‘Canoe’ curriculum paddles its way into Wolfle

KINGSTON — In the current educational era of using high stakes testing in schools, an emphasis on the core areas of learning — reading, writing math and science — has been created to help prepare students for an exam that each of them will soon be required to pass.

Critics of tests such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) often cite that the exams ignore other areas of learning, such as the arts and music education. One such area unique to the North Kitsap School District is Native American education, as two tribes are located within its borders.

For a teacher, the balance between state-mandated standards and outside educational opportunities can be difficult to bridge. But one local educator is attempting to do just that — and a classroom at Wolfle is reaping the benefits.

Nan McNutt, former teacher and Seattle-based consultant, developed the “Canoes on Puget Sound” curriculum to utilize the history and culture of the native tribes in the Pacific Northwest while incorporating the standards that students need to pass the WASL. And the results have seen all-around improvements, she said.

“When you combine culture-based curriculum with native language, you not only see an increase in (student) attendance but also a measurable change in achievement,” McNutt said.

McNutt, who grew up among many native cultures in Micronesia before coming to the Pacific Northwest, taught at the Pacific Science Center for 10 years and has also written several children’s books about Native American culture. Each summer, she leads a team of teachers through the curriculum, to be integrated into their own classrooms in the fall.

Only fourth grader teacher Tamara Stone’s class has begun using the curriculum at Wolfle, as she is the only instructor at the Kingston school who has gone through McNutt’s summer institute.

“It was very holistic and it was transformational,” Stone, a teacher of 27 years, said of the summer program.

Several of the school’s teachers are hoping to secure a grant that would enable them to attend McNutt’s summer institute and use the curriculum in their classrooms next year.

“I’m always interested in trying to find ways to tie in native culture,” said fourth grade teacher Beth Schneidler. “From what I’ve seen, this is an excellent way to tie in social studies, science math and other subjects to that culture.”

Schneidler, who couldn’t attend McNutt’s summer session last year, has been amazed to see the passion for learning coming out of Stone’s class.

“All of her students really seem to be engrossed in learning,” Schneidler said. “Which is a always a good thing.”

Stone’s class is one of the most diverse in the North Kitsap School District. In her class, there are six students from the S’Klallam Reservation, one from the Suquamish and one from the Tlingit, an Alaskan reservation.

At the beginning of the school year, the question was posed to each of her students: “How do canoes help us learn about ourselves and others?”

The canoe emphasis is the key component of the curriculum. Rather than introduce the students to a wide range of native traditions, they instead learn everything there is to know about the Native sea vessel — its different types, uses, and even its names and parts in traditional and other Salish languages.

Once they learn one specific part of native culture — emphasizing depth over breadth — it’s only natural for them to want to learn about other parts, McNutt said.

“We come in with the canoe and all of a sudden, they’re inside the culture,” she said. “And then you branch out.”

Students often work with different historical photographs to provide context for what they’re learning and several elders from tribes have made presentations to the class to provide context to the learning. For the Native American students, it’s learning further about a surrounding culture. For the non-natives, it’s a chance to learn about a culture that surrounds them.

“It’s so empowering for these kids,” Stone said. “It’s wonderful to see them blossom.”

“I like doing this because I learned about my tribe,” said Brandon Halsey, a fourth grader and S’Klallam member. “And I want to learn a lot about other tribes.”

Halsey added that he’s always wondered about the different Pacific Northwest tribes, especially when many of them come through Port Gamble each year for the Canoe Journey.

“You’ve got to learn about the first people,” added fourth grader and Suquamish tribal member Kaiya Sheehy.

For the students of Stone’s class — and possibly soon other classes at the school — the “first people” might not necessarily be a part of a standardized test, but even for non-native students, they believe it’s important to learn about.

“It’s not on a test,” said fourth grader Madison Minder. “But stuff that’s not on the WASL is still important.”

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