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Creating a Better Education for Everyone

College of Education partnership with Nez Perce Tribe helps UI students learn about the impact students’ heritage has on their education

When Beau Woodford became a teacher, he was pretty proud of his philosophy around diversity.

“I thought the stance we were supposed to have was just treat everybody the same, that you couldn’t go wrong with that and there really is no difference. Everybody is the same. Kids are kids,” said Woodford, who graduated in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in education.

It’s the attitude the Grangeville native took into his classroom at Lapwai Elementary School, where he has taught full time for eight years.

That attitude, he has come to realize, is 100 percent wrong.

“Treating any group of people like we are all just the same — you discount and exclude the things that make that culture great,” Woodford said. “Kids aren’t blank slates. They come with a lot of information already. What are you going to teach kids and on what are you going to hang that learning if you deny what they know?”

Creating a learning environment that honors the backgrounds of the children in his fourth-grade classroom is something Woodford has strived for, particularly since earning his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UI in 2011. The back wall of the classroom is a mural of Native American imagery and history: Articles about the Nez Perce tribe, photographs of tribal members, vocabulary words and maps.

The wall serves a dual purpose: To show the children their culture is valued and welcome in the classroom, and to keep it top of mind for Woodford, who is not Native.

“It reminds me that it is my students’ background; it’s the background that these kids walk in the door with,” Woodford said. “It’s a pretty easy, overpowering reminder to me — these students don’t have the same world view that I have.”

Beau Woodford Lapwai Elementary classroom
Lapwai Elementary School teacher Beau Woodford talks with UI education students during a classroom visit in December 2015.

A New Vision

Creating teachers who have cultural awareness and are capable of adjusting their teaching styles to meet the needs of their students is part of a new focus for the University of Idaho College of Education.

Assistant Professor Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an educational anthropologist, is in her second academic year teaching in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education. She most recently taught at the University of Arizona and has a doctorate in language, reading and culture from the College of Education at Arizona. She came to UI specifically to build relationships between the university and the Native American community.

Anthony-Stevens has been involved in grants and programs training educators to work with indigenous communities for years. Her passion is for creating cohesive, accepting school spaces for students from all backgrounds. Her experience with cultures across the Americas made her a perfect fit for UI, said Associate Dean James Gregson, who also serves as Anthony-Stevens’ mentor.

“The college has had a long history of working with the tribe,” Gregson said. “We were really interested in going deeper with that relationship.”

Anthony-Stevens is focused on building reciprocal relationships with area tribes, specifically the Nez Perce in Lapwai. Last fall, her classes brought students from Lapwai Elementary School to UI, and she also took a group of students to visit the Lapwai School District — including Woodford’s classroom — to see how the district works to incorporate cultural relevance into traditional education.

“Cultural competence and culturally responsive teaching are critical when addressing the achievement gap in a district with an 82 percent Native American student population,” said David Aiken, superintendent for the Lapwai School District.

Originally from Grangeville, Aiken, who received his Doctorate of Education from UI in 2013, is proud of the work the teachers, staff and tribe do to create a progressive educational environment.

“We work closely with the Nez Perce Tribe Education Department to collaboratively define what ‘culturally relevant’ education means for our students. This partnership has become a critical component to our success,” he said.

Translating the Language

The Lapwai School District is a public school, run by the state of Idaho. The majority of the students are Native American, and the district works closely with the Nez Perce Tribal Education Services offices.

Part of the work involves translating academic lingo into teaching standards that resonate with the community. Tribal Education Services worked with a consultant to survey Nez Perce members and reworded the Common Core standards into Native American terms. For instance, “Contextualized Situations” becomes “Oral History” — both are about storytelling and connecting with the content on a personal level, but “Oral History” speaks to the ways Native Americans have taught their children for generations, said Joyce McFarland, education manager for Tribal Education Services.

Building partnerships between the school district and community creates educationally safe spaces for children and works to heal the wounds that still exist between the tribes and the government.

Students at Lapwai Elementary receive Nez Perce language training two days a week. It's offered daily after school and for students in upper grades. The classes are taught by the tribe’s Nez Perce language department and community elders. Welcoming the Nez Perce language into the schools — where it was once forbidden — offers a lot of symbolism to his students and parents, Woodford said.

“As that language drifted away, a rift was created between the school and the community: Send your kids, but keep your culture at home. Keep who you are at home,” he said. “We’ve been working really hard to try to overcome that. Our school mission statement has been translated into Nez Perce to show that not only symbolically, but physically, we’re opening up the classroom to the community influence.”

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens
Assistant Professor Vanessa Anthony-Stevens talks with students at Lapwai Elementary School in December 2015.

Building a Relationship

Entering a classroom filled with students from a different cultural, racial or socioeconomic background can be a culture shock for any new instructor.

“As a new teacher, you have your perspectives, but until you work in that culture, you have no idea,” Aiken said.

Most of the students studying education at UI are of European-American heritage, which makes it all the more important to Anthony-Stevens to expose them to other cultures and ways of thinking through field trips and classroom exercises.

“I need my education students to see spaces like Lapwai — and not just Lapwai,” she said. “There is not a one-size-fits-all. We don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. Especially when you are privileged and come from the dominant class, you don’t understand that all people have interactions, practices, processes that make up their lives, but that they might be different from yours: they might use them in different ways.”

Differences in culture can mean differences in learning styles — which can leave children from the non-dominant class behind.

“Western thought assumes a deficit model,” Gregson said of traditional teaching methods. “We haven’t always recognized cultural knowledge and expertise. Vanessa really gets it. It’s not only about the learners; it’s about connecting with the elders. Vanessa wants to celebrate culture and give back to the community.”

Anthony-Stevens hopes the relationships with the Lapwai School District and Nez Perce tribe will open doors for her students as well as make UI a more welcoming place for Native students.

For his part, Aiken says the Lapwai School District welcomes the partnership.

“It is our hope that our partnership with the College of Education will encourage the talent from the University of Idaho to serve our students in the future. Dr. Vanessa Anthony-Stevens has quickly become a valued partner and resource in our district,” he said. “We share her urgency in exposing University of Idaho students to cultural experiences, further preparing candidates for awareness, respect and sensitivity for cultural diversity.”

The relationship between the tribe and UI has already increased the number of Vandal alumni working in Lapwai. Four Nez Perce tribal members have earned their doctorates from the College of Education, Gregson said, including D’Lisa Pinkham, the principal of Lapwai Middle/High School. Seeing tribal members succeed in higher education can act as inspiration to the children, he said.

“The students in Lapwai are beginning to understand that they can be successful students, that they can go on,” Gregson said. “It increases the likelihood that they’ll pursue post-secondary education.”

Increasing diversity among its students is good for everyone at UI, Gregson said, as it challenges faculty and students alike.

“While UI has much to offer these students, they have much to offer us,” he said. “I’m hopeful these partnerships will change how we approach teaching and learning at the university level.”

What the Lapwai district has done in its schools is incredibly progressive, Gregson said, and he hopes the partnership with UI will continue to grow.

“I see these schools as really becoming a model nationally on cultural competence and working collaboratively, and I see our teachers becoming increasingly involved,” he said. It also is beginning to change the way the college looks at teaching the subject. “Now we understand: one course on culture doesn’t cut it. It has to be integrated into the curriculum.” 

Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing

Jared Klingele Lapwai Elementary classroom
UI education student Jared Kingele works on an assignment with students at Lapwai Elementary School.

Lapwai School District


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