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DEAP School perseveres through pandemic

By Stacy Thacker
Special to the Times

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich.

Mini moccasins and “Mutton Magic” aren’t categories in a Navajo trivia game, they are assignments being taught at the Dzil Ditl’ooi School of Empowerment, Action and Perseverance in Navajo, New Mexico.

Courtesy photo
Daewon Johnson, a 6th-grader, holds a bag full of corn. Students were allowed to safely harvest corn for an assignment.

Like many schools across the Navajo Nation, the DEAP School is learning how to effectively do online learning while facing the problems of slow to no internet connection and keeping true to their mission. “It’s hard to navigate how to teach and how to be a learner right now but at the same time all these beautiful opportunities have popped up,” Kayla Begay, director of learning at DEAP, said.

When the pandemic hit and the school closed in March, they had to find a way to keep hands-on learning accessible to students. With a garden box and some seeds, students at DEAP began growing their own gardens at home.

With help from his sister, Mikkel Bia, a senior, grew beans, squash, corn, flowers, watermelon and tomatoes. At one point, the pair grew so many tomatoes they had to give some away to family members. “We’re really proud of ourselves,” Bia said.

Being able to share the food they’re growing makes them feel like they’re making a change in the community. The uncertainty and limitations of the virus put urgency on issues the Navajo people were already facing. One of those issues is food insecurity.

With a stay-at-home order in place and the virus spreading rapidly, going to the grocery store is too risky for most, so making sure students have the skills and confidence to grow and harvest their own food is essential. Along with gardening, students had the opportunity to make mutton and share their recipes.

School staff butchered a sheep, packaged the mutton and delivered it to students. Their assignment, “Mutton Magic,” consisted of the students presenting their recipe as well as an art component.

Some students took photos, others made Tik Tok videos and one student used silversmithing skills to create a bracelet. “I think it’s been really cool to see that when you give students the tools and also the support and encouragement to find joy, they’ve really been creative and it’s been inspiring,” Begay said. “There’s definitely a lot of pain but there’s a lot of creativity and inspirations that have come out of this moment.”

As winter moves in, assignments start to focus on winter cultural teachings. One of the assignments is making mini moccasins. The supplies are provided to students and the lessons come from elders in the community, a resource Begay is thankful to have. While COVID-19 has changed a lot, it hasn’t changed DEAP’s focus on land-based learning, wellness, Diné culture and language. The school holds onto these foundational learning principles with every lesson they send home.

They want to make sure they are providing intentional learning. “There’s definitely a lot of pressure for the students to go back to that sense of normalcy for school,” Begay said, “But at the same time, we understand that it’s overwhelming.” Learning from home is more complicated than just waking up, logging onto a laptop and starting a lesson.

“Online school has been a lot more challenging than in-person school,” student Riley Deskins said. “I think most of it is because at home I have different things to do, some chores and things like that.” “Something about it has been making me struggle a bit more,” he said.

Deskins, a freshman, tries to find a quiet place to do schoolwork but it’s not easy when everybody is home.

“A lot of educators may assume that families have a desk, that students have a quiet area or even that they have their own room but that’s not always true,” Begay said. “As a school we have a responsibility to be responsive to that and to be fair to what’s going on in their lives.”

For Begay, communication and flexibility are key to fostering successful online learning. Begay and her staff have been reaching out to families throughout the pandemic to see what families need and what they can provide.

Schools are staples in Navajo communities. They’re where families get a lot of their social and emotional needs met, Begay said, and they want to continue to provide as many services as they can. They’ve partnered with different organizations to help families with grocery store gift cards, water filters, wood and other necessities.

“We’re doing what we can as a small school to give our families and students those things so that way they can focus on school,” Begay said. “Those little things, they might not matter but if you don’t have those things, you’re not going to be able to focus on learning.”

When students are focused, then the lessons they are learning go deeper than just a grade. For Kendell Tsosie, an 8th grader, guest speakers have helped with staying motivated to attend school. Stories of perseverance and overcoming struggles have kept Tsosie on the right path. “I could just do whatever I want,” Tsosie said, adding it’d be easy to skip class, but self-discipline has been Tsosie’s big take- away. “I attended school, I worked really hard, I took notes and I tried to get the best of my work done.”

Finding a balance to keep students motivated while still meeting state requirements is a challenge Begay and her staff took head on. “Our teachers have been really innovative during this time,” she said.

“We’ve really tried to think outside the box. We don’t always have to do packets, we can grade them on a Tik Tok video. “Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re in a new world and learning is going to change.”


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