NAVAJO NATION, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) – On the Navajo Nation teachers and students are preparing for an unusual school year, given COVID-19.

Educators like sixth-grade teacher, Priscilla Black, are thinking outside-of-the-box when it comes to education this academic year.

“I realized that eight of my students didn’t have internet,” Black said.

Black knew she wanted to become a teacher early on in life. She told Arizona’s Family her kindergarten teacher influenced her to get into education.

“You rarely saw Navajo teachers. Most teachers were Anglo or of a different race and ethnicity,” she said.

Back in 2014, Black was introduced to a new program for teachers on the Navajo Nation called The Dine’ Institute for Navajo Nation Educators, a partnership between Northern Arizona University and schools on the Navajo Nation that participates in the Yale National Initiative.

The teacher-driven program gives educators the tools to develop a curriculum to help educate students, specifically curriculums that help students learn through their own culture.

Diversity and culture are vital for students on the Navajo Nation.

“Okay, so you have your curriculum unit, you want it to be culturally responsive. We've worked on ways to think about how to integrate language and culture into your teaching,” Angelina Castagno, Ph.D. said.

Castagno is the director of the Dine’ Institute for Navajo Nation Educators. She says the fellowship program is providing a different opportunity to educate students.

“I think the point here is that schools often operate from a very dominant mainstream norm instead of expectations, instead of a set of knowledges,” Castagno said. “So the idea behind what some people would call culturally responsive schooling, there are lots of other terms that people use for a very similar idea. Schools need to really think about what are the knowledges, the experiences, the histories that students and families and communities already have, and already bring to them with school. And how can school connect with that and leverage that to really make school and learning a place where students can connect, where they feel like it's relevant to their lives, where they feel like it's meaningful to them and it makes sense to them. And that's important, because if you think about just from a very sort of basic understanding, all of us want to be engaged in things in our life.”

With education shifting this year, the fellowship has been remote too. At the same time, schools are giving students access to Chromebooks and WiFi on the Navajo Nation.

In fact, on Friday afternoon, Navajo Nation’s president and vice president presented a proposal to use part of the CARES Act funding to help with student relief and to help schools on the Navajo Nation. The proposed CARES Act funding would help with internet development, undergraduate college student relief, among other options.

“Our administration supports the reopening of schools through online/virtual learning, but we also realize that there are challenges with that approach, including the lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure to support online learning for all students,” Navajo Nation President, Jonathan Nez said. “That’s why we are proposing to use $90 million in CARES Act funds to help address that issue.”

WiFi hotspots will be setup around Navajo Nation to help students with online learning, including hotspots in front of schools.

“You will probably see a lot of students park in the parking lot with their Chromebooks receiving their instruction,” Black said. “We will be teaching from our classroom. I can use the screen to do instruction all day long if I have to.”

As education for students and educators goes online to kick off the school year, The Dine’ Institute for Navajo Nation Educators will continue moving forward, too.

“I'm excited about the future. I don't know what it will hold, in terms of web, how long we're going to be doing this virtual modality versus being able to come together in person,” Castagno said. “But I think, regardless of what it is, that resilience and that commitment will come through and we'll continue to do the work."


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