Indiana State University Newsroom

Culture Junkie: Student explores Navajo culture as student teacher

March 2, 2009

"The red dust is very much like the Navajo culture itself. When you are in Navajoland, there's no escaping it. It's all around you and ever present, be it conspicuously or invisibly. The red dust is Navajo flesh and blood; it's Navajo thought and vision; it's Navajo beauty and medicine; it's Navajo breath." – Mick Fedullo, "Light of the Feather"

Cracks fissure the auburn ground that crumbles to powder at the lightest touch. Wind whips that powdery dust through the air, coating all it lands on with a reddish tinge. The Dinè, the Navajo, call it home, this land carved by wind and water into towering mesas and a plunging canyon.

For one semester, Indiana State University senior Kristin Monts is calling it home.

"I knew I could never work at a conventional or traditional school and so this teaching opportunity was exactly what I wanted. It got me out of the Midwest," said the Rockford, Ill., native. "It's a great student teaching experience."

The English education and English major chose to take advantage of a new cooperative program offered between ISU and Indiana University's Cultural Immersions Project that gives ISU students an opportunity for international student teaching.

"A couple of years ago in a conversation with a metropolitan school district superintendent in the Indianapolis area, the superintendent indicated there were over 30 foreign languages spoken in that one district alone," Brad Balch, College of Education dean, said. "I realized that our schools in Indiana are truly globalizing. When you look at the current standards for teachers, inter-cultural opportunities are extremely important. We know of no better way for them to accomplish those standards than to see life, see the teaching and learning life, through the eyes of others internationally."

For four months this spring, Monts is seeing the Navajo life through living and working at the Many Farms High School campus in Arizona.

"I'm a cultural junkie so I love to immerse myself in cultures," she said. "I think that's the best way to learn about the world and learn about the people we live with."

Dave Lepkojus, head teacher at Many Farms, participated in the second group sent out from IU in 1974 and never left Arizona.

"I was a geology major at Indiana and this is a geologist's paradise our here," he said. "I just felt comfortable here. I got out into the community and participated in ceremonies and participated in family activities and I got to really know a lot of people. That made me feel comfortable and I was accepted."

Monts has found much of the same.

"I have found that the Navajo community is one of the most welcoming and warm communities I've ever been in," she said. "When I get home at night I feel like I've learned more than I'm actually teaching my students and you can't really ask for anything better than that."

Many Farms senior Nathaniel Begay has shared parts of the Navajo way of life and language with Monts and other student teachers.

"I want to give them a teaching of our culture, how we survived, how we adapted to our native soil," he said. "How we overcame that. With them being here it's a new thing and I want to be there just to show them this is what we do and this is how we are as a culture and a tribe."

Navajo land exhibits violence done to it, nature leaving beauty behind in the arroyos, canyons and mesas. There is a harsh reality to many students' lives that mimics the land.

"I thought, working in the Midwest, that I met students who had hard home lives and I couldn't even compare the home lives that I was getting to know of my students in Indiana as to what the students that live on the Navajo Nation have to deal with," Monts said. "They have to try to keep their traditions alive, but then they also are trying to survive in the dominant Anglo or Western culture. It's absolutely amazing, but poverty levels are high and many students live in the dorms because their home lives are bad."

"It's really important to understand that when they (student teachers) come here they're going to be dealing with a 100 percent at-risk population," Lepkojus said. "Motivating students is extremely important. You've got to be able to excite them into learning and to staying in school."

Begay is motivated to continue his education after high school and study criminal justice in college before going into law enforcement.

"I have brothers and sisters who didn't make it through high school, they dropped out. They have an alcohol problem," he said. "For me, I'm trying to live up to someth


ISU senior Kristin Monts is spending the spring semester in the Navajo Nation student teaching at Many Farms High School in Arizona. ISU photo/Kara Berchem

ing. I want to make something different for me."

He sees it as a tribute to his grandmother who raised him, which he called a blessing because she taught him values and traditions.

"She's passed on for quite a while now. She's still in me and that's why I want to succeed," he said. "I'll be the first one to graduate from high school. Criminal justice is the right thing to do. I'll be changing things here, not only in the people but in the environment as well."

Navajo students may look like others across the United States until a person scratches below the surface, Monts said.

"They'll have Metallica T-shirts on, they will have dyed purple hair and walk around with their skateboards, but when you dig deep, they are extremely traditional when it comes to their home lives," she said. "Their elders or their grandparents tried to keep their traditional ceremonies as close as possible and students still go home every day, they herd sheep, they milk the cows, they cut wood for their families."

For one month of her student teaching, Monts worked with Mick Fedullo, who teaches creative writing on reservations throughout the United States and Canada.

"He breaks every single barrier that I've ever known when it comes to teaching," Monts said. "He will do whatever he possibly can to reach a student and to motivate them and it's completely inspirational."

Fedullo thinks it is good for education majors to come to the reservation "before there's any pre-conceived idea about what life is like on a reservation, what the students are like."

"I think that when you're fortunate to be a young student-teacher like Kristin Monts, she's learning a whole lot, but she's teaching a whole lot," he said. "It becomes a symbiotic relationship and it's nicer nowadays that young people don't have the same kinds of agendas that a lot of educators did in the old days, you know, coming onto a reservation to save the Indians and put Jesus in their hearts. That's not what teachers are here for. Teachers are here to educate and a lot of these new student teachers know that. They're in it with a spirit of wanting to experience a different culture and have a bicultural experience, to learn as much as they are teaching."

Brian Bell, a native Hoosier who came to the Navajo Nation through IU's program, has spent the past 18 years in Many Farms teaching freshman English and serves as Monts' host teacher.

"They don't have a problem just sitting there staring at you and trying to figure you out," Bell said about the Navajo students. "One class in particular, they were really standoffish (toward Monts). They wouldn't say anything, they wouldn't respond, most wouldn't even look in her direction. At the beginning of class it was just stone cold silent and she was just kind of working with it. Even through the assignment, she was addressing and talking to the kids individually and I think they started even in that one hour knowing each other as individuals. By the end of the hour the kids were answering questions, they were participating."

Monts' time in Many Farms has been filled with getting to know the students through daily interaction. She and another student teacher share an apartment in the girls' dormitory. She helps serve meals in the cafeteria to the students and tutors them after school and in the evening. She participates in evening activities such as the bonfire and class games during homecoming week, attends the school's basketball games or plays Rez ball - the reservation version of basketball - with the boys.


Kristin Monts, ISU senior, attends the Many Farms High School homecoming basketball game. ISU photo/Kara Berchem

"I was teaching her some basketball with some of my friends and she's good at her shooting, but not at her threes," Ramon Toadlena, a freshman in one of Monts' classes, said with a laugh. "I'm not sure if she ever ate a Navajo burger or something like that so I'm trying to get her into that."

"You could say she's a friend, a tutor," said Many Farms sophomore Amanda Joe, whom Monts has helped to apply to an Upward Bound program. "She's like the older sister I never had. I can talk to her about anything."

When the students go home for the weekend, Monts chooses to explore the area with Navajo friends instead of driving the almost two hours to the closest town with a Wal-Mart. On a recent weekend she visited Canyon de Chelly and Spider Rock before driving into the nearby mountains where men sat in lawn chairs ice fishing on a frozen lake.

"It's highly, highly significant, right at this very spot," she said as she stood at the overlook where a large red rock column, with a crack running from the top to almost its base, stands away from canyon walls. The area is where Navajo stories tell that Changing Woman, a mythological female, lives.

"A lot of homes and people still live at the bottom of the canyon and have farms and herd their cattle and their horses," she said. "As far as Navajo culture, it's very important, this land right here, it's very sacred."

Mountains in the distance, mesas and arroyos nearby, and the canyon cutting though the red earth provide dramatic interludes in the high desert land.

"You have to be here and you have to experience it. It has been by far one of the most exhilarating and impactful events that I've ever had in my life," Monts said. "I think education majors should take an opportunity like this because you're exposing yourself to diversity, which is one of the major things that we as educators need to get used to. To expose yourself to a culture like this where you are the minority and working knowing that you are the minority is more than any school in the Midwest or any conventional or traditional school can offer you."

-30- Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or

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Cutline: ISU senior Kristin Monts is spending the spring semester in the Navajo Nation student teaching at Many Farms High School in Arizona. ISU photo/Kara Berchem


Cutline: Kristin Monts student teaching at Many Farms High School in the Navajo Nation. Monts is participating in a new ISU and IU partnership that allows education majors to student teach internationally.ISU photo/Kara Berchem


Cutline: Kristin Monts, ISU senior, helps to serve lunch in the Many Farms High School cafeteria. ISU photo/Kara Berchem


Cutline: Mick Fedullo, an author who teaches at reservations across the United States and Canada, Brian Bell, freshman English teacher at Many Farms High School, and Kristin Monts, ISU senior student teaching at Many Farms High School, talk to students before the start of the school day. ISU photo/Kara Berchem


Cutline: Kristin Monts, ISU senior, attends the Many Farms High School homecoming basketball game. ISU photo/Kara Berchem

For more information on the cultural immersion experience, visit: Cultural Immersion Project


Story Highlights

Kristin Monts chose to take advantage of a new cooperative program offered between ISU and Indiana University's Cultural Immersions Project that gives ISU students an opportunity for international student teaching.

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