Moving Towards Culturally Responsible Classrooms

The start of the new year is a great chance to hit the reset button. As we move forward, let’s pause to contemplate how we as educators can examine our complicity in perpetuating stereotypes and, in response, activate empathy, knowledge-seeking, and change. As we ask hard questions and are willing to seek out answers, we can move from our old normal to a new normal, one that creates new healthier circuits and behaviors.  

Some of our 2020 experiences have given us a reckoning of how Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have been treated. They have propelled us to look inward at our own biases, perceptions and particularly, as teachers, how and what we teach.  

The BYU ARTS Partnership Native Curriculum Initiative (NACI) is a place where hard conversations for growth in these areas can be had with civility and grace, helping all of us to rewire our circuits. We are not experts but we have studied and continue to learn, and are willing to engage in conversations to share what we have gained through our seeking.

As an entry point to culturally responsible teaching we offer three key questions that teachers can ask themselves when teaching about BIPOC, exemplifying my experience as a Navajo/Diné:

  • Is what or how I teach reinforcing stereotypes? I taught for 32 years and had numerous occasions to present about Native people to elementary students. It is not uncommon when I told them I am Native American to be asked, “Do you hide your feathers under your hair? Do you live in a tipi?” These questions have continued to be asked to this day. Somewhere and somehow students are receiving the wrong information. Know that conversations in the classroom have the power to dispel or perpetuate ideas about culture.
  • Am I oversimplifying and homogenizing culture? There are over 576 recognized American Indian tribes in the United States—each with their own songs, dances, and language. Yet people continue to ask, “Are you Indian?” and expect a yes or no answer to serve as a final declaration. This is the complete answer: yes, I am Native American, more specifically Navajo/Dine.́ I am called Brenda, born into the Salt Clan, born for the Towering House People. Most “Indian” people have more to share of who they are than a simple yes or no response and love the acknowledgment of diversity when teaching about Native American peoples. We would never lump all European countries into one linguistic, geographic, or cultural pot; we shouldn’t do it to American Indian tribes. 
  • Do I liberate Indigenous tribes/nations by bringing them into the present? When I was teaching, I often heard comments such as, “I thought Indians lived back in the Pilgrim days. Aren’t they all dead?” And, my favorite reaction when I tell students I am Native American, specifically Navajo/Diné: wide eyes, open mouth and with a startled breath, “You aaaarrrrre?” So when I teach about Squanto or Sitting Bull, I make sure I introduce them to Jim Thorpe and John Herrington. When I talk about Pocahontas, I teach about Deb Haaland or Maria Tallchief. This way, Indigenous people are made visible in the present as well as the past. Resist the impulse to relegate Native people to history; instead, embrace them as part of our current world. 

These three questions will begin or further your journey into creating a classroom that is inclusive, and we welcome more questions* from teachers about this topic that can be addressed in the future.   

*Please send questions and comments to or DM us on social media @byu_artspartnership.

Brenda Beyal, a Navajo/Diné wife, mother, and teacher, resides in Mapleton, Utah. Brenda taught thirty-two years in a multi-age classroom in the Nebo School District and also worked with Native American students and parents as an advocate and supporter. Brenda regularly performs and teaches as a Native American teaching artist in schools. She currently leads the Native American Arts Initiative for BYU ARTS Partnership. In 2016, Brenda was honored by the Utah Education Network as an American Graduate Champion.

Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor who works for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, bringing diverse experience and perspectives to educational conversations. Recently moved from Boston, she lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, children, and cats.

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