How do you celebrate Native American Heritage Month with elementary students? Do you avoid it altogether because you’re unsure how to go about it? I’ve shared the same feelings once before, and today I’m going to share with you three ways that you can get started (like, yesterday).
Honor Native American Heritage Month with Elementary Students— Why?
Honoring Native American Heritage Month occurs in November, but you can recognize it year-round. This is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of notable Native people of old AND today. This is also a time to educate ourselves more about the rich culture and heritage that Native people hold.
As we’re all citizens of a diverse world, we need to better educate ourselves (AND our students) about the cultures that exist beyond our own. Read on for three ways to make this possible.
#1: Let Them Do the Talking
Ok, before you think to yourself, ‘How on Earth is this supposed to be easy if I agree to let my students do the talking?! They talk too much as it is!’ hear me out.
You and I both know that elementary students have a million and one thoughts; some we know, most we don’t. But what if you allowed them to tell you everything they may otherwise feel uncomfortable talking about?
Give them the chance to tell you what they’re thinking. You could ask, “What do you know about Native American Heritage Month?” Let them be raw and honest with you.
Use these unfiltered thoughts to help guide your discussion; this way, you can answer to the best of your ability or admit that you do not know. Show them that you’re human! Do the work. Research together (more on that in a bit). Squash misconceptions.
Set a timer if you worry that students will start talking too long. I suggest using a morning meeting or afternoon meeting time to solely discuss this very topic.
Give each student a chance to speak. Don’t withhold any conversation because of your fear.
#2: Make It Real
One of the easiest ways to incorporate authentic learning is to provide real-world experiences in your teaching.
For example, a common misconception among my second-grade students was that Native Americans don’t exist anymore or that they’re ancient if they do exist. Knowing this couldn’t be further from the truth, I decided to make the learning objective for them by showing them present-day, modern Native American heroes.
I created Native American Heritage Month posters as a month-long, interactive bulletin board for my students to refer to. I’d introduce a modern, well-known, and lesser-known Native person daily. When I incorporated modernness into my teaching, it became more real for my students.
#3: Do a (mini) Deep Dive
You can take it a step further in making the learning more real by doing a mini deep dive. Instead of showing the surface level of each person, you can show videos about their life, analyze quotes they’ve said, and initiate a meaningful conversation about each Native person.
I utilized a daily slideshow during Native American Heritage Month that included all the above components. Depending on our schedule, I only chose one person daily (or every few days). I sprinkled the rest of the slides in during our social studies block or throughout the year.
A Word of Caution
Above all, I want you to know that Native American Heritage Month in the elementary classroom doesn’t have to be scary. I learned to put my fears aside and get down to doing the work.
I’d encourage you to do your research before your discussion with students. I know it can be daunting. But, the more research you do, the more you’ll have prepared.
Speaking of research, make sure to use authentic websites, not those not directly from the source. Use websites from Native people who can talk about the truth and not a whitewashed version of the matter.
Here’s a website that includes common myths about Native Americans from the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe to get you started.
I hope this post encouraged you to just… start. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It WILL get messy. Expect it. Welcome it. Discuss it. If you need help with getting started, use what I’ve done! Seriously, don’t make it harder on yourself.
Please, know that teaching Native American Heritage Month with elementary students doesn’t have to be big and scary.
If you’re ready to make learning authentic, try the modern, well-known, and lesser-known posters.
Or, if you’re prepared to take it one step further, do a mini deep-dive for each Native person.