Education in the Time of Pandemic: Projects to Engage Student Inquiry by Joaquin Muñoz and Abigail Eck

The purpose of this article is to describe curricular adjustments made to a course in response to the Covid-19 pandemic which began in the United States in 2020. We intend to approach this paper in a collaborative spirit, as student and teacher, to describe the distinct experiences of implementing the adaptations we describe. While developed in response to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and the ensuing disruption of traditional schooling practices, this paper also provides an opportunity going forward for teachers to engage and develop projects to support student learning of critical issues and topics. The project discussed below also offers a way for teachers to consider supporting student learning in environments where resources may be restricted or when challenges may arise in the accessibility of texts. Adjustments to the pandemic have given rise to incredibly creative and innovative curricula, and we believe this is one which can support learning in this time and beyond it.

At our university in Minnesota, teacher candidates (TCs) are required to engage course material on diversity, race, and Indigenous Peoples as a component of the teacher education program. These requirements derive from standards for TC preparation and focus on interpersonal relations skills applicable to teaching and a general working knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. Though these standards are addressed in a number of classes, the course discussed in this article specifically addresses critical issues of people of color and Indigenous Peoples. In Minneapolis, these topics are even more salient, given our university’s location in an urban center with a long history of Indigenous Peoples’ activism. Minneapolis has also been a major hub for immigration for large populations of Hmong and Somali people, among others. The opportunity for TCs to encounter topics around race, racism, diverse epistemologies, and non-western conceptual frameworks as pedagogy is even more critical given the complex diversity they may face as teachers. A goal of the course is for students to leave with some understanding of diverse communities and a framework for further inquiry.

In addition to deriving from legislative language, the requirement for this course is also a response to the unique context of our university. The city of Minneapolis has a unique agreement between the school district and the Indigenous community: a Memorandum of Agreement requires teachers in Minneapolis public schools to provide curriculum and support to Indigenous students, which requires knowledge of Indigenous history, language and culture (“Memorandum of Agreement”). The Memorandum seeks to be a guide for teachers, as well as an attempt to remedy historic inequities Indigenous Peoples have experienced in schools.

At the same time, this course often serves as an original introduction for students to the experiences of Indigenous Peoples. TCs at this university are overwhelmingly white/European descent students, a statistic that closely mirrors the state demographics of current practicing teachers. To remedy this, students encounter a number of pedagogical techniques to develop a deeper understanding of Indigenous Peoples’ standpoints (Walter and Anderson), and the course relies heavily on Indigenous Young Adult Fiction (IYAF) as the primary medium for coursework. Rather than using a textbook, the course was constructed on the notion of fiction as “story work” (Archibald; Brayboy; Petrone et al.). The notion of story as an element of Indigenous epistemology is documented in a number of narratives from Indigenous Peoples, and is articulated throughout research in Indigenous education. Cherie Dimalin, an author of an IYAF novel used in the course, notes that “stories hold Peoples together…you can always carry a story.” The course uses IYAF texts like The Birchbark House (Erdrich), Apple in the Middle (Quigley) and The Marrow Thieves (Dimaline) to connect critical concepts of epistemology, axiology and ontology to narratives. Story allows students to engage narratives in ways that non-fiction texts cannot, and to connect to ideas beyond the abstract ”in a personal, meaningful way” (Maclean). Students use the assigned IYAF books to learn about historic events within Indigenous history and connect to contemporary issues such as racism, reservation life, and cultural differences, and relate this to the realities of adolescent life and experiences. By examining fictionalized accounts of adolescents, teachers can learn more about how youth construct their identities within sociocultural and historical contexts, which can help support educators to be culturally sensitive to diverse experiences (Haddix and Price-Dennis).

Positionality Statement

Before describing the curriculum project below, we agreed that the articulation of our respective positions was crucial to understanding how a project like this could benefit the work and study of topics for the course (Walter and Anderson). By including our positionalities here, we demonstrate the necessity for acknowledging identity as a function of schooling work. Our positions as a queer white female born in the United States and a cis-gender heterosexual Indigenous/Mexican-American male illustrate our identities, and point to ways these identities contribute to our interpretations and understandings.

Abby. I identify as a non-binary queer white female born in the United States, studying instrumental music education and English literature. I grew up lower-middle class and have privilege due to this and my American citizenship. I speak and write only in English, which I acknowledge is limiting and colonial. I have the privilege to have studied in six countries other than the United States in the last five years, and I understand that I have much more to study and learn from different cultures both within and outside of the United States. As a white future educator, I acknowledge that I am going into a field that requires a deep knowledge and compassion for others and their cultures. I strive to educate myself in every opportunity to advance my own understanding of other cultures so that I may examine my own biases and create change in myself and others, both within and outside of the classroom. I also understand that the white woman identity has been used as a weapon against youth of color, and aim to continually humanize diverse peoples and disable my internalized biases so that my profession does not become a weapon against these peoples.

Joaquin. As a cis-gender heterosexual Indigenous/Mexican-American male teacher and teacher educator, my standpoint plays a critical role in my approach to teaching, learning, and students. Much of this approach has developed through my lived experience as an Indigenous Person who attended K-12 public schools. My white/European descent teachers were often not equipped (or chose not) to engage questions around representation, race, or Indigeneity. My approach here is an attempt to reverse the trends I encountered in my own schooling and honor the conceptual frameworks of my foremothers and forefathers, and I approach the work of educating teacher candidates as a teacher-educator of color committed to issues of equity and social justice.

Conceptual Framework for the Course

The co-development of this project privileges two key concepts for emerging culturally responsive teachers: first, that the most critical starting point for a teacher is in the work of humanizing students, and second, that power of teachers, often negatively exercised on students of color, must be mitigated for the health of marginalized students. A central theme of this project was the conceptualization of Indigenous Peoples as full humans, fully humanized, who are continuously humanizing themselves, what Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls being “fully human” (25). This humanized view requires a responsive pedagogy approach to learning, in ways that challenge deficit, “damage centered” views of Indigenous Peoples (Tuck), utilizing approaches and materials that rejects pathologizing language and beliefs (Muhammad).

The act of humanization and power balancing directly contributes to the development of the coursework for this class, most specifically in the selection and sequencing of text that helps build understanding of issues impacting Indigenous Peoples (Baines et al.; Cleary and Peacock). The goal is for teacher candidates to engage in coursework to develop foundational understandings of diverse people in order to approach the work of teaching from a strengths-based perspective (Hammond). By approaching their work from this perspective, TCs develop capacities to question their own biases, problematize stereotypes, and consider the ways in which they can support Indigenous students in generative ways. Equally as important is the opportunity for TCs to develop mindsets and capacities to recognize the harm perpetrated on Indigenous students, and work to repair and prevent it.

Adjusting to Covid-19

Under typical circumstances, students in this course read the IYAF texts along with companion articles, films, podcasts and other texts to highlight critical topics in the text. For example, while reading The Marrow Thieves, students also examine articles on epigenetics, boarding schools, and current demographic trends for Indigenous students. These texts give rise to deep discussions in class as students work to understand history, cultural implications, and ramifications for educators. Students are also required to develop their own “book club” project of selecting 3-7 texts that align to the grade they are teaching. This book club project is designed to help teacher candidates imagine their future work: what kinds of texts would they hope to bring to students? What kinds of diversity would they explore? How do I identify and critique the criteria I use for book selection? This project also offers students a reflective opportunity to develop background knowledge of other diverse experiences we do not get to cover in the class.

The closure of the university, libraries, and bookstores, along with the suspension of classes, made it exceptionally difficult for courses to proceed in any usual way. Many of the students in the class had not purchased the required texts prior to the start of class, having planned to rely on the availability of texts in libraries. Students were also challenged to access reliable and safe internet during the normally scheduled class, making synchronous class time nearly impossible. Finally, the overwhelming stress faculty and students found themselves encountering due to the disruption of schedule and the deadly impacts of COVID-19 made the process of engaging coursework challenging at best. As a result, students and professors needed to negotiate the learning in these new classroom spaces, with special attention to issues of accessibility to materials. One remedy to the challenge faced in this class was this curriculum project; it proved beneficial to the student, fulfilled the learning objectives for the course, and may inform how the course is taught in an online environment in the future.

A first adjustment made in response to the pandemic, which was an attempt to enact an equitable and accessible course experience for all students. A collective agreement was created: each student was given the opportunity to complete course assignments as an independent study. For students who were unable to access all of the available resources, a number of approaches were employed to provide them feasible learning experiences that addressed the requirements of the course.

One of these alternative projects was developed between the authors and borrowed from a curriculum project originally created by Vynetta Morrow, called “Considering the Source – Dismantling Racism Through Equity.” Morrow developed a framework for “inquiry…cross curricular investigations, reflection, and presentation” using the metaphor of trees to demonstrate the multiple facets of concepts. For example, Morrow compared police violence to the “fruit” of the tree, as it is visible and identifiable. However, the fruit is connected to a branch, a tree, roots, soil and water; to understand the fruit, one must consider the “source.” If “police violence” is the fruit, what is the root and soil that created it?  Morrow’s visioning is helpful to demonstrate all of the elements of a concept, and the depth of inquiry necessary to understand ideas. This curriculum became the foundation for the inquiry project highlighted here, as IYAF texts provided the ideas to be explored for “sources.”

The Curriculum Project

Abby. As a Music Education major at Augsburg University, one requirement for graduation is EDC 211: Minnesota American Indians. This class was designed to give educators an overview of the cultural content, world view, and concepts that compose Minnesota-based American Indian tribal government, history, language, and culture. In the class, taught by Joaquin Muñoz, the goal was to gain this knowledge as an educator through young adult fiction. We were assigned three books (the Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, Fatty Legs by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, and The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline) to read and analyze from the standpoint of future educators through a short essay. We were also assigned a final Indigenous Peoples’ book project that involved reading three to four young adult books of our choice and writing an essay on the insights we gained into the experiences of diverse peoples. As a future educator, I hoped to use this class as an opportunity to explore the experiences of Indigenous Peoples youth in depth and develop teaching strategies to best engage these and other students from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Two weeks into the class, COVID-19 necessitated a transition onto full online coursework, with limited resources. Fortunately, I had already purchased the three required texts. Unfortunately, this was not the same for the three-to-four young adult texts needed for the final project, which I was relying on borrowing. I had only been able to attain one of the necessary books, the others out of reach with the closing of the library. Since I lacked the resources to complete this assignment, Muñoz and I met to discuss alterations we could make. Muñoz offered one alternative that I was particularly interested in: taking the book that I already had (If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth) and doing an in-depth study of it. This would include marking words or phrases that I wasn’t familiar with and traditions or circumstances that intrigued me and doing further research into these on my own so that I could develop a deep understanding of the book I was reading, developing either a paper or a creative project as a result.

I was particularly interested in this idea because it would allow me to use the time it would take to read a further two-to-three books to explore subjects brought up in the book that I was unfamiliar with. I am also pursuing an English literature minor and have a particular love for in-depth studies of literature. To me, this was an opportunity to gain insight into the sociohistorical and sociopolitical contexts that the author was brought up in and what might have driven him to write the book.

As I read Gansworth, I took note of themes, symbols, motifs, and words and phrases that were unfamiliar. As I was reading the book, one theme that stood out to me was the blatant racism and discrimination towards Indigenous Peoples—particularly towards the youth, and particularly within the education system. This was not a new theme within the context of the class. However, since I had a more flexible framework for the project, I decided to use the opportunity to investigate the sociohistorical and sociopolitical background of the discrimination as well as what I could do about it as an educator.

In this way, my decision about how to write the final paper came about through a personal inquiry process. I was curious about why Gansworth decided to write about discrimination towards Indigenous Peoples youth in the schools. Utilizing the general framework Joaquin provided through Morrow’s conception of “Considering the Source,” I selected unfamiliar terms presented in the book to begin an investigation of the theme of discrimination. Two terms that I selected were the Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the Tuscarora tribe, terms that were unknown to me and were discussed in terms of discrimination in Gansworth’s novel. My understanding is that, by reading and focusing on unfamiliar terms, I could compare events of the past to now to develop a historical context for the realities of Indigenous Peoples youth that might populate my school. Afterwards, I could use this information to understand how I might act on this new knowledge. 

I made use of the nine historical thinking skills to guide my project, particularly leaning on analysis, contextualization, interpretation, and synthesis. After the introduction of my paper, I wrote about the historical theme/place/event, using scholarly sources to investigate the setting, context, major players, and implications. After I wrote the three sections (on the Tuscarora Indian tribe, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and Indigenous Peoples youth and culturally sensitive interventions, respectively), I wrote a conclusion to synthesize the information I learned from those three topics and Gansworth’s book, thinking on how they might lead into one another. Finally, I did research and brainstorming to write on how I might act on this new information in the classroom as an educator.

Analysis of the Product

Joaquin. A hope when assigning this project as an alternative was to recognize a crucial problem relating to examining Indigenous Peoples: the frequency with which their experiences are historicized and relegated to the past. While engaging Morrow’s curriculum, which emphasized learning about the “source” of the concept of inquiry, it was also crucial that teacher candidates understand the impact of history on present-day dynamics. By examining key terms and concepts, teacher candidates can develop awareness of past events, but will not necessarily understand the implications of these past events. Without that crucial link, teacher candidates might inadvertently conduct further damage-centered work, further contributing to pathologizing Indigenous Peoples (Muhammad; Tuck), reinforcing deficit views, and perpetuating misinterpretations that are damaging to future students (Baines et al.).

Crucially, Abby avoided this, giving careful attention to understandings of historic events while considering their contemporary implications. She was able to fulfill the requirements of the course beyond the standards by addressing several critical, nuanced aspects of the people represented in a course on Diversity and Minnesota American Indians. The standards required for the course emphasize the importance of studying “values…communication techniques and…the development of interpersonal relations skills applicable to teaching and other professional vocations” (Minnesota Revisor). This includes understanding, recognition, and engagement with the biases, discrimination, prejudices and “institutional and personal racism and sexism” with careful attention to “a student’s personal, family, and community experiences and cultural norms.” Ultimately, a project must develop these crucial schemata for understanding and at the same time support teacher candidates’ understanding of how diversity impacts the classroom within the space of communication, classroom climate development, and cooperation—all while giving attention to how factors in a student’s environment outside of school, such as family circumstances, community environments, health and economic conditions, may influence student life and learning (Minnesota Revisor).

While attending to the context of history, Abby was clear in using Gansworth’s text as means to delve into the contemporary implications of culture, language and being. The goal of her final project, as she notes, is to explore the “history of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous…” and using “Gansworth…to discuss poverty, racism, reservation life, cultural differences, Indigenous history, and the development of adolescents” (Eck 2). Finally, Abby pointed to the need for teachers to develop and practice “culturally sensitive interventions…that consider the complicated cultural position of Indigenous youth” (Eck 5) which included soliciting and utilizing input from the Indigenous youth and community members for this activity. 

Abby. I found this project very helpful in terms of learning about the Indigenous Peoples’ culture, history, and perspective. By focusing on terms I was unfamiliar with, I was able to gain more knowledge about the experiences of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. For example, I had previously known about the cultural assimilation of Indigenous Peoples as colonizers arrived on North American soil. What I hadn’t known was the exact effects on Indigenous People’s culture and how they were treated by the schools primarily as laborers, rather than students. This led to me realizing that the Indigenous students’ experience of teachers might be very different from the experiences I have had as a student, which affects how I need to treat these students in my classroom. Gansworth wrote about the ever-present threat of boarding schools and cultural assimilation on those who are Indigenous, with history being stockpiled with the pressures of the European settlers and the American and Canadian governments on Indigenous Peoples to assimilate. As a defense mechanism for this cultural trauma, students might feel pressured to assimilate rather than be proud of their heritage. As a future educator, this knowledge is critical to my understanding of Indigenous Peoples.

As a student, this project gave me an opportunity to create a framework for examining my own biases, investigating the sociohistorical background of a person and/or culture, and designing a project that I might modify for future students in my classroom. Through this investigation, I was made to consider the author’s background and what might have led him to write a young adult novel about the life of a Tuscaroran boy attending middle school. Studies such as this help develop critical thinking and problem solving, challenging the stereotypes that I was inevitably raised with and the biases that accompany them. By seeing Indigenous Peoples represented by Indigenous authors, I was able to see their culture and experience more directly, rather than filtered through a white author’s lens. As a student, I found that this project taught me an approach to seeing communities in humanizing and respectful ways and helped me to use this to inform my teaching practice.

As a future educator, studies such as this are particularly important in learning about historically underrepresented groups. Plenty of studies show that a simple exposure to diversity can make us change the way we think, making us more creative, conscientious, and engaged. In an increasingly multicultural and pluralistic society, fostering respect for these communities is more important than ever, particularly considering the weaponization of whiteness by teachers in schools against Indigenous students and other students of color. By becoming more aware of historical overtones of bias, I can scrutinize my own, so that I may eradicate that weaponization in my own teaching career.

Future Ideas and Implications

This project was the culmination of several unforeseen factors that, at the time of writing, have not subsided. Classroom meetings are still suspended, and plans for return to the traditional experience of undergraduate education are currently in limbo. Universities are in the process of developing new methods and modalities for engaging students in online curriculum and learning experiences. Many university faculty have spent the time since the onset of the coronavirus developing their classes to meet the needs of students in this new environment, striving to maintain optimal learning experiences for students. This project offers one approach that can address the continuing reality of higher education during COVID-19, which includes continued restriction of movement, challenges accessing materials, and a heavy reliance on technological infrastructure. Entering into this project, there was an implicit assumption that the project would serve as a temporary solution to a temporary problem. However, given the continuation of these circumstances, and with lasting concerns about the changing face of higher education, inquiry projects like this one offer powerful learning opportunities that we may need to continue to rely on.

Abby. This article examined a process for engaging a student in a self-directed learning experience.The project allowed students to use IYAF sources to develop an inquiry experience, an approach that can be applied to other frameworks in their teaching career. As a future educator, this is particularly helpful in learning how to use primary sources for examination, rather than textbooks or history books that might have overtones of bias. This project also works to humanize diverse groups of peoples by creating a conceptual understanding, encouraging humanization and asset-based teaching strategies in the future towards Indigenous students, and by extension, other diverse populations. This is a critical concept for future educators as they enter a setting with power imbalances.

While the independence of the project was critical logistically, as a teacher candidate, meeting one-on-one via technology with the professor was a helpful aspect during the creation and work on the project. However, there were some challenges in this process too. What would have been helpful would be having a solid outline and leading questions to guide the desired final product; since the project was created more spontaneously and under special circumstances, there were no guidelines to work with. Though it was a helpful learning experience for student inquiry and project development, this made the development, creation, and execution of the project more time-consuming than it would have been otherwise.

Joaquin. Moving forward, it will be critical to help develop further guidelines to support student engagement in an inquiry project like this. This will include the development of documents for students, including an illustration of Morrow’s Considering the Source curriculum outline, as well as curriculum framework co-developed between the authors to scaffold the project. In the future, this inquiry project might act as a crucial bridging tool for all of the texts in this class, and clearer guidelines will help with student success.

Here in Minneapolis, in the wake of the Uprising in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, there is a powerful opportunity for engaging an inquiry project like this one. This project could be used for self-development and research purposes or developed for students in different settings. For example, teacher candidates might engage research into the racial bias in our police system through a book such as The Hate U Give. This project could also be used to look into the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Jim Crow laws, the thirteenth amendment, or the murder of George Floyd, and apply these to youth today, asking probing questions such as, “what are the roots and purposes of the Black Lives Matter movement?” or“how does the thirteenth amendment relate to Jim Crow laws?” This also works well as a beginning introduction to these examinations, and could be modified to use in any classroom in different formats. Supporting teacher candidates in these investigations in teacher education programs is critical to foster attention to racial and social justice topics.

The implementation of this project sought to provide the greatest amount of freedom to teacher candidates to engage content while being free to explore topics in ways that accounted for issues of accessibility in the time of a pandemic. At the same, the project was designed to humanize diverse people through an examination of their experiences and current contexts.  Although the present situation of a global pandemic makes this challenging, it’s a project worthy of undertaking.

Works Cited

Archibald, Jo-Ann. Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. UBC Press, 2008.

Baines, Janice, et al. “We’ve Been Doing It Your Way Long Enough”: Choosing the Culturally Relevant Classroom. Teachers College Press, 2018.

Brayboy, Bryan McKinley Jones. “Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education.” The Urban Review, vol. 37, no. 5, pp. 425-446.

Cleary, Linda Miller, and Thomas D. Peacock. Collected Wisdom: American Indian Education. Allyn & Bacon, 1998.

Dimaline, Cherie. Read brave lecture event. Lecture delivered March 13, 2020. Read Brave St. Paul Reading Events, St. Paul, MN, 2020.

Dimaline, Cherie. The Marrow Thieves. DCB, 2017.

Eck, Abigail. Indigenous Youth: Cultivating Culturally Sensitive Interventions within the Conflict of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous History and Culture. Unpublished essay. Augsburg University, 2020.

Erdrich, Louise. The Birchbark House. Hyperion Books for Children, 1999.

Haddix, Marcelle, and Detra Price-Dennis. “Urban Fiction and Multicultural Literature as Transformative Tools for Preparing English Teachers for Diverse Classrooms.” English Education, vol. 45, no. 3, 2013, pp. 247-283.

Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin, 2014.

Maclean, Sharon. Personal interview. 9 June 2020.

Memorandum of Agreement Between Minneapolis Public Schools and Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors. indianed.mpls.k12.mn.us/uploads/2016_moa_with_2019_amendments.pdf.

Minnesota Revisor. Minnesota Administrative Rules: Standards of Effective Practice for Teachers. Office of the Revisor of Statutes, Minnesota Legislature, www.revisor.mn.gov/rules/8710.2000/.

Muhammad, Gholdy. Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. Scholastic, 2020.

Morrow, Vynetta. “Considering the Source: Dismantling Racism Through Equity.” Lecture and presentation, Overcoming Racism Conference, St. Paul, MN, November 15, 2019.

Petrone, Robert, et al. “Centering Indigenous Stories of Schooling and Survivance to Interrupt Colonialism in Literacy Teacher Education.” Manuscript submitted to English Education.

Tuck, Eve. “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79, no. 3, 2009, pp. 409-428.

Walter, Maggie, and Chris Andersen. Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology. Left Coast Press, 2013.

Learn more about Joaquin Muñoz and Abigail Eck on our Contributors page

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