One year ago, mornings at the Weetumuw School brought streams of children into colorful classrooms, each filled with hands-on learning materials for lessons like earth science or Wampanoag language arts. Close, in-person interactions between students and their teachers had always been a cornerstone of the language immersion school, which brought education in Wôpanâôt8âôk, the language of the Wampanoag Nation, back to the heart of its tribal land in Cape Cod.
But when the school closed due to the nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, its students were sent home, left to navigate linguistic and cultural education remotely, while distanced from their peers.
Challenges of adjusting to remote learning
According to the American Medical Association, the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly impacted marginalized groups, including Native American communities. Factors ranging from pre-existing health disparities to statistical oversights have disproportionately affected Native American tribes across the country, limiting their ability to gather as a community in a time when many need it most.
For the Wampanoag Nation, community organizations have worked to create opportunities for linguistic and cultural education despite limits on in-person interaction. And, for The Weetumuw School, which serves students ages three to ten, this has meant finding new ways to foster education for the Nation’s youngest members.
In 1993, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, which runs the school, was founded by Wampanoag linguist jessie ‘little doe’ baird. The program aims to “return language fluency to the Wampanoag Nation as a principal means of expression,” according to the WLRP website. Across the country, efforts backed by the United States government have led to a drastic loss in native speakers of Indigenous languages — an issue Wampanoag community members have worked to address.
Since the school went remote last March, teachers have worked to readjust their curriculum to an online environment. As a Montessori school, the Weetumuw School traditionally offers students large amounts of academic freedom and hands-on activities, which have been challenging to replicate given health guidelines.
“Montessori classroom instruction, it is heavily based on tangible materials. So we don’t use a lot of worksheets or textbooks, things like that, especially with young children,” Jennifer Weston ’97, director of WLRP, said. Typically, “the students are able to have a high degree of independence and freedom moving around the curriculum areas of the classroom.”
But virtual classes can limit students’ independence. “It’s been kind of a unique challenge to figure out how to still serve students in a way that makes sense for them,” said Nitana Hicks Greendeer ’03, school language development director at WLRP and visiting instructor at the University. “They’re not used to sitting down at a table and learning that way, so to sit down and be on the computer screen, focused on a single thing, has been kind of a challenge for some of our students.”
Additionally, learning remotely can make it hard for students to stay engaged during class times, Hicks Greendeer added. One of her daughters, who is learning how to read, “doesn’t have the same support that she would have in the classroom, and that has slowed that process as well,” she said. “So, it’s really a kind of a cycle, and I think that’s something a lot of kids are going through.”
Sending students home to study remotely has also revealed “a really wide gap” in students’ access to resources, Hicks Greendeer added.
“We have students who were able to have their own tablets, for example, in order to go online, and we have students who are doing their classes from their parents’ phones,” she said. “That in itself is a difference in the way a kid can pay attention, all of those little things impact a kid's ability to learn.”
To support students with less access to technology, Weston said that WLRP partnered with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Child and Family Services Department to get Kindles for all its students.
Finding positives in online curriculum
Despite the circumstances, teachers have worked to adapt the course curriculum to ensure students get a high quality of education. This has included using a variety of apps and online programs, which are untraditional for a Montessori school’s curriculum.
Online programming for the Weetumuw School includes large group, small group and one-on-one class sessions, as well as online content created by teachers, ranging from videos and live streams to interactive worksheets, songs and storytime.
“The ways that (our teachers) have adapted is just really inspiring, and I know it’s meant the world to their students and their families,” Weston said.
WLRP also has continued to offer language instruction to K-12 members of the Wampanoag Nation at public schools in the Mashpee school district, which reaches several tribes within the Wampanoag Nation and a wider age range of learners.
And, as online language learning programming continues to increase, so does student enrollment.
“That’s been sort of a hidden benefit of going online. We’ve all had a huge increase in our community students,” namely adult language learners, Weston said. She accredited this growth largely to the recent creation of a language learning website that has created a more accessible platform for students.
Returning to normalcy
The Weetumuw School intends on reopening at a limited capacity by the end of April. Still, social distancing guidelines will make it hard for students to freely move around the classroom as they are used to.
But increased aid from community organizations has helped to mitigate some of the initial health concerns that come with reopening, helping the school to offer its students the best education possible, despite the circumstances.
Support from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Emergency Management Team has given the school access to resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with whom the Team has a “direct government-to-government relationship,” Weston said. This has included increasing PPE availability for tribe members, helping in reopening plans for the school and even hiring a “tribal epidemiologist to support the transition back into the building,” she said.
One way in which the school aims to increase academic freedom for students is by offering lessons beyond the walls of the classroom.
“They’re planning for a lot of outside time … (with) a heavy science focus,” Hicks Greendeer said. “They’ll be doing a lot of studying in the woods and studying around the Bay.”
Last summer, the school distributed seed packets from the tribal farm to students so that they could independently explore the life sciences. WLRP’s creation of in-person summer camps also aims to increase both cultural education and outdoors education.
This summer, “we’re going to do some planting out in the open where we’re assured of having (outdoor) spaces we can learn and teach in the (Wôpanâôt8âôk) language,” Weston said. Outdoor learning “has always been an important part of the teaching approach at the language school since the language has really emerged from the land itself.”
Despite these gradual approaches toward normal school operations, Weston emphasized that the pandemic is not over. The recent increase in COVID-19 cases on Cape Cod has put community members at continual risk.
Still, both Weston and Hicks Greendeer are eager to see their school return to its normal self, with students learning about their language and culture together, in the same space.
“For the social part of it and the mental health part of it, I think returning to school is really important,” Hicks Greendeer said. “I’ll just be really glad when, even if the normal is different, it will feel normal.”