I was really delighted that we made these plans because this teacher had been somewhat quiet the first day I worked with her. It helped me to remember that her behavior wasn’t standoffish or unfriendly but just that she needed some time and encouragement to become comfortable with us in the school. The walk over to Rock Point was really nice and gave us an opportunity to learn a lot about the school and this teacher’s experiences growing up on the reservation. Personally, I was pleased with my climb; I got far enough up that I didn’t feel cowardly but stopped before I felt too stupid. The spot we were climbing on was very narrow and very high up, so falling off the side could not end well. Also, the part I got to was a small stretch of nearly vertical climb, and the only spots on which I could step were wet with snow/ice, so I definitely didn’t feel safe climbing any higher. It was frustrating because I was so close to the top, but I reminded myself of the lack of cell phone service and how far away the nearest hospital was, and then felt immediately better about my decision to climb down.

After our climb, we were rewarded with a warm, homemade dinner of mutton and corn stew with (dun dun dun…) FRY BREAD! I can’t claim to have loved the mutton, but I was proud of myself for trying it and was plenty full and satisfied after eating my fair share of fry bread. Afterwards, we went over to the open gym and watched Adam and Brandon play some basketball with some students, some former students, and some adults. It felt good to attend another after-school function and show the students that we truly are interested in what they are doing.

Tomorrow is our last day. Robin managed to convince Mark into letting one car stay behind so that we can stay for the entire day’s classes and he can get a jump start on laundry, cleaning, etc. I’m unsure what exactly tomorrow will entail; Terri and Carol stopped by and warned us that a lot of the students and teachers will be missing for most of the day due to a far away game for basketball. Hopefully we’ll still find plenty to do. It feels like forever since I was home but it also feels like we just got here. I’m sure tomorrow will be full of mixed-emotions.

Busy Thursday!!

Today, I felt really connected to some people in the school.

I talked with Branden and the junior high math teacher he had been observing for the week during their prep period 2nd period. We talked about the AIMS test, how the students have changed over the years, and the community being bilingual. I really respect what the teacher has to say – I saw his interview for the video last spring and I thought he had a lot of great things to say. I went and observed his math classes third and fifth period, and he asked me to introduce myself. He asked me some leading questions about Chicago in front of the class (“Tell them about the Sears Tower!” “What’s the Magnificent Mile like?”), and the students seemed very interested. It felt like a nice change compared to the high school kids, who put on this air a lot that they are too-cool-for-school.

Students worked in groups to complete worksheets on absolute value (third period) and scientific notation (fifth period). Branden and I walked around and worked with groups. I discovered THAT I LOVE MATH. It felt very rewarding because I knew the concepts very well, and I was able to explain it to the students in several ways. I think I really helped them out, and that was a great feeling. One student was very shy – it was clear that she was having trouble with the concept but had resorted to copying off a group members answers. I walked her through it a few times, and although she was hesitant, she completed the worksheet on her own!!

During passing periods, a student in the high school English class and who had invited me to the drumming practice stopped me in the hallway. He asked me to be in the English class on Friday to help him with his advertisement. I of course said I would be there (and felt so great! He wanted my help!).

The security guard whom Alyssa and I had met yesterday in the principal’s office called me out of a class and invited us all to the home economics room during lunch for Navajo tacos that his wife was making!!! I was so excited. AND THEY WERE DELICIOUS. It was really nice to share a meal with everyone. I felt very honored that they took the time to make us lunch. We agreed to go hiking up to Rock Point after school, and the security guard and his wife offered to make us mutton stew for dinner, which we gladly accepted.

The security guard’s wife, (awkward without using names), two of her boys, and a special education aide led us to Rock Point. There are two ways to get up – one involves climbing, the other involves a path. She led us up the climbing way (against the security’s guards prior advisement), and it was steep and crumbly that Emily and I stopped halfway up the climb, and Mark and Alyssa stopped a little further up. I’m sure Alyssa can explain better the verticalness of the rock we were expected to climb!!

The four of us walked around the rock while everyone else climbed on top. It was quickly getting dark and they were still up on the rock. Mark panicked (a little), and we met them back on the other side as they were climbing down. When we arrived, the security guard was there with his minivan and kids, and flashlights! He said he had seen our figures on top of Rock Point when the sun was getting lower and knew that he should come and help. He’s such a cool guy! He was really looking out for us. Everyone made it down okay, and we hiked back home.

Mark warned us about mutton stew and that it would taste gamey and bland – but I think most of us liked it! It was steamed corn and mutton chunks in a broth. The security guard and his wife brought four of their five kids – so it really felt like a family dinner.

Following dinner, we went to the boy’s open gym night (7-9 Tuesdays and Thursdays, girl’s open gym Mondays and Wednesdays at the same time! What a great idea to keep kids active and busy) and watched Branden and Adam play basketball with students and staff. It was fun and relaxing.

Tomorrow is our last day, and again, I can’t believe that the week has gone by so quickly. I feel like we just got here…

Navajo basketball

After a guided tour/hike/climb up to the Rock Point and a very welcome home-cooked Navajo dinner, Brandon and I got to see what we could put together against the pick-up games at the gym. I had a lot of fun. Probably embarrassed myself in front of all my companions. But it was good to run a court again, especially with a crowd that enjoyed every moment of the game. (These games were very unlike the old-man basketball I got used to playing with my dad's crowd.) Maybe I need better shoes?

It cannot possibly be Thursday already.

Today was a stellar, A+ day. Great. Day.

Alyssa and I decided to pair up like she and Robin did yesterday to try to see some classes we'd missed earlier in the week. After chatting with the principal first hour about the possibility of observing a kindergarten class in the elementary building (which I'm doing tomorrow, and I won't be able to speak English (or speak at all, really) for an hour - eek!), we headed off to check out a 7th grade Navajo class. The class was very small (5 students, 3 of which will probably be switched out of the class because they actually took it last semester), but it was really interesting to sit in on a class that we couldn't really understand. (Side note - and sorry for all the parenthetical asides - it reminded me a little bit of when Prof. Clift had Vahid teach us a lesson in Serbian. I didn't really know what was going on, but I did pick up on physical cues and tone of voice. It was interesting.) The lesson for the day was about how to address different people based on their relationship to you. Relationships are traced through four clans: your mother's, your father's, your maternal grandfather's, and your paternal grandfather's - in that order. The teacher had the students compare their clans to their classmates' to figure out how they would address each other, and it was really cool. They joked that one student was another's grandfather, or that two were brothers. I don't know a lot about the clans, but I think I'll work on finding out more.

Next we observed a girls' health class taught by the very dynamic boys' basketball coach. Her enthusiasm transferred to the classroom, and it was neat to see her interact with the girls, a very different audience than her varsity boys. They were learning about heredity and the impact of environment on well-being, so the recognition of Navajo culture played a large role in the lesson. She talked to the girls about how living in an open space (as opposed to a city) and a non-gendered society (as opposed to patriarchal Anglo society) affects their identity. They also talked about traditional types of food, several of which we got to sample later today! But more on that later...

We saw a couple more social studies classes taught by the same Anglo teacher I talked about yesterday. The students were working on European geography, and they were very demanding of our attention (which was just fine with me). They'd watched a movie about Europe and filled out a worksheet, and their task was to take the information from the worksheet and combine it with a map from their textbook to create a map of their own. They were having a really hard time putting everything together, but luckily, we were there to help!! I love the students in eighth grade, and I really enjoyed some one-on-one time with them. (I'm leaning more and MORE toward middle school. I LOVE MIDDLE SCHOOLERS.)

Finally, we had the opportunity to observe an airbrushing class, part of the art program. The art teacher was voted Teacher of the Month for January, so we were eager to see what he did, and we weren't disappointed. First of all, the school offers airbrushing as an elective - how cool is that??? The students were really into it. Also, we found out that the art program is very successful, and for the past four years, a large Native American student art convention in Phoenix has chosen artists from Rock Point to advertise its programs. Super cool.

At lunchtime we had a special treat - Navajo tacos!!! One of the security guards we befriended invited us to eat lunch that his wife, a teacher we've worked with at the school, had made in the home ec. room. Navajo tacos might be my new favorite food. They consist of fry bread topped with chili/refried beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. DELICIOUS. We were so focused on our gratitude for this meal that we were taken aback when our new friends offered to take us to Rock Point (THE rock point, like the pointed rock formation) and make mutton stew for us for dinner! We have friends!!! Yay! So all in all, it was a delightful lunch.

After school, we went to Rock Point. Kind of. We started climbing the rock, and Robin, Alyssa, Mark, and I decided that it seemed like a bad idea for us to continue. The path was slippery and completely vertical. EEEEK. But some of our group forged ahead and reached the summit while we walked around the beautiful scenery below. We returned to Kiva Hall (the dorm where we're staying) for some mutton stew (which was quite good!!) and fry bread (which I could definitely eat with every meal every day for the rest of my life). The generosity we experienced today was really astounding. We have met some incredible people, and I'm so grateful for that.

Also, Robin is seriously considering the possiblity of teaching here, and when she talked to the principal and executive director about it, they were VERY eager to have her. To be honest, I'm definitely not ruling out a job here. I'm still 80% for urban education, and I think that's where I'll end up, but that social studies teachers' words keep resounding in my brain - the reservation DOES have all of the academic challenges of the inner-city without the severe behavioral problems. However, it's also extremely secluded from the people most important to me. And there's no drama or theatre arts...so. I think I might still pick up some paperwork, just to be on the safe side. I do really like it here.

...and I'm already dreading many goodbyes tomorrow...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Day 3 (and I'm in love with Rock Point)

Another great day! I can’t believe it’s Wednesday evening and half of our time here has already passed. I don’t want to think about it this way. I feel like I am just beginning to figure out this school and community – in the broadest and most basic sense – but still enough that I feel invested. It was yesterday that I found myself already slipping into a ‘we’ when talking about Rock Point. Example: “We totally smashed Rough Rock last night in the game”. Is this bad? I’m surprised (maybe) about how connected I feel to this place. I’m falling in love. Can I please stay?

Alyssa and I first switched teachers today. I was working with junior high students in a Read 180 classroom. There was substitute in the class for the day, but she seemed to know what was going on. She serves as the sub for both elementary, junior high, and high school. She had me work with students at a reading station (students rotated halfway through the period from one station to another). They had workbooks with a reading passage and some questions. I had absolutely no idea what steps these students took to complete these passages (self-directed or teacher-driven? Read out loud, silently, or both? Go over their written answers or have them simply turn them in?) How much prompting did these kids need? I didn’t want to under or over estimate their intelligence.

I asked the five students I was working with to show how they worked. A lot of them looked at their books, in their laps, or at the ceiling. It was a slow start, but we eventually got through it. Halfway through the assigned passage for group, I found the teacher’s manual with guiding questions and directions for the teacher! The second group went a little more smoothly. A lot of the students were hesitant to answer questions I posed, but they were willing (and very good at!) reading the paragraphs from the passages out loud.

Alyssa and I went to see the principal, Terri, for third and fourth period. She was trying to figure out scheduling issues with Carol and an assistant. She welcomed us into her office (and let us have some delicious creamer for our coffee?) and we talked with Jarvas, the security officer and Terri’s right-hand man. Jarvas had been a chaperone this past spring with gifted and talented students as they took a trip to New York City. We shared stories of our respective trips, since I had been there for the first time myself this summer. He also told us about his growing up in Rock Point. I have a feeling he’s very well-respected by students and teachers alike in the school. He was very easy to talk to and I hope we have more opportunities to talk with him! Terri invited us out to dinner tomorrow to Mexican Water to have a Navajo specialty – fry bread! I can’t wait to go and have a chance to talk with Carol, Terri, and others who might come in a more casual setting.

Alyssa and I went to go see a little bit of the Navajo drumming during lunch, and then we headed back to eat lunch in our temporary living quarters. We found Mark with Sam and Janet Bingham, two prior colleagues of Mark’s when he worked at Rock Point.

I couldn’t believe these two people were standing in front of me. Sam and Janet had been the two major forces of Between Sacred Mountains, a book about the people, culture and land of Rock Point, compiled by teachers and community members of Rock Point in the eighties. The teacher I had been working with had given me this book Monday to look at, and I had brought it home with me to show my peers. I had been very impressed with their work and I couldn’t believe I WAS TALKING TO THEM!!

Sam and Janet both had a background in journalism and wrote several books about the area while they were here. A lot of the time in their presence was spent listening to Mark, Janet, and Sam talk about their time working here and students they had heard recent news about. It was so cool to listen to them tell stories about students and the way that the school was before and how many steps forward the school has taken in creating better educational opportunities.

Sam then talked to Alyssa and I about the work (research and practice) he had done here and in Africa (!!) about overgrazing of the land and how it destroyed possibilities of successful livings off of livestock. His work, although it focused on environmental science and geography of the land in technical terms, directly related to issues that the Navajo here were having about maintaining income through livestock. It was really fascinating. I wanted to ask Janet and Sam a million questions about their experiences at Rock Point, what brought them here, and about their life in Africa, but they had to get going as they were off to visit a former student or teacher of Rock Point by Albequerque. They said they would be back tomorrow, so hopefully I might have a few minutes to ask them questions then.

After that, Alyssa and I went to another teacher’s class for seventh period. He’s a teacher that I recognized from editing the video last spring. He teaches social studies classes. What’s really interesting about his career at Rock Point is that he is a white man who has been at the school for five years, which is quite a long time for an Anglo teacher to be at this school. We watched his class and then talked with him into eighth hour, as he had the period free. It was cool to talk with him about his experiences as an outsider of the culture but as an integral part of the school community. He, too, talked about lacking social connections that he used to have, and this is something that he really misses. This is truly the one thing that is a downside for me personally in thinking about working on a reservation. I have such a fear of loneliness working in a situation like this. I feel like I would need more opportunities to meet people – not a city, necessarily, but something like Champaign-Urbana. Maybe I’m being na├»ve, but I honestly don’t think the issue would be being in a community with only a handful of white people and mostly Navajos. It’s only my third day here as a visitor and I feel like I’ve already made some promising connections to staff and students here. Is a blooming and busy social life a sacrifice I’m willing to make for one or two or five + years? This is probably one of the toughest questions of my life that I’ll have to consider.

I should head to bed. Another day of observing a variety of classes tomorrow! Alyssa and I have a list of teachers and classes we would like to observe. I hope it works out.

Navajo Culture Club - pow-wow practice after school

I am sitting in on an after-school meeting of the Navajo Culture Club at the invitation of one of the high-school-age members who has been only outgoing and friendly towards me. In this classroom, with a window open and a cool winter breeze following the sunshe into the room...this is how to experience Navajo singing. Tuning to the AM radio stations could not possibly give you the sense of community that is formed by more than ten young men surrounding a pow-wow drum, uniting in a smother reverberation that echoes through my chest.

The sponsor of the Navajo Culture Club at Rock Point (also the teacher who I've been following most of the week), has brought in a college buddy who traveled across the country to experience pow-wow drumming in tribes across the country. He first introduced his experiences with the pow-wow drum and then continued speaking about song and drum in a very inspirational way. Song and drum gave him a new perspective on his life when he was in college. And he knew (whether from talking with the sponsor or just knowing some of the kids perviously) that the kids there needed an outlet. (As I mentioned before, many of the kids involved with the Navajo Culture Club felt left behind by the rest of the school culture that is so dominated by an attitude of success being linked to athletic prowess.) The guest explained the releases that song and drum grant him; he works out negative emotions and energy with the music. He spoke about the respect that tradition and tales demand for a drum. Finally, he encouraged everyone to take up a mentor if they want to be serious about life -- the drum cannot be the only outlet, and sometimes one needs another person to guide you back on track to being yourself.

This was not the first time that I had heard mentors stressed in the school. Many of the teachers act as mentors since the school only has a counselor for a couple days of the week. But I also get the sense that mentorship serves as more than just guidance in schooling and learning about music. While I can not really get any closer to any of these relatinoships, I still get the sense that mentoring is a valued cultural experience for people here, even more so than what I see in my own schooling and culture/lifestyle. I certainly look up to people and have role models, but I see more people here talking openly about their statuses as mentee to an influential person/mentor in their life. Certainly, there seems to be more pride and appreciation for this relationship than I have seen in the time I have spent building a career or a hobby.

The speaker finishes his introduction with the thought that once they gather for pow-wow, there is not longer any sense of 'I'. There is only the 'we' he says in Navajo first and then in English.

He sits down amidst the circle of young men, looks at them and then adds one more note about pow-wow. He says that as collective musicians using one drum, their voices are also not individual. Each voice has a place, no matter how high or low, resonant or soft. No matter what their relationship before walking into the room, they should be ready to sit next to the person who best compliments their own voice so that the compilation sounds as one.

The circle begins to drum. Then the song erupts. And they continue with either smiling their enthusiasm, with focus across their singing faces or with a look of being at a higher place in their minds, without any distractions from school or home.

As the 5 p.m. mark approaches, the sponsor teacher tells the guest that the kids have to catch buses home. The kids jokingly (but I suspect simultaneously seriously) suggest that they should practice in the guest's or the sponsor's garage this weekend.

I saved my favorite comment for last. In the midst of the playing, everyone took a break for a breather and the guest said very casually that the drum not only meant being and working together, but also that he expected to eat well at any occasion for pow-wow. Honestly, what could go better with good music?

So much to say... in a good way! (I love unintentional rhymes.)

These last two days have been infinitely better than Monday. I spent all of Tuesday in the same classroom that I was in Monday. Luckily, without having to be pushy, I got to be involved in the class. The teacher kept up with the stations format but let me work with a few students from the reading group during each period. The first group I had was three eighth grade students who had all read the same book already but had scored less than 70% on the computerized quiz. We read the text aloud as a group, alternating reading a paragraph each. My teacher had told me / suggested that I read aloud to them because many of the students are below grade level to the point where they spend so much time struggling with phonetics that they cannot even attempt comprehension. For this reason, I read longer chunks to the students than I required them to read and I also modified my approach with my latter classes. In some instances I told them I would read aloud until the desire struck one of them to take over reading, at which point they were free to interrupt me and read aloud for the group. Surprisingly, a few kids actually read a decent amount when given this option. However, I found the most effective thing that I could do was to stop every page or so for discussion. Some groups were stronger readers than others and some texts were harder than others (and, unfortunately, the strength of readers and the level of texts did not correlate), so the amount of discussion and success of discussion varied. I did have several moments where students clearly did not understand something on the first read-through and a few simple leading questions or another read-through got them to go “Oh! ____ is happening!” So that was really great. I also had a few instances of students working with me and still having time to take the quiz in the same class period, which meant that I got to see how they did… they went from failing scores to a 90-100% range. 

The only really frustrating part of the set-up was the fact that it was supposed to be station work and they were only supposed to spend twenty minutes reading with me and then move on to the computers to take the reading quizzes. Because, as I already explained, the levels of texts and levels of readers were kind of all over the place, some readings and groups took ten minutes to get through the text, whereas others took forty-five minutes. I felt like I had to rush through the process a few times so that students could take the quiz, but I didn’t want to sacrifice a successful read-and-discuss procedure so that they could rush to the quiz and not do so well… but I also wanted them to take the quiz that day, while the material was fresh in their mind, and not have to put it off until the next day. Conundrum. I also felt pressure from the teacher to speed them through it… I think she and they are used to just reading through something without discussing and thus underestimated the time required to get through the reading successfully. Regardless, it was a really great day. I was so grateful to get to work with the students personally after my first alienated day. The students were also much friendlier and willing to engage with me than I expected. I think Mark’s experience, while valid, is outdated enough that the preconceptions I got from discussing things with him made me overestimate the cultural barrier that I would encounter here. Some students joked with me and even asked me questions about myself. Like I said, it was great.

Today was great in an entirely different sense. Robin and I decided to get out of the one-classroom-all-day approach. It had been productive for getting to know the students better and for being able to help out, but it also had given us a very limited view of the school. The teacher I had worked with previously was absent, so today was actually a rather opportune day to get out and explore. I spent the first two class periods observing the teacher that Robin had worked with. The class was high school English (I saw 10th and 11th grade) and they were working on that same advertising assignment that Robin detailed in her last blog. I found it interesting to see how much the teacher emphasizes the Arizona state standards in her classroom; she started the class period with the pertinent standards written on the board and verbally informed the students and myself of what standards they would be addressing that day. During the first class, the principal (Terri Everett) stopped in to wish the students good luck with the start of the new semester. After she left the room, I followed her into the hallway and had a brief talk with her, in which she invited me to her office to chat and gave me some recommendations for classes to observe. Robin and I ended up going to her office third hour, where we were met by Terri, Carol, and Jarvis (he is a security guard here and wonderfully friendly… he told us some lovely stories about how the building we are staying in is haunted). We ended up staying there for a lot longer than anticipated (two whole periods) but had some really great conversations. We also got an invitation to go out to dinner with Carol and Terri tomorrow, so that should be really great. We then went and caught a bit of the traditional Navajo drumming practice, which was really neat.

From there, Robin and I took an unintentionally long lunch. We came back to the building we’re staying in to make sandwiches and ran into Mark, who was deep in conversation with two former Rock Point teachers who are also visiting. I’m sure Robin will write more about this so I won’t try to ignorantly explain it, but they are kind of celebrities in the Navajo journalism world. We got to listen to (and somewhat participate in) a really interesting conversation between them about the degradation of land out here. Again, I’ll let Robin do the topic better justice. Afterwards, we went to see a Sociology class that was really interesting. Again, I’m glad I got to see classes other than the one I was in the first two days. Because of the Read 180 program, my experiences in that classroom were pretty structured and repetitive. It was nice to see another class that, while traditional, involved discussion and student participation. Robin and I stayed afterwards to talk with the teacher and he gave us a really unique perspective on working here. As an Anglo teacher in a Navajo school, he put to rest some of our previous assumptions about an insurmountable cultural divide. He’s done some really innovative things here and explained to us that this type of school is a really great place to start out at and an opportunity to teach yourself to teach.

ALSO. Robin and I stopped in a classroom to ask a teacher if we could observe him tomorrow (we have a whole list of recommended teachers and classes to see tomorrow) and met a woman who is a Rock Point parent and also works in the special education department. She told us that her son spoke about us last night and said we were so helpful and he wished we could stay!!! After two days here, we were so surprised/delighted that we had made enough of an impression for a student to speak of us that way. Sigh. Moments that remind me how much I want to teach.

There’s a lot more I want to say… but this is already long and I am wiped out. Perhaps another post later tonight when all the other topics of importance come flooding back into my head? Perhaps.

And it just keeps getting better.

After two very busy days, it's time to recount my adventures again.

I don't think I had any astounding revelations during the day yesterday - my teacher was still administering assessments (this time, writing), so the classes were pretty calm. As in any middle school classroom, there were several students per group who decided they just weren't going to do the work, or at the very least, they weren't doing anything until the last ten minutes of class. I heard my teacher raise her voice for the first time when she reprimanded an antsy student. A couple classes finished the assessment early and we got to work on similes and metaphors in poetry, and I got to help with some group work, which was really nice. I feel like the students warmed up to me, and I enjoyed some one-on-one time with them.

I got a chance to witness a Navajo drumming practice during lunch yesterday, and IT WAS SO AMAZING. Some high school boys in a cultural after-school club have really taken to the traditional music, and it was so neat to watch them practice. My teacher shared with me that ceremonial music is dependent on the time of year, and that the winter ceremonies, which the boys had performed, are her favorite. I'm glad I got to see it, and I'm hoping to learn more about it tomorrow and Friday.

Last night we traveled to Rough Rock for both the boys' and girls' basketball games. I'm proud to say that we easily won both games by large margins, and it was so fantastic to see the students outside of the school. The teamwork displayed was really incredible, and it's clear that the team thrives as a group, not as the result of one or two superstars. Other spectators were very kind and friendly to us - word must have gotten around that we're here. The family next to us chatted with me about how we liked Rock Point, where we were from and what we were doing, and then the father proceeded to share some photos of the family pets - newborn Chihuahua puppies - with me. It was really nice to converse so casually.

Today was an eventful day at school. Testing was finally done, so we did a lot of work in each class with graphic organizers/pre-writing strategies and we continued talking about similes and metaphors. The students were split into groups again (my teacher commented that she's found that it's the only way she can get them to talk), and I was busy all day helping them through their work. I LOVED IT. I think my teacher does a really great job of guiding the students, many of whom are struggling in her classes, through some difficult material. I also noticed today that although my teacher does all of her instruction in English, when she is making an off-handed comment or gently reprimanding a student, she does so in Navajo. She noted later that most of the students can comprehend Navajo, but they have a hard time speaking it (exactly like me with Spanish!!), so she tries to expose them to it in little ways at often as possible.

Both the school's principal and the executive director of the school popped into the classroom today, to say hello and see how things are going. The principal gave the students a beginning of the semester "pep talk." My teacher said that the administration is very present in the school, which I think is really cool. I never would have gone to my principal, or any other administrative member, for help in high school. They stayed in their office and didn't have a lot of contact with students unless they were in trouble. It's really nice to see an environment in which the administration knows and cares about every student.

I got the chance to talk candidly with my teacher during her free period today, and I learned a lot about Rock Point and its students. The vast majority of graduating seniors go on to either a 4-year or a community college. Very few students stick around after graduation. In fact, very few people stick around Rock Point as adults. My teacher said she is one of a relatively small number of people from Rock Point who are now raising their own families here. Out of the 13 children in her family, only she and four other siblings returned here after college. Many residents move to larger cities, such as Phoenix or Tempe, and many others move to other reservation towns. There is a great deal of mobility here, which also contributes to academic and behavioral problems. It is hard to teach a group of junior high or high school students who have attended several other schools, picking up different skills along the way and missing others in the process. Rarely are two students at the same level with the same knowledge because they've experienced so many different curricula. However, on the plus side, the drop-out and truancy rates are virtually non-existant. My teacher has noticed a large drop in the number of students who fluently speak Navajo. She said that three years ago, every high school senior was fluent, while now the rate is less than half. Interestingly, the last tenth grade class to pass the AIMS test was also the last class who spoke Navajo fluently. It supports research that suggests that students with fluency in their native language, rather than proficiency in two "native" languages (i.e. Navajo and English, Spanish and English), ultimately perform better academically.

I also had the opportunity to observe a junior high history class taught by a white teacher who has been at Rock Point for five years. He found a really neat interactive website all about Shay's Rebellion, and he created a guided activity for the students to explore the site and find out more about the event. In between helping them research, we chatted a little about where I was planning on going with my career. I mentioned that I was looking to go into urban ed., and he compared the reservation schools to inner-city schools in a way I definitely see now but hadn't thought of before. The reservation offers all of the academic challenges of the inner-city - displaced students, low literacy levels, English language learners, etc. - but without any of the behavioral issues. He said he thought that it's a great place to get your footing as a teacher before you enter the big, bad inner-city...true? Food for thought. (Mom and Dad, don't freak out, I probably won't move to a small town in Arizona with no cell phone service. But I have to weigh my options, you know...)