Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Elders in the Classroom

by Roby Littlefield


All students can benefit from inter-generational contracts. In Alaska Native cultures, grandparents were held in high regard as they contributed to the community by passing on knowledge and skills. Children learned by listening to and watching Elders and often didn't realize they were in training. Bringing grandparents in to share personal knowledge when studying subjects like nutrition, customs, plants, biology, and history can benefit the entire class.

To get started, first look to your class members. Send home a note or survey expressing your desire to include parents, grandparents, and Elders in your lessons. Get referrals for possible speakers from organizations that work with Natives and/or the Elderly.

The way to ask Native American Elders for help is different from Western customs. Initial and subsequent contact should be subtle. Visit with them, allowing time for the conversation to wander. Allow for extended pauses, giving them time to think and decide. If their hearing is poor, sit on the side of their better ear and make sure your lips can be seen. Direct eye contact should be limited. Standing or sitting at an angle can increase an Elder's comfort level. Keep your questions basic and specific.

Begin the request by telling a little story about your class and how the Elder could help. If you are not sure if the Elder is interested, hint strongly that you would like to have their help and ask if she or he knows of someone who might be willing to participate. Custom teaches that it is rude to give someone a frank "no" to a request for help, so you need to recognize that a noncommittal response might mean "no," or it might mean that the request is being considered. If at some point the Elder changes the subject more than once while you are explaining your request, you should be aware that she or he might be trying to say "no." Don't force a response; if it is clearly not a "yes," let it go, or suggest they can contact you after they've thought about it.

It is important to ask before a meeting for permission to make audio or video recordings. Don't show up with the equipment; you may force consent and cause bad feelings. Permission to listen to or tape a story or lecture does not give you any right to rebroadcast or write the story with you as author.

If an Elder has agreed to participate in a classroom, suggest an activity or topic outline so they know what you are expecting. Provide them with optional dates and the logistics. It is helpful to explain the routine, consequences for students' misbehavior, and possible options if problems come up during the lesson. It is your responsibility to ensure discipline is maintained. Be aware, however, that Elders generally do not support strict discipline in a public setting. Discuss how to make a smooth transition to help the Elder leave the class. Agree on some visual signs and ground rules.

When the Elder arrives, properly introduce her or him so the Elder understands your respect for them. The teacher should be alert for visual cues from the Elder during the visit and be prepared to give unspoken signals back. The teacher should stay in the room.

Give the Elder a chance to use traditional discipline. Be prepared to move a child to sit by an adult who can role model how to listen respectfully. If you have problems with students degrading or ignoring an Elder, have a teacher's aide or adult Native quietly intervene.

Most traditional stories are like a round, crocheted pot holder. The story teller goes round and round the subject until it all comes together and finally comes to the lesson or point. Be patient; allow the Elders to share their culture in their own way. Your students are learning how to listen. Students should refrain from interrupting to ask questions. There will be a proper time to ask questions.

As a thank-you, Elders usually appreciate students and teacher letters, pictures, and story booklets, which are treasured and shown to friends and relatives. This may also encourage other Elders to participate in classroom projects.

Sometimes you will find a resource person who is available for a wide variety of subjects and projects. If you use an Elder more than once, the school should provide some type of stipend in appreciation of the energy and knowledge the Elder is contributing. Be careful not to burn out your Elders. Whenever you make a request, be sure the Elder understands she is not obligated.

Keep your lessons flexible in case the Elder can't come at the last minute. Once an Elder has agreed on a time to come into your classroom, avoid changing or postponing the visit.


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