Nominate an Educator

WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.

Michelle Jefferson: Featured Educator

February 2016

Michelle Jefferson is a Kindergarten teacher at Lodge Grass Elementary School located in Montana on Crow Indian Reservation

photo of Michelle Jefferson
Michelle Jefferson

Q. Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

MJ: I am a Kindergarten teacher at Lodge Grass Elementary School in Lodge Grass, Montana. I have been teaching since 2006 and just recently moved to Lodge Grass Elementary School in 2013. Before, I was at a private Catholic school.

Q. What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

MJ: Lodge Grass is located in Montana close to the Wyoming border on the Crow Indian Reservation. We have about 370 students in our K-12 schools. 99% of our students are Native American. It is a very rich culture here and we still practice our cultural traditions. Many students are being raised by their grandparents. This is where I am from and where I went to school so I really wanted to come back and teach here.

Q. What is your school's relationships with Montana public schools?

MJ: Our schools are still under the guidelines of the state office of public instruction and we are in close contact with the district office. We have a representative from the office who helps out with professional development and looking at our data.

I do a lot of the Indian Education for All lessons, which is a standard we teach by that aims to teach all students about the unique Native American cultures we have here in Montana in a culturally responsive manner. Montana has the most reservations and they are all different tribes. No two tribes are the same, they each have their own language, culture, and traditions. So this standard gives us a guideline to teach about the different tribes here in Montana.

Q. What are the linguistic backgrounds of your students?

MJ: In most homes, both the Crow language and English are spoken. Sometimes the Crow parents or Crow elders will speak Crow to each other but speak English to the children. So many of the students hear Crow being spoken in their homes and in the community and they may be able to understand it but respond in English.

A lot people from my age on up, we still speak the Crow language, but the younger ages have largely stopped speaking it. Things have changed. When I was a child I wasn't allowed to speak English in our home. My dad would say "We are Crow and we only speak Crow in this house," to maintain our language and our culture. But I often hear different messages now. When a lot of the world is in English, it can be hard for students to want to learn and speak Crow. So a lot of my students, especially in Kindergarten, are coming in at the beginning stages of learning English and Crow. The Crow Tribe are looking for ways to motivate current and new speakers. For example, they've created a Crow language app for iTunes.

Q. How do you incorporate your students’ home language and culture in your instruction?

MJ: The content areas (reading, math, science and social studies) are conducted in English and there are a few other Crow teachers here. I myself often teach a lesson in English and confirm student comprehension by asking in Crow if they understand what is being taught, even if they respond to me in English.

There are many aspects of the Crow culture that I try to bring into the classroom. For example, we have a clan system, and different historic areas, such as how to address one another (how a male and female would speak differently, to relatives or in-laws), what each pole in a teepee represents, and many different ceremonies that are important in Crow Culture.

I try to do this for all my students' cultures. For instance, I have a student who is Cheyanne and not Crow so I researched the Cheyanne tribe and culture to learn more about her background. I even found a Cheyanne language website that I use with the students to learn about each others' cultures along with all tribes found in Montana.

Q. Do you see any linguistic influences from the Crow language in your student English language?

MJ: Yes, there are parts of speech that are different between Crow and English, so I often hear students translating how you would say something in Crow, in terms of phrasing and order, but in English.

For example, a student will say "Let's open our shoes," intending to mean, "Let's take off our shoes" because in Crow you would say, "duschstah disahpe," which translates into "open shoes". Students say things like "Let's close the lights" instead of the English phrase "turn off the lights" because at home they hear, "chitchipi bilaakisshe," which translates to "close the lights." So they are taking elements from both languages they hear.

When we speak English with native Crow speaking friends, we often laugh and say English is backwards, and when we speak Crow with a non-native Crow speaker they think we are backwards!

Many times when my students hear a story in Crow, I lose their attention. Maybe this is because the story is not how stories are told in English. So instead I will sing different songs, mostly lullabies, that are about animals that talk and act like humans. I add gestures and movements. When students know the song, I then explain what each part means, and they can grasp the idea of the stories. For example, I sing a song about a little bear cub and it explains how he is cute now but how he can be dangerous. The song describes how the bear looks and kids are singing along not really realizing that they are speaking and learning Crow. When I point this out to them, I really try to celebrate it. "You are speaking Crow! That is so great!"

I think sounds are really important, whether they are in English or Crow. I had one parent who came in and he wasn't too thrilled that his son was learning the Crow language. And he is Crow but he said 'I want my son to excel, do well in school and go to college, so he needs to learn English.". And I listened and then said, "Your son will excel! No matter whether he is learning in Crow, English or both he will excel. Even if he learns another language he will excel because sounds are so important. When he has such a rich background in sound he will be successful."

Q. What is one thing you would like educators to know about supporting the Native American student population and their families, and ELLs in general?

MJ: When I was in 4th grade we moved away from the reservation to Bozeman, MT for my mother to attend Montana State University and obtain her degree in Education. While there, my twin sister and I were the only Native American students in the whole school and we were bombarded with questions like "Where are your moccasins?" or "Do you still live in a Teepee?" This was very upsetting to me. My mother came to school and gave a presentation on our culture and explained a bit about our lives, and she corrected their misconceptions. My twin sister and I had a bit of difficulty adjusting to this new place. At our old school, in Lodge Grass, my classmates were mostly Crow speakers so we all helped each other with translating what the teacher was saying and we looked after one another in class. I didn't have that in Bozeman and I felt alone.

So with this experience, I would want to say to teachers, please make sure that you clearly explain what you want your students to do. Don't just hand over an assignment and expect that students know what you want from them. Be explicit with your expectations, especially with ELL students.

My own experience being in a school in which there were no other Native American students, I felt that I didn't belong. If you work with ELL students, find a way to make them belong.