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Lake County tribes, educators team establish Pomo-focused curriculum

Fawn Rave’s grandmother taught her how to weave baskets when she was a child. It was more art than science, and it was a skill learned one-on-one, with Rave’s grandmother guiding her movements.

When her grandmother taught her the motions and the patterns, she never mentioned math or science and certainly not tessellation. The repeating pattern became something that seemed to form naturally.

“I thought, this is something I do with my hands,” Rave said. “I never applied mathematics.”

So Rave was in disbelief when she first saw the new math activity and curriculum developed in a partnership between Native American leaders and the Lake County Office of Education. The lesson plans used Pomo woven basket patterns to teach math concepts including tessellation, which involves covering a plane with a mosaic pattern of small square blocks.

“It was really mind-blowing,” said Rave, education director for Robinson Rancheria Pomo Indians of California.

It was also a long time coming. For Rave and other tribal leaders, the introduction of Pomo-inspired lessons offered in the new Lake County Strong curriculum is evidence of results from a yearslong push to introduce local Native American history, culture and science into K-12 education.

“This is just the beginning. We have been working for a few years now trying to get everything coming together,” said Kristin Amparo, education director for Big Valley Rancheria and a member of the Tribal Youth Education Collaborative, the partnership between Pomo leaders and the Lake County Office of Education. ”Maybe people writing the curriculum truly don’t know or understand our point of view. Nobody has ever asked.“

Poor outcomes for Native American students — higher dropout rates and chronic absenteeism — have their roots in generations of distrust for the education system, said Joy Marcks, education director for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake and member of the collaborative. Building school lessons that reflect Pomo history and culture is a piece of the effort to both reengage students and build trust with families and the wider Native American community.

“With that generation there is a lot of distrust. They were exposed to racism, bias, they were talked down to,” she said. “They were exposed to so much in the school district and by teachers and other students that trying to reach out and build those relationships and that trust is really hard. I think this is going to be really helpful.”

That is one of the reasons behind the establishment of the Tribal Youth Education Collaborative, said Brock Falkenberg, superintendent of the Lake County Office of Education. And it is likely a piece of the puzzle explaining why Native American youth have struggled.

“Our tribal youth are failing to thrive at the same level as the rest of the population,” he said. “Our tribal youth are not attending at the same rate as other youth. Our tribal youth are dropping out at a higher rate than other youth. We need to make education more relevant to that particular population if we are going to help overcome that gap that exists.”

About 4% of Lake County’s approximately 10,290 students are Native American, but they represent an outsize proportion of students who are absent on a regular basis or who fail to graduate from high school.

The chronic absentee rate among Native American students in Lake County is 41% — double the rates for both Latino and white students. Only 56% of Native Americans graduate, compared with 77% of Latino students and 81% of whites.

And the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent distance learning is making that divide wider, Falkenberg said.

“It is tremendously exaggerating the problem. Distance learning has only made this much more difficult to develop that connection, to develop engagement,” he said.

‘Giving kids a sense of belonging’

The tribal collective had long hoped to craft supplemental curriculum that teachers could tap into to drive home lessons. But the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent mandate for the majority of Lake County students to go to distance learning since March put those efforts on the fast track. The group sought to give teachers resources, but also began thinking about parents and family members at home seeking help in guiding lessons between multiple children. Activities and lessons were crafted less on grade level than on topic, so caregivers would be able to help multiple children with the same concept.

“We were putting in place kind of a one-stop shop for teachers in the county. Teachers could complete this Lake County Strong unit to really help students stay engaged and families not go insane,” said Ericka Barrish, a former teacher who is now an education specialist with the Lake County Office of Education. “A family could have multiple kids in multiple grades working on generally the same project.”

Giving teachers options for grab-and-go lessons that tackled state academic standards but presented them in uniquely local terms seemed to address multiple issues, educators said.

“We knew teachers were having to make this drastic pivot,” said Cynthia Lenners, deputy superintendent of schools in Lake County. “We wanted to be able to support our teachers and our students and families.”

While the idea for the Lake County Strong curriculum has been in the works for years, the pandemic heightened the urgency. This summer the second version of the curriculum was released and it included a significant strand of Pomo-based curriculum.

In it were math lessons based on basket patterns, language lessons rooted in Pomo dialects and science lessons on the Clear Lake hitch fish, historically a food source for Pomos. Teachers, as well as parents and caregivers, searching for ways to keep kids engaged in school even while learning from home, were encouraged to tap into resources made available online.

“They mixed our ideas basically with their technology of how to design to the curriculum,” Marcks said, calling the results “amazing.”

There was an emphasis on skills and curriculum — things like teaching students about tessellation via basket weaving — but also about cultural connection, said Kristin Amparo, education director for Big Valley Rancheria and member of the tribal collaborative that developed the curriculum.

“Giving kids a sense of belonging at school is amazing. … A lot of the kids don’t feel like it's OK to be a Native American in the school district,” she said. “If it’s mandatory that all kids go to school then it should be mandatory that all kids feel like they belong.”

That disconnect has had lasting impact on Native American students. Members of the tribal collaborative and creators of the Lake County Strong curriculum have goals that go far beyond student engagement during distance learning.

‘There has never been a relationship’

For Barrish, developing the curriculum was mostly about listening. In the process of developing math lessons based on Pomo basket design, she learned in some cases the baskets can represent things that are sacred.

“Rather than go to a museum or go online and assuming it was OK to share, we were able to make sure that we were sharing patterns that we had a right to share,” she said. “There were a couple of different styles of basket they asked that we not use. I was happy that we had gotten that feedback.”

For Barrish it was a straightforward exchange, but it felt meaningful.

“American education just comes from an Anglo-American perspective. We have little snippets of Native American Heritage Month or Black History Month or Women’s History Month, but that’s the lip service,” she said. “If we want to teach American history we should do our best to teach the history of all Americans all the time.”

In Marcks’ experience, Native American culture and history is either not taught or mis-taught. If there are elements of Native American history in standard curriculum, it’s usually unfamiliar to the students she works with. Lessons, if there are any, tend to focus on tribes and experience not related to Lake County or even California, she said.

“I would like to see us be the platform here in Lake County to represent our culture here and bring it into the curriculum, so we are not learning about the Cherokee or not learning about the East Coast (tribes),” she said.

Outside of lessons offered through Lake County Strong, nowhere are students likely to learn about the hitch — which is found only in Clear Lake and its tributaries. That connection is crucial to keeping kids engaged in school and gaining the trust of parents and grandparents who have had negative experiences with the school system, Amparo said.

“How can we continue to get Native American students to participate more in class? How can we get them to want to come to school?” Amparo said. “It’s to change the dynamic between the education system and the tribe itself. There has been a huge, huge gap. There has never been a relationship between the tribe and the school district — not when I was going to school, not when my parents were going to school, not when my grandparents were going to school.“

The pandemic has infused a sense of urgency within the group. Distance learning has been devastating for students and families, especially students and families of color. Across the country, students are expected to have suffered, on average, up to nine months of learning loss because of the pandemic. For students of color, the deficit could be as many as 12 months, according to a study by McKinsey & Company, an international corporate consulting firm.

That is just one reason why members of the tribal collaborative are working to push for more. The goal? Mandatory curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“The ideal next step is to get the curriculum into every Lake County school district to really start it and get everybody more engaged,” Amparo said. “There is a lot that not just the kids would learn but the parents would learn, too … just bringing the truth to the light and also recovering from the trauma and just getting better every single day.”

So the group will continue to meet, through the pandemic and into whatever comes next, said Rave.

“We are still working. We still meet once a month,” she said. “What can we add to this? We are bringing in more language, adding to the language, more of our culture and traditions.

“We are not done.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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