What are We Teaching Kids These Days?
August means two things where I live. Back to school and fire season. Schools are starting up again and teachers are scrambling to deliver lessons through distance learning or in some kind of hybrid fashion. Meanwhile, we are still struggling to control three very titchy wildfires: the pandemic, climate disaster and racism. All three can flare up unpredictably and are elusive to quell. A lot of the back to school focus is on the how: weighing the pros and cons of in person versus distance learning against the threat of disease, or from the teacher’s perspective, translating in person instructional techniques into a Learning Management System and creating instructional videos. All of this while the smoke and particulates of coronavirus, unchecked climate change and racism are heavy in the air around us. In our panic to answer how the content will be delivered, we overlook asking ourselves what we are teaching and why.
At the beginning of school closures last March, I asked myself why I was trying to teach Robotics via distance learning when I could be teaching Permaculture. It was a gut feeling. Wouldn’t students care more about saving the planet right now than figuring out yet more mechanical ways to attempt to control it? I had hoped that over the summer, school districts would have time to re-evaluate and revise their educational models and present something new in the fall. Given the national scale of unrest around disregard for Black Lives, I expected school boards to reach out to BIPOC parents and youth in their regions and gather their insights on what they needed. But alack and alas, we find ourselves not only facing the same old same old, but it is being stripped down to the “core.” And that core is nakedly centered on dominant whiteness.
Let’s focus on world language requirements. Why do we make studying a secondary language a graduation requirement? We are, admittedly, one of the most mono-linguistic nations on the planet. I remember the shame I felt as a teenager when I babysat a preschooler who was fluent in three languages. His mother was Belgian and his father Colombian. He knew I spoke English, but he tried out a bit of Flemish with me and saw that I didn’t understand. So he switched to Spanish. When I didn’t know that either, he asked me what my other language is. When I told him I only knew English, he looked at me with a mix of scorn and pity, as if I only had one arm. So, I agree that learning another language is important. It changes how you view the world and how you think about things that you currently take for granted. Some value the cultural lessons that coincide with language lessons. But whose culture do we exalt with the languages we teach?
Typically, in most high schools in the US, students select from the few languages offered at their school: Spanish, French, German and more recently Japanese or Chinese. A quick Wiki search reveals that over 70% of K-12 language classes are in Spanish with French coming in second at around 14%. Spanish conquistadors to the south and French territory to the north, we predominantly teach the languages of colonizers. Even in speaking of our neighbors to the south, we refer to them as Latino or Hispanic. Both terms acknowledge and elevate not the First Peoples of the Americas, but the invading Latin and Spanish. Why do we continue to glorify the cultures of the conquerors in this way?
Where I live in Oregon, the culture of whiteness views this state as a westernmost destination site. It is the end of the Oregon Trail, the prized territory for white folks to stake their claim and build their homestead. So few recognize that this Pacific Northwest was once the cradle of civilization for the entire hemisphere. All the peoples of South America, Central America and North America channeled through the Pacific Northwest on an eastward migration. This was the starting place. When Europeans first came to what we now call Oregon, over 20 different languages were spoken here. Let that sink in. It would be as if you needed a translator to travel from Medford to Eugene, then again for Salem, and yet again in Portland. How did people negotiate between tribes? Turns out, they had a language for that purpose.
Chinuk Wawa was at first a pidgin language, based primarily on old Chinook, but incorporating elements of other languages. Over time, it became a creole that many people were bilingual in. When French and English speakers arrived, their languages, too, composed parts of the language that was spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest, from Northern California to Alaska. In the 1850s, the US Government forced native Tribes to cede their ancestral lands and relocated them to Grand Ronde Reservation. There, Chinuk Wawa became the first language of a blend of many Tribes including the Umpqua, Molalla, Rogue River, Kalapuya, Chasta and many others.
The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde has preserved Chinuk Wawa and collaborated with linguists and educational specialists to develop the Chinuk Wawa language program, offered through our community college. This year, due to the pandemic, the course is offered online, making it accessible to people from where they are, including high school students. The two-year program not only meets Oregon high school graduation requirements, it is accredited through the Oregon University System as well. Why not promote the language that was spoken for hundreds of years on the very land where we live and go to school?
If you value decolonizing education, doesn’t it make sense to start with studying the cultures that originated here? Consider the experience of a student with Tribal affiliation being expected to take two years of Spanish or French, to learn more about the cultures of those who very nearly obliterated the culture of their people. It is not difficult to see how having the option to instead learn Chinuk Wawa in their local high school would be an affirmation. But also for students who are descended from European homesteaders, learning about the First People of the land they occupy and the language spoken between peoples, including white people, can also be enlightening. For those who are new to this region, it is a language and culture built upon the flora and fauna that we still see remnants of around us. It is an introduction to this place as well as to the First People of this region.
Here I am in the middle of August, having jostled most of the summer to try to bring this option to the table. Happily, I have been met with support and encouragement most of the way. Teachers and students are excited by the idea. School Boards and Educational Service Districts say they will support and promote it. Native American Student Programs and the community college’s High School Connections office will support the registration and enrollment process. The instructor, certified by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, is happy to extend the online course to participating high school students. The only caveat has been in funding the program. I have launched a crowdfunding campaign that I hope will seed a small cohort of students to get the ball rolling. Students report back to high school on September 14th and the community college course starts on September 28th. I am confident that, together, we can make this a reality.
Teaching indigenous languages in our high schools makes sense. It is relevant, place-based education that enriches not only linguistic knowledge and cultural awareness, but personal identity with regional ties. As a distance learning course, it can be cool water to the triple threats of wildfires engulfing us: a pandemic, climate crisis and racism. Instead of furthering old colonial approaches to education, we can invest in teaching our youth to be connected to their region, the First People of that region, and to communicate through a language of connectedness.
Special thanks to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa Language Program for historical information and resources.