Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 07 2011

Cultural Learning Begins

Today I saw where the world began. At least according to Navajo beliefs. Some of my friends are placed in Crownpoint, a small town about an hour outside of Gallup, and the Navajo Language and Culture teacher from the elementary school up there offered to take as many people as were interested on a hike to help us understand Navajo culture better. How can you say no to an offer like that?

We went to Crow Canyon, about 2 ½ hours outside of Crownpoint, almost in the middle of the four sacred peaks. It’s just over the mesa from Chaco Canyon, famous ruin of the Anasazi. According to our teacher, Chaco Canyon was the bustling metropolis of the area back when the Navajo and the Anasazi lived there (side note: white history says that the Anasazi predated the Navajo; Navajo history says they coexisted). In a tangential story, the Navajo people used to gamble in Chaco, and they eventually lost everything—livestock, weapons, goods, even people into slavery. But the deities came to a Navajo boy and told him that they would teach him how to win at gambling (side note: deities are called gods in English, but they weren’t seen in a hierarchical way by the Navajo, more like other beings that also existed in the world than supreme rulers). So they did, and he won back all the things his people had lost for them. But the deities warned that they would rescue the people from their gambling only one time, and the next time they would have to live with what they lost. Our teacher linked this to the Navajo casino, saying that people are torn about whether it’s a good idea. Who knows what might be lost this time—money, but also culture, stories and history as the Navajo way of life mixes with the Anglo.

All along the canyon is rock art, places where ancient Navajo carved pictures and stories into stone. More subtle and harder to see (I don’t think we would have seen them at all if they weren’t pointed out to us) are the pueblitos, ruins of defensive posts where people would see intruders coming up the canyon and take off running to the next post to spread the word (side note: the Navajo were traditionally runners, and would run in this way from place to place; more traditional Navajo still run to the east every morning, for reasons I will get to, though as people settled into sedentary “modern” lifestyles heart disease, diabetes, and alcoholism have run rampant which contributes to some of the awful statistics about Native health problems). The posts were small, camouflaged, and hard to spot (which means they probably served their purpose). But the rock art was really interesting. Some of it had old Spanish words written, the influence of the Spaniards who invaded the area. Some had swastika-like symbols, because traditionally that symbol has meant wind in Navajo art. Some had deities atop mountainlike shapes. One had a whole story told, written from right to left and bottom to top, showing the sun rising, many people walking and wandering, a sort of deity on a rocky structure, then animals and a hunting scene.

You might have noticed how many side notes there are in this post. This was one of the things our teacher was trying to teach us about: learning for our kids traditionally starts with the earth, at the bottom, but then it moves cyclically. First comes the big picture, working into the smaller details. There is a whole system having to do with the four directions. It’s hard to remember all of it, but I think it’s like this: South is about planning, laying out how one’s path should go and where the journey leads. West is doing, actually traveling along that path and growing. North is studying, reflecting on that journey, how it went, what it meant. East is acting, deciding what to do right now, in the moment, for today. So if you take kids who have grown up with this cyclical, general-to-specific, everything-in-its-own-time kind of way of learning and plunk them down in a western education with rules and process and linear thinking, they have a hard time figuring it out and it’s confusing to them, just like it was confusing for me to think about all I learned today and tell it like a story that would make sense as a blog post. And in the end, my finished product is more like what I know than how I learned. Think about that in terms of a student’s essay: if it looks more like a cyclical story, it’s going to look disorganized to a Billigana audience (side note: Billigana, which has lots of spellings but I think that’s a correct one, means “those we struggle with” in Navajo, and refers to a person of any race/ethnicity besides Navajo).

What’s kind of interesting about this four-direction system is that Gallup-McKinley County Schools has a mandated program called PDSA, standing for Plan, Do, Study, Act, which is a planning and overviewing system we are supposed to use with the kids. Basically, we do one for the whole class every week and each student does their own, making a plan, doing it, then seeing how it went, assessing what worked or didn’t, and deciding what to keep or do differently. The problem is that every teacher I’ve met from my school says they don’t understand how to do the PDSA, and that every official person who comes into your classroom will say you are doing it wrong but when you change it to what that person says, someone else will say that new way is wrong. So, on the plus side, we have an instructional technique that is concretely rooted in Navajo culture to make more sense to our students. On the minus side, the non-Navajo teachers can’t get our minds around the system. Tough question: if we can’t get our minds around this one piece of their learning style, how are we expecting them to understand every piece of ours? It’s a hard question that I don’t have an answer to, but it’s one that I’m understanding the magnitude and basis of a little more, thanks to our teacher today.

One Response

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In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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