Revitalization the goal in Farmington language classes

By Erny Zah
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, March 11, 2011

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(Times photo - Erny Zah)

Tibbetts Middle School seventh-graders in Grace Blackwater's Navajo language class draw a dibŽ y‡zhi (baby goat) as part of their assignment. Blackwater is one of 19 Navajo language teachers and teacher's assistants in the Farmington Municipal School District's bilingual program. Navajo language classes are offered at all but one school in the district.

"Woshdee" (this way) read the words on the door of the second-floor classroom at Tibbetts Middle School.

The door is the gateway to see the Farmington Municipal School District's bilingual program in action, a place where mid-schoolers learn to speak and write Navajo.

On a recent day, Brittany Begaye, 12, was working on the assignment in the classroom. She said she attended school in nearby Kirtland, part of the Central Consolidated School District, before transferring to Tibbetts.

"I like it," she said of the Tibbetts class, but added, "I learned more stuff there than here."

"I wish we could do this all day," said Grace Blackwater, her Navajo language teacher at Tibbetts.

Blackwater tests her students in spelling and speaking Navajo, and says she demands effort from them.

"They know they have to work hard in this class," she said.

Blackwater is one of 19 Navajo-language teachers and teaching assistants in the district's bilingual program, which has been in effect for 14 years.

While Navajo language preservation is the goal in many reservation communities, the goal in Farmington is revitalization, explained Gayle Barfoot, director of the FMSD bilingual education program.

"It's revitalization because here in Farmington, the district doesn't have that many proficient speakers," she said.

About 3,200 of the 10,516 students in Farmington schools are Native American, and the district spends about $2 million a year on its bilingual program. Both Navajo and Spanish are taught at every grade level, K-12.

About 3,000 of Farmington school's are Hispanic, Barfoot said.

(According to the 2000 Census, 17 percent of Farmington's population is Native American, and roughly the same is Hispanic.)

Barfoot, who taught in the Window Rock school district for several years, has implemented a program that starts by teaching entry-level Navajo - numbers and colors - to kindergartners. The curriculum progresses in complexity as the children advance through the grades.

When Barfoot became the program director in 2006, she said, the same material was being taught at all grade levels.

"I went to kindergarten and they were teaching numbers and colors. Then I go to the high school and they're learning numbers and colors," she said. "We didn't have a scope and sequence."

So since then, she has been perfecting a progressive curriculum that is now used in all the district schools except one. Country Club Elementary School has no Navajo students and does not offer Navajo-language classes.

The FMSD program uses "Diné Bizaad Bínáhoo'aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language" as its basic text, but Blackwater has created some of her own teaching aids where she felt the text was unclear.

"A lot of our students are not proficient (in Navajo)," Barfoot noted, and not all of them are interested in learning it.

While the course is part of the regular curriculum in the lower grades, it is an elective in the higher grades.

"We have the program, but the students have to show an interest and the parents have to show an interest," she added.

But both Barfoot and Blackwater say interest in learning Navajo is growing.

At Tibbetts, seventh grade Navajo-language students number 33 this year. But there are 40 kids in the sixth-grade class and larger numbers in the lower grades, the women said.

"See, it's building," Barfoot said excitedly.

Barfoot, a non-Navajo, said her experience in the Window Rock schools helped her understand the importance of language.

"For cultural identity, you have to have a strong a language," she said.

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