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.”