Professional Development on the Cultures of our Students, and the Cultures We and our Students Need to Learn About


As a CoP moderator and community member, I am posting this long message to four LINCS Communities of Practice: Program Management, Diversity and Literacy, Adult English Language Learners, and Evidence-based Professional Development. LINCS, of course, is focused on adult basic skills (including ESOL/ESOL) professional development. In order to be effective, part of what we as teachers, program managers, state and federal administrators, professional developers and researchers need to better understand is the languages and cultures of adult learners, and we -- and our students -- need to understand the cultures of others in adult basic skills classrooms and in our communities. Our democracy, our society, and as one writer, Jim Gray, has recently argued (see below), our ability to thrive may depend on it.

There are so many important communities, cultures and languages in our culturally diverse land. We could begin anywhere. However, I would like to begin with what I have recently realized is a huge gap in my own knowledge and understanding, the cultures of native peoples in the United States, so called "Native Americans," "American Indians," what Canadians often refer to as "First Nations" -- but maybe none of those words describes these peoples and their cultures in the way they want to be described, or in the way they know and refer to themselves. That's one of the first important lessons in learning about others' cultures, how they want others, outsiders, to refer to them.

Ask yourself, as I recently did, what words you associate with with these Native American or American Indian cultures. (I'll leave some space here to give you a chance to do that before you read my embarrassing confession below.)





The words that came to mind for me, as a privileged white male having grown up in a Midwest suburb and then city, for many years now having lived in an East Coast city, and having attended good schools and universities in Michigan and Massachusetts, were these:

"casino," "gambling," "new prosperity," "reservation," poverty," "alcoholism," "minority," "colonialism," "defeat," "treaty," "mistreatment," "cultural assault," "assimilation," "stereotypes," "disrespect," "arts and crafts such as dance, drumming, costumes, jewelry and pottery," "spirituality," and "appreciation of the national environment."

What did not come immediately to mind until I heard an NPR interview on Saturday about the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota was

"Nation," "sovereignty," "protectors of the environment" (instead of "protesters"),  and "shared common interests".

I was surprised to realize how much I need to learn, despite my years of education opportunities, and also surprised to realize that my formal education did not include important basic information about and appreciation of these cultures. I realized that my information came from episodic informal learning, some from museum visits, and cultural sites I have visited, some from mystery novels by the late Tony Hillerman, but most from the media.

Today I read an enlightening LinkedIn article by Jim Gray, Standing Rock: The biggest story that no one is covering. But that is about to change, Gray writes,

"I think there's a visceral reaction that prevents some people in the non Indian community to find solidarity with today's Native American issues. Whether it's gaming, Indian children in the foster care program, religious freedom, sacred sites, or quality of life issues where the public must take the time to understand our perspective, we often find ourselves in the losing battle for understanding and acceptance."

Gray is right. I realize that I need to learn more about "Indian Country" and the "Protectors" of the environment in North Dakota, and also Native American perspectives in the places where I (have) live(d), Michigan and Massachusetts, that of course have Indian names. I need to understand the implications of these legal nations within our borders and how we can work together to achieve common goals.

I wonder if there is a role for LINCS, for some of its Communities of Practice, and possibly for additional LINCS courses, to help those of us who work in the field of adult basic skills to better understand the cultures of adult learners, and of the communities in which we and they live.

If you think so, how do you think LINCS might be helpful?

David J. Rosen

Moderator, Technology and Learning, and Program Development CoPs




I had the privilege of living and working on the Navajo reservation many years ago. It changed the pre-conceived messages I had as a young person and showed me that being different was okay and in some ways better. When you really look at early history of our country , I believe, there is plenty to be embarrassed about in the treatment of Native Americans. 

David, I'm so glad that you have brought up this topic for discussion. It is said that we don't see the world/others as they are but as we are. Becoming aware of that and open to seeing others as they are, is critical in education.

I work intensely with Native Americans in the Four Corners region, and even though residents show many similarities in terms of learning preferences and communication styles, the differences among the tribal groups here is also great. Years ago, I wrote a training segment for instructors who worked with traditional Native American learners in the Southwest. The training still resides on a Website that I no longer maintain:

As moderator of the Diversity and Literacy community, I invite Native American members here or instructors, like Gail, below, who work with Native populations, to drop in and bring up issues that they consider should be discussed among us. Thanks! Leecy

Leecy, thank you for sharing your training materials related to working with Native Americans with all of us. This is very helpful in enhancing our understanding of respectful and effective approaches and strategies. And David, thank you for raising the issue of cultural competence.

David, you asked what words come to mind when considering Native Americans. As someone who cares deeply about our environment, I have learned a lot from the Native American way of viewing the natural world. Native Americans have shown me their deep understanding and respect for nature. I have learned that everything in nature is connected in intricate and highly complex ways. As a result, I want to honor and respect our natural world. The Native American protests against oil, gas and tar sands pipelines we have seen in recent years are rooted in this quintessential respect. I have encountered many Native Americans who are much more aware of the problems related to the use of fossil fuels-- including the imminent dangers related to global warming-- than many of the rest of us. I think we all have much to learn from those who lived on these lands long before our own ancestors arrived.

By the way, some members may not be aware that there is a wonderful, free online course available through LINCS, ELLU The Role of Culture in Teaching ESL. Check it out in the LINCS Learning Portal!

Additional comments are always welcome!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hello colleagues, With regard to our discussion on culturally relevant teaching, particularly related to Native Americans, what are members' thoughts about Columbus Day, which is to be recognized on October 10th this year? Do you bring up this topic with students? What about in the context of citizenship education? How do you approach this historical topic?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hello Everyone! Having taught all levels of ESL, I have always taught Columbus Day, albeit at different depths of understanding, of course. With beginners, we looked at why it is an American holiday and although Columbus' motives were less than pure, which I think needs to be mentioned.history unfolded in a way that led to the development of our great country. With intermediate and advanced students, we get more into the nitty gritty of the results of the conquistadors who followed Columbus, (cause and effect). As we know, teaching in context is so very important and though the virtues of Columbus' exploration have been a topic of discuss in recent years, I make it a point to also teach the historical context of the day to bring understanding to a complex topic. My students can, many times, relate with a story from their home country. It makes for a great discussion and connection of cultures.  

Hi Gee, Thanks for sharing how you approach Columbus Day in your class. As you allude to, there is controversy surrounding this holiday. Learners from Central and South America may have a lot of knowledge of this history and might welcome the opportunity to discuss it. This would likely depend on the level of the class, of course.

There are some communities in the US that no longer celebrate Columbus Day; instead they celebrate Native Americans Day. I'm wondering if we might hear from our members who live in those areas?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

David asked, " I wonder if there is a role for LINCS, for some of its Communities of Practice, and possibly for additional LINCS courses, to help those of us who work in the field of adult basic skills to better understand the cultures of adult learners, and of the communities in which we and they live."

One way I propose to have our CoPs address thee needs of diverse learners from different cultures is to share reading resources that reflect the lives of those learners and to be open to reading content created by them.

In  7 Ways You Can Help Create A More Inclusive Bookworld, Crystal Paul, (4/18/2016), states, "The reasons for the glaring lack of inclusiveness in the book world are multifaceted. It could be that many readers erroneously believe they "can't relate" to books by and about underrepresented communities. There are also few people of color in editing and decision-making roles in publishing houses, and statistics show that books by and about women and writers of color tend to get fewer reviews in major publications. And these are just a few of the issues at work."  (This is a very useful article!)

We also know that not a lot of literature reflects diverse learners from different cultures. Let's start a list of materials that do! Leecy


I have been a huge advocate in using young adult literature in the adult education classroom. Some of my favorite books inlcude The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 Code Name Verity, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian .YA literature provides a connection to history, cultures, ideas, and experiences. Yet, in 2014, the ALA noted that 80% of challenged books included 'diverse' content. Similar patterns were noted in 2015. In addition to Sherman Alexie's book, which was also the Winner of the National Book Award in 2007,  The Bluest Eyes and And Tango Makes Three top the list of challenged / banned books. With Banned Book Week starting on September 26th, I think creating a list of quality books is timely. :-) 

I hope these books can be added to any classroom library. They each offer rich literary experiences for the readers.




I agree with Kathy about the benefits of using young adult literature in the adult classroom. I find I prefer reading YA books myself. In quality YA books, plots move quickly, characters are often complex, and relevant issues are addressed in sensitive ways.  There is an online, searchable database of YA books and picture books that have been reviewed by a group of adult literacy teachers and deemed appropriate for adult students. The database can be found at this link









As a privileged white educator.  I would recommend visiting a  Native American reservation to look at some of the problems found there: I am sure we would be greeted warmly if we volunteered to help mentoring in an English language or basic math classroom session.  M knowledge of Native American culture is rather limited.  My spouse was (now deceased) would talk about poverty, alcoholism and other problems on the reservation.  Perhaps we can do the same.  I too, recommend  Tony Hillerman's accounts of Officer Jim Chee and Lt. Joe Leaphorn, of the Navaho Tribal Police, and how they respond to some of the problems on a  reservation..  It is important to become aware of different cultures and to take a step or two in their moccasins.














Would you like an invitation, Harold? I might be able to work that out. Tony Hillerman makes for great reading,  but there's nothing like firsthand experience. Leecy