Winslow High School a Model for Success in Teaching the Navajo Language

Winslow, AZ | Submitted by Chris Gilmore

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Most schools in northern Arizona offer courses to learn the Navajo language, but not many are doing it as effectively as Winslow High School.

A part of Navajo County for more than 100 years, Winslow High serves more than 700 students, half of which hail from the Navajo tribe. The Title I school offers two years of Navajo language instruction, with particular emphasis on speaking and understanding how the language and culture are intertwined.

Classes are steeped in Navajo tradition, which is foundational for getting buy-in from both students and parents. For instance, many of their youth are active in the rodeo, farming and livestock worlds. The class celebrates together when one of them accomplishes a goal or earns a recognition.

As with many language courses, the Navajo class begins by learning proper introductions and clanship. Most students aren’t learning this at home, so it’s a vital part of them becoming part of the Navajo community and their future participation in tribal life. Because the culture is clan-centric, this helps students understand how they relate to their peers and to neighbors.

Some instruction is even seasonal, since the Navajo traditions are, as well. For instance, in winter the youth learn string games and recite stories of the coyote, which are stories that relate the origins of the Navajo people.

This connection to culture helps students better relate to their families and gets generations talking to each other. It’s an approach that has been highly successful – and has even improved graduation rates at the school. Other northern Arizona schools are taking notice, and this spring Winslow High will even participate in a Navajo Nation-sponsored pilot assessment of language instruction, as the only high school represented.

At the beginning of the academic year, 98 percent of students are not fluent in the language, but that drops to 85 percent after only one year of studies. And most students stay on for both years of instruction. What’s more, the school is closing the gap between Native American graduation rates and the rest of the school. In the 2013-2014 school year, 92 percent of the school’s students graduated on-time, and the rate was the same for students who were enrolled in the Navajo course. The connection to culture has even led to more families attending parent/teacher conferences.

In an area of the state where many students lack basic infrastructure, such as running water and electricity, these achievements are no small feat. Many youth spend an hour or more on a bus just to arrive at school in the morning. The Navajo language program at Winslow High has created a safe place to learn language and culture, while better connecting with past, family and education in a way that encourages youth to study and grow, while fostering a pride in their heritage. What’s more, the two year-long courses count toward the modern language requirement for the state universities, putting students one step closer to furthering their education.

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