By Michelle Hull, CEI Intern
As educators embrace virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning models this school year, it is especially critical to integrate best practices for engaging children from diverse backgrounds. Creating an Indigenous-centric learning environment requires intentionality in the brick and mortar classroom, and even more care outside of the bounds of traditional learning. In her video, “Creating an Indigenous-Centric Learning Environment,” Cinnamon Spear, a Northern Cheyenne woman, writer, and filmmaker, highlights important steps to building a classroom community that holistically nurtures Indigenous students’ educational journeys (Spear, 2020). Spear (2020) emphasizes the importance of self reflection, storytelling, and community building, which complements other scholars’ research about effectively serving Indigenous students. Although COVID-19 has posed numerous concerns as teachers navigate new complexities, the importance of ensuring that each student feels safe and celebrated in the classroom has never been more important.
The Importance of Self Reflection
For students from marginalized communities to bring their full selves to the classroom, educators must practice active self reflection about their social and political positionality. In Spear’s video, she discusses the importance of educators owning their identity as a settler-colonist, refugee, or Indigenous person (Spear, 2020). Although our racial and ethnic backgrounds may seem more complex than these labels, understanding ourselves in the context of these terms is an important place to begin:
- Settler-colonist: Someone who has both a “historical position” and a “present day practice” of “removing and erasing… Indigenous peoples in order to take the land for use by settlers… This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious thing of the past, such as the gold rush, but exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today” (Morris, 2019).
- Refugee: “Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence” (UNHCR, n.d.)
- Indigenous person: Someone who has a “historical existence and identity that is separate and independent of the states now enveloping them” (Arctic Centre, n.d.)
By normalizing conversations about political, social, and economic advantages and disadvantages, there is more space for Indigenous students to discuss their experiences both in the classroom and at home, whether it’s telling their teacher if they’ve been a target of racism, or sharing stories about their culture and history.
Self reflection and an open dialogue lay the groundwork for a classroom community that feels inviting and safe for Indigenous students. In Spear’s video, she points to community building as the most important step to building an Indigenous-centric classroom (Spear, 2020). To build a strong classroom community, Spear (2020) suggests the following practices:
- Arranging the desks in a circle rather than in a hierarchical, row structure
- Leading daily meditations
- Centering storytelling in the curriculum as a means of building trust among students
- Nurturing students’ minds, bodies, and spirits through socio-emotional learning
Centering Indigenous Stories in the Curriculum
To further strengthen class communities, school leaders should ensure that Indigenous culture, peoples, history, fashion, and art are brought into the classroom. As Spear (2020) says in her video, we are always “perpetuating or participating in the erasure of indigenous people,” and it’s educators’ duty to center Indigenous stories in the curriculum. Moreover, educators should check that the school library has books written by Indigenous authors and resources for those interested in learning more about Indigenous culture. These books “should not perpetuate stereotypes or freeze Indigenous Peoples and their culture as being part of ‘history’” (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2020).
While COVID-19 has introduced numerous priorities to balance in virtual, hybrid, and in-person classrooms, it’s important to remember that “The classroom is a political space: power is exerted, resisted, and yielded to in every classroom; every classroom is situated within an institution, state, and nation—all locations in which resources, knowledge, and access must be negotiated” (National Council of Teachers of English, 2019). The first step in ensuring that students understand that “every classroom is situated within an institution, state, and nation” is by creating an Indigenous-centric classroom, whether virtually or in person, through self-reflection, community building, and storytelling (National Council of Teachers of English, 2019).
Cussen, A. (2020, August 10). Teaching Native American history through music.
Morris, A. (2019, January 22). What is settler-colonialism? Teaching Tolerance.
National Association of Independent Schools. (n.d.). Creating an Indigenous-centric learning environment.
National Association of Independent Schools. (n.d.). How storytelling can make you a better educator.
National Association of Independent Schools. (2019, July 31). Teaching diverse perspectives through reading and writing.
UNHCR. (n.d.). What is a refugee?