Episode 6: Rooted in Relationship
A return to community roots can make schools a better place.
Host Jonathan Santos Silva returns to his old stomping grounds in South Dakota, where he speaks with staff and students at Todd County Middle School about how they’re leaning into Lakota culture to help foster an inclusive environment and help build healthy student-staff relationships.
JONATHAN: If you were not fortunate enough to grow up in a Native American or Indigenous community, your understanding of native peoples may be limited by what you've seen in movies or what you've read in history books. A history that is incomplete and oftentimes deficit focused. But for me, having been fortunate enough to complete my Teach for America corps experience and then some in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge reservation and in communities around Rosebud and Standing Rock, these are communities, rich in cultural values, brimming with pride, and places of abundance. An abundance of love, an abundance of kinship, and an abundance of appreciation for the value of each life.
In fact, the Lakota word for children- Wakanyeja- literally translates as "sacred beings". This focus on the sacredness of life and on sacred children in particular bubbles over into schools.
That’s what we’re exploring on today’s episode of Changing Course.
We’re taking you to my old stomping grounds in South Dakota, to visit Todd County Middle School where we’ll look at the ways the school is leaning into Lakota culture to foster safe, inclusive community.
Chris: The biggest difference between today and the day before we got here is joy. And, and where that joy comes from.
Typically that student joy came from ... It was a kind of joy of someone who's the class clown and get laughs. And that joy came at the expense of school.
And I think that that joy now comes from school. I think the joy comes now from the relationships that students share with adults. I think that joy comes from the things students do together versus the kind of joy I get because I broke the rules.
Dana: My kids mean everything to me, and my kids mean everything to our staff. Seeing them develop and succeed has been far more rewarding than getting any principal of the year award for best, most improved test scores. Our test scores will get there, but kids have to know that they're cared for, they're loved, and that, we believe in them.
JONATHAN: From Teach For America’s One Day Studio, you’re listening to Changing Course.
I’m Jonathan Santos Silva, a 2010 Teach For America alumni on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and since leaving the classroom, I haven’t stopped partnering with educators, students, and communities to reimagine education.
We have so much to learn from schools across America moving education in a new direction, and a change in course will happen one school at a time.
Today, we’re visiting Todd County Middle School in Mission, South Dakota, where a focus on culture and wellness, informed by Indigenous practices, is recovering and strengthening the relationship between staff and students.
You ready? Let’s go!
JONATHAN: Located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in northern Todd County, Mission, South Dakota, the largest city in Todd County, has a total area of about a half a square mile and a population of just over a thousand residents.
Named for one of the many missions established by religious groups in the late 19th century, it remains the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary home of the Sicangu Lakota or Burnt Thigh People of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (which is the Seven Council Fires).
Todd County Schools, in partnership with community, tribe, and other educational entities, are committed to providing students with quality preparation that will empower them to succeed academically, socially, emotionally, culturally and spiritually, in an ever-changing world.
And before we hear from our guests, I just want to let y’all know how impactful this region is for me personally. As a corps member from 2010 to 2012, I taught math at Little Wound High School on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. I also called play-by-play for their football and basketball teams. Years later, I would return to South Dakota, this time working with the Native American Achievement Schools Fellows on the Rosebud Reservation.
This is where I met our first guest Dana Haukaas.
Dana: My name is Dana Haukaas, I am the principal here at Todd County Middle School. I have been the principal here for... This is our seventh year. Uh, Chris and I and I guess I really look at it as being... I'm part of the leadership team. I may be... I have the title of principal, but Chris and I are a team.
JONATHAN: She’s referring to Chris Mosner, Assistant Principal at Todd County Middle School, who we’ll meet later.
Dana: I am a, a graduate of Todd County. I've lived in this community. I grew up in this community. My mother and father have a ranch right outside of town. They still live here, so I'm very connected to this place as my home.
And my son lives here, and my new grandson lives here also, so I'm heavily invested in how well this community thrives as we step into the next chapter, post pandemic world.
Jonathan: Mm. Your return to Todd County as an administrator wasn't necessarily the homecoming you might have hoped for.
Jonathan: Can you talk to us a little bit about, like, you know, when you came, (laughs) when you returned to Todd County Middle School, what was the situation like?
Dana: Well, coming into the school was shocking, I think is the best thing I can say. Um, I was not prepared to see the, the level of behaviors that we had. The first day of school, I had received a lot of calls, like, you know, "I'm really worried about my kid going to the middle school. I hear bad things. Blah, blah, blah."
It was overwhelming. Well, the school board during that time made it a transition, and, they moved the principal from this school into a, a different position. And then, um, I believe then she went to the high school to support. And then they moved me as principal, and it... Mr. Mosner, who's never been an administrator, moved in.
There was just a lot of mistrust between students and, and staff, and parents, the community. All day long, that's all we did was behavior. That's all we did.
And there was no really thought about intervention, and, and that's one thing that I... That we have gotten better at as a district is looking at, at ways to support teachers, being able to build relationships in classrooms. We, we had over, like... I can pull up the specific number, but it was over 800 suspensions that first year.
It was a struggle. And then, then we got better. Over that summer between the next year, we did a lot of planning, and a lot of thinking on better ways to keep kids in classrooms and support them and, and create a better learning environment for them, for the staff, and for our, our families to be welcomed into the middle school, and move forward.
And every year since then, we've cut behavioral reports or ev-... Like, suspensions are under 100 a year- If even that.
Dana: And, uh, behaviors, it's just not the issue that we used to have. We have a recovery room that our counselors intervene with behaviors prior to it ever getting to the office. Which is a much better way, 'cause there's always a reason for behavior. You know, um, the- there's always... We do things to get a, a need met that, that- that's what behavior is.
Dana: You have to find out what that need is, or what, what is that student lacking, or why is... Where is this coming from? They don't just do things to do things. People don't do that. (laughs)
Dana: You know, they say that, "I don't know." But there's always a reason, and, and that investigative piece to find out, "So, what happened prior to you feeling this way, or this happening in class?" And then, then we work on that problem. We don't just talk about what you did.
Dana: You know, that's, that's... What you did is the aftermath, but what happened prior to that so we can help you change your thinking-
Dana: …the next time, and that coping skill.
Jonathan: It was actually when I was working there, in support of Todd County Middle School and He Dog on the Native American Achievements Grant that I first learned that all behavior is either an expression of love or a request for it.
Dana: Mm-hmm (affirmative) School should be a place where kids love to come and love to learn. They should never feel like I have to walk this line to be able to be successful at school. I should be able to explore and, and find things that I love and that I'm good at, and if I make mistakes, people make mistakes. We, we all know that, so if I make mistakes, I can fix it, and I can change. And that's the thing, instead of just being really reactive and, like, defensive about, "Well, this is the school's position. Blah." That's just not who we are. It's like, "No, this school is an extension of our community that we serve. There's not a line."
Jonathan: The school is a place that students should love going, and where they should love learning, right? A place of exploration. Wellness in particular as being a place where they can experience agency, where they can talk to the wellness teacher about things that they need help with, or things that they're trying to solve. Can you talk a little bit, maybe give us an example of something that came out of a wellness interaction that really demonstrates students, you know, you know, leaning in and making this place what they need it to be in order to thrive?
Dana: The whole idea behind it is, is to give kids a voice, and an adult to connect with. And our kids have really been able to explore, and, and get to know people on a different level because it helps with relationship building for... Not only with the, the adults in the building, but also with other kids because it's multi grade.
And, wellness has been, We- we've expanded it. We went from just wellness in the morning to wellness am and wellness pm. Wellness in the morning is the, the, "Let's get ready for the day, and what, what are some things... What's some things that we can do today to make this world a better pa- place, this school a better place, our community a better place?" And then, at the end of the day, it's a check-in. So, "Did we meet our goal? What are some things that, that went well, what are some things that we've got to work on tomorrow?" And it's not led by counselors, it's led by every single teacher in this building is a wellness teacher.
So, that took some training too, because you're not... You're not trained in, in college or, or teaching school how to build good relationships. You're taught about methods, and strategies, and, and interventions, but you, you... Building relationships is really what makes the dream work.
Dana: I mean, and, and makes school work.
Jonathan: Maybe there are some safety or disciplinary issues like that, you know, whatever they may be, family distrust. And oftentimes, not always but oftentimes, we start focusing on a test score. "Let's... You know, these scores are low, let's get these up. Uh, you know, we can do all the extra stuff once we get this."
Dana: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Jonathan: But it seems very clear that you took it in a... Maybe a counter intuitive way of, "Let's get the relationships right first, and the a- academics will come." Can you make a pitch for that? Like, to our people that are listening, why did you believe that was the right way, and what, what has proven your, your process out over time?
Dana: You know, we know that we are not going to overcome the obstacles I was just talking about if we don't have a relationship with our students, and with our stakeholders, which is every community member in this area, every business in this area. And I would love to say, you know, "Yeah, you know, we're really focusing on reading intervention, and math intervention." The, the... Those things come when kids trust you.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Dana: If they know that you are in it for them, and they, they... That you got their back, you're not gonna leave them and say, "Well, you didn't make it." You know, they know that, that we, we care about how, how they do in every little bit of their life. We care that they're safe. We care that they're,They have a place to sleep. We, we care, you know, how, how their academics are, but that's not the only reason we're here. You know?
Dana: Um, I think... I've often talked to, to people from... I mean, we go to professional development throughout the state, and, and with other administrators, and I always find it if- interesting that we don't talk about the same things they talk about. And maybe it's just because we, we have that, that human connection, or that human focus. We're just... I told (laughs)... I told, uh, another administrator from a different school guys like, "Geeze, I wish that was my only problem was to think and worry about reading scores, or math scores."
Dana: I don't think I would even know how to function in a different school-
Dana: Because my, my kids mean everything to me, and my kids mean everything to our staff. And, um, seeing them develop and succeed has been far more rewarding than getting any Principal of the Year award for best, most improved test scores.
Our test scores will get there, but kids have to know that they're cared for, they're loved, and that we believe in them.
JONATHAN: Prior to becoming Assistant Principal of Todd County Middle School, Chris Mosner worked his way up the ranks, starting as a paraprofessional (or teacher’s assistant), moving into a teacher role, and eventually coming to Todd County Middle School. Like Dana, the transition started off a little rocky. Here’s Chris.
Chris: I was ... Look, I was afraid of middle school at first.
Chris: Everybody's afraid of middle school.
Jonathan: I think everybody's afraid of middle school kids, let's-
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Jonathan: Let's be honest.
Chris: And I was, and I was just as afraid as everybody else of middle school. But then, once I got here, boy, you sure do fall in love with it. You fall in love with what everybody's afraid of. You fall in love with that uncertainty. You know? You fall in love with the fact that you never know, one day to the next, actually what's gonna, you know, what's gonna ... What that I did yesterday is going to carry into today? What's going to be different?
Every, every potential student ... You know, we have 350 kids, uh, 400 kids, e- on any given day, you know? And every one of them could react differently today than they did yesterday. And that's the excitement, I think, of middle school.
The middle school mind, and the middle school sense of humor. Um. I wanted ... When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be that kind of teacher that was just- did things a little bit different, asked a little bit more of kids. And that, I think that goes ... I think that fits really well at middle school. I think middle schools need a principal who's that same way. You know?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: They need a principal who wants to bring out that edginess in all their teachers. So, because then the teachers can bring that out in the kids. I am not a kind of- the kind of guy who wants today to be exactly like yesterday. I may have my routines. You know? I may get up the same time, get my cup of coffee the same time. But within all those spaces, I want excitement. I want joy. I want ... And, and the excitement and joy for me comes from learning. It comes from having new experiences opened. So I want a school that, that brings, um, new experiences to kids on a daily basis.
Jonathan: Hmm. That first year, responding to res- referrals, right, like putting out fires-
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Jonathan: ... is a big part of the job.
Jonathan: And then, over the years that have come since, there's been this precipitous drop that Dana pointed to as the shift went from, you know, the move being to kick the kid out of class to deal with it, to how are we getting to know the kid more deeply? How are we getting beneath the behavior to understand what's happening? How do you get from, you know, the kind of kick out mindset to this collaborative, like, let's work together mindset? What was that like?
Chris: You know, I think one of the biggest changes was when a, when a kid would be sent to my office and the teacher thought that their job was done for the day. You know? “I sent the kid to the office, and that's going to be the end of it.” And then I would appear at their door with the kid, and the kid would be apologizing to the teacher.
Chris: And I remember those first moments th- it was, like, “What? Like, this week, like, like, we can do this?” “Yes! This student is apologizing to you.” You know? We had a conversation in my office, and they understand that, that they, they violated, you know, a, a social norm, or a class rule. They're giving you an apology, and they're sincere. And they're ready to come back to the classroom.
So, so, actually the ... One of the first things I had to, that I had to work with adults in doing was accepting an apology. It's not always easy to do. The adult then wanted to say "Okay, I accept your apology, but ..." And I'm like, "No. There can't be any buts here."
Jonathan: Mm (affirmative).
Chris: They've just apologized. We're not going to re-litigate it. You know? And so that- Just the fact that the teacher's learned that a student can give an apology, they can be sincere, and we can move forward without having to kick the kid out of class, out of school, was a big step.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love that. I never thought about that, but, like, learning how to accept an apology. That was cool.
Chris: Yeah. We, we always say we have to teach students how to give the apology.
Jonathan: Right (laughing).
Chris: That's the ... Honestly, that's the easy part. The harder part is teaching an adult how to, how to accept it. Because honestly, honestly that was the harder part.
Jonathan: A lot of times when, someone takes over a school, and there's behavior and maybe test scores are down, or whatever, they want to focus on academics.
But it seems like, at Todd County, the focus went to relationships, and to people, and healing, and creating, like, the container for kids to learn, before we ever started worrying about grades. How do you make that transition from, like, the traditional model to one where kids are advocating for what they need, and adults are supporting them and their goals?
Chris: So that's exactly right. That's exactly what we went for. Taking care of relationships, and, and I like your word, your word, "healing." We, we wanted healing first. So that one of the first things that we established was, uh, what we- what became known as the [Ocheti 00:05:30] [Yamni 00:05:30], the three campfires. Uh. Now it's Ocheti [Doughba 00:05:34], because we've added a, a, a, a fourth council fire to the building. Um. And we put, we put kids in charge of that. We wanted more than a student council that was a bunch of eighth graders that put together dances and bake sales. We wanted kids who progressed from the sixth grade wing, and, and ... I'm just going to veer a little bit here to the way our building is set up.
Chris: The way our building is set up, our sixth graders come into the building on the east side. They travel through the south. The seventh grade wing is on the south side of the building. And they exit the building on the west. It's just ... It's just, a, a perfect representation, you know, I- in that way, of, of, uh, of Native thinking. Uh. They come in with the rising sun. They leave with the setting sun. And through that, we want students to understand and see their growth. So when they come in on the- as sixth graders, yes, they have their own campfire. But, yes, they also have their elders on the west side of the building to listen to.
We have been stymied, you know (laughs), like the rest of the nation by Covid and, and all sorts of problems.
But each ... When, when the Ocheti Yamni was, was formed, each one of those groups went, uh, to a homestead, a local homestead with one of our teachers, Carlos, where they perf- with Carlos, they did a little ceremony where they took a tree, and from each tree, they made a staff. And so this staff was our first sixth grade year. And it's got ... You know, on, on the staff are the names of all the students who were in that particular wellness class. We wanted each wellness class, and each one of these Ochetis to have their own staff.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: And then this staff here is a collection of various things that happened that goes ... It's kind of like a winter town. It's a collection of important things that happened that year. This, this was the year of the eclipse. I can see that here.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: I really wanted to just share with you some of the ways that we wanted to invite students to be a big part of the school and, and see, uh, their, seeing their time here as a real journey.
Chris: And I think that with that comes agency, that we are authors of our own story.
Chris: So I wanted to build that early, as sixth graders.
Jonathan: Well, I think that's beautiful, and, and I think the other part that it draws out for me is that, you know, I've spent out ... I've spent time in schools that serve Native children, but that don't necessarily feel as if there's anything Native, or Indigenous, about what's happening.
Jonathan: It's almost like they have to check in that part of their identity, uh, a- at the coat rack. And so things like this that really kind of ... It's not just like a Lakota class, but really it permeates every aspect of this school.
Jonathan: So I don't have to check my identity somewhere. I can be my full self when I come to Todd County Middle School.
Chris: There you go.
Jonathan: That's really powerful. Kind of holding in your mind the picture of Todd County Middle School when you got there-
Jonathan: ... and then looking at where you are now, even in spite of the pandemic and all the ways that has interrupted the flow, what would you say is the biggest difference, in terms of, students and their, and their involvement, their engagement the, the sense of, of agency that they take in their learning there?
Chris: I'm going to say that, um ... I, I ... There's a word that I want to say. I'm just, I'm not ... I'm just not sure how I want to couch it. But I also want to talk about joy, Jonathan. Like, I, I, I just feel like th- if there's ... The biggest difference between today and the day before we got here is joy. And, and where that joy comes from. And I think that maybe before we got here, typically that student joy came from ... It was a kind of joy of someone who's, the class clown and get laughs. And that joy came at the expense of school. You know what I mean? You know what I'm trying to say?
Jonathan: Right. Yep.
Chris: And I think that that joy now comes from school. I think the joy comes now from the relationships that students share with adults. I think that joy comes from the things students do together versus the kind of joy I get because I broke the rules.
Chris: And so, yeah. Even though we've had a rough couple of years, and, and that joy has been harder to find ... And the reason it's been harder to find is because we haven't had the human beings in the building, that we haven't had the little joy engines-
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: ... in the building. But when we're here, like, just on Monday, I showed staff, this video compilation of photos and events and things the last year kids were in the building, and I mean, uh, the joy in that was palpable, right?
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: And we're here to give students agency and bring u- bring that about. My bottom line is we're here to create kids who can make joy in their lives, and joy in the lives of others. So, for me, that's the big difference.
JONATHAN: After the break, we’ll hear more from a student who transferred to this special community as well as a teacher who has informed a lot of the takeaways I’ve grasped from my time working in the Lakota community.
MIDROLL AD BREAK
JONATHAN: When you walk into the front doors of Todd County Middle School, you are greeted in an open gathering space. The walls are decorated with the smiling faces of students and staff in their Wildcat yellow and blue. It's a place of belonging. It's a welcoming space.
It’s the type of school Meadow was looking for when she decided to transfer to Todd County Middle School during the pandemic.
Meadow: I'm Meadow, and I'm in seventh grade.
Jonathan: So how did the opportunity to go to Todd County Middle School come up?
Meadow: So when my brother changed, that's when I was like, "Oh, well, that school seems nicer than the one here. I wanna go there."
Jonathan: Was he telling you about his experiences and, and, and what-
Jonathan: ... what, what, what drew you in? What was he saying?
Meadow: He said that the teachers care about how you feel and, like, they don't, they say more and, like, when you go to their class than just “go in and sit down,” they ask you how you are.
Jonathan: Hmm. When did you... Oh, so actually let me backup. When was this in relation- So this would be for were the pandemic that he transferred over there and he was having a positive experience?
Jonathan: What are you learning about your, your new school? Well, it's not new anymore, but like, you know, To- about Todd County Middle School?
Meadow: Well, I'm in student council. And (laughs) one of the things that I noticed that... My dad runs student council. So he isn't making all of the decisions. He lets us make them.
Jonathan: Wait a minute. So your dad is the advisor of student council?
Jonathan: What is it like? So who... What, what do the students do in there to lead and take charge?
Meadow: Well, we kind of make all decision- all of the decisions. Like, we're planning to go on a trip and we are deciding what we're gonna do there-
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Meadow: ... and he's not making the choices, we are. He decided on where to go, but it's up to us to figure out what to do there.
Jonathan: Why is it so important to give young people like you, Meadow, the, the opportunity to participate in leadership and make choices for themselves?
Meadow: 'Cause when people get out in the real world, they're gonna see that it's not- everyone's gonna start making the decisions for you, you have to make the decisions for yourself.
One thing is that the teachers aren't making all of the decisions. People are way nicer, like students and teachers. So yeah. (laughs).
Jonathan: I wanna just pick on that. When you said, "Teachers aren't making all decisions," what does that mean to you? What's important about that?
Meadow: That you have more freedom on what you get to do and how you do it.
JONATHAN: That freedom can be expressed in a number of ways. Here’s 8th grader Leticia to talk about a drive she helped organize for the White Buffalo Calf Woman’s Society - a nonprofit in South Dakota that serves to end violence in and around the Rosebud Reservation and how she went about doing that.
Leticia: My name is Leticia Fernandez. I am 14 years old. I'm in eight grade at TCMS.
This winter, we decided to do a drive and then I was the one who wrote the letter out that says we need money for the drive and that we accept donations.
And we did it for the White Buffalo Calf Woman's Society. We got toys and feminine stuff. We raise the money for it and then we went to buy everything we need. We got them clothes, a bunch of stuffies, hats. I think I got one kid a sword. I don't know where it went (laughs).
Jonathan: (laughs). That's really cool. So, from the idea to the actual purchase of the gifts, you guys were involved from the beginning?
Jonathan: That’s pretty awesome, huh?
When you look back on that project that you were part of, what feelings do you have that you were part of that from the beginning to the distribution of the, the gifts to the families and stuff?
JONATHAN: And before we go, I want to introduce you to my friend, Sage Fast Dog. When I returned to South Dakota in 2017, Sage was serving as the Native American Achievement School’s fellow at Todd County Middle School. Prior to that, he had served as the Lakota Language Instructor for over a decade. Since then he’s serves on the Todd County School Board, he’s the Founder of the first Lakota Immersion School on the Rosebud Reservation and he’s the father of a young man who recently graduated from Todd County Middle School.
Sage: Okay. [Lakota 00:12:59]. So I, I come from, um, the, the mixed people [inaudible 00:13:50] there's two groups in the, the Rosebud area. There's the Sichangu, and then there's the, [Lakota 00:13:58], the mixed people. So I come from that, that group, but we're all, we're together, we're, we, we make up the Rosebud Sioux tribe. I currently work for Sichangu CDC. I'm the head of school for Wakanyeja Tokeyahci, which is Children First Learning Center. I'll sit on the board too for Todd County school district. I used to work for Todd County school district for about 13 years as an educator there.
My experience in, in education has really brought me close to using what I learned to try to help other students in hopes that they will, they will pick up the pathway that I'm cutting for, I'm cutting so that they can make it better for the generations to come.
JONATHAN: Student leadership and agency can take many forms. Sometimes it’s young people tackling real world work in internships. For others, it’s engaging in projects that bring their interests and skills to the forefront. And still others, it’s having the poise and the confidence to speak truth to power. Even if that power is an elected official.
Sage: Well, there's two things. One is the kids were able to lead legislators, a governor into their building, and show, like, “This is who we are, this is what we want. Here's what education looks like that we were, you know, wanting for many years.” And I remember watching it, watching the kids, take the Governor of South Dakota around the school and showing her the rooms. And they were really respectful, even though there was a conflict between the beliefs, what she supported at the state you know, and what they believed there, e- especially around the pipeline, you know?
And they, they were really, uh, with organizing and showing them what to do, they really took it on to themselves to show the legislators in South Dakota, like, what our school is about, what this whole thing was about, what, what, what was, what it was the achievement school, what does it look like? That was all led by the kids. A- all I did was coach them and say, "Here you go. Take, take off and do it." And so it's just like, our kids are very capable of, of being leaders, of being ambassadors. They just have to have the opportunity.
Another one that was a highlight for me was when the kids went on their, um, leadership trip in the summertime. They went out and there was a group of girls, and then there was a group of boys. They went in separate pathways for a while, but they came, we came together as a group and it was just them working out like their own personal goals, but also, like, how do you work together?
Sage: So we're at least changing that, changing that there, that was... So that was successful, and that the kids really walked away with, you know, they, they walked away with the idea of, like, knowing all the sacred sites, what the Lakota did there. And then, um, just what it takes to, um, build a relationship with each other.
Jonathan: Hmm. Can you go into that a little bit more? Because some of our listeners are they, they may not have any experience with an Indigenous community. So, like, when you're talking about these sacred sites, and its connection to Lakota ways of life, and Lakota leadership, what was the, your vision for that? And then, you know, how did the young people, how did they exceed maybe what you had in mind?
Sage: So it was a, it was a cultural leadership trip. And it was for the kids to take off on a trip, you know, to build, to get away from their day to day lives at home, but to get out. Like I said, they would have to learn to work together, and they had to learn to, like, like, even, 'cause we... So some of the sites we went to, they were like, the longest hike was, like, seven miles long.
Sage: So they had, they had to, like, work together. They couldn't leave each other. I mean, there was definitely faster kids than the other ones that wanted to take off, but the idea was like, uh, you can't leave somebody behind, so how do you work to get, everybody gets to the, the place, um, together? So it was, it was to get them to think that way, to get them to think of, think of, like, well how was it that people actually figured out how to live together? And so that in itself was embedded in understanding your environment. Understanding inter-relationships.
And at the same time, they went to Blackout Peak. It's where the, they do the welcoming back of the thunders. Um. His- historically, the Lakota would go to these different sites and, throughout the Black Hills, and, and in, um, and also in, um, Wyoming. The Black Hills is located in South Dakota. It's on the western side of South Dakota. Then they also went to, um, Devil's Tower. And we talked there about what the significance of that place, being that that was where, um, the annual Sun Dance was. And, and that there was only a few people that went there, but just the great distance that they traveled there.
Sage: So it was a trip to give the kids connection back to all the sites that were important to the Lakota, and also the surrounding tribes that were around the Black Hills, they also had strong connections there too. In that way they gave the kids, like, well, here's, here's what we're trying to teach you too, but here's also what's important. Here's also important is, is keeping, is learning about why this was important. And that your ancestors knew astronomy.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Sage: Like, they, they were connected by it, and it guided them, and it, and it was how they understood the world.
Jonathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Sage: Yeah, so that was, that was my highlight there. I, I originally wasn't supposed to go on a trip, but I'm always prepared for anything whenever it, when things go already, so I, I ended up jumping on a trip and going with them, and it was a- It was a good experience.
JONATHAN: As educators, our work can feel personal, and in Sage’s case, that’s even more so. At the time that Sage was working at Todd County Middle School, his son, Sage Jr. was also in attendance. Here’s Big Sage on what it felt like to watch his son fully embrace his identity in school.
Jonathan: Your son graduated from Todd County Middle School, and so I wonder if... So we, we know your connection, uh, you know, as a member of the tribe and also your role, but I wonder if you could maybe just talk a little bit about why this transformation and student leadership involved in that transformation was so important to you from that, like, role of as father, not, you know, not to minimize the role of the educator, but also to uplift why this was so important to you personally.
Sage: Yeah. So, yeah, definitely, I always want my son to, to follow in my, at least pick up what I, what I've learned, you know, especially with the [Lakota 00:16:32] and the Lakota teachings. And I was always, I was always concerned because (laughs), when, I think it was eighth grade, man, I was, I was broken-hearted because he no longer wanted to sing, he no longer wanted to dance, and I was, like, “Oh man, what's going on here?”
And I thought that he was giving up. He was just, like, questioning this whole world around him because, you know, it's, it's, there's a lot, a lot of the, lot of our people are, you know, they- Colonialism is pretty strong, and so retaining our hair, retaining our length of hair, you know, keeping it long, you know, there's, there's few of us, but it's, but it's, it's gaining momentum, because that's part of who we are, and we don't have to have our hair short to belong. You don't always have to speak Lakota, I mean speak English to belong, you know? So those are the things that were important to me, to, to share with him.
And so now, today, you know, he's getting ready to graduate high school, you know, he, he, he, stuck it out when, getting his work done. And when I thought that he was losing interest in singing and, and, and with our way of life, with, you know, participating in, in ceremonies, I hear him singing in his room. And sometimes he'll come out and he'll be like, “Hey, let's sing some, let's sing some songs.” So I was like, “All right, all right,” I'll stop what I'm doing and we'll do that. So he was ready for the, the ceremony that the young boys go through, that I've been preparing for him for a long time.
So we got him ready and we took him through that ceremony. And it, it was like, the- probably the best highlight of being a father, is watching your son go through that, like... I didn't get to have that, and having that restored within my family was, like, the, probably the best b- blessing that I, I'd ever have. He sees what I see now. He sees that and, and it's like I, how do I lead him forward to having a voice of how he can be, he can change the community?
I'm, I'm, proud of him, very proud of him.
JONATHAN: When people ask me about my takeaways from living and working with the Lakota people, it always goes back to walking with relatives, whether that was spending my prep hour each day under the watchful eye and mentorship of folks like Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses, or that was preparing my lessons to teach the most engaging math I could with my young people, traveling with them on buses to sports games and meets cheering them on from the sidelines. Whether it was the community wrapping around my wife and me when we needed them, like the time they raised $600 to pay for a new set of tires because our tires got slashed in a mass slashing event, or Norma Brownbull and other women who drew close to my wife when we had a miscarriage when we needed them the most.
That's what relationships and kinship are about. It's not about someone coming in to save a community to do for a community what it can do for itself. It's about building relationships of trust.
At the end of the day, it's about living in and walking in community with people that you care deeply about and who also care deeply about you. As I look back on this season, that same thread pulls through each episode. So whether it's advisors who care deeply enough about their students to go out into community and help them organize internships, or teachers working closely with elementary kids to develop projects that will have lasting impact in their communities. Heck, it even looks like building the school from scratch with a community that has been overlooked and underserved and saying, we're not gonna accept what you've given us so we're gonna build it ourselves even if it takes us almost a decade.
As I look ahead into the future of education, this is what I hope to see more of, educators, students, and community members who are not going to put up with the status quo any longer. They're not gonna accept anything less than the best from education. Spaces that honor who we are, how we show up, and allow us to do so as our full and complete selves.
It doesn't happen all at once, and it won't be easy, but as we've been saying all season long, a change in course will happen one school at a time.
<Theme music fades in>
JONATHAN: Well y’all, that’s it for this episode and for our first season of Changing Course.
Thank you so much for listening and learning about all of the schools we were fortunate to speak with this season, and if this is the first episode you’re hearing, go back, back to the beginning with our first of six episodes to learn more about how students and teachers are working to transform education in America, one school at time.
If you loved the podcast, be sure to rate, review and subscribe to ‘Changing Course’ on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
JONATHAN: Changing Course is produced by Teach For America’s One Day Studio in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to the “podfather” Michael Kress, Craig Hunter, Laura Zingg, and Georgia Davis from Teach for America, and the production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Danielle Roth, and let us not forget the tag team champions of the world, Chris Jacobs, Shaneez Tyndall and Erica Huang.
Last but certainly not least, thank you to the students and staff at Todd County Middle School who shared their time and experience to help us make this episode: Meadow, Leticia, Sage Fast Dog, Chris Mosner, and Dana Haukaas.
From Teach For America’s One Day Studio, I’m Jonathan Santos Silva. Peace.
SFX: School Bell
About the Show
Changing Course is a podcast from Teach For America’s One Day Studio that explores what’s possible when schools empower students in their own educational paths. Every episode, host Jonathan Santos Silva shares stories from students, teachers, and administrators about how they’ve reinvented traditional approaches to traditional education.
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Jonathan Santos Silva (South Dakota '10)
Jonathan Santos Silva is the Founding Executive Director of The Liber Institute and creator and host of The Bored of Ed, a podcast that amplifies the voices of inspiring BIPOC educators who are changing the face of education. He has provided technical support to South Dakota’s Native American Achievement Schools and has served as a school founder and principal, instructional coach, and education consultant.
Dana Haukaas, Principal, Todd County Middle School
Dana Haukaas is in her seventh year serving as principal of Todd County Middle School in Mission, South Dakota. Haukaas grew up in Todd County and is heavily invested in seeing the the community thrive in a post pandemic world.
Chris Mosner, Assistant Principal at Todd County Middle School
Prior to becoming Assistant Principal of Todd County Middle School, Chris Mosner worked his way up the ranks, starting as a paraprofessional (or teacher’s assistant), moving into a teacher role, and eventually coming to Todd County Middle School.
Meadow is a seventh grader at Todd County Middle School and serves on the student council.
Leticia Fernandez, Student
Leticia is an eight grader at Todd County Middle School. Last winter she helped organize for the White Buffalo Calf Woman’s Society, a nonprofit in South Dakota that serves to end violence in and around the Rosebud Reservation.
Sage Fast Dog, School Board Member, Todd County School District
Sage Fast Dog (Sichangu, Lakota) serves on the Todd County School Board, and is the Founder of the first Lakota Immersion School on the Rosebud Reservation. Prior to these roles he served as the Native American Achievement School’s fellow at Todd County Middle School and as the Lakota language instructor for over a decade.