Empowered Learning: Bringing Culture into the Classroom

Volume 25, No. 3 - Spring 2014
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CULTIVATING LEARNING. Karen Sayuma digs up balsam root as part of NWIC’s Nisqually Camas Prairie Day. Students later made honey out of the root. Photo by Elise Krohn

In my most successful teaching moments I become invisible. I witness students light up with enthusiasm as they share their stories and go on to mentor others. A sense of power and pride wells up in them. They embrace their ancestors’ rich traditions and carry that knowledge forward as their own. These are the moments I strive for, but they are not easily attained. It has taken me years of practice.

I cringe when I remember the first traditional foods and medicines class I taught at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center several years ago. I was terrified, to say the least. How could I, a young white woman, teach a cultural program on plants? I lectured in the style that I learned in school—I stood at the front of the room and delivered information. I prepared extensively and my presentation was well-organized. Although the patients were cordial, I could see that their eyes had glazed over by the end of class. It was too much information for them to digest and the knowledge was overly technical. I had not reached them. Feeling discouraged, I asked my mentors for help.

The director of the treatment center, June O’Brien (Nansemond), explained that historic trauma, a loss of traditional lands and cultural practices, and poverty on many reservations has led to depression, chronic disease, and substance abuse for many Indian people. She believed that a cultural tradition based around foods and medicines can be a powerful tool to help people remember their heritage and who they are. Skokomish elder Bruce Miller shared that Native students often learn through doing. It is not enough to read something in a book or hear it spoken once. If I could create hands-on classes and engage students’ senses, they would be more empowered to integrate the knowledge into their lives. To reach these goals, I realized I had to transform how I taught. I took a good look at teaching methodologies and learned that there are ways of teaching that inhibit students from opening their minds and hearts, pressuring them to conform to specific ways of understanding and acting. These methodologies echo the impacts of colonization. There are also ways of teaching that open students’ minds, help them to discover who they are, and empower them to own knowledge.


BOUNTIFUL HARVEST. Traditional food is an important component of culture and identity. Photo by Elise Krohn

Since 2005, I have worked at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) as an instructor in the Traditional Plants and Foods Program. I have taught community classes, coordinated garden projects, directed a research project, developed curriculum, trained trainers, and taught for-credit classes. Along the way I have learned new methodologies that have made me a more effective instructor. These are some of the ethics and protocols that have helped to transform my teaching:

Honor different epistemologies. It can be challenging to leave personal judgments aside and support students in their own beliefs, ways of thinking, and creative styles. Conditional praise inhibits creativity. I have found that it is essential to remain open to students’ work, even if it does not match my idea of excellence. Who am I to know a student’s best way of understanding or doing something? I can only guide them in finding their way.

I try not to possess the content I am teaching. When I come across as “the expert,” or talk over students’ heads, I see them lose confidence. Instead, I ask questions and add information based on their answers. I am using their level of understanding as a foundation to build new knowledge.

Elders and cultural experts taught me that there are certain subjects that are not spoken about in public. Among the coastal cultures of the Pacific Northwest, knowledge is considered wealth. Harvest sites, recipes, and spirituality may be a part of people’s heritage and are passed down through the immediate family or spiritual community. Speaking about these topics in public may give their power away, or it may be misused in the wrong hands. This contrasts with the dominant American culture, which stresses free access to knowledge. Giving people permission to share only what is appropriate and helping them to understand why knowledge is protected helps to create a more respectful learning environment.


INVOKING THE SENSES. Miguel Hernandez teaches NWIC students how to cook Native foods in an earthen oven. Photo by Elise Krohn

Promote generosity. In Northwest coastal culture, generosity is a measure of individual and community well-being. Students value the experience of leaving something that benefits future generations. This might be planting or tending gardens, making medicines, or doing community service projects.

One of the first things that I say to new students is that I am there to help them. It is not about me tooting my horn as an instructor, it is about them receiving useful tools that will assist them in their lives. While this may seem obvious, domination and imposed learning have been a part of Indian peoples’ educational experience. Many have been forced into schedules, rules, and course materials that do not match their own stories. When I reiterate that my purpose as a teacher is to serve and not to dominate, students relax.

Be authentic. Most of my teachers never shared their mistakes, vulnerabilities, or personal lives with students. They were untouchable. When I break that mold and allow myself to be vulnerable and tell my own story, whether that be success or failure, I often develop rapport with students. The more humble and real I become, the more students trust me and the safer they feel in the learning environment.

Cultivate community learning. At NWIC, traditional plants and foods classes have been most effective when students are engaged as a group. Learning occurs when they share their experiences. We have developed several teaching gardens where students learn to plant, identify, harvest, and use traditional foods and medicines. During the planning and creation phase of the garden, classes worked together as a community. People with expertise and leadership skills stepped forward and everyone contributed. Often the most valuable learning tool was not the outcome— a beautiful garden—it was the process of creating it.

Encourage the process of learning. My most valuable teachers have not given me theories or solid concepts; they have taught me how to learn. They have encouraged me to inquire, delve into the unknown, and ask the right questions. During classes I guide students so that their knowledge is self-appropriated, which is the most powerful way to learn.

Be playful. In my own education, I was conditioned to believe that learning is serious business. We rarely played games or laughed over funny stories in the classroom. My favorite teachers were those who deviated from this rule and brought passion to their teaching. For example, my mentor, Bruce Miller, often had everyone laughing hysterically. He had a way of making everyone feel special when he teased and joked. There was a palpable buoyancy in the room that lifted peoples’ spirits.

Game-playing is an important part of many Native cultures. I try to bring this playfulness into curricula. We use “Native Plants Survivor,” “Native Foods Jeopardy,” and “Berry Bingo” as assessment tools. Our program is currently developing a board game on harvesting Native foods throughout the seasons. Games can carry students deeper into the learning experience.

Invoke the senses. When we study a plant, I bring in a sample to smell, touch, taste, or apply topically. Sometimes I blindfold students and test their ability to identify plants. Their faces often light up as they recognize a sweet fragrance or the hirsute quality of a leaf. Their bodies become acquainted with plants in a multitude of ways.

Sometimes in classes I feel like a skipper on a group canoe trip. We are navigating a wild river and I am constantly adjusting my course to the changing movements of my students. When should we speed up or slow down? How can I honor each individual, yet get everyone to pull together?

Teaching is an active and ever-changing practice. It is full of surprises—you never know who will pick up the knowledge and carry it forward. I see this potential in each student.

Elise Krohn is an herbalist and wild foods educator at Northwest Indian College Cooperative Extension’s Traditional Plants and Foods Program.

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