‘We Are All Composed Of Stardust’: Haskell experiment empowers learning

Volume 20, No. 3 - Spring 2009
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TESTING PHYSIOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF CLAY PROJECTS. The pots made by Haskell students (more on pg. 37), also inspired songs and stories. Photo courtesy of Lorene Williams.

During the spring semester of 2008 four Haskell Indian Nations University faculty members linked their curriculums to facilitate an integrated initiative. Working with Academic Affairs Vice President Dr. Venida Chenault, they decided that Haskell – a university serving diverse American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes – was the ideal place for holistic learning.

The initiative placed art at the center of the core disciplines of science/math, social science, and writing, much as art has historically been the spiritual and cultural core of Indigenous peoples’ lives. It offered 48 students an enriched educational experience – scholarship, empowerment, cultural reflection, and independent learning.

Despite long careers in teaching (averaging 25 years), the four faculty members said the experience gave them new insight into student learning and faculty engagement. The four courses and their instructors were: Indigenous philosophy (Dr. Daniel Wildcat), physics (Dr. Tom Dixon), environmental writing (Lorene Williams), and ceramics (Leslie Evans).

They empowered students through scholarship; this became a catch phrase for the project’s objective. The faculty members “shared educational insights from their disciplines, with art as a spiritual and cultural foundation,” according to Wildcat (Euchee). This furnished the students with a medium that encouraged them to become independent learners and thinkers, thus moving scholarship beyond rote education, he said.

Each of the four faculty members presented a lecture that reflected his/her discipline and emphasized links among the disciplines. Ceramics instructor Evans (Potawatomi) gave the first lecture, reminding students that “being creative is the breath of life,” and there is an undeniable “relationship of art to culture.” He encouraged students to embrace making pottery to enhance their classroom experience, breaking away from their habit of segregating the knowledge acquired in each course from the others.

“We are all composed of stardust,” said physics instructor Dixon. His lecture used the scientific method to develop a world view linking humankind and all that surrounds us through the sharing of cosmic matter. Dixon described the symbiosis of organisms, linking all living and non-living things. He emphasized mutualism (mutual dependence) all the way through the efforts to integrate curriculum.

Philosopher Wildcat also focused on mutualism in his lecture by instructing the students to “pay attention.” He said, “By observing the world around us, we see ourselves, thus we participate in experiential learning.”

Writing instructor Williams wrapped up the lecture series by analyzing what makes a good writer. For example, “a writer who also happens to be a scientist must draw on his or her inner philosopher and artist to present a high level of creativity.” This will lend factual information the power to move, inspire, and educate readers.

After the lecture series set the objectives for the integrated curriculum, the instructors selected lessons to guide the students to empowerment through independent learning, all based on multi-layered opportunities for reflecting on culture.

Guided by ceramics teacher Evans, students learned the physical properties of the clay and how it reacted psycho-dynamically to human touch and physiologically to water and fire. He told the students, “The clay has a voice from use by traditional Native cultures; welcome it, and it will speak to you of your indigenousness.” One student said something moved him to sing the old songs that his grandfather had taught him as he worked the clay. He felt this encouraged the clay’s cooperation.


Photo courtesy of Lorene Williams

The faculty assessed the project’s success anecdotally through pre- and post-survey questions, written works, and participation in a final exhibit. A percentage of each course’s semester final grade included participation in the integrated curriculum initiative. One aspect of that grade was art work produced by students from all three courses.

At the final exhibition, Dixon’s students conducted experiments, placing warmed water in their ceramic vessels and then recording how efficiently they maintained that temperature over a length of time. While that time passed, Wildcat’s students gave presentations, physically holding their ceramic pieces while telling stories or singing, often in their Native languages, to emphasize how the hands-on creative work put them in touch with their cultures.

The evening exhibition was a rich experience. The four instructors felt their students acted empowered, speaking with confidence and being willing to show their pottery.

The final project for Williams’s creative nonfiction class was creating a free-standing, ceramic slab, about 15 inches in height, which reflected the student’s image of self and examined his/her culture.

Looking back and assessing the experience, the faculty felt it would be beneficial to add semesters of integrated curriculum using the same four courses. The students agreed, according to their survey questionnaires. One student said, “It was something new…. Some students don’t get to take certain classes, but this gives them a brief introduction to those classes, and they can have it all relate to the class in which they are actually enrolled.”

Summing up, Evans said the integrated curriculum experience at Haskell demonstrated that “while you cannot teach culture, you, as an instructor, can create a dynamic and open classroom environment where students will bring their culture. Their Indigenous cultures teach them the relationships among all things.”

When students are “free to use culture in the classroom, they discover a natural way to connect multi-disciplinary knowledge – thus achieving scholarship,” Evans said.

Lorene Williams has taught in the English Department at Haskell Indian Nations University for 15 years.  Contributors to this article Tom Dixon, Les Evans, and Dan Wildcat represent a total of 80 years teaching Haskell students.

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