A group of Knox College's educational studies students traveled to Arizona during the summer to work with teachers at the Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission School.
The experience showed the value of a liberal arts education, said Diana Beck
, professor of educational studies. She and Stephen Schroth
, assistant professor of educational studies, accompanied six of their students as they participated in the Knox Navajo Professional Teaching Development Program.
The program, which is part of the curriculum for the Educational Studies Department
, offers a close-up look at culturally appropriate teaching and daily life on a Navajo reservation.
"What the NELM school in Rock Point provides for us is a very different and unique experience for our students," said Schroth. "It is a place where our students can contribute a tremendous amount to the educational atmosphere."
For an intense two weeks, the students and faculty members helped teachers at the Navajo school get ready for certification exams. Most of the teachers aren't certified, though they have completed teacher-preparation classes.
The teachers brushed up on test-taking strategies, as well as general knowledge in specific subject areas such as music, social studies, math, art, and reading.
"This is actually, for me, where the brilliance of a liberal arts education comes into play," Beck said. "Between all of us (from Knox), we had expertise in all these areas we needed to work on with the Navajo teachers." Long days and wrestling sheep
Danny Gonshorek, a senior from Champaign, Illinois, said the Knox students and the school's teachers put in long days, sharing "a collaborative environment."
At the end of the two weeks, all of the teachers took -- and passed -- a practice certification exam.
When not inside the classroom, the Knox students explored their surroundings, hiked in the mesa, and lent a hand whenever they could.
"Our students were so good at just digging in and doing what needed to be done," Beck said.
At one point, the Knox group joined forces with a group from California that was visiting the reservation to vaccinate livestock against disease. Jordan Lanfair, a senior from Chicago, was one of the students who helped inoculate sheep.
"That is something I never, in my wildest dreams, thought I would be able to do," he said.
The vaccination process involved three- or four-person teams for each animal, and every member of the team had an assigned task.
"I was a marker," Gonshorek said. "We wrestled the sheep down, and I put a little pink chalk mark on their foreheads after we gave them a tetanus shot and anti-worm liquid."
Spending two weeks at the school was enlightening, he added. Gonshorek got a better idea of what it might be like to work with a team of colleagues in a school and feeling "a sense of the excitement and the nervousness of preparing for a coming school year."
"I feel like it was a very beneficial experience for me in that it exposed me to a new culture, a new cultural perspective, and people with very different realities from my own," he said. "Such an experience would always be beneficial as a teacher." Studying Navajo culture
As part of their preparations for the trip, the Knox students took a spring-term course about culturally appropriate teaching.
"What we really focused on was understanding the culture, the history, the taboos, and as many of the cultural stories and their myths about where they come from as we could," Lanfair said.
The Knox students learned "how sacred and important the land is" in the Navajo -- or Diné -- culture, he said. They also found out there are "things you just can't do or say under some circumstances because they upset the gods and they upset the environment."
One of the words generally off-limits is "tornado." "If you say the word, it conjures one," Gonshorek said, explaining the taboo.
Ashley Witzke, a 2010 Knox graduate from Frankfort, Illinois, participated in the 2009 Knox College trip to the Navajo school. An elementary education major, she enjoyed the experience so much that she applied for a job at the school, got it, and started as a kindergarten teacher in August 2010.
"Cultural sensitivity is something I always take into consideration while I am here," she said. "It is simply being respectful. When I am in the classroom, I am sure to not mention things that are taboo in Navajo culture."
"I have become familiar with some of the taboos from the class I took with Diana, and I have learned a lot from the teachers and staff at the school," Witzke added. "Every day I learn something new, and it is really great because I then understand a little bit more about the perspective my students have."
Another 2010 Knox graduate, Michael Wipper of Ingleside, Illinois, will start teaching at the school in mid-October.
Knox College's ties to the Navajo nation go back more than a decade, said Beck, who has gone there every summer since 1997, when she helped teach summer school science at another school on the reservation.
For the past three summers, Knox students have traveled to the Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission School to work with teachers on professional development.
The latest Knox College trip to the Navajo nation was financed by the Harry T. and Leone Goulding Fund, established in 1993 to support the education of Navajo students at Knox. The fund also may be used for Knox College programs that improve the education of the Navajo people.