Passing Down Language by Teaching the Teachers

The tenacious teachers of the Akwesasne Freedom School in Hogansburg, New York.

The tenacious teachers of the Akwesasne Freedom School in Hogansburg, New York.

At the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS), the ideal teachers are home-grown – cultivated from the Akwesasne community, fluent in the Mohawk language, and trained to teach in the way the Mohawk learn best. Now, through a Teacher Training program, funded by a First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) Native Language Immersion Initiative grant, the school is identifying these new teachers, building their curriculum, and creating new tools to improve the learning environment and reach more students.

About Akwesasne

The Akwesasne Freedom School is a community-based educational institution located on the Kanien’keháka Territory of Akwesasne in New York. It was formed in 1979 when the Kanien’keha language and culture had been pushed to near extinction.

At that time, there was community conflict as a result of confrontations with the state over the state’s plans to cut trees to build fencing around the Native area without prior consultation or approval from landowners. The conflict escalated into a standoff between the state and the traditional Longhouse people of Akwesasne for several months, with families staying inside of an encampment. Then, when it came time for children to return to school in September, the families inside the encampment were harassed and bullied by others in the school system, and did not want to return to the state school. Segregation further alienated Mohawk children with public school buses refusing to pass blockades onto the Reservation.

Community parents, recognizing how traditional language and culture were being rapidly extinguished, set out to change things by creating a school behind the blockades dedicated to serving Mohawk students. Konwanakhtotha Sargent, Executive Director of the Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School, explains that many of the parents were the products of Indian Boarding Schools, growing up in the days of the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” approach. Instead, the parents knew the importance of their identity, and intentionally flipped the Carlisle adage to “Save the Indian.”

The school started with a few students in a few grades, incorporating a Waldorf-like educational model, a curriculum found to be most in line with the Mohawk ways of learning. In 1985, it adopted a total immersion program. Building on the grassroots movement of Language and Cultural Revitalization, the classes expanded up to fourth grade and gradually to 10th grade.

Today the school has 12 teachers and two office personnel, and teaches 72 students in grades pre-K to eighth in 1,200 hours per year of immersion classes. There are an additional 10 toddlers in the school’s Language Nest, designed to reinstate the Mohawk Language as a child’s first language. The school’s goal is to rebuild the Mohawk Nation by focusing on young people. In the words of Akwesasne Elder Tom Porter, “The time will come when the grandchildren will speak to the whole world. It is hoped that through AFS, the grandchildren will have something significant to say.”

Based on this, everything taught in school is rooted in the language. Kanien’keha is taught thematically, through speaking, reading, writing, singing, dancing and participating in traditional cultural practices such as basket-making, beadwork, leatherwork, hunting and ceremonies. Parents are encouraged to speak the language in the home as much as possible.

Throughout all the classes, students learn their role now and in the future as educators and leaders in the community. They are taught proper behavior, respect, and understanding of the distinct culture of the Mohawk people. The main goal of the Akwesasne Freedom School is not to build good students but to nurture good people, says Sargent.

“Beautifully written and respectfully told,... a much-needed examination of one Indigenous community’s pathbreaking efforts to exercise educational sovereignty." -- Teresa L. McCarty

“Beautifully written and respectfully told,… a much-needed examination of one Indigenous community’s pathbreaking efforts to exercise educational sovereignty.” — Teresa L. McCarty

Not just any teachers

Carrying out this curriculum has called for skilled teachers who are first and foremost fluent in the Mohawk language. In the beginning, Sargent explains, classes were taught by parents who were first-language speakers. “They were mothers; they had problem-solving skills, which made them able to teach multiple subjects at once, weaving in culture and language.”

As the school grew, more teachers like this were needed. Yet, they couldn’t just hire teachers from anywhere and train them to teach in the Mohawk way. Instead, what AFS required was just the opposite: Fluent speakers who grew up Mohawk and who could be taught to teach. “We have to grow our own,” says Sargent.

At the same time, they knew they could no longer throw their new teachers into the classroom and say, “you’re a teacher, now teach,” explains Sargent. Many of the newer teachers, while fluent in the language, lacked classroom experience. As a result, when they would get flustered or not know how to teach in the language, they would revert to English, taking away from the full immersion approach. Once students heard English in the classroom, it became more and more acceptable for teachers and students to use it.

What they needed were standardized materials, curriculum and manuals to guide the Native speakers in how to manage a classroom and best connect with students in Kanien‘keha. That’s where funding from First Nations and the new project – the Teacher Training Program – was set in motion.

Resources to empower, tools to succeed

The new training program is designed to give new and current teachers the skills to create an effective and efficient Mohawk learning environment. The program draws from the dwindling pool of fluent-speaking individuals identified by the school and the community and gives them the tools to teach “our ways,” while also learning classroom preparedness, time management, lesson planning and classroom management. Through the project, 10 teachers will be trained on more than 14 AFS curriculum units. In addition, an orientation manual will be developed to both document processes and approaches and train future teachers after the initial 10.

Through the project, Sargent hopes the AFS can provide the tools to help ease their new teachers into carrying out their roles and responsibilities with the school and give them the resources they need to keep the language strong and keep the kids learning.

Meeting a need

Sargent asserts that the need for more Mohawk teachers is growing, in line with the demand for more AFS offerings. She says the demand stems from the increasing recognition of the importance of the Mohawk language and culture throughout all the Mohawk communities.

“When I was growing up, we were taught to be ashamed of who we were,” Sargent says. This lack of pride contributed to low self-esteem, partying and drug abuse. But people are now realizing how these outcomes can be shifted when there is a greater connection to culture and language.

“I think people are seeing the importance of knowing who we are,” says Sargent. “If you don’t know where you belong, it’s hard to find that community. But at AFS, they can. What they get is a pride in their identity, which has a direct effect on their behavior and opportunities.

“Bad behavior can be the norm at the public school,” says Sargent. “But our kids are very respectful. Others have told us they can tell if a child is from the Freedom School just by the way they act.”

Sargent asserts that changing times calls for changing strategies, and their school is having success not only bolstering a threatened language, but also fostering a pride in the Mohawk culture and “saving the Indian” for a brighter future. Future plans include a capital campaign for a new building, streamlining curricula, and more opportunities to reach parents and students. For now, AFS rejoices in the progress they’ve made since 1979. “We created that tipping point for the rest of the community to embrace our culture,” she says. “I think that the school has been responsible for that.”

By Amy Jakober