Combining culture, tradition and education improves learning for all

Paris Gibson High School is piloting a new style of learning that honors students’ heritage and culture.  Students in the intertribal immersion program enter a quiet and calm classroom where they are invited to smudge, a ritual of burning sacred plants and fanning the smoke.

“It’s a cultural purifier, cleansing of the spirits, cleansing of everything that you bring into your space,” says Marcy Cobell, director of Indian Education for Great Falls Public Schools.  Students then share with each other plans for their day or anything exciting they have going on during a connection time.  This allows them to look at their day and life in a positive way.  Such calming time is based off research that demonstrates increased communication and restorative justice.

“Coming here has just changed my life a lot,” says Michael Spearson, who will be the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “I’m just really amazed at how far I’ve come.”

The intertribal immersion program began when a former teacher invited American Indian students to organize a club. The club activities spawned the idea of providing new avenues of learning for some of the American Indian students who struggled.

“The idea was to provide students with a safe, nurturing classroom environment with teachers who understood the cultural significance of their heritage – and the way that learning and teaching maybe needed to be approached differently for a lot of our American Indian students,” said Tom Moore, assistant superintendent for Great Falls Public Schools.

The district saw great potential for the program, as it serves more than 1,000 Native American students representing more than 60 tribes.  The program is based on four core cultural values: relationships, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution.

“Everything we do is based on relationships – without relationships, we’re not going to be successful with any kid.” says Drew Uecker, the principal at Paris Gibson High School.

The program helps students explore and embrace their culture.  “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about my culture, and it makes me want to look more into it and try to help my reservation someday,” said student Marlene Blackman.

Dugan Coburn, a career advisor at Paris said “When they first started, they were very quiet and standoffish; now when I see the kids they are outgoing and they know a lot about the culture. Instead of letting things happen they’ll step in and say, ‘oh no, that’s not how you should be doing that Our culture is being respectful to this.’ It’s been an amazing change to see in our students.”

Learn more about the program on this video: