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Six Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) teachers were part of Northern Arizona University’s Diné Institute for Navajo Nation Educators (DINÉ) fellows program for 2022, finishing an eight-month professional development institute designed to help teachers develop and teach culturally responsive curriculum in their classroom.
Teachers Judith Arnold, James Jones, Jordan Morales and Emily Musta all returned to the program after participating in previous years. Meanwhile, it was the first year for Sylvia Garcia-Lohr and Emily Leahy.
It is longer than most professional development and collaborative, using teachers as experts as well as learners.
“It’s long term. It centers teachers as leaders, and it’s confidence-focused rather than teacher strategy,” said Angelina Castagno, who is the director of both the Institute for Native-serving Educators (INE) and DINÉ. “ … When teachers have deep and rich knowledge of their subject or of their content, then they may be more effective working with students around that topic and that subject.”
Castagno added: “There continues to be significant inequities that impact Indigenous youth and Indigenous communities, and we believe really strongly that schools are an important site for change and teachers are important to changes. So focusing on building the capacity of teachers is important if we hope to change the inequities that exist for the students in their classrooms.”
It was the fifth cohort of teachers to complete the program, which began in 2016 with a couple of teachers from Kayenta. They had participated in the Yale National Initiative (YNI), and wanted to create a similar program in northern Arizona to expand the number of teachers who could participate, especially those serving Navajo students.
The first group was in 2018, and the program has only grown since, Castagno said. Participation at FUSD has also grown since the first two teachers (Lisa Joe and Judith Arnold) participated in 2019.
Five district teaches were in the 2020 cohort and six in 2021. Arnold has been part of all four years, with Jones and Morales attending since 2020 and Musta since 2021.
Any full-time K-12 teacher in a school on or bordering the Navajo Nation can participate — and INE also has a similar program for teachers serving the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache communities. The program takes place from April to December each year, with applications open from December to early February.
Teachers choose a cohort to be part of based on a theme and content area. Each cohort has 10 teachers and is led by one NAU professor.
This year’s cohorts focused on math, Indigenous children’s and young adult literature through a social-emotional learning lens, and plants, animals and habitats of the Southwest.
Over the eight-month program, teachers learn together through full-day seminars (four total), a 10-day summer residency on NAU’s campus and monthly Zoom sessions.
“In addition to growing their content knowledge, they’re also working throughout the eight months to think about and learn how to ensure that that content can be engaged in ways that are culturally responsive,” Castagno said, “in ways that really center Indigenous or specifically Navajo histories, knowledges, language, cultures and things that are meaningful and relevant to children who are Navajo in this space. Over the eight months, they read, they think, they talk, they learn.”
Throughout the program the fellows are also working to develop a curriculum unit based on what they’re learning that follows state standards, and is specific to their grade level and content area. At the end, INE puts the work online so that other teachers can use the information for free.
The program is one of six that INE has for educator professional development — including for school counselors, preschool teachers and school leaders.
“We’re really focused on how do we really center the strengths, the assets, the abundance, the knowledges that exist in Indigenous communities,” she said. “ … Part of why it’s a long-term program — it’s teacher-driven — is that we want to see changes in teacher practice, or you want to improve teacher practice. That really takes some time and that improves collective learning and collective work to do things differently than schools have traditionally done them.”
Castagno said the most important part of the mode is that it centers cultural responsiveness.
More than 80% of teachers participating in DINÉ are Dine, she said, and because the teachers are learning from each other, they bring their experiences to the program. They also bring in traditional knowledge holders and elders to work with and teach the teachers.
Castagno said that the program is ultimately about students and their classroom experiences.
“The hope is that teachers will cultivate classroom spaces that are welcoming, inclusive and that center the diverse experiences of all of the students in their classrooms, including the Indigenous students,” she said. “That benefits not just the Indigenous students, but it benefits everybody.”
She also hoped that teachers would be able to grow from the experience, whether in content knowledge, leadership or culturally responsive teaching.
“The other piece is around collaboration and collegiality,” she said. “We hope that we are creating spaces in the Dine Institute for teachers as well as NAU faculty to build and sustain relationships across the institutions and to cont to learn with one another. … Those long-term relationships that are cultivating are just good for our community and Flagstaff.”
More about the program, including ways to apply, can be found at nau.edu/ine.
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