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Program Prepares Native Teachers for Native Classrooms

College of Education, Health and Human Sciences program helps indigenous teachers use their culture to improve learning outcomes for Native students

As a young girl in elementary school, JayLynn Rogers was proud to count to 10 in her native language.

But as an Iñupiaq Eskimo in Alaska, Rogers grew up in classrooms filled with mostly white students and white teachers, and that pride in her language wasn’t always shared.

Being discouraged from speaking her native tongue was one of many experiences that spurred her desire to teach music education to Alaska Native students in the villages that make up the 49th state.

“Growing up, I didn’t have role models who were Native,” said Rogers, 19, a sophomore music education major in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS) at the University of Idaho. She wants to better herself so she can be the best example possible for her fellow indigenous students.

Jessica Matsaw has a similar goal. A senior finishing her bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in psychology in CLASS, Matsaw wants to take what she’s learned at UI and apply it as a teacher on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho.

Rogers and Matsaw are among a small group of Native American students at UI who are learning the best ways to serve Native communities through a cultural lens as part of the Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program (IKEEP), run through the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences (CEHHS).

Eight IKEEP students spent time in Moscow last summer – working with Native students, building trust among each other, studying the research on indigenous education and meeting with representatives from the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes. The four-week Indigenous Pedagogies Summer Institute focused on teaching with cultural and linguistic strengths in mind so Native students can one day serve tribal communities.

The summer institute was just the beginning. Rogers, Matsaw and the rest of the students in their cohort will meet regularly for the rest of their college careers to discuss education in Native communities.

Embracing Culture

Rogers, a second-generation Vandal, is proud of where she came from. She wants others to feel the same way.

“This program, it’s embracing my culture,” she said. “And it’s getting to know my culture and getting to know the people in the community.”

During a trip the cohort made to a fourth-grade class at the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School in De Smet, Rogers was able to see firsthand the positive reaction from tribal students to having a Native teacher.

 “After I left, I felt really good about what I did that day, and what I was able to do,” Rogers said of the visit, where she worked with the students and helped administer a spelling test. “I was looking at their textbook. I had the kids explain to me what they were doing. I was there to make sure they knew how to solve the math problem.”

The IKEEP students receive loans to cover tuition and expenses through a $1.2 million grant from the Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education. The loans are forgiven if the students work in an indigenous education program for the equivalent of 22 months.

JaLynn Rogers
JayLynn Rogers

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in CEHHS, is one of the co-principal investigators of the program. To join, the students must be a member of or descendant from a federally recognized tribe, as well as demonstrate a commitment to culturally responsive education.

Most tribal youth go to school off their home reservation or in a facility not controlled by a tribal government, Anthony-Stevens said, so it’s important those students see Native teachers in their classrooms — and that those teachers create curriculums for the individual schools based on local cultural language, values and history.

One goal of this program is to contextualize education. Instruction is not just the discussion and multiplication of fractions — it’s about learning how and why different skills and ideas matter in the world around us, Anthony-Stevens said.

“Allowing communities and students to engage in articulating why education matters for them helps contextualize learning for all students,” she said.

Rogers and Matsaw agree the one-size-fits-all way they were taught doesn’t necessarily fit the cultural values of each tribe or Native community.

“We have this idea that education has to be a certain way,” Matsaw said, even though all classrooms are different.

Each of the students in the cohort is from a different community, bringing a differing perspective on how best to embrace a tribe’s individual culture while teaching concepts all students must learn.

Vanessa Anthony-Stevens
Vanessa Anthony-Stevens

Providing Access to Education

IKEEP is one of many programs offered by the University of Idaho to help Native American students gain access to a college education. Others include:

  • Helping Orient Indian Students and Teachers into STEM (HOIST) is a six-week college preparatory program held each summer for 15-20 Native American high school students who have demonstrated potential in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields. Students learn through project-based math, English and science classes, as well as activities and presentations put on by UI researchers, instructors and other professionals.
  • The Indigenous Mentors Program in the College of Graduate Studies supports Native American and Alaska Native students seeking advanced degrees in STEM fields. The program helps train mentors at UI who work with Native students in culturally relevant practices.
  • Indigenous STEM Research and Graduate Education or ISTEM, is supported by a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant aims to create a national network of institutions that collaborate to increase the number of Native American students who enter and complete master’s and doctoral programs in STEM fields.

Honoring Students

Matsaw is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe and sees the concepts she’s learning through IKEEP as tools for her “tool belt” when she begins teaching. The 30-year-old will earn her bachelor’s this fall and plans to pursue a graduate degree in education with teaching certification. She wants to teach secondary education in art.

“I feel like art is a nice place to highlight our cultural backgrounds as well,” she said. “Our culture is art. That’s the best way I can honor my students.”

Matsaw also feels drawn toward sociology and social work, which are areas of expertise she wants to take back to her tribal community. There is a big call within the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe for the youth to go out and earn degrees, then return for the betterment of the community.

For those leaving the reservation to pursue education, Matsaw said her tribe's elders challenge them on two things: “One: They remind us to come back home. Two: What knowledge will I bring back that will help our tribe?”

The first member of her family to graduate college, Matsaw wants to be there for her four children and her community as a teacher in Fort Hall.

“I am invested in the education system because I am a mother and member of my community, and education impacts both,” Matsaw said. “Being a good mother and good relative to my tribal community is my life’s work.”

She’s also realizing that she doesn’t have to compromise who she is as a teacher, or the education itself, as she incorporates Shoshone-Bannock culture into her teachings. They complement each other.

“I’m learning all these things, I’m really excited to go back home,” she said.

This project, “Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education Program (IKEEP)”, is currently funded under U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education grant No. S299B160015. The total amount of federal funds for the project so far is $1.2 million. Grant No. S299B160015 is for an amount of $356,737, which amounts to 100 percent of the cost of the project. The total amount of non-federal funds for the project is $0, which amounts to zero percent of the total cost of the project.

Jessica Matsaw
Jessica Matsaw

Article by Brad Gary, University Communications and Marketing


University Communications and Marketing

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Fax: 208-885-5841


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