Creating a Culturally Responsive Curriculum (Ep. 129)

Cultural appropriation is a consequential issue for art teachers, and it is important that we spend time creating a culturally responsive curriculum. On today’s episode, Nic talks with art teacher Tasha Newton and assistant professor Dr. Heather Ann Moody about their collaboration that resulted in a consequential, meaningful, and thoughtful curriculum.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: I love to surround myself with lifelong learners because these people are continuously bringing new information into their brain and sharing new ideas with the world. One person in particular that we will be speaking today is Tasha Newton. She is an art educator in Wisconsin and let me tell you, this woman is a lifelong learner. What I admire about her is that she’s able to say, I’m not sure, I need to do some research on that. And by doing so, she has created an amazing collaboration with a woman named Heather Moody. The two of them are going to be discussing Native American and cultures and how to bring that successfully into your art education classroom. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hi guys, welcome. Can you go ahead and introduce yourself to our listeners today.

Tasha: Hi, my name is Tasha Newton and I am a K through fifth-grade elementary art teacher in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.

Nic: All right.

Heather: Hello everyone. My name is Dr. Heather Ann Moody. I’m an assistant professor in American Indian studies at UW-Eau Claire and I’m an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk nation of Wisconsin.

Nic: Awesome. Yes. Now, Tasha, you have been on the podcast before, but it was very in short about the master’s program that you’re taking through the Art of Education University. And Heather, I’m excited to have had the introduction through Tasha of you because your content is just going to be so relevant for the listeners of this podcast. So thank you both for being on today.

I know that you guys have been working on writing some curriculum or you have in the past about cultural responsive art curriculum specifically. Let’s just get right into that. Let’s talk about what that looks like, how you guys came about this collaboration.

Tasha: I’ll take the lead on this one. So when I started teaching about eight years ago, I was so afraid to teach anything to do with Native American studies because I was afraid to be offensive, to not be teaching it correctly. So instead of teaching and I just avoided it, which is not at all what you want to do. And I was lucky enough to have Dr. Heather Ann Mooney’s children in my classroom and I made that connection. I was like, can you help me please? What? How should I be going about this? Where do I start? And that’s kind of how we began our journey. I believe, right?

Heather: Yeah, for sure. And its… It threw me off a little bit cause I was just starting to get into working with teachers and K-12 cause normally I focus on pre-service teachers at the university and it was really exciting because this is a… Usually I end up teaching or working with teachers in social studies or history. Where people… That’s really the only place Native American information belongs. So the opportunity to get to work with an art teacher was really fascinating, even though I’m the worst art person there is. So it was kind of fun and I was like, I just want to be clear, I don’t know anything about art but I can definitely help you with the native perspective aspect.

And it was a great, really simple process because we just met several times, either out and about or at someone’s house and talk through what kind of standards are there that you’re looking at. And then, how can we fit in some sort of a Native American perspective and project to go along with those standards and those lesson plans.

Tasha: Yeah, I think it was really organic to how it evolved because we really had no idea of what we were getting into and we kind of just started sharing ideas and that we will be like, Oh wow, this would be great for this age group. And it just kind of fell into place that way, which was really cool.

Nic: And I think Heather brings up a good point though. We need people from all different realms of life to support the most progressive and powerful education that we can possibly provide for our students. And to be brave enough to come into an art room because sometimes that’s a little scary. But knowing that like you had the skills of Tasha helping you out and your knowledge of it with your background. What an amazing collaboration. I’m so glad that the universe brought you guys together.

Heather: It really was. It was really cool to… Because Tasha would have ideas about… Well, I want to look at pottery and you can look at pottery in so many different Native American groups. But then that also got an opportunity for us to talk about diversity and think about all of the many different nations that are out there that are very different and not all of them do pottery. And even within the Pueblo areas, that each Pueblo has a different style of pottery. And to be able to talk about that with kids just on that very simple level allows for them to really realize, wow, not all native people are the same. Which I think was really important for me working with Tasha on this was to make sure that people think of native people as a diverse group of people because oftentimes we just generalize with the term even saying native people.

Tasha: Right!

Heather: That’s so many different people! I’ve come from the Ho-Chunk nation and we are from Wisconsin and our stories in Wisconsin, but I also went to school down in Arizona for a few years and the nations that live down there are so different than what we are up here. But it was so great to learn about that and be able to incorporate that into these art projects and think about, okay, it’s not just one area. And we can talk about art in many different tribal nations and really get students to think about the diversity of Native America rather than just general Native Americans that maybe wear feathers or wear face paint or hunt Buffalo and Linden teepees, which is commonly what I see in K-12 classrooms, to be honest… While even in my college classrooms, I see that as well, unfortunately.

Tasha: And I think from the art teacher perspective, you kind of have to be comfortable with being vulnerable and being ignorant and knowing that, Hey, I don’t know everything about this and that’s okay with me, but that’s why I need to be reaching out to those amazing people that I am able to reach out to and gain that knowledge from. So I think for our teachers, we have to be accepting in the fact that, Hey, we might not know everything and being willing to step out of our comfort zone and reach out to those people that can help you, like Heather has helped me so much so.

Heather: And I think another aspect that I really enjoyed working with Tasha on this that she was open to suggestions and not just suggestions as, Oh let’s do it this way or this way. But if something were to come up that was not okay to do in a classroom, she wasn’t going to do it. It was like, [crosstalk 00:07:31] that’s [inaudible 00:07:32] kind of borderline. And there were a couple things I think we encountered that I was like, well, that could be really sketchy or could be really borderline… Not okay.

Because I actually had an experience that I was giving a talk at Chippewa Valley Museum to some teachers and I had an art teacher come up to me afterwards and said, Hey, can you give me some resources on… And I love teachers to ask me for resources because I will give what I have as far as resources. But she wanted resources on how to do sand painting, Navajo sand paintings in her art class. And I said, no, you shouldn’t be doing those in your art class because that’s a sacred ceremony and they’re not meant to be permanent and you shouldn’t be doing that with students. And she just looked at me and said, fine, I’ll go find somebody else who will give me resources.

So that was really frustrating to see that I was trying to help a teacher and incorporate… I would have been happy to give other suggestions of projects, but just flat out was not open to the idea that something couldn’t be done in a classroom. So that’s why I always appreciate teachers like Tasha who are like, okay, I don’t want to do anything I’m not supposed to. And then just really be open to some other ideas or maybe looking at it in a different perspective.

Tasha: Right. And I think too, one of the things that I’ve kind of become really comfortable with is knowing that, okay, I’m not going to have my students do this, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to introduce them or teach them about it. I still want them to be aware of it because that type of art, the sand art that you’re speaking of has influenced a lot of contemporary artists too that use it in their very own unique way that’s not at all offensive. But you can kind of infuse those things to really introduce students to how that history has affected contemporary art today as well.

Heather: And I think that was a big important aspect of our projects too was… And even when I work with other teachers, even in social studies history, is really getting students to think about contemporary native people instead of always the past. And I know some of our projects are based on past traditions, but now we think about it in a contemporary aspect, or one of them is on a contemporary artist and thinking about stereotypes. So always connecting past to present is one of the key ideas that I try to get teachers to incorporate in any project or any kind of Native American content they bring in is how do we see the effects of… And you don’t have to go into colonialism and explain that, although you could, it’d be great. But being able to just talk with kids and say, look how this has changed throughout time and look how these traditions still live on and how they’ve adapted them for our contemporary society today. So I think that’s an important an element as well.

Tasha: Yeah, and I think another thing that we really wanted to focus on was including a lot of tribes throughout our nation. So students really got a good view of different tribes in every part of our country. So that was another focus we were really trying to pull from as well.

Nic: That’s really interesting. What a great… Just a great collaboration between the two of you and I know Tasha is a lifelong learner and so I can see that in her personality just from knowing her, the little that I do, that she is willing. And I love that you mentioned that Tasha, that you’re willing to be wrong, you’re willing to learn and you’re willing to admit possible ignorance. And I think as long as you can do that, you continue to grow and learn and therefore your education for your students are going to be that much better. So way to go, both of you. Awesome!

Heather, let’s go into… I know that you do visit schools, K-12 schools. I know that’s not your primary position, but can we talk about some of the questions that you’ve received? You told us one story. Can you tell us about other questions that you’re hearing from educators and what the common responses that you’re giving to educators?

Heather: Yeah, and Tasha touched on one aspect of this as well is thinking about you know it’s there, you know it should be there, or you want to incorporate it into your classroom, but if you don’t know how, then you either avoid it completely and then you’re not doing any of it at all.

Or what I see frequently too is just using the resources that are already present in schools, which are not the greatest resources. They tend not to come from native perspectives. They aren’t fully accurate. A lot of our textbooks in general are written in a way that do not include voices that should be there. In fact, my daughter’s eighth grade textbook in history class or in social studies doesn’t even have sovereignty in it. And that’s like a fundamental concept that all people should understand with regard to tribal nations is tribal sovereignty. And to know that that wasn’t even in her textbook in eighth grade where it’s required by law to be in Wisconsin was really frustrating to see.

I get a lot of teachers saying, I really want to do this, but I really have no idea how to do it. So I tend to work with them and just ask them, okay, what is your lesson plan and what are the things that you’re trying to get across? And a lot of times they just don’t know. And we just say, we really have no foundation whatsoever. So can you just give us like a basic, what should we know in our classroom? So a lot of times I will go in and talk about sovereignty and we’ll talk about treaty rights just because those are really important, especially in our neck of the woods.

Refer people to understand that those are legal obligations and that we have tribal governments. And each time I go into a classroom I always start with talking about terminology because we’ve used… I think interchangeable terminology here too, whether it’s Native, Native American, American Indian. And that’s one of the big questions that even my teachers are like, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to use, what should I even say? And people are looking for the politically correct term to use and get very frustrated when I’m like, there isn’t a politically correct term. And really breaking down terminology and thinking about how all these terms that we use, whether it’s Indian, Native American, American Indian, are all very generic terms for this diverse group of people that we’ve been talking about.

We have 574 federally-recognized tribal nations because we actually had one added just a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to change all my information for next semester now. And that’s a lot of nations and on top of it there’s a hundred plus more that aren’t federally-recognized. And talking about… That’s a lot of group of people that have different traditions, different cultures, different languages, and we lump them all under these really generalized terms, like Native American or American Indian. So having a conversation with students is talking about simply, where does the term Indian come from? A lot of… There’s actually a lot of people out there who don’t realize Columbus was never even in the United States. And that’s where we get that term Indian from. And we’re kind of still stuck with it today and it’s very inaccurate. But then, how has this process evolved and really thinking about how cultural evolves as well with these terms really helps people to understand, okay, we’re dealing with something much bigger than just simply maybe what I see in a movie or what I see in books and on TV.

So I think just working with teachers and saying, what do you want to get out of this is really important. And those are those kinds of big questions, it’s like, they don’t even know what tribal sovereignty is, teachers don’t. And having kids know what the 11 federally-recognized tribes in Wisconsin are and they’re looking at their teacher who’s going, I don’t know either. And really coming back to this and saying, it’s okay that we don’t know because we weren’t taught in the right way and we’re learning in this process. And I think that’s a really good role model for students too, to see that their teachers are learners as well.

Nic: Exactly. Yep. Yep. So specifically, we attack [inaudible 00:16:07] in general as educators, but specifically, what are some things that you’ve brought to the art room? And I’d love to hear from both Heather and Tasha about like, what suggestions you’ve made for the art room. And then Tasha, what have you done in your classroom that you feel was successful because of your guys’ collaboration?

Tasha: I think the first one was… First of all, identifying tribes by their actual tribe name instead of just saying Native American or American Indian. I think that’s the best we can do to try to be respectful to that group of people is to refer to them as a specific tribe. And be aware of that different tribes have different traditions, so making sure that you are aware of what piece of artwork you’re working with and what tribe it comes from and really honing in on the traditions of that tribe specifically.

That was a big eye-opener for me because I was like, Oh yeah, I guess that makes… I mean I knew there was multiple tribes, right? But I didn’t realize how important it was to really identify those tribes with a specific artwork. You have tribes within the Badlands area or the Plains… Thank you. And you would tend to like hone all those into one specific nation. Whereas, there’s all different tribes, this, the Plains nations as well. So I think that was one of the biggest takeaways I have gotten from it. And being able to share that with my students and open their eyes up to all the different tribes within our country has been amazing.

Heather: And I think for me, having my children here, so my children are native and I think they’re the only two native kids in our school. For them it was really important to see their own culture even though there’s not Ho-Chunk specific projects. It was really interesting I think for them to see that their culture in general was being recognized within school and even cooler in art class of all things. It wasn’t [crosstalk 00:18:11] [history 00:18:10] book or something, which they’re very critical of history books anyway. But they could come to art, which for both my kids in elementary school, they’re both out of elementary school now. This was their favorite class was coming to art because they can be creative and they were allowed to explore things.

But then to see their own cultures represented and represented accurately was really inspiring, I think for them, to be recognized and say, Hey, this is not the standard teepee. Teepees made out of popsicles type of thing or making dream catchers and really stereotypical things happening. They were allowed to explore a lot of different ways of looking at art in nations that were different from their own too. So I remember my son doing the Raven Steals The Light project, which is connected to an oral tradition from the Northwest coast area and then it’s connected to the line art specifically within the standards. And to see just how interesting something like oral tradition could come together with the line art tradition of art and represented in a culture was super cool. He had… He loved that project and they were allowed to interpret the story and figure out what was the important part of the story and then illustrate that.

And I think that was just really meaningful that kids could actually think about what was the most important part of that story for them. Because that was an important part of native culture wherever you go is our stories. And our stories aren’t just as simple, this is the one lesson you learned from a story. There are multiple lessons that are learned and everyone who is a listener takes away something different. And that’s supposed to be… That’s how stories are supposed to work. So to be able to have that in an educational setting in an art room, I think was a really cool opportunity.

Tasha: And I think one of the things that we do do is take… We took a lot of really well-known traditional art forms in different tribes. But then I think the key to that is not having students reproduce those pieces. Instead, look at those pieces, appreciate what the artist has done and what those tribes have done traditionally with that work, but then figure out a way how they can create their own symbols that represent themselves and create their own colors that [represent 00:20:36] for things about themselves. So I think we… With my first graders, they did a formline tradition. That’s what the illustration of the Raven Steals The Sun… They created a formline border, but they didn’t just recreate the traditional formline artwork. They just created their own symbols that represented different things about them.

Heather: And I think that’s a really important part, especially in art. Social studies and history, it’s pretty straightforward. But then when you get into more artistic forms, even as writing [inaudible 00:21:15]… Writing and maybe language arts classes, if you’re writing a story or you’re doing an art project of… It’s great to be inspired by art but don’t copy somebody’s art in particular. And I think Tasha has done a really great job with all the projects she’s done in making that really clear to students. We’re not copying it. This is an opportunity for you to be creative, to bring yourself into it. And I mean that’s the best kind of art there is, in my opinion is to really… How do you see yourself in that? How do you connect? And I think that’s what’s missing a lot of times in all K-12 classrooms when it comes to native content is how does this affect the student? How is this student connected? If you can explain to a student, You know what, your neighbor could be a Native American. And they’re like, what?

That’s kind of crazy to think about because they’re still thinking about people in the past or even thinking about whose land are you on? That’s been a big focus of mine lately because our university just did a formal land recognition of the land that you’re on. And just making people think about, there were people here before who is connected. How are they still connected? I mean I still get questions going into classrooms, fourth grade, eighth grade classrooms asking me, do you have a stove? Do you live in a regular house? And I’m like… Do I have money? What do I trade with? What do I make my clothes with? And I’m like, I shop at Target and Kohl’s. It’s very odd that those are the kinds of questions that I’m still getting from kids that they’re like, Hey, you should know this by now. But then you start looking at what they’re raised with and the curriculum and even just what’s on TV and you realize, wow, we have a long way to go.

Tasha: Yeah. And I was aware of that too just with doing these projects in my own classroom. Some of the things that my students will ask and well, okay, that’s why this content is so important and it’s so relevant and why we all need to be really doing this.

Heather: And if we understand people are today, I really truly believe that the racism against people in general that aren’t of mainstream culture would go down significantly. If we just took the time to learn about people and learn about who people are and not just see them as different. It would really affect society in a whole different level.

Nic: Which kind of brings it back to the lesson planning that you were discussing is being inspired but bringing it back to yourself as much as possible to unite the person and the art.

Tasha: Right. And it’s recently there’s been some terminology that’s become very popular, I guess you would say. And that got me going back to Heather asking are these appropriate things that we should be saying or is this offensive at all? And then those two words that made me think and question it was the savage has become really popular as well, like tribe. This is my tribe or here’s my tribe, and kind of things like that, which I mean you hear it all the time, but when I heard it I kind of like made me step back a little bit and be like, huh, I wonder if that is offensive to actual tribes that have had to go through a lot to even be titled with that tribe name.

Nic: And Heather, what would your response be?

Heather: So it was really interesting when Tasha messaged me about that. Because I think that was the fourth or fifth person in a matter of like a month who were like, Hey, so this got me thinking. And it was interesting to see all the people who asked me were people who I had worked with and that made me realize, okay, we’re doing something right, that we’re starting to pick up these things. And savage came up with my son, he plays… he used to play basketball and he came home really upset one time because someone had said, that was savage. And for him that meant something really different than what they were using with. And I said, you have to realize the context and they don’t understand that that’s a really demeaning word for us to use and that described us.

Historically, you can find it in historical records of talking about us as savages and that has a different history, but we’re not teaching that history. A word like that will come up and then people are like, well, you’re just insensitive… You’re just being too sensitive and it’s like, no, you just don’t understand our history and how that’s really offensive. And, people can understand that one a little bit more, but tribe, they don’t quite get until I put it in the context of it really isn’t an inappropriate thing to use for just, Oh there’s a bunch of us girls who like the color red or something. It’s our red tribe. And then it’s like, Whoa, it’s red in there too. And that got a little weird. I saw that on the internet one time.

I was like, Oh, don’t do that. But for us, tribe, that’s a word that goes beyond just a group of people that have a common culture. That’s our political unit. We are independent nations and people don’t understand that that’s where that word comes from for us. So for us, tribe isn’t just, we like to hang out together or we all speak the same language. It’s much more meaningful than that. That actually legitimizes us as a nation. So I actually have been trying to use tribal nation a lot more than just tribe because people have diminished that word so much that it’s not very meaningful and it doesn’t have the same impact as tribal nation does. But still trying to understand like you have to realize that that’s a part of cultural appropriation too. It’s not that blatant cultural appropriation, like I just put a headdress on and went to a music festival. Where [crosstalk 00:27:11] it can be like, Oh yeah, that’s cultural appropriation. It’s like the words we’re using, the language we’re using, that’s also appropriation on a different level.

Or recently we had a situation in Wisconsin where a high school did war dance, Pow Wow dance type of thing. And it was a predominantly white school and people were even defending that saying, well, they used actual native music. It was an actual native band. And it’s like, you’re still appropriating it because you’d not understanding what those dances are. You’re not understanding [crosstalk 00:27:49] Indian. So I think it’s really important that we can bring those kinds of concepts into our classroom. And if you do hear a student say something like, that was savage. Just pause and take a minute and say, do you understand that could be an offensive word or…

Right now we’ve got the football season upon us. So we’ve got the Washington team very prominent and I hear kids saying the R word, what I call the R word, all the time and no one calls anybody out on those kinds of things. So just being aware of when you hear terms that kids are using, just having that conversation, you don’t have to yell at them and pull them out in front of everybody and make a big production. But just having that conversation of do you realize that this could be used in a different context and this has a different meaning.

But again, those are some things that I’ve had conversations with teachers with as well. I had a conversation with another teacher about a word in a book and it’s the word squaw, which I usually don’t actually say out loud, but no one knows what I’m talking about when I say that native S word. So that was read out loud in a class and one of my kids came home and was really upset about it and I had a conversation with the teacher about what that word actually meant and they were mortified and were like, I had no idea. And I’m like, yeah, because he wouldn’t say the English equivalent of it in a classroom. And it’s just that lack of knowledge.

So anytime there’s an opportunity, even with your students or colleagues to say, Hey, let’s have a conversation about this. And they may not be open to it, especially if you’ve got older colleagues, but at least you’ve started a conversation or maybe you’ve gotten them to think about it a little bit. Kids are a little bit easier to, I think, to have a conversation with, but always being aware of what’s happening and how you can make a difference within your classroom and within your schools as well.

Tasha: Well, I just think as art teachers, we have a really awesome opportunity to address a lot of those issues. There are so many amazing contemporary Native American artists that touch on these kinds of things that we can introduce to our students too. Off the top of my head, James Luna we refer to in one of our lessons, and I love sharing some of his work with my students because it brings up that idea of identity and how not only do we have a specific image in our head of when we say American Indian of what that looks like, but that same goes for our students. How do they identify with the [inaudible 00:30:29] themselves and is that what they’re portraying visually or is that different? Is it all internal? A lot of great conversations can come out of these really amazing contemporary artists.

Fritz Scholder is another phenomenal one that has really opens up a lot of discussions in terms of what does it mean to be a Native American artist to begin with? How do you get titled that and do we as people get titled with certain things that we don’t always necessarily want to be titled with, another great conversation with students.

Nic: Yep. Yep. And I’m going to add in Delina White as a good resource too. She is a Minnesota artist and one that I follow and have been fortunate enough to meet a couple of times. Great work from her good contemporary artists. So we’ll include those names in our notes today. But you too, thank you so much. Your conversation really is going to be beneficial for our listeners. Thanks for joining us today.

Tasha: Well, thanks for having us.

Heather: Yes, thank you so much.

Nic: I have to admit this was a hard conversation to wrap up on because the more this conversation continued, the more questions I had. It’s okay to have questions and then go ahead and ask them. That’s how this all began. Tasha had a question and then she asked Heather and they had amazing, beautiful collaboration between the two of them. I’m guessing you might have more questions too, so as always, be sure to check out the podcast notes. At the very bottom of the script, you will find notes and resources that will help you learn more about the content of the highlighted podcast. Thanks for listening today. Thank you, Heather, and thank you, Tasha, for joining us and sharing your knowledge.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.