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On the blog: The exceptional teacher behind Passage to Schools

January 30, 2015

Rapid City High School art and language teacher Gabrielle Seeley has developed a family of K-12 lesson plans that use Passage of Wind and Water to spark learning about literature, history, science and Lakota, Nakota and Dakota history and culture.

Passage to Schools are interdisciplinary lessons dual-aligned to Common Core and Oceti Sakowin standards. The lessons are free to download, don’t require any additional materials or even a trip to The Sculpture Project.

Learn more about this wholly unique curricula and the extraordinary teacher behind them in the Q&A below.

Passage to Schools is funded through Destination Rapid City, the John T. Vucurevich Foundation, the Rapid City Public Schools Foundation and the South Dakota Arts Council.

Q: Please describe how getting students into their communities affects learning?

A: Passage to Schools lessons use a current community project to connect students' classroom learning to their wider community. When teachers link community events and projects to what their students are learning in the classroom, students are motivated to think at high levels because the learning feels relevant.

Q: Do these lessons stretch or go a little deeper than traditional lessons? How are they different than traditional classroom lessons?

A: These lessons are innovative in several ways. First, they spring from a public art project, but they are lessons about literacy, science, and social science; thus, they are truly cross-curricular. Next, the lessons contain informational and primary source texts for students to read in class: teachers do not need to dig for texts or buy anything. Additionally, the critical thinking questions are written to respect student thinkers; they elicit high-level thinking from students and increase the quality of student work. Also included are graphic organizers that students use to prepare for meaningful discussions about the texts. Finally, the lessons are dual-aligned with state literacy standards and with Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards.

Q: Many of the lessons take common ideas but present them on a deeper level – like “We Eat Food From Nature”. What is the purpose of this and why do you think it’s important for students to “take a second look” around them.

A: I know how well students can think when they are engaged at deeper levels. I have enormous amounts of student learning data that shows this result. A respect for student thinking is embedded in each of these K-12 lessons, and students really respond to that respect and impress adults when they write about experiences and values that all people have in common. Adults all over the state have been moved to use the lessons because of the student thinking that I have shown them. All of these great educational results spring from Passage of Wind and Water at Main Street Square.

Q: When people think art, they typically think of something that is tangible. I see many of your lessons focus on poetry and writing. Can you explain how this are also art?

A: Poetry and literature are art forms that students really respond to. The lessons engage K-12 students with literary non-fiction, poetry, and fiction that many people do not encounter until they get to college or other post-secondary training. Furthermore, learning to write is also about learning to think clearly. The lessons get students to express their own original thinking through their writing, and this expressiveness can be seen as its own art form.

Q: Are students making in-person trips to the Square regularly?

A: Students from RCAS and from BHSU and Mines regularly take field trips to the square, and many of these students use the "Field Trips!" lesson to enrich their experience. There is a text to read before the day of the field trip, and then students use the critical thinking exercises while they are at the Square. Some of the questions have students drawing pieces of The Sculpture Project, and some of them have students walking the perimeter of the sculptures and describing their impressions. There are informational boards at the Square that students read and respond to.  hen, back at the classrooms, teachers use the included graphic organizer to let students prepare for great discussions about the field trip.  It is an all-inclusive multi-day lesson that over 1,000 students have used and loved.  

Q: Several of the lessons also address South Dakota Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards. Can you explain what this means? I’m assuming most readers won’t know.

A: Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards contain essential learning for all South Dakotans about Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota culture. They were adopted by the SD BOE in 2011. I started using them in early 2012 with students.

The OSEU provides teachers with enormous leverage for several reasons. First, Oceti Sakowin authors like Luther Standing Bear and Ella Cara Deloria wrote rich primary source texts that engage students from all backgrounds. SD students find Lakota origin stories riveting because they are both geographically relevant and exciting to read. When teachers start with great texts, student engagement soars. 

Next, every aspect of Oceti Sakowin culture is based on showing and earning respect. Respect for the self, for the group, for the natural world, for youth, and for elders is the essence of Oceti Sakowin culture. Students crave and deserve respect, so learning about the culture affects them deeply. Students make connections between self-respect and taking control of their own learning; they see how respect for others and for nature are extensions of self-respect. 

Without exception, every group of students I have taught using dual-aligned instruction grew in their cultural knowledge, their acceptance of differing viewpoints, and their critical thinking skills.  I have tremendous amounts of student learning data that supports this.

Q: Anything else worth noting?

A:  Yes-- there is statewide interest in these lessons because they are unique. When we look around the country at other public art projects, we cannot find any that have this strong educational link in place. The Sculpture Project: Passage of Wind and Water is the largest privately-funded public art project underway in the United States, and it is right here in our own city. The dual-alignment aspect is really of interest statewide as well, because teachers want to use the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards, but they may not have had the time to build lessons yet. They may worry that they are not exposing students to the literacy or social science learning they need if they add the Oceti Sakowin content. But my data shows that the Oceti Sakowin content is high-interest content, very geographically relevant, and that students soar with it. These lessons really kill several birds with one stone, and kids do amazing thinking with the work that is included. So, really, there is this tremendous resource that is now expanded to 14 lessons, completely free to schools and teachers. It's a win-win.

Go to Passage to Schools lesson plans.

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