10 Rules for Teaching Native Students

Andre Cramblit

These rules are my reflections after having worked for nearly 30 years in American Indian education at all levels (parent, teachers aid, bus driver, high school teacher, education specialist, consultant, head start teacher and director, college instructor, principal, and tribal education director).  They are written to an audience of supplemental American Indian Education programs and educators working with Native students. I have modified these rules and added to them over the years as I continue to learn and find other successful methodologies, practices and programs. If you have any comments or suggestions please use the comments section below.

American Indian students have lower academic success compared to other students. They also graduate at a significantly lower rate then their classmates.

As has been demonstrated, through time and research, the techniques that successfully meet the unique needs of American Indian students are also effective with any non-typical learner.

  1. Do Not Waste Your Money On Tutoring: The reason a school exists is to educate our students. If we use limited resources to relieve them of this responsibility we are not able to work on broader issues that need to be addressed. Researchers have found that American Indian students have the highest dropout rate of any group student.
  2. While tutoring may be a great tool to assist one, and only one, student; it does not change the core problems that cause the need for tutoring. Use your underfunded program budgets to be an advocate for all of your students in getting better curriculum, staff training and providing advocacy to work with our students and families. Tutoring can be made available by leveraging resources. Tutors can be paid for by outside resources such as Title 1, NCLB low performing schools and community learning center grants, Americorps, Peer Tutors, After School Programs, Cross Age Tutors, TANF, Workforce Investment Act funds, Adopt-a- Grandparent, be creative to stretch budgets.
  3. Many Native Students Have a Visual Learning Style:  Many Native students rely on visual input to guide them in the learning process. This comes from traditional instructional techniques that rely on modeling. When combined with the information in rule # 3 it becomes clear why there is a large achievement gap between American Indian students and their classmates. Additionally, as part of an oral tradition, auditory learning is also important to integrate into your teaching methods.
  4. Many American Indian Students Will Have a Visual Learning Disorder: This means dyslexia, numeric dyslexia, amblyopia (lazy eye), focusing slowness, blurred and low vision (correctable with lenses) nutritional deficiencies, etc.
  5. This has significant implications considering the large percentage of Native students who are visual learners (please see rule #2). If students are undiagnosed with these problems they will be labeled as discipline problems, or with other, misdiagnosed, special education problems. This will put them on a path that gets them further away from having their specific needs met. You need to work in partnership with IHS clinics, local specialist and the district to identify this as a learning disability and have it included in an IEP.
  6. Change The System To Meet The Needs Of Students & Families, Not The Other Way Around: Western education models, by and large, are not the best option to teaching many Native learners. Programs such as AVID can be utilized to assist Native students achieve academic success.  American Indians typically learn best by visually reinforced teaching approaches, not lecture and copy. Participatory project based thematic instruction works wonders for any child. Unfortunately the focus is put on how teachers and school systems feel “comfortable” in presenting instruction, which is the way they learned, predominately rote drills, written tests, lectures and homework. The copier and laser printer have replaced the ditto machine and mimeographs that churns out endless streams of materials. These handouts are not designed to actively engage students in the learning process but rather to keep them busy. Teaching content has been lost to teaching so students do better on standardized tests. Work to empower parents to be an active participant in the education of their children.
  7. Many of the problems in the world are caused by a breakdown in communication: Help your students learn to speak clearly and effectively. This includes active listening, which when bundled with decision-making skills, leadership training and internal asset development will get them well on the road to being a student poised to succeed. Helping students develop these skills will give them the abilities and tools to grow and will help motivate them in school. Students who have fewer of these abilities will make poor choices that will negatively impact success in school. Use strong communication skills yourself. Do not leave things unsaid; seek common understanding of the issues at hand. Communication between the family and the school system will help minimize conflict and confusion. Work to achieve clarity and to promote long-term positive relationships based upon mutual respect and cooperation.
  8. Schools must create, use & SUPPORT culturally appropriate curriculum: An integrated, culturally responsive, course of study uses materials and resources that link traditional knowledge and culture into the curriculum. The use of tribal art, history, language, geography, literature, and science can infuse the educational experience in relevance that will serve the needs of the Native student.  Utilizing community resources such as artists, ceremonial leaders, elders and language teacher to supplement and support the curriculum will provide greater significance to the learning process and promote mastery of the information being taught. A PDF of appropriate/relevant curriculum can be found here.
  9. THE POWER OF COLLABORATIONS CANNOT BE UNDER ESTIMATED: Much like student study teams (now referred to as student success teams) cooperative relationships between Indian Education Programs (Title VII, JOM and American Indian Education Centers) School District personnel, Parents Tribes and community agencies will promote the growth and potential success of our students. Together you can create an effective and holistic learning environment. As part of a community based upon the role of the individual, within the context of a village or tribe, cooperative lifestyles are a core of American Indian values. As a result many Native students learn best in a collaborative learning environment. Use small group learning projects with students that have a variety of skills and strengths (oral presentations, artistic, reading, social etc) to support interactive learning.
  10. Everyone Should Adopt These Rules: Ok I am joking here (a bit) but at least consider them in working with American Indian students. Moreover, the information found in these rules can be applied to any classroom to make the learning environment accessible to a broader range of students. The more we can make the education system accessible to all students the more we will be able to direct our inadequate funds to providing students with additional, tools, resources and programs that will better prepare them for their post-secondary vocational or academic careers.

If education systems do not operate with these rules Indian students will ultimately be pushed out of school. Many Native American students drop out or are shunted to “Alternative Education Programs” such as home study, continuation schools, etc. By allowing this to occur we are relieving the system of their primary duty of educating our students. Work to break down the artificial barriers that impede learning and alienate students and families from the system. If diligently working with the school system does not result in changes that benefit your students then perhaps a charter school is something to consider, but that is a whole other article to discuss the possibilities for Native students. My best advice is to listen to your students and families and temper that with your own experience to change the overall system to best serve the needs of your community.

Andre Cramblit is an enrolled member of the Karuk Tribe. His family is from the center of The Karuk World, the village of Katiimeen.

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hesutu's picture
This article is fine but it makes things too complicated. Don't send your children to white controlled white managed white administrated schools. Does anyone think these racist imperialist colonialist people will ever teach the truth about matters? Homeschooling and tribal schools are the only possibly good option. This also means though that we must embrace our responsibility to educate the children of our people in accordance with our ways. We can not abdicate our responsibility, and those of us who do so will reap the inevitable crop from this irresponsible choice. Does it mean one might have to spend long hours studying our languages, restoring our languages, recovering our history and ways? Absolutely. It is exhausting, long work. But necessary. Those who farm their children out to the whites to be educated choose what is essentially a residential school outcome for their own children! Such persons are foolish to do so and should not be surprised when their children return home with contempt for their own culture and ignorant of their own language. To expect the whites to teach our children our language and culture and to educate them to be contributing members of our nations is madness. How could that ever happen? It will never happen and to think it will is delusion. Friends, cousins, brothers. Educate your own children. If you do not accept this responsibility, then you are accepting the outcome when you do not.