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New program at NAU brings Navajo culture into the classroom
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New program at NAU brings Navajo culture into the classroom

Navajo teachers at Yale

A group of teachers from the Navajo Nation talk about their latest seminar at the Yale National Initiative at Yale University.

In a possible first, two Navajo school districts and the Dine Department of Education have teamed up with Northern Arizona University to bring a teacher education program from Yale University to the Navajo Nation.

The new professional development program, called the Dine Institute for Navajo Nation Educators, is for kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers who work in schools on the Navajo Nation, said Jolene Smith, a teacher from Kayenta Unified School District. The idea behind the program is to help teachers on the Navajo Nation to create, share and use a curriculum in their classrooms that is connected with the Navajo culture.

Any teacher who teaches on the Navajo Nation can apply for the program, said Angelina Castagno, the planning director for the new Dine Institute for Navajo Nation Education. But because of the workload involved in the program, she recommends that experienced teachers, not new ones, apply. The program is currently limited to teachers who work in schools on the Navajo Nation.

The Dine Institute for Navajo Nation Educators started accepting applications for the program on Dec. 6. The deadline to apply is Jan. 10. Applicants have to fill out an online form, answer three essay questions and get approval to attend from their principal. Applicants will be notified of their status by Feb. 5. The first seminar in the series starts in April at NAU.

Teachers who are accepted into the program are called fellows and attend two seminars during the year on various topics in humanities and science, such as the physics, chemistry and biology of the human body or how diet can impact the human body, she said. The teachers who attend the program are given the chance to voice which seminars they would like to attend when they apply. Those with the most interest are chosen for that year’s seminars. There is no charge to attend the Institute; however, fellows may have to purchase books for their seminars.

“The idea was to make the seminars and the program teacher-driven,” Castagno said. It is teachers who suggest and pick the topics they think will help them the most in instructing their classes.

The seminars are taught by NAU professors who are experts in the fields and who have consulted with Navajo elders to connect the material with the culture, Castagno said. The fellows who attend the program read, research and discuss the material online and in person at seminars at NAU and at various places on the Navajo Nation. The seminars are held on Saturdays for four weeks during the school year.

At the end of the program, fellows have to create a curriculum unit based on what they have learned that matches district, state, national and Navajo education standards and incorporates Navajo culture, Castagno said. The curriculum units are presented at the end of the fellowship year and posted online for other teachers to use. Fellows are also responsible for sharing their curriculum unit to other teachers in their district.

The program is part of the Yale National Initiative and the first of its kind for Yale in a rural area on a Native American nation, Smith said. The Yale National Initiative has typically focused on public schools in urban low-income areas. But lately, the program has been trying to reach out to rural and other underserved public school districts.

Smith said she was recruited to attend the Yale National Initiative as the first group of Yale fellows from the Navajo Nation in 2010 by a fellow teacher at Window Rock Unified School District, Marilyn Dempsey.

The Yale National Initiative is a program that is designed to strengthen public schools and teaching in low-income urban or rural areas, she said. Like the program at NAU, teachers attend a series of seminars on humanities and science at Yale as part of the program for two weeks in July. At the end of the two weeks, the teachers who have attended the Yale National Initiative are required to create a curriculum unit that can use in their own classroom and be shared with other teachers and other schools.

For example, one year Smith created a math unit that used the dimensions of the traditional Navajo hogan. Students had to scale a life-sized eight-foot-by-eight-foot hogan down to a two-inch-by-two-inch model. While learning the math behind scaling their projects, the student also learned about the history and significance of the hogan in Navajo culture. Smith has also used traditional Navajo rug patterns to teach students fractions.

“It really is a neat experience. They really value teachers,” Smith said. “They focus on teachers leading from the grassroots. It’s the teachers who decide what workshops and speakers we want to hear from. They really cater to what we need in our classrooms.”

Smith has gone back to attend the Yale National Initiative nearly every year since then. But not many teachers from the Navajo Nation can make the trip to the East Coast to attend, she said. The Yale National Initiative realizes this and encourages fellows to work with a local university or college to bring the program to their communities.

Smith reached out to Northern Arizona University in 2016 to see if the university would be interested in partnering with the Kayenta and Chinle Unified School Districts and the Dine Department of Education to bring the program to teachers on the Navajo Nation.

“NAU is a central partner on the reservation,” Smith said. “A lot of our teachers have graduated from NAU and we know that NAU really supports the tribes."

“They needed a university partner and we thought it was a great model,” Castagno added.

The reporter can be reached at or (928)556-2253.


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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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