Prospective teachers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will soon be able to learn the subtle and sometimes striking differences between American Indian students and their classmates.
A new course led by Professor Al Arth and two others will be the first Arth can remember that zeros in on teaching to a specific racial or ethnic minority group. The Teacher’s College long has taught a course in multiculturalism.
“In some ways, the Native American student is simply different,” Arth says. “When we fail with a student, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How did the school and the community miss talking to each other?’”
The course is designed to help teachers predict, recognize and avoid potential cultural conflicts. For example, a Nebraska teacher recently asked her students to run their fingers through a buffalo hide and describe how it felt to the touch.
One student refused, not because he was a troublemaker, Arth says, but because the family of that student — an American Indian and member of the Omaha Nation — believed that touching a dead buffalo’s hide was wrong.
The teacher let the student skip the assignment, but oftentimes the state’s instructors aren’t as adept at understanding the unique culture of the Omaha Nation or the cultures of other American Indian tribes, Arth says.
The university hopes eventually to adapt the curriculum for students from the Santee Sioux and Winnebago tribes.
The four-week summer course, which starts July 10, will feature guest speakers from the Omaha Nation reservation. Tribal elders and religious leaders will teach the UNL students about Omaha Nation history, the family structure within the tribe and the ceremonies important on and off the reservation.
Along the way, the students will learn to detect and solve American Indian-related instructional quandaries. For example, a teacher raising his or her voice at an American Indian student is often considered extremely disrespectful, though that same tone of voice may do nothing more than snap a Caucasian or Hispanic student back to attention, Arth says.
Sometimes an American Indian family will pull their child out of class to attend a funeral, which may last as long as a week, or a baptism, which may take several days.
The lectures will mark the culmination of six years of work by Arth, UNL professor Julie Johnson and Kathleen Wheeler, a York College professor.
The trio has made countless trips to Macy, Neb., in that time, first working with the reservation’s school system. Two years ago, they began to design a college course about teaching to American Indian students and sought out advice from the reservation.
“We did admit our limitations [at Macy],” Wheeler says. “We said, ‘tell us what we need to do.’”
— Associated Press
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