‘LEAP’ forward for Lakota language

UND College of Education lands $1.4-M federal grant to prepare next generation of teachers in indigenous linguistics

LEAP Lakota language

UND’s College of Education & Human Development recently secured a $1.4-million federal grant to train the next generations of teachers in the Lakota language. Graduates eventually will teach elementary and secondary learners at tribal and reservation schools in North Dakota and South Dakota. Photo by Tyler Ingham/UND Today.

Anne Walker’s first licensed teaching job out of college was on a Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico.

Anne Walker

Anne Walker

She spent three years there, setting the stage for a career and a passion in multicultural teaching and learning that has taken her as far as Africa and back.

Now associate dean of student services and assessment in the UND College of Education & Human Development, Walker is still putting that passion to practice with a proposed summer launch of the Lakota Education Action Plan (LEAP).

Walker, along with Cheryl Hunter, chair of the Department of Teaching, Leadership & Professional Practice, recently secured a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring its first cohort of 14 students to campus to train teachers in the Lakota language and earn their degree in elementary and secondary education. Graduates will teach elementary and secondary learners at tribal and reservation schools in North Dakota and South Dakota.

Walker said the genesis of the program was a phone call from Wilhelm Meya, chief executive officer of The Language Conservancy (TLC), who was visiting UND’s Summer Institute of Linguistics, an internationally-known language program held each year on campus. Meya inquired about her College’s interest in partnering on the grant.

“I said, ‘well, you happened to come to the right person because my background is in teaching languages,’” Walker recalled.

Mentoring is key

Hunter collaborated with TLC on writing up the grant request to fund the program. The five-year federal grant will cover the cost of preparing the 14 students in elementary and secondary methods as well as the partnership with TLC, which will specialize in the Lakota language portion of the curriculum.

The first two years will be devoted to teacher and language training, along with ongoing mentorship services. In addition to tuition, the grant will cover housing and childcare costs for the students. Years 3 and 4 of the grant will focus on job placement, additional training and continued mentorship.

“Mentoring is a key component in student retention and professional success,” Hunter said. “Mentoring starts at the very beginning and it doesn’t end until they are two years into their profession.”

Walker explained that currently the Lakota language, in many cases, is being taught in schools by tribal elders without any special license to practice teaching.

“So they’ve never had any real classes on how to teach languages,” she said. “It’s all very well intentioned, but it hasn’t proven to be very effective.”

Recruiting effort

The LEAP program at UND aims to educate a younger generation of Lakota language teachers and inspire the next generation of Lakota speakers. After two years at UND, these teachers will graduate as licensed instructors who are compliant with current North Dakota and South Dakota Lakota language teacher certification regulations.

Hunter said it’s rewarding for her and Walker to do something they’re passionate about, language revival and maintenance, and meet the needs of students in the region at the same time.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “This is our practice, in the trenches. I believe our greatest impact as faculty is in the teaching of students, being innovative in the field and making that impact on the students in our classrooms.”

Both will be busy in the coming months recruiting students to fill the first cohort at Native American language conferences, tribal schools and by working with American Indian Student Services on campus.

Exponential impact

LEAP would seem like a natural fit at UND, an institution already well-known for its educational initiatives for Native Americans in medicine, law, nursing, psychology and others. UND also has a stated strategic goal to foster a welcoming, safe and inclusive campus community.

Cheryl Hunter

Cheryl Hunter

The LEAP program at UND proposes to prepare a new cadre of highly-qualified Lakota language instructors for 63 schools across the Dakotas. The effort initially would impact more than 9,750 students at these schools, which, despite teacher shortages, have Lakota language education mandates from their tribal governments.

Hunter said, “We have the opportunity to make real impact in the lives of Lakota children by preparing highly qualified teachers that are Lakota language proficient. This helps maintain Lakota language and culture across the generations.

“What seems like a small number –14 students—grows to impact approximately 4,000 Lakota children in 10 year. Now that’s impact!”

From there, the impact has the potential to increase exponentially.

“With every teacher that you have, they demonstrate the importance of the Lakota language to their own students,” Hunter said. “It’s one of those opportunities where the amount of impact is just fantastic.”