Don't Just Teach About Cultures—Teach Culturally. Here's the Difference

5 Min Read
David oconnor

Photo: David J. O'Connor at a training workshop in Wisconsin. (Courtesy of PBS Wisconsin)

When teaching and learning about First Nations and tribal communities in Wisconsin and in the United States, we need to expand how we consider providing this instruction to our students.

This topic is not something to provide as part of the curriculum on just one day (such as Indigenous Peoples’ Day), within a single unit of study, or during a particular month (such as November’s Native American Heritage Month). In my work at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s American Indian Studies Program, I challenge, push, and guide educators to think outside the box of “traditional” or “conventional” forms and, instead, in terms of their instructional practices. In this effort, I encourage educators to think about how they can move from teaching about cultures to teaching culturally with their students.

In my experience, when discussing teaching about cultures, we are referencing a culture’s foods, festivities, heroes, and holidays. The idea around teaching culturally is that the educator is becoming a guide for their students and is actively learning and participating with them in their understanding of the content being shared and explored.

Teaching About Cultures

Teaching about cultures is often limited to instruction within content courses, such as the following:

  • Culture seen in literacy instruction as a mirror of the student’s experiences or a window into experiences the student hasn’t had. While valuable, it is limited if students are not provided opportunities to expand and connect their learning to other content areas.
  • Culture reflected in environmental instruction, such as representative items of the cultures being studied or seen in the classroom. Posters on walls, featured books on shelves, or videos are used to represent a “single” monolithic culture of Native Americans.
  • Culture taught in social studies instruction in a standard and unchanging manner, such as only including First Nations people, communities, and nations. In addition to being infrequent, it is often taught without having Native voices or authors represented.

Teaching Culturally

Teaching culturally includes the use of various forms of the following:

  • Pedagogical practices, including but not limited to:
    • Utilizing oral histories and stories
    • Helping students understand personal sovereignty
    • Applying experiential learning techniques
    • Contextualizing situations using real-world problems and tasks
    • Encouraging multiple ways of thinking
    • Promoting analysis and discourse
  • Social and emotional awareness
  • Understanding how the classroom community reflects the greater community they live in
  • A growth mindset in the work

Defining the base roots of language or areas being taught is very important. For example, we have a state law in Wisconsin (often referred as Wisconsin Act 31) requiring all public school districts and pre-service education programs to provide instruction on the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s American Indian nations and tribal communities. To help others understand this law, I encourage educators to increase their understanding of how to define each of the following terms: history, culture, and tribal sovereignty. Having a strong understanding of the root words and their meanings is critical to teaching culturally.

American Indian studies, like other interdisciplinary studies, should not be taught or seen as an “elective,” but instead should be interwoven throughout educators’ lesson plans and curricula from the beginning of the school year to the end.

The “Three I’s”

Before I discuss the “three I’s” with colleagues, I have them first understand why this work is important and what it means to move away from just “acknowledging” to actually learning and understanding. I explore with educators the why: we, as First Nations people and communities, have always been shaping the land, continue to influence communities today, and will make an impact on society in the future. Because of that historical and contemporary impact, there are so many stories to be told, heard, and listened to.

The “three I’s” mark the stages of an educator’s journey to incorporate American Indian studies into their work: include, integrate, and infuse. When considering the “three I’s,” all stages are important in the process. It takes time, growth, and understanding to develop a curriculum that supports multiple stories and perspectives.

The first stage is “include,” which is where educators may introduce a resource or two into their curriculum but are not yet comfortable with the content. However, as they build on their knowledge base, these educators may move into the “integrate” stage with the content while plugging in more and diverse resources before progressing into the “infuse” stage, where they can fluidly and naturally share information and resources throughout the whole year and learn along with their students.

For a deeper look into how I connect with Wisconsin educators in regard to American Indian studies, check out this video profile from PBS Wisconsin Education.

In the journey of the work, I always share my own stories and perspectives in the hope that, in turn, educators will reflect, share their own stories, and learn about Wisconsin’s First Nations along with their students. We no longer accept monolithic descriptions and definitions about ourselves. When you look at me, you see not only a “Native American.” Instead, I hope we have a discussion of what it means to be a father, a husband, a son, a grandson, a nephew, an uncle, an educator, the American Indian Studies Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and an Anishinaabe (originally from and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa). These are areas where I feel we can relate to each other rather than focus on our differences.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Immerse middle and high school students in history with HMH Social Studies, our personalized, inquiry-based social studies solution.

Related Reading

Belonging School Kentwood

Eighth graders enjoy a light moment in Alison Van Dyke's ELA class at Valleywood Middle School in Kentwood, Michigan.

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor

Strategies for math intervention hero

Richard Blankman

Shaped Executive Editor

WF1944463 Hero

Jennifer Corujo
Shaped Editor