Fifth-graders at Brass Community School went right to the source for an immersive project last week on Native Americans.
Instead of mimicking stereotypes often seen in old movies or television shows, the students learned how Native Americans lived and worked from experts in the field.
Teacher Andrea Bell-Myers consulted with David O’Connor, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Native American coordinator, as well as the Indian Community School in Milwaukee and a pair of Brass teachers with Native American ancestry before undertaking the project.
“I checked with these people to make sure we are not dishonoring or being disrespectful to the culture,” Bell-Myers said. “In order to be a sound, culturally responsive teacher, you much reach out to those in your community who are different from oneself.
“It is through this modeling that children learn to ask questions, critically examine our past history and challenge today’s status quo. Students learn that it’s OK not to have all of the answers, yet we should always seek truth to understand one another.”
The project consisted of dividing students into five tribes based on the five Great Lakes. (Iroquois, Ojibwa, Fox Indians, Mohawk and Wyandot). They then researched their tribes using primary visual sources from the Library of Congress.
This led to a number of interdisciplinary projects as students:
Researched and wrote about Native Americans of the past and present.
Constructed dwellings — one of the past (a long house) and the present (a small bungalow.) “This process taught students how to use geometry and measurement in a real-world, hands-on manner,” Bell-Myers said.
Reflected by writing about their experience.
Watched short clips of Native American youth in hip-hop, as well as Native American youth keeping their culture alive through traditional powwow song and dance.
Learned and performed traditional Native American music.
It all came together last week for presentation days, where the fifth-graders took what they learned and presented it to the school.
“During the presentation day, each student in the class had a job,” Bell-Myers said. “There were welcome drummers; video presenters; four readers for our literacy sacred circles representing fire, air, water and wind; dwelling guards and docent; artifact guard and docent; plus popcorn and tea sample servers.”
When students entered the room, they were welcomed by students playing drums — not just pounding away, but performing an actual Native American welcoming piece.
From there, they could watch a video of an authentic powwow, tour Native American structures, read about history and hear genuine Native American music played by orchestra students. They also sampled tea and popcorn — also true to the Native American experience.
The project also involved the art, music and orchestra teachers, as well as parent volunteers.
“It was definitely a team effort,” Bell-Myers said. “I could not have done it without my parent helpers.”
The project also got students learning in different ways; Bell-Myers noted that some of the more “rambunctious” boys in her classroom excelled when it came to building the structures.
“They shined during the building process,” she said. “They need to keep their hands moving and keep busy.
“When you’re having fun at learning, it reduces the amount of trauma a child may encounter in a traditional learning environment. ... It takes them away from that.”
And in a culturally diverse school like Brass, Bell-Myers’ insistence on accurate, cultural depictions is important.
“These are the type of authentic, culturally responsive, engaging learning experiences I try to provide,” she said.