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Making Educational Success a Reality for Native Americans

No matter where you go, education is one of the best indicators of a healthy rising generation. Unfortunately, Native Americans are at a disadvantage compared to those of dominant culture groups for whom there is greater access to economic and social opportunities. Nearly one-third of Native Americans live on government-funded reservations where alterations to Native life and high levels of unemployment and substance abuse negatively impact student opportunities in school.

The ability to think and reason mathematically is an important aspect of personal, academic, and economic well-being. For the past two decades, student access to meaningful and applicable mathematics learning has been emphasized as a national priority. Although some progress is being made, Native American students typically remain among the lowest-scoring groups nationally on multiple measures of mathematics proficiency.

To be meaningful, mathematics instruction needs to be responsive to the culture and ethnicity of students and their families. For Native Americans, instruction that can utilize the vast funds of knowledge and experience that children gain in the reservation communities has great potential to help these students succeed in math.

Since 1985 Eula Monroe, a mathematics education professor in the Department of Teacher Education, has been working with Native American teachers and students, which has allowed her to visit various reservations to conduct professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. During this past August, Monroe worked with elementary teachers on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in northern Montana, where she taught strategies for teaching math that are culturally responsive to student needs.

Monroe has been using a distinctive method that integrates Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI). CGI, a research-based approach for mathematics education, focuses heavily on the structure and patterns of students’ mathematical thinking and reasoning. “CGI is reform-based mathematics instruction,” says Monroe. “It requires the teacher to truly listen to the student. It’s not an ‘I teach and you learn’ approach. It’s really ‘I listen carefully to understand your mathematical thinking so that I can guide you to the next level of development.”

Using CGI has been helpful for working with Native Americans because it is flexible enough to adapt to the different learning approaches found in different cultures. Teachers on the reservation are taught to deliver math instruction through a culturally responsive pedagogy, in which an understanding of cultural settings is the basis for success. They adjust their teaching strategies to fit specific cultural contexts so that problems make more sense to the students and mathematical concepts are more easily learned.

Monroe looks forward to returning to the reservation next summer. Her teaching efforts have been deeply motivating to Native American teachers, administrators, and students. “The students and teachers I worked with had prepared themselves to receive instruction,” she remembers. “They work together so well. These teachers are on the verge of getting their students to new levels of academic growth.”

The Native American students Monroe works with have responded especially well. She remembers one day while speaking with a young girl to assess her skills, the girl looked up at Monroe and said, “I have skills—I can do this.” Monroe was overjoyed with the girl’s display of confidence. “If every child on the reservation had a similar mindset and attitude, it would change everything,” she said. “Too many children don’t believe in themselves. We want to help them develop that confidence. We want these students to believe that yes, they can learn. And we want to be prepared to help them do so.”

4 January 2011