Little Voice, Big Energy: Addressing the Cultural Gap
Little Voice, Big Energy: Addressing the Cultural Gap
According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), there are six major challenges impacting Indigenous Student Success today:
- Lack of respect and resources in education systems, causing a critical education gap
- Numerous obstacles to education
- Loss of identity, caught in no man’s land
- Invisible and at risk youth
- Education is often irrelevant
- Despite efforts, there is no solution in foreseeable future
I first read this report when I was researching degree programs two years ago. When I read that I thought, wow–I am Indigenous. My son is Indigenous. Is that why I had such a difficult time in school? Is that why my son is having some challenges today?
I was an Indigenous student here in Anchorage not too long ago. I graduated from high school in 2010. I transferred from a rural school district to an urban school district in primary school. I did not have a single Alaska Native teacher until college. From birth to age seven, I spent my days playing outside in the woods, picking berries in the tundra, and working hard in the summers with my mom, grandma, and great-grandma. I went to fish camp, picked wild greens, and learned traditional recipes that were passed down through generations. I came from a town where everyone knew my parents, they knew my grandparents, and great-grandparents. I came from a tight-knit community where everyone had an understanding of each other.
In 2nd grade, a HUGE change occurred – my family and I moved to Anchorage because my dad got a promotion at the airline he was flying for. I was so excited to see the big city! My mom told me that my new school had lots of opportunities for me – even the opportunity to learn different languages! She told me that Anchorage schools had soccer, gymnastics, and art clubs. She told me I would have the opportunity to learn anything I wanted to.
When it came time for the first day of school, boy was I nervous. I remember looking at my classmates in the second grade and thinking…Eeli, how come nobody looks like me? How come nobody sounds like me? I’m even dressed differently! Gotcha…everyone is talking so fast! But we played and everyone seemed nice. I just had to learn that they had different jokes than me. They didn’t know the same words as me. I just had to learn that I was a little different than everyone else. Finally, in third grade, a boy from Togiak joined my class. When we first saw each other we raised our eyebrows and crinkled our noses at each other in joy. From then on, we became very good friends. I was happy to have somebody at school who understood me. He knew exactly what home was like. He liked the same foods and even knew the same jokes as me! We also had some of the same challenges together. I remember working on a family tree assignment in 4th grade. He and I both had such a hard time trying to figure out who should be on our trees; it was like we were in it together. The rest of elementary school was fun! I was in the gifted program and Russian Immersion started in 3rd grade, I even started playing the violin.
It wasn’t until middle school that I noticed things started to get a little more challenging for me. I was thankful that most of my elementary school friends came to the same middle school. But I had a whole new set of teachers, I had a whole new principal, and there were a lot more kids. The school was even bigger! Then, there was that feeling again…I was nervous. I didn’t want to be singled out in any classes by students or teachers. If I had the ability to blend in, I would have. In 7th grade, I remember thinking thank goodness I told my mom to get that Old Navy vest everyone is wearing because now at least my clothes blend in. I had also gotten a fair share of whale and igloo jokes from other students, but I just chalked it up to the fact that they didn’t know who I was. They didn’t go to fish camp every summer, they haven’t ever tried seal oil or black meat, and they thought native dancing was weird. I knew that I’d have to somehow explain myself all over again–but I didn’t really want to. I wanted to blend in just like everyone else.
Although academically I was succeeding, concerns were still voiced to my parents about my shyness, quietness, and sometimes eye contact. The biggest buzzword I heard was “classroom participation.” I always wondered what that was all about. I was doing the work, I knew the school loved me, cared about me, and wanted the best for me…but it still felt like they didn’t really know me. Is Raquel’s first language English? Does Rachel speak anything else at home? They mispronounced my name, they asked what home life was like, and asked my parents why I was so quiet. At one point there was an assumption I lived in a single parent household – they didn’t ask if that was truly the case. We were invited to events and there were always comments about transportation and cost. Although people were just trying to make a connection with me and my family, there was actually a major disconnect–they still didn’t know who I was even after all of those questions.
In all honesty, as a child, I dreaded parent-teacher conferences year after year because I felt as though assumptions were made about my family and I even before we walked through the door. I felt as though educators were trying their best to connect with me, but I always wondered–do they ask the same weird questions to other kids? It didn’t really seem like it in the classroom…
As an adult, I learned about ACEs, socio-economic status, the four great deaths of our people, and culturally-responsive practices. I learned that schools were trying to make learning more meaningful to me. I learned that they had data and goals. Looking back now, the teachers that I looked up to and trusted the most knew the power of asking ME questions and holding ME accountable to the same standards as my peers, while also taking into consideration I might have different strengths than others. They knew I belonged in their class, even if I was a little quiet. They made me feel like everyone else. They asked me about my family. They asked me about my hobbies. The key here is they asked me without making assumptions. According to Brown University, these skills are defined as characteristics of culturally-responsive teaching. (“Culturally Responsive Teaching | Teaching Diverse Learners” 2019)
I’ve carried those experiences and feelings with me into adulthood, and now my mission in life is to make sure that other Indigenous students feel valued and that educators can really understand where students come from culturally. My hope is that a mutual understanding will help to reduce those challenges described by the United Nations and to Increase Indigenous Student Success in Alaska and beyond. In a nutshell, my mission is to bridge the cultural gap between educators’ culturally-responsive practices and student cultures.
As educators, we want the best for students; we care about them and we are kind to them. A majority of educators have taken culturally-responsive courses and follow the practices on a regular basis in hopes of creating a connection to increase engagement. So what is the disconnect? Where is this cultural gap stemming from? The truth is, just knowing how to be culturally-responsive isn’t enough. We need to have cultural context; we have to take the time to get to know students and their families, their traditions, and unique cultures. We have to connect with students in ways that are culturally-relevant and meaningful to them. We have to be brave and take the first step of asking questions while also creating a culture of safety in the classroom by sharing about ourselves. (“Closing the Culture Gap” 2011)
Students are more than just the data. Students are more than statistics and demographics. Students are more than a goal. Once we learn what makes students’ hearts sing, we’re one step closer to increasing Indigenous Student Success.
“Culturally Responsive Teaching | Teaching Diverse Learners.” Brown University, 2019, https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0.
“Closing the Culture Gap.” NEA, 2011, http://www.nea.org/home/43098.htm.
“Education For Indigenous Peoples.” United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, United Nations, https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/mandated-areas1/education.html