Zuni High School and Twin Buttes Cyber Academy SEL Curriculum Writers (Zuni, New Mexico)

Zuni Pueblo, located in southwestern New Mexico, is home to the proud people of the Zuni or A:Shiwi, as we refer to ourselves. Archaeological findings and oral stories suggest that our people have existed since the last millennium B.C. A primary reason why our culture still lives is the relationships formed and supported through bloodline, clanship, and standing together through challenges of destruction from enemy and foe. Our ancestors’ teachings, passed orally from one generation to the next, still ring in our minds and hearts moving into the 21st century.

An Urgent Need to Refocus on Culture and Mental Health

Recent curriculum and state mandates place an emphasis on students acquiring technological knowledge and skills to prepare for college and careers. Unfortunately, the inclusion of culturally relevant material is minimal; in our case, it’s these very teachings that have sustained us as a culture. Although we live in a remote village on what mainstream America call a “reservation,” our children, known to us as “chimona a:ho’i”, are growing up in a time revolutionized by technology that hardly resembles that of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. The prophecy says that when “chimona a:ho’i” begin to veer away from the teachings of their parents and grandparents, we will be hit with much sadness and despair. Even more frightening, our mother Earth will begin toppling over and humankind will begin to perish right before our eyes.

During the 2020 – 2021 school year, students and staff at Zuni Public Schools were suffering, devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of two of our brightest students. The district’s student support network self-reflected and asked if there was something more that could have been done to help. One realization we had was that we wanted to be more intentional with our young people so they realize the potential of “a:wan ona: dashanadun’ona”, their long life’s path they were destined to live.

A SEL Curriculum that Centers Indigenous Values

One of our A:Shiwi core values is “Hon i:yansatduna:wa”, which means “we will help one another.” Building healthy relationships, growing student and adult social-emotional competencies, and connecting these competencies with A:Shiwi core values that have served as the foundation of our people since time immemorial became all the more critical in the wake of these tragedies. The best way to reach the most students and have the most impact was to design a social-emotional learning (SEL) class. With support from our superintendent and site administrators, we turned to our Green Schools National Network partner, David DenHartog, to make the Culturally Responsive SEL class a reality. It’s currently being implemented as TBird time at Zuni High School and Panther period at our sister school, Twin Buttes Cyber Academy.

As of this writing, we are in the 36th week of curriculum design which consists of a daily general structure of a check-in, a connection, an activity that combines CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) competencies and an A:Shiwi core value focus, and a debrief. The major components of our curriculum consist of a cultural approach that coincides with our cultural calendar. As part of our curriculum, we look to our staff to share cultural teachings and community tribal programs and elders to share their stories and hopes for our students. It’s our hope that our “chimona a:ho’i” will learn more about our culture so that they can identify who they are, where they come from, and where they are going on their life’s journey.

Outside of the SEL class, teachers are encouraged to integrate A:Shiwi core values into their content class lessons. Integration is important because SEL is more than TBird time or Panther period. Integration helps change school culture for the better. It becomes part of our common language and common experience. It becomes the mission of the school.

Making Progress…One Step at a Time

Since we introduced our SEL class at the beginning of the 2021 – 2022 school year, we’ve noticed that students have improved their social-emotional relations with themselves, each other, their teachers, and the community. Behavior referrals have decreased. To gain a better understanding of the class’s implementation, we plan to administer an end-of-the-year survey to gather feedback on what worked and didn’t work to help us direct instruction for the next school year.

As with any new curriculum, we’ve encountered our fair share of challenges with getting our SEL class off and running. One challenge has been teacher buy-in. Some teachers are comfortable leading the lessons and others are not. We’re looking to improve teacher confidence and participation by providing professional development, having teachers who are successfully integrating SEL serve as mentors for struggling teachers, and using videos to show teachers how to teach SEL in their classes. For example, we started holding an Adult TBird time after school for staff to join. The goal is to provide a model for teachers to use while in their TBird time and Panther period and facilitate skill building in areas such as mindfulness activities, emotional regulation skills, and using different modalities while teaching SEL (e.g., movement, breathing). We’ve also arranged several in-person, professional development sessions where students and staff get an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a student in TBird time/Panther period. We even assembled a group of student TBird SEL Ambassadors who will serve as leaders among their classmates, assist their teachers in SEL support, and eventually help curriculum writers with lesson development. We’ve already held our first training with these students and the data we’ve collected so far show a majority of students are interested in continuing their involvement as ambassadors.

Finally, to fully integrate culturally responsive SEL across the school system, we will need to add this approach and lens to all aspects of the school (e.g., administrative decisions, discipline referrals, attendance policies, etc.). To this end, we are planning additional training for teachers and staff to implement trauma-informed practices, mindfulness skills, restorative practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, and continued equity, inclusion, and culturally responsive supports.

As we move forward, we’re excited to continue developing our SEL curriculum, deepen cultural involvement by community members, including student involvement, and most of all, encourage and support teachers in extending SEL competencies and A:Shiwi core values throughout the school day. By doing this we can truly say our whole village is raising our children. “Hon ansammo leʼna a:dekʼyanna” ~ “We will all live accordingly”.

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