Interview at Center School, February 4, 2010
- Appreciative Inquiry/Action Research
- Four Elements
- Richness of Teaching
- Appropriate Methodology
- Every Teacher is an Action Researcher
- Composite of Learning Characteristics
- Creative Teaching Environment
- Learning Culture, Teaching Culturally
- Lifelong Learners
For more on Mike, see Diane Wilson’s essay about Mike Huerth and lifelong learning
Mike: My Anishinabe name is Negonigeshick, “Light Before the Beginning of the Day.” I am an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe. My name has a lot to do with who I am and what I have done in my 32-year career.
My brief biography starts when I was about 6 years old. My Mom, who is not Native, sat my brothers and I down and told us about being “part Indian.” That moment was critical to how I saw myself. It became central to who I was and am.
My dad’s family was one of those families that were trying to hide the fact that they were Native. My dad was sort of the first one that started to say, we are Ojibwe. It was probably with my mom’s encouragement, in fact, I know that it was. My Dad was a very proud man who put up with a lot of abuse in his 30+ year career at 3M about being Native. I think hearing about his struggles and his pride in the face of all of that gave us, my brothers and I, a sense of being very proud of who we are. From my perspective, it came at the right time to make a significant difference to who I am.
I proceeded to try and figure out what that meant, and what I should be doing, and what I was all about. I ended up deciding in 8th grade that I would go to a seminary and study to be a priest. The idea in my 13-year-old mind was that I knew I needed to get out, I needed to get away from what was there. I also needed to find some way that I could have an excuse to be around the people that I was starting to claim as my own. I was in the seminary for four years. I decided that I probably wasn’t a Catholic any more. I had my own beliefs about the Creator that had nothing to do with what the Catholic Church taught at that time. I also decided that I wanted to have a family some day. I got out of the seminary and went to college. I went to the University of Minnesota, worked with Roger Buffalohead, who was my advisor there and much of my early inspiration.
I became an Indian Studies and Psychology major. I graduated from college not knowing what to do next.
I heard about a part-time job teaching. I certainly had never wanted to teach because I’m pretty introverted plus I had a tough problem with stuttering. Because of this teaching seemed like an absurd idea. But when I ended up married and my first son was born, I needed an income so I took my first teaching job. About a half-year later, I was offered a job at South High School teaching Native American Studies. Without any teaching background, I started to teach. Again, it was sort of against my nature to do that. However, it was the beginning of a wonderful journey. In this backward way a very long and very satisfying career in teaching and administration began for me.
I taught at South for four years, got my Education degree after which I was “excessed” by the district because of declining enrollment. There were 50 Native American staff in Minneapolis at that time and the district started to cut staff. Three years later, there were seven Native American staff left. I was one of the ones towards the end that was going to be cut loose.
Then I heard about a teaching job at Flandreau Indian School. I taught at Flandreau for about eight years. I found that I could learn to teach at Flandreau where at South I really couldn’t. The attendance for Native students was so sporadic that you were almost dealing with a different set of students one day as compared to the next. It was very hard to learn how to teach a group of students when the attendance was so hit and miss. I managed to do some things but, obviously, at Flandreau the attendance was much better. I started to piece together more what teaching meant.
After about eight years there, my mind started to move towards how schools operate. My family and I ended up moving to Minneapolis and I became the Coordinator for the Minneapolis Public Schools Indian Education Department. I did that for a year and then went into administration. I was an Assistant Principal for six years and then a Principal for 19 years. I was the Principal at three different high schools and one K-8 Native oriented school, Anishinabe Academy.
Being at Anishinabe Academy gave me responsibility for turning Four Winds School into a new school because of its perceived failure. The Superintendent at that time, Carol Johnson, asked me to take over the school. Shortly afterward, she became Superintendent in Tennessee. In the next three years, under new district leadership, as I was trying to change a failed school into a successful one, they proceeded to strip over 20 positions from the school. As I was in charge of running the school, the tools were being taken away methodically. Despite that fact, the school grew. And despite that fact, many of the vital signs were good. It was a heart wrenching experience. When somebody hands you something that is the answer to your dreams and then strips the very tools that you need, it’s like a mechanic trying to fix a car with a pair of pliers. The tools are gone.
Diane: Was it budget?
Mike: It was a combination of things. It was district budget and it was Indian Education making decisions that it felt it needed to make. It was a number of different things that happened but it was actual positions that were taken away by the district. People wanted to stay. As staff was being cut, our student numbers were growing. We were almost double the size in three years as compared to when we started. Ironically, in other schools across the district, numbers were falling. Ours were not, we were growing. And yet, our resources were cut.
In my fourth year the position numbers finally stabilized. We began to see some of the progress that we were hoping we could make. About that time I was at the point where you’ve tried hard, you’ve seen it melting through your fingers, and you feel like it’s time for someone else to pick it up and make it go. You’ve maybe lost faith that it can happen. I retired as a Principal at that time so that I could do something different, in a different environment.
I ended up landing a wonderful job as a high school Principal in Taos, New Mexico but I could not go because of the needs of my family. I had a job that I couldn’t take, and had retired in Minneapolis, and therefore I ended up on a temporary basis picking up the interim Director of Indian Education job in Minneapolis Public Schools. I rebuilt the Indian Education Department in less than one year, after which I was not rehired. It was a very bruising experience. I thought we had done some good things. I think probably some people don’t want to hear truly what you’re thinking in a bureaucracy.
Joe: I remember when you became Principal at Anishinabe Academy, they had said they were going to restart Four Winds. I said, oh my god, they’re going to restart this school but they don’t have a Native person running the program. I said, that’s a joke. And then they hired you and I was like, oh good, they’ve got somebody who can really do it. I was thinking they were going to hire Joe Bureaucrat and he would run it as an Indian school, which would mean the same old programming with the name Indian over the top of it.
Mike: Then I was unemployed for a time. I did an independent contract with the Phillips Indian Educators web site in which I interviewed teachers who were successful in working with Native students. I asked them very simply, “what works” in educating Native kids. (Indigenous Education: What Works with Native Kids I had a really wonderful experience interviewing educators and hearing how they have been successful in teaching Native kids, and putting that into a composite.
A number of things came out of the Action Research that I was doing. First of all, the model that I was using asked the question, “What works for Native kids” first, and finally, “What research makes sense out of why that’s the case?” I heard teachers say, “use a lot of visual things with kids.” I heard Joe discuss a science lesson in which he is visually doing things. I heard him talk about students using pictures for notes. I heard things from different teachers that when I look through the literature about what’s going on with Native kids, it’s very obvious that the kids tend to be right brained. In the characteristics of being right brained, you could see why these methods were working. The teachers were saying things like it’s really important to work in voluntary groups. It’s really important that kids are not being forced to stand in front of a class trying to recite things.
And then I went back to another set of literature. That’s the literature on the Myers-Briggs assessment of personality. In that, I found with the help of Jane Kise (www.janekise.com), a researcher on Myers-Briggs and personality type, that there is a predisposition for Native kids to be a specific grouping of personality types, centered around being introverted rather than extroverted. Being intuitive. Being feeling. Also being perceptive. The key piece being-not that all Native kids were that way-but statistically there was a large overrepresentation of INFP kids. Jane talks about that in her writing. She points out that there can be a cultural predisposition to being a certain personality type, in this case INFP. Although a kid might be extroverted, he’s part of a group of people who are not. This cultural expectation becomes important in how he sees and reacts to his world. It is critical in educating any student to take into account and adjust to their cultural expectations.
The third factor should be obvious, that the kids are tribal and that’s really important. Nephews, cousins, the way that people are approaching things. The importance of my mom, the importance of my cousin, it all goes along with being a tribal people, seeing one’s self as a part of a group rather than being just an individual. Likewise, Dawn Quigley, an extraordinary teacher at Four Winds and now a mentor teacher in Forest Lake, talked about the importance of touching base with kids on a Monday morning when they first get to school. This is another technique that ties in well with a tribal identity.
And finally, there is a certain culture to being impoverished. Stephanie Thomas, an exceptionally effective Anishinabe Academy second grade teacher that I interviewed, talked about scaffolding success. Because the kids have been taught they’re unsuccessful and they’ve seen so much lack of success around themselves, then they have to learn to be able to feel successful about what they’re doing. So that teacher would do things with second graders that would reinforce things in a growing sense. She spoke of building resilience in kids so that they would be able to feel successful despite the fact that school and life have often seemed to teach them that they can’t be.
What I found was, and this does go back to your original question, there is a composite difference with Native kids that’s like nobody else. In general, the teachers that I heard of being successful didn’t say, “I heard this research about Native kids and therefore I’m going to do this.” They just were teachers who had a whole lot of richness about the way that they taught. The more richness you have, the more different types of kids you can deal with and pull our Native kids in. They all seemed to be keen observers of what worked with Native students. What I found, which was really important to me personally, was if you find the appropriate motivation points, teaching style and techniques, kids will love learning. Native kids as much or more so than anybody.
I should mention here that shortly after I completed my interview contract, I was offered a job teaching at Center School. This is probably the most enjoyable job of my life. In my mind, I’ve moved more towards what is going on in the education process itself, which made it very logical to me to be teaching and trying things out that I had learned and wondered about in my research earlier and as I worked with Native students in the past 30 years. After teaching for 12 years and doing administration for about 19 years, I ended up teaching again. I have been spending the last five months relearning but also learning things I never knew before. What I did learn in the process of doing the interviews of successful educators of Native kids, as Dawn stated, it’s the “richness” of teaching that’s successful with Native kids. Therefore, one of my adventures in being a teacher now is to increase the “richness” of what I’m doing.
My good fortune in ending up at Center School has given me a wonderful opportunity to test and validate in person the things I learned from the teachers I interviewed, and the sense I tried to make of those interviews.
A good case in point, one that I’ve learned in the last month. In History class, let’s say that I want to study New World exploration by European powers. If I sit kids down in a school traditional way with a textbook and say let’s study European explorers, I’m not going to get beyond the third sentence with the kids. But in the last week and a half, we’ve been studying European explorers but the way we’ve done it is to allow them to explore the explorers. We’ve got internet access and it’s been as simple as saying find two Spanish explorers and tell me who they were and what they were after. And do the same for the French and do the same for the British. And the kids have been doing it actively.
I used to believe that is was enough to teach a Native perspective on such a typically American topic. Now I can see clearly that it is equally important to teach in a way that is culturally appropriate. That is, using a style and methodology that takes into account things like their cultural brain dominance and personality type. When learning is taking place, then things like the racist world view of these explorers can be uncovered by the students as their own finding, not a finding that is given to them. As a result, I am finding my teaching to be far more effective than when I just adjusted the content to come from a Native perspective.
Another example. In Economics class, again, I could sit down with a textbook and say here’s page one, here’s page two, here’s page three. But again what I’ve found is, have them create a visual about Maslow’s hierarchy. Have them create a visual of the pieces of economics. And suddenly they’re interested in doing it. Again, what I’m finding out in these four quadrants that I’ve looked at a year back, if you touch those areas, brain dominance, cultural personality, being tribal in world view, and needing to learn to feel successful in school this student that didn’t seem motivated can suddenly be. As a teacher, I’ve been able to see the very things before my eyes that I heard other teachers talking about. It’s been a logical progression of a career in a sense because now I’ve been able to focus again on how to be a successful teacher of Native students.
Diane: What a gift to be able to go full circle on the teaching experience.
Joe: I’m somewhere in that too. I’ve got 15 years classroom and then nine administrative. You learn from both parts. But I’ve learned more about teaching as an administrator because I’ve had time to think about it, to look at it, to reevaluate, to see what works. I’m almost ready to return to the classroom in that sense. I would like to have a shot at it. On the other hand, I really feel that this is important and I want to do this too.
Mike: By and large, Native education across the country is unsuccessful. If you look at the data, look at how our kids stand out as being unsuccessful, even as compared to African American students and other “at risk” students. The other side is, there are educators who can do a wonderful job of educating Native kids. There is a grouping of characteristics of the teaching that they use. If we’re ever able to articulate that across the country where Native kids have been taught, there’s no reason our kids can’t perform as well or better than anybody else. But people have to believe it’s a possibility. They have to believe in the richness of their teaching. They have to become people who can try something and take a chance but also measure whether or not it’s working. It has to be important to them whether or not it’s working. I’m not talking about doctoral research, that’s a whole different thing. I’m talking about “action research,” which is what a teacher does when they test the effectiveness of what they do.
Diane: Could this be done in public schools, not just in an environment like Center School?
Mike: Yes. This is why. The kids here at Center School have been bruised and battered by schools more than any kids I have worked with over the years. They have been taught thoroughly by schools that they are unsuccessful. And yet, I found many of those kids, given the right richness, the right methodology, they can be excited about what they’re doing. Again, every day isn’t a wonderful day, and every day isn’t without its successes and failures, but I’ve been astounded by how successful it can be with the kids who have been hurt the most by public schools. When I went back to interview teachers who had been successful with Native kids, with a few exceptions, they taught at public schools. It can be done!
But there are two parts missing. One is, every teacher needs to be an “action researcher.” You have no business teaching unless you’re testing the effectiveness of what you’re doing. That’s not the American psyche about teaching. Any time I try something, I should be asking, “Did that work?” But the traditional American mind says, “Was that kid good enough to get it?” rather than asking, “Did I teach it well enough that they picked it up?” It’s a totally different way of thinking. So if I go into an Economics class and the lesson falls on the floor, then the question is not, “What’s wrong with these kids?”, the question is “What’s wrong with my methodology?” We need to be asking, “How do I do this, how do I teach it in a different way that makes sense to them and engages them?”
The second piece is, I don’t see anywhere in the research where an educator is saying, here is the composite of things that work with the Native kid. Chuck Ross did some stuff on right brain learning. Jane Kise did some stuff on Myers-Briggs. There’s a lot of stuff on growing up tribally. There’s stuff on poverty. But no one is saying, here’s a composite. And therefore, now if you’re teaching, whether you’re good or you’re bad or you’re in the middle like most of us, if you just keep these things in mind, you can be successful with Native kids. Most teachers don’t say when they start teaching, let’s go look at the research, it looks like Native kids are mostly right brained, therefore this, this, and this. What they should be doing is watching what they’re doing and watching what their peers are doing. Trying things out and then seeing what’s successful and then figuring out why it’s successful and then repeating that.
Diane: Why don’t they do that? Is it training?
Mike: Yes. We start with the doctorate, with doctoral research. And then we take this person over here who’s starting to teach. Most of the stuff over here in the doctoral thesis is kind of inaccessible. It’s there but if I’m a first-year teacher of Native kids, am I really going to go online and find out if a Native kid is right brained or left brained or whatever? We’re in the midst of a deductive process and it’s an inductive process that works. A deductive process says, “This is what you should do.” The inductive process says, “I tried this, I tried this, and I tried this. Why did this work?” I’m talking about a different kind of education process that says, we become measurers of what we do. We become comparers of what we do. We learn from what we and others do that is successful with Native students.
Mike: I walk by Jim’s room and he just sounds enthusiastic about what he’s doing. He’s having fun. And then I watch the kids and I say, wow, look at how they’re interested because they see the interest on his face. Or I can hear Jamie teach down the hall. I can hear her do this and this. The richness is in me recognizing that if I find out what each of them is doing that is working with Native kids and I pull that together with some things that I’ve done, then that’s where you find the composite that’s going to make things work.
In a typical school, a teacher is isolated. They’re isolated by the fact that they teach five classes and they have one prep, if it’s a secondary school. During those five classes they’re totally isolated. Budgets are not going to pay to change that isolation. When they’re having their prep time they’re preparing for their classes, therefore they’re isolated all day long. In practice, they don’t have the accessibility of sitting and watching what somebody else does. And then measuring the results.
Diane: If you were trained as the product of an education system that taught you this way, then chances are you’re going to turn around and apply it.
Mike: Absolutely. The system supports that and it doesn’t allow for you to get out of that strait jacket. Because most teachers are teaching a full day or else they’ve got their one hour prep, and they’re isolated. There’s no expectations like there are in Japanese schools where you’re teaching four hours a day and you have time to share ideas and be professional. Or like we have upstairs, we’re all teaching in roughly the same area. We’re almost in the same classroom. So you do affect each other. Jamie and I have a pretty good idea of what each other is doing because she’s right down the hall, she can hear what I’m doing, I can hear what she’s doing.
Joe: Don’t you think, Mike, that administration has an effect too? I can think of numerous principals who have squashed anybody who tried to be creative or different.
Diane: And why is that?
Mike: Fear of the unknown. Fear of lack of control.
Diane: Does that come from the expectations of programs like No Child Left Behind?
Mike: Some good things came out of No Child Left Behind. Teddy Kennedy was very involved with it. One of the things that I think they were saying is that you need to measure whether what you’re doing is working. The problem is, it sort of flies in the face of that, because now we’re spending less time teaching and more time testing kids. We’re more concerned with what’s this specific knowledge that you need to have as opposed to, my grandpa was only educated to the second grade and yet was brilliant in his own way because he loved to learn. Because he loved to learn he was always learning. So the testing is nothing about teaching the kids how to learn. It’s about making them “the learned.” In this day and age, it should be about learning because our knowledge is turning many times over each year.
Joe: Are you saying that they should focus on process rather than outcomes?
Mike: Right. They’re measuring the end result rather than the process.
Diane: If Native kids are failing in droves and you allow that to occur then that seems like systemic racism, like they’re not able to succeed, it’s not us it’s them.
Mike: The reason I wouldn’t use the word racism is that I think it’s often inadvertent. There’s been a lot of purposeful racism but I think this is more or less inadvertent. It’s just as damaging.
Diane: So it’s not so much directed at kids because they’re Native, it’s a system that doesn’t work for Native kids the way they are.
Mike: Last spring I bought my wife a canary. Then I read a book on canaries. It said, you can’t cook with Teflon coated pans in your house if you have a canary. Why, because their lungs are different, they breathe much more deeply. But there’s a reason if you think about the miners’ canary, their lungs are very sensitive and they will be the first to die given the wrong things in the air. Suddenly I realized we couldn’t use those damn pans. Those pans were hurting us but we don’t know it because we have bigger lungs. But a canary is different. So we need to reinvent the miners’ canary aspect and find out if the gases are such that the canary stops singing and dies. My canary, obviously, of American education is Native kids. This was a metaphor originally used by Felix Cohen back in the early 1950’s. Because they are documentedly the first ones to fail in the system. It’s not an indication of the canary being odd, it’s an indication of the canary is the first one that dies.
Joe: I don’t know if you agree with me, Mike, but I think you could extrapolate that and say that Natives are the miners’ canary of the United States in many ways. It’s not just education but if you look at what happened to Natives over the years. 99% killed, that’s a pretty powerful message. I think that fate awaits all the other 99% if they’re not aware of what gases are out there, so to speak, and what poisons.
Mike: It’s more than just education, it’s pervasive. Taking that approach and saying, then I need to cook with the right stuff. And then the canary is going to be okay and live 20 years. Likewise, I need to teach with the right methodology. If I teach with the right methodology, Native kids can do very well. But I think we’ve lost that faith as a nation. I should say, we’ve never had that faith as a nation ever since education was taken from a tribal setting and put into a public setting.
There’s also the piece that, as Native kids, we’re the only group in which we were here and that process was forced upon us. Even to African Americans, that was not the case. In fact, if you tried to learn to read you could be punished or killed if you were African American. It was pushed on us, they said, here, you have to have this. It was to be the means to our cultural annihilation, in their minds. I think in our larger cultural mind, it still has that aspect even though we know it’s not as simple as that.
I happened to have had a good day today. Obviously, there are some days when you don’t. I had an Economics class today that was pretty amazing. Everybody was working. They’re kids for whom that often hasn’t been the case. It’s not that I’m any genius, it’s that there are some very clear things that a person needs to do. Things like, give them choice. Give them three choices that I can live with. I was taught that by Greg Haugen, a wonderful art teacher in Flandreau. If you want them to work in groups, give them choice. They don’t have to work in a group but have that option. If you go back to the make up of kids who have anything around an INFP Myers-Briggs personality type or are right brain dominant, that’s the way you most effectively work with them.
There’s an interesting stat with Myers-Briggs research and that is that the personality type that many Native American kids have is a personality type that has a predominance of high drop-out rates. Nothing to do with race. If you take INFP and measure how often they graduate from high school, they have a very low success rate. And so that says again that the education system does not teach this personality type. It says, you sit down in this chair, you do this, you do this, and you do this. In my mind, as stubborn as I am, I say, no. What I find is that if I get up in front of my class and say, now today, you will do this and you will do this, and I’m up on my high horse, it’s like trying to herd cats, it’s not going to happen.
One of the things that Jane Kise points out in her research, it’s not so much a matter of the individual, it’s a matter of the composite cultural Myers-Briggs, because that’s my expectation being a part of a cultural context. Even if I was an extroverted kid, I’m raised in an environment that tends to be more introverted, so extroverted behavior looks really odd. When a kid comes storming into a classroom and he’s very noisy, in my classroom kids look at him like, what’s the problem. What I’ve seen in many classrooms that have another cultural description, somebody comes in as a noisy presence, it’s like let’s join the party. That’s an extroverted cultural personality, in a sense. Someone that’s real boisterous in the Indian world, it’s like what the heck is wrong with you. Even if somebody Native is as extroverted as can be but yet they’re still part of that Native cultural expectation, then you wouldn’t do that.
Diane: When we interviewed Ona, she said that when kids are really rambunctious in class then you know they didn’t learn their values at home. There’s the underlying understanding of how you behave in a group in public.
Mike: I think that is often true. I also think we need to be careful of that. What we tend to do is say, well, these kids were raised in the city and so therefore they’ve pretty much learned what the city has to teach. Or this tribe has lost its language and therefore there’s no Indianness left. And yet I can go to a place like Indian Island, Maine, where the Penobscot language is now for the most part gone but, let me tell you, those folks are Native in the way that they are. We have to be careful of us not stereotyping our own kids as now being not Native. They still have characteristics that are very strong.
Martin Broken Leg did some research at Augustana College years back on right brain versus left brain. He found, first of all, that you can tell from brain synapse response and so on that there was a greater preponderance of Native kids with the right side of the brain showing response synapses than the left side. But the part that I wanted to mention was, it was not only that but it was also graded to their blood mixture. The more full-blood they were, the more they tended to be right brained, which would make you wonder if it’s more our make-up of who we are as opposed to our social training. Or both, as I’m sure it’s true in most cases, it’s both. But that says, okay, now you’ve got this kid that’s been adopted, raised in the White world, but guess what, they may still have Native characteristics.
Diane: I’m curious about the content of what you teach, like in Social Studies. In public schools versus what happens here at Center School, is there a cultural shift then in what you would teach? Take Manifest Destiny, something like that. Are kids getting a different cultural education here than they would get?
Mike: Part of the problem of the burden of inspiring Native kids to learn is often been put on just the culture. Just putting content into a course that involves the culture or Native perspective won’t get too far. It’s important that the kids feel enfranchised by content but the other side is that they learn culturally. It’s really important that you’re doing both at the same time. When we’re studying exploration with the kids, if I took the approach of, here’s these brave Conquistadors, I could pretty much guarantee you that at some point these kids are going to say, wait a minute. But I also know from my early years of teaching that I can have the content right but if I’m not teaching culturally, they’re not inspired. In my early years of teaching, I would wonder why this teacher at South High would have more success than I would. Or in my years at Flandreau, I would see this Art teacher, who is a non-Native person, and yet he had some success with kids that I didn’t have, even though I felt fairly successful. That’s what started me to think, what is it here, and then I realized, you need to teach culture, yes, but you need to teach culturally. I think that’s the first piece.
There’s all kinds of things that are part of that. There’s choice, there’s the piece of groups, there’s the piece of not challenging their stubbornness but enticing it. There’s a piece of using visual, of telling stories. One thing I did early in my courses this time around is I asked my kids how they liked to learn. That in itself is kind of an odd thing; you’d think it would be the first thing. Why don’t we do that? When I asked them how they liked to learn, one thing that I hear time and again, most of the kids say I like stories. Well, stories are very right brained, stories are very family oriented in a sense, they draw on a lot of those touchstones that work with Native kids. But we haven’t created that composite yet. The composite is what needs to happen. What’s the composite of things that teachers need to do to teach Native students effectively.
Diane: Do you have an interest in creating that?
Mike: Right now, that’s one of my primary motivators. I’m able to explore right now what I found in rough draft in my research.
Diane: So you’re able to take what you found in your research and apply it. Will you take it to another place, another level?
Mike: I’m in hope of that when the time and opportunity comes. I have a faith that it wasn’t just happenstance that my life happened as it did. I believe that there will be some way, some how, that I or someone else is going to pick up some element of these ideas and experiences and do something with them.
Diane: Is your sense of creating a composite in the way that you teach? Understanding the composite pieces in a daily sense?
Mike: Teaching in a way that I keep that composite in mind. Teaching in a way that I measure the results of what I do and then respond accordingly. If something works, I have to know why. Now that I can see these different areas that, in fact, research does say Native kids have a predominance in, I can say, ah, that’s why this works. That’s why I should do more of this. It’s that kind of thing. What will happen from here, I don’t know. I guess one of my dreams is that somehow, in some way, in my lifetime, there’s going to be something that is going to grow the dialogue concerning Native education. Again, I don’t know how, I don’t know what, I just have a faith that I should keep doing what’s there. And believe that I or somebody else is going to pick up the pieces and create a more user-friendly composite picture.
Mike: Something else I’ve learned is that if my contest here is to make the kids learn it then I’m fighting the wrong battle. My battle, because of where they’re at in this education race, is to help them become a learner. If I give them a textbook and say, here, I try to give them knowledge. If I say, go find a bunch of explorers and see what they did, I’m asking them to learn. I’m feeling like regardless of where they’re at, whether they’re a 2nd grade reader or a 12th grade reader, if they’re a learner, if they understand themselves as learners, then they can become “the learned” in any area they choose. They have that power. Wherever they’re at, whatever skill level, if they become a skilled learner then they’ll figure the rest out. That’s the one thing I can work on.
Diane: While you were talking about the learner piece, I was thinking you could put the composite into a book that other people can read, learn from it. But I also see more and more, that’s true for some things but for other things, like what you’re talking about, that process becomes static. What you’re really trying to teach is a living, daily process. Maybe somebody can get part of that in a book but what they really need is to be there in that room with you. I struggle with whether you can even write down ideas like that.
Mike: Let me go two ways with that. One is that it’s asking a teacher to be a learner rather than the learned. So the learned one says, “I know all this stuff, I know all this algebra.” But the best teachers I’ve known were learners. And even in the last years they taught, they were learners still. They were learning from the kids, learning from the process. It’s asking the whole process to be a learner, in effect.
The other thing was, when I was a Principal at Henry High School, there was a process developed that was called teacher residency. A teacher resident was someone who taught three classes. The fourth class of the day, their job was to go be involved in other classrooms. And then the other class they were mentored by someone who was a master teacher. They became teachers by watching, learning, teaching. In fact, the veteran teachers started to learn from the new teachers who came in because they had new ideas. What happened during that time period when the residency existed, those teachers, as they became inducted into teaching, they had a very high rate of those teachers going on and teaching successfully for many years. As opposed to the norm across the country, which is in year one, two, three, teachers are dropping like flies. Those teachers became very good and very resilient. They learned by watching, they learned in a tribal way. They were learners as opposed to the learned. And, by the way, the school became recognized in Minneapolis as a very good school.
The process was successful and it spread to other high schools. When I went back to South as Principal, we started up a teacher residency program based on the one at Henry High. But then the numbers started to turn the other way, numbers of students started falling, there were less and less teachers, they were cutting the youngest teachers, and therefore the residency process became a fatality. Today there’s a little bit of it left at Henry but that’s about it. It was a wonderful process, a tribal way of teachers learning.
Diane: When you were in Indian education or at Indian schools, was this something that you were trying to apply then?
Mike: What I tried to create was this. I had the radical idea that we should be, as an Indian Ed department, we should have an idea “what works” in Indian education around the country. That was a new idea for the Minneapolis schools. The Indian Education department that had been around since the 70s, had nothing. Nothing! We decided that part of what the department would do is have a person who would be “researching” the research to find out what works.
We restructured the department dramatically in that and other ways. But in a bureaucracy that’s a good way to be out in left field because that’s not what a bureaucracy does. It maintains itself.
I’ve been pursuing all of this in some way, shape or form since that first conversation when I was six years old.
Joe: It was interesting to hear your experience because mine was so similar in terms of not knowing about your family background. And then at some point realizing this explains why I do things this way. All of a sudden you understand yourself a lot better. When you do that, that’s life altering to know yourself that well as opposed to before that not really getting it.
Mike: One thing that was interesting growing up was watching my dad who was Native and didn’t know it, didn’t know what it was. And my mom who was very German-American. My dad wasn’t immersed in his culture in any way, shape or form. Except for his brothers and his mother. Yet the way he raised us was so different from the way my mom did. It’s something I hear from people who were raised in mixed families. To my mom, it was pretty clear, she was going to tell you to do this and this. It wasn’t that she was threatening or abusive, she was very clear, it’s this, this and this. To my dad, this didn’t make sense to him. When my mom would say, you need to discipline these kids, he’d be like, “what?” What my mom didn’t know was that if I had to cross somebody, I would rather cross my mom than my dad. If I crossed my dad, he would be ashamed or he would feel bad. And then I would be ashamed. That’s a much stronger thing. I can only remember getting punished physically once and that was my mom. It wasn’t abusive but I sure remember it. If I hurt my dad it would be much more painful. To this day my mom doesn’t understand that dad disciplined, but it was a different thing. He got that from the behavioral things that were inside him. He just did it.
Joe: Isn’t that interesting that she doesn’t get it yet she’s responsible for you being where you are. That speaks to her heart, she has a great heart.
Mike: At Anishinabe it wasn’t unusual for a certain student to sit in the middle of the front entrance hallway and say, “I’m not going to move.” We would say, well, it’s the middle of the hallway but the more you try to get her to move the more stubborn she would get. Although this could happen at any school it just happened so much at Anishinabe that you could say it was a characteristic. And then when you go back and say why, you could look at right-brained kids, they respond from their center as opposed to something outside of themselves. She would move when she was ready. If you look at Myers-Briggs, you could say that it’s a characteristic of an introverted kid. Or you could go to Mille Lacs Lake where they kept trying to move the tribe up to White Earth in the late 1800’s and they kept finding a way back again. They’ve got the stubbornness. They would move when and if they were ready to move. It comes from their center.
As a teacher my job is to say what worked with them and be a learner. If this didn’t work, why didn’t it, and let’s do something different.
Joe: I was just wondering if you would agree that a really key thing for teachers to teach differently, or at least to teach Native students culturally, that a really key part of it is not just the classroom but they really need support. I don’t mean just training but those people who are trying to do it, they need somebody not to run them out of town on a rail. We had somebody in Rapid City, where I taught for a long time, if they taught too radically they were run out of town. They were looking for reasons to get rid of them. They were very much about conformity. The racism is quite entrenched there. It’s almost cemented in people’s minds, they don’t even know it’s there. It’s a program and they’ve been taking in that program for almost 200 years. They think that is normal. I always think the biggest irony is for a Native person in Rapid City to be arrested for being in receipt of stolen property.
Mike: The other two parts of the department we tried to design, one part was instructional that basically said that if instruction is done well, everything else will eventually go well. It also had a third part, which was to recognize that Native kids are a compelling reason to fund. Rather than just depending on what’s there, we were developing an active arm to attract funding. The idea was to have a research arm, to have an arm that had to do with what should instruction look like for Native kids, and then the final piece was an arm like you have to have here, how do we develop a funding source. Part of the design, which is going on a little bit now, there was a person who was to go to the agencies that are working with Native kids and try to glean from them their successes. But also try to help them-this is the part that hasn’t been picked up-to say to them, you need to respect yourself for doing some things that public school can’t do. If you put yourselves together then you have a source. If you see yourselves together, almost $3 million in funding, if you look at their methodology, then together they have the ability to make change in the public schools. There is such a confederate nature to how things operate that we tend to be competitive rather than collective.
When Graham Hartley, as a staff member for Migizi Communications, went out and talked to other community agencies about what they’re bringing in for Minneapolis public school students, it was almost $3 million dollars. Wow! But we don’t look at it that way. These guys do this and these guys do this and this. Then the public schools proceed to say, well, if you need an office, we might give you one. As opposed to looking to us and saying, you know something about these kids and what is it. Or how can we work together.
Joe: You know what was really cool was when we had that big meeting with the school board and the Chairman got up and said, when are you guys going to start doing anything. Then we whipped out the statistics, $3 million, these are all the in-services we put on. She had no idea. From that point on her attitude really changed for the better. Our relationship with the board really improved after that.
Mike: When I was a Principal at South I remember groups like Indian Upward Bound coming in and talking to me, and I was a little bit that way even though I was interested in Indian education all my life. You just tend to respond as part of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies have these characteristics, whether it’s USSR in the 60s or school districts now, there are characteristics they have by their nature.
Joe: The Maori guy from New Zealand, one of the things he said that I really liked was that sometimes you have to be hard headed. And that’s one of the things that I’ve realized - we have to stick by our guns and we have to be hard headed. After all, we have a good idea of what works but we also know what we’re working with. These people who are trying to tell us don’t have any idea what works. It’s really important that we don’t become them.
Mike: What makes them harder to deal with is that they think they do have the answers. Yet the statistics show, “No, you miserably don’t!”
Joe: It’s interesting that the statistics that show that they don’t know are overwhelming.
Mike: Minneapolis has put a lot of resources into Native kids in the last 30 years. We have much less to show for it than St. Paul. In St. Paul what they had was an amazingly hard-headed stubborn administrator for years and years who had one steady course. She found the way to not just survive but to gradually grow it. She had a vision. She was very strong and willful and had a feeling and certainly a spiritual sense that they were going to find a way for things to grow. They haven’t solved their problems there but if you look at what they have, their educators working with Native kids are way over the heads of Minneapolis.
One of the things that Minneapolis didn’t want to hear was when I was telling to their faces that: we’re in a country where education is at the bottom in terms of statistics. We’re in a state where education of most kids is at the top of the nation, but our education of Native kids is below that of most other states. We’re in a city in which our success with Native kids is below that of the state. The composite is an ugly picture. So why keeping doing the same things, was my question. For a person to maintain their job in that bureaucracy, that wasn’t the question they wanted to hear.
Just looking at the statistics, it’s not working. And it’s not working here as compared to St. Paul. The only district in the state that had stats even close to ours was Red Lake. If you look around the state, Red Lake and us are neck and neck, on the bottom.
Joe: That’s interesting because Red Lake is one of the most unhappy places that I know of. I don’t mean that disrespectfully but there have been so many deaths and murders in the last several years. We just lost a student’s sibling a couple months ago. They need a lifeline. We talked about taking our garden and helping them start a garden. The reason I think it will be good is there’s an establishment of that lifeline. I think they need that.
Mike: The one other thing that I would say is that we don’t realize that education of Native kids can go very very well. We don’t have that vision yet. But it can happen.
Joe: Would you say you have an overall philosophy of education?
Mike: I would say that a teacher needs to be a learner. They need to teach a student to be a learner. If they can become a learner they can access whatever they need to learn in their lives. Likewise, for teachers seeking to be learned about the teaching of what works with kids. They have to see themselves as the learner.
Joe: I always tell teachers here that it’s not teaching, it’s teaching learning. I mean that teaching and learning are part of the same relationship. You’re learning and teaching and the student is also learning and teaching. It has to be reciprocated in order for it to work.
Mike: There was a teacher by the name of Fred Smith back at Flandreau Indian School when I worked there. He would always tell stories. Just one time in my eight years there I said, okay, Fred, I’m going to sit in your class. I sat in his class and in that 50 minutes of time I learned more than in most of my college classes. I just watched how he did this and watched how the kids responded. At that moment I was a learner.
Michael Jordan was a learner of basketball because he was never satisfied with what he knew. He was continuously learning. If someone is better at something, you don’t feel resentful about it you just want to know what they’re doing. It gives you a different attitude.
We’re going to do some training where we teach each other. Jamie has a very different way of approaching things and so we’ll take turns teaching. I certainly didn’t want to do the men’s class because I didn’t want another different class from what I’m already doing, I felt like my mind was going in too many ways. Yet within two days in watching Joe run the circle, I was thinking that in a year down the road you’ll see the circle involved in my class in some way. I’d always heard about it but until I saw it, then my mind started to click on how I could use it. The experience of seeing things.
Joe: The biggest compliment I’ve heard yet for a teacher was yesterday I gave Corinne a ride home. You know what she said about Jim? He really likes being a teacher.
Mike: He likes being a teacher and he likes the kids. You can hear it when you pass his classroom. He just loves it. The kids pick up on that real fast. Our kids are intuitive but all kids know.
Joe: That’s an important part of teaching. You have to like them. If you’re not genuine, they know that so quick.