Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 33 Number 3
Spring 1994


Galena Sells Dick, Dan W. Estell, and Teresa L. McCarty

In formulations of school improvement and change, teachers all too frequently are positioned as the passive recipients of top‑down curricular mandates. This is especially problematic in indigenous settings when school administrators are imported from outside the community. Here we describe one school change effort in which those relations are being reversed, as Navajo bilingual teachers take charge of pedagogical transformation. Especially significant are the ways in which teachers use their own language and culture resources to create classroom environments in which students can do the same. The process and mechanisms for these types of change are related to larger issues of bilingual/bicultural/biliteracy education in indigenous schools.

The Navajo community school at Rough Rock, Arizona is one of the most frequently described in the literature on American Indian education (see, e.g., Collier, 1988; Johnson, 1968; McCarty, Wallace, Lynch, & Benally, 1991; Roessel, 1977; Vogt, Jordan, & Tharp, 1987, 1993). Founded in 1966 as a federal War on Poverty program, the Rough Rock School sparked the contemporary Indian community school movement. "Until the advent of the Rough Rock Demonstration. School," Agnes and Wayne Holm write, "no school had formally empowered parents or the community to have a significant say in the education of their children" (Holm & Holm, 1990, p. 183).

The story of Rough Rock is thus one of many "firsts" in Indian education: the first school to elect an all‑Indian governing board, to use Navajo as the language of instruction, to teach through and about the native culture, and to explicitly define its role as a facilitator of local leadership and community economic growth (see Note 1). Through school board initiatives and supportive federal grants, Rough Rock also was among the first to "grow its own" bilingual faculty from within the community itself (cf. Holm & Holm, 1990; 1992).

A story of so many firsts is inevitably a story of struggle. For Rough Rock a major challenge has been to realize its goals for bilingual/bicultural education in the face of inadequate and inconsistent federal funding. Because of this, and despite the philosophy upon which Rough Rock Community School was founded, there were years when no organized bilingual/bicultural program existed. During that time responsibility for the development and implementation of bilingual instruction, for all practical purposes, fell to individual teachers. As teacher turnover was high, curricular instability was certain and Navajo language and culture instruction was erratic at best.

These conditions are changing at Rough Rock, largely due to the school board's early initiatives in Navajo teacher education, which established a stable core of bilingual elementary teachers. Their presence as members of the community, and their long‑term investment in the community's children, are transforming the content of instruction to more systematically access and develop children's bilingualism and biliteracy. In bringing about these changes in instructional content, teachers also have altered the institutional context in which instruction occurs. In particular, teachers are assuming control of their pedagogy in ways that simultaneously enable Navajo students to take charge of their own learning. To be sure, teachers—and students—continue to struggle against skills‑driven mandates and the top‑down pressures of standardized tests. Nonetheless, significant improvements have occurred in the conditions of learning and teaching at Rough Rock—improvements which our applied research with bilingual teachers shows is directly related to the increased use of their language and culture for instruction, even as they create classroom environments that enable Navajo students to do the same.

This case study addresses the process of educational change as it has been realized in this Navajo community school. Specifically, we describe a project that has evolved over the past 10 years to improve the teaching of language, literacy and biliteracy at the Rough Rock Community Elementary School. Each of us has played different but complementary roles in that project: Galena Dick, as a bilingual teacher and coordinator of the bilingual project; Dan Estell, as elementary principal; and Term McCarty, as a university‑based consultant and researcher for the project. Our work together reveals multiple facets of the change process. Here, we describe that process and suggest its implications for improving indigenous schooling through bilingual/bicultural/biliteracy education.

We begin with some background on Rough Rock and the setting in which these changes emerged.

Initiating Change: The Rough Rock/Kamehameha Collaboration

Rough Rock sits at the center of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. Navajo remains the majority language of the local area; although English is an increasingly indispensable second language, the majority of the district's 700 K‑ 12 students come to school with a strong Navajo language background. Capitalizing on the community's bilingualism and biculturalism has been a primary school board initiative since the school's founding. This emphasis on bilingual/bicultural education, along with the school's leadership in Navajo education, built Rough Rock's reputation as an innovative American Indian school (see, e.g., Johnson, 1968; McCarty, et al., 199 1; Roessel, 1977, 1979).

Considerable staff enthusiasm accompanied the school's early development, but by the early 1980s, much of that momentum, as well as many creative school programs, had been lost. This was a result of unstable federal finances which supported Rough Rock as a community‑contract school, and the attendant insecurity of staff positions and funding. Faculty and administrator turnover was heightened by Rough Rock's geographical isolation and the need to import certified (non‑Navajo) staff from outside the community. Few non‑local employees stayed longer than a few years, and many left after less than a year at the school. Curriculum and instruction mirrored this instability, and bilingual/bicultural instruction waxed and waned (cf. McCarty, 1989).

To stabilize the curriculum, the school board in 1980 adopted a commercial basic skills program of rote, teacher‑directed drills. Teachers accepted and even expressed enthusiasm for this program, because, as Galena Dick pointed out at one recent staff meeting, "at least it was something stable that we could rely on." Few teachers were in a position to look critically at whether the program was appropriate for Navajo students' needs. Nonetheless, teachers and parents at the time expressed concern that basic skills instruction produced Navajo students with near‑perfect English diction, but with little comprehension of oral English or text.

The fall of 1983 proved to be a critical turning point for the school. That year, anthropologists and reading specialists from the Hawaii‑based Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP), came to Rough Rock for the express purpose of determining whether the reading comprehension strategies proven effective with Native Hawaiian children would work with Navajo students (Vogt, et al. 1987, 1993; cf. McCarty, 1993). Rough Rock educators were receptive to KEEP since its strategies addressed the very things perceived as lacking at Rough Rock: listening and reading comprehension, oral language development, cooperative learning groups, and culturally compatible instruction (see Note 2). Afton Sells, then the bilingual teacher in the third‑grade class where KEEP carried out its research, found that KEEP's approach reinforced many things she already was doing in the classroom. In her words, "I didn't want to give KEEP up."

Several support structures at Rough Rock and in Hawaii allowed the KEEP effort to continue. KEEP teacher‑researcher Lynn Vogt made periodic visits to Rough Rock to provide on‑site inservices and work directly with teachers in their classrooms. As school board members became more familiar with and committed to the KEEP collaboration, they provided funds for Rough Rock staff to observe KEEP in action in Hawaii. During this time, Dan Estell, a long‑term community resident, assumed the elementary principalship. His presence added administrative stability and further support by providing consistent opportunities for teachers to observe in Afton Sells' classroom.

In short, KEEP stepped into a niche at the elementary school, offering a stable language arts curriculum as well as the opportunity and moral support for teachers to try out new practices. As long as the Rough Rock staff was willing to pilot these approaches, KEEP was willing to continue to work with and support educators at the school.

The Rough Rock English‑Navajo Language Arts Program

Gradually, Rough Rock teachers took greater responsibility for and ownership over developing their own classrooms, though the basic language arts program was still patterned after KEEP. As teachers felt more comfortable with KEEP strategies, their confidence grew, along with their willingness to take risks to refine instruction. They began, in effect, not just to clone KEEP in their classrooms, but to adapt it to meet their Navajo students' needs. Teachers also began to deal with issues of bilingualism. This was something the Hawaiian program, originally designed for English‑speaking students, did not address. At Rough Rock, KEEP strategies had to be adapted to include language development in both Navajo and English.

The formal KEEP‑Rough Rock collaboration lasted about 5 years. In that time, the elementary curriculum gained a solid footing at the school through the work of eight bilingual teachers and their principal, who together shared a long-term process of professional growth. In the fall of 1987, this group met with the school's education director and Lynn Vogt. In that meeting, the Rough Rock English‑Navajo Language, Arts Program (RRENLAP) was KEEP adapted to meet Navajo students' needs.

Kindergarten and first‑grade teachers who stated a willingness to commit the extra time it would take to implement and further develop RRENLAP, were recruited for the first‑year RRENLAP effort. The following year saw the addition of the second grade to RRENLAP, with additional teachers recruited much as they had been for the initial implementation year. A third‑grade component was added during the third year. By this time, the entire elementary staff, to varying degrees, had become familiar with the program and had witnessed the institutional support RRENLAP teachers received. This made it easier to recruit the additional staff needed to expand the program.

In 1988, the RRENLAP staff wrote and received a grant under Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act, to further refine the program. This five‑year grant enabled the integration of RRENLAP in nearly all classrooms with bilingual teachers (currently, grades K‑3), and the adaptation of KEEP to build on the dual language competencies of Rough Rock learners. In the following section, we describe how this occurred and what RRENLAP came to "look like" in these classrooms.

Key RRENLAP Instructional Features

Three key features characterize instruction in RRENLAP classrooms:

(1) cooperative classroom structures;

(2) process‑oriented language and literacy development strategies; and

(3) a criterion‑referenced system for monitoring and assessing student progress.

Cooperative structures focus on four to seven learning centers in each classroom, with teacher‑guided instruction at Center 1, follow‑up at Center 2, and other centers established for students to work in small groups on specific areas identified by the teacher and students (e.g., Navajo/English writing, listening, art, or research projects). Students move from one center to another for specific purposes; both homogeneous and heterogeneous language groupings are used according to those purposes. Within this organization a variety of instructional strategies are emphasized, including language experience activities, individual or small‑group reading, process writing in Navajo and English, and art or research projects. Student progress is monitored and assessed through individual profile sheets for English and Navajo language development. Criterion‑referenced assessment, through the profile sheets, is conducted in Navajo and English by RRENLAP staff on a quarterly basis.

Although these are the primary approaches introduced by KEEP, Rough Rock's bilingual education grant—by providing new staff and materials development opportunities—has enabled the project to expand beyond these approaches. At summer institutes and in on‑site coursework and workshops, teachers have been immersed in current research and practice in bilingual and Indian education—in particular, whole language, cooperative learning, and literature‑based instruction (see, e.g., Goodman, 1986; Reyhner, 1992). In the process, teachers have begun to rely less on basal readers, workbooks, and commercial language arts programs, and more on themselves and their students. This has occurred gradually and involved conscious risk‑taking by teachers and RRENLAP administrators. Today, most RRENLAP classrooms have replaced basal readers with authentic works of children's literature, including beautifully illustrated Navajo publications written by teachers and teacher assistants themselves (see Figure 1). Theme studies on topics relevant to the local community also have replaced or supplemented commercial language arts sequences.

All of this has created new contexts for the development of biliteracy in RRENLAP classrooms. As Figure 1 shows, students can access narrative accounts from their own community, in the form of RRENLAP‑produced Navajo texts. For example, in Tó Bíká Adeezbááz (Getting Water in a Wagon), young readers hear of the "many mischievous things we [adults] did when we were little," including a comedy‑of‑errors that ensues when the main author decides to haul water in a wagon instead of carrying it from a rock spring (Estell, Bia, & Sells, 1992). From such life accounts, the RRENLAP teaching staff is generating a small but growing collection of authentic Navajo literature. Macintosh computers and a small printing budget are turning those texts into high quality works that draw upon and validate the local culture. Not only do these texts open up new possibilities for literacy development in two languages, they also allow students to see their teachers as published authors.

Students, too, are encouraged and recognized as authors themselves. In Dzil T'aa Díílíígo Sinilígíí' Baahashne' [Margaret, put in accent marks] (The Story of the Four Sacred Mountains, Figure 2), Laverne Teller, then a third grader, shares her knowledge of Navajo history, geography, directionality, and color symbolism, gained from her work on a thematic unit. In addition to texts such as these, students and their teachers have created Navajo versions of English predictable readers such as Asdaaa Chxoshii‑Chxoshii (Mrs. Wishy‑Washy), shown in Figure 3. These texts serve as more than mere translations; filled with Navajo content and humor, they provide opportunities for children and their teachers to experience the pleasure and power of their native language in print.






The RRENLAP Teacher‑Researcher Study Group

These developments led bilingual teachers to look more critically at other areas of the curriculum, especially assessment. In the spring of 1992, RRENLAP teachers established a study group to investigate alternative assessment in greater detail. Like teacher study groups reported elsewhere, the RRENLAP group was voluntary, teacher‑directed, and aimed at connecting classroom‑based teacher research—in this case, ways of assessing Navajo students' literacy and biliteracy—to a body of professional literature (cf. Gonzalez, Moll, Floyd‑Tenery, Rivera, Rendon, Gonzalez, & Amanti, 1993; Matlin & Short, 1991; Moll & Diaz, 1993). Eight RRENLAP teachers received release time to participate in the group; the three authors worked with the teachers as a team to carry out the group's goals. Over the course of a semester, the study group met weekly for a few hours and monthly for a full day. Between meeting times we read self‑selected literature on alternative assessment, kept reflective logs and dialogue journals, and began generating ways to initiate bilingual writing portfolios as a means of assessing students' Navajo and English abilities (see Note 6).

In the study group, teachers consciously articulated their growing trust in their professional knowledge about language and literacy development, and their ability to assess that development. For example, when the group first met, several teachers claimed they did not "know anything" about assessment and evaluation, and were "waiting to be told what to do" with the children's writing samples they had collected. Over time, the group began to voice productive criticism to such a subordinate role: "We tend to accept what somebody else develops" (i.e., standardized tests), one teacher stated. Another wrote: "teacher disenfranchisement." Yet another asked, "Why not use our own teacher‑developed tests?"

Slowly, then more explosively, the study group raised to the surface feelings of resistance to the top‑down curricular mandates represented by standardized tests, and the recognition of their power to effect positive change. They spoke directly of the liberation they found through this critique and their work together.

One teacher called this "teacher empowerment." As Galena Dick pointed out in one study group meeting, "This is not a place where we have to listen to one person and have them give us all the answers."

The study group thus provided more than an opportunity to develop new systems for language assessment; it created a context where teachers could question, engage in collegial dialogue about their learners, and reshape their views on language and literacy teaching. In particular, teachers strengthened their appreciation of their bilingualism and knowledge of the community as resources for teaching. As their confidence grew, teachers became more willing to take risks—to step away from basal‑bound, commercial curricula and to base their pedagogy instead on the language and culture strengths of themselves and their students.

Impacts on Student Achievement

We are still testing and investigating the impacts of RRENLAP and the work on alternative assessment, but some student achievement results are worth noting. On locally developed measures, the K‑3 group overall gained 12 percentage points in English reading comprehension (from 52 to 64), from spring 1990 to spring 1991. A cohort of students who exited RRENLAP in the spring of 1992 made mean gains of 60 percentage points over 3 years on criterion‑referenced assessments of listening comprehension. During the same period K‑3 median CTBS percentile rank scores more than doubled in reading vocabulary, though they are still below national "norms." When individual and grade cohort scores are examined for all K‑6 students over the past 3 years, an important pattern emerges: students who have the benefit of cumulative literacy experiences in Navajo make the greatest gains on local and national measures of achievement. As Figure 2 suggests, in qualitative assessments of students' English and Navajo writing they also demonstrate control of the vocabulary, grammar, and social uses of writing, as well as considerable content area knowledge.


As a result of these long‑term developments, RRENLAP staff members are better informed, more confident, and they consciously articulate the importance of incorporating sound teaching practices throughout their daily instruction. Their classrooms are evolving away from conventional learning environments. Most teachers integrate content through thematic units and all, to varying degrees, embrace quality children's literature as the basis for reading instruction.

These advances have not come without the frustrations that typically accompany change. It has not been easy for some teachers to reduce their reliance on skill‑and‑drill worksheets and activities, or to replace them with creative educational experiences that are meaningful and relevant to students. In addition, teachers continue to express frustration at the lack of quality Navajo materials needed for bilingual instruction. Some say they feel daunted by the continual challenge to move forward and to engage in sustained curriculum restructuring.

Further, change efforts like RRENLAP do not operate in a vacuum; they both influence and are influenced by the larger school culture, the community at large, and the interests of outside entities. For instance, a recent school accreditation monitoring identified a need for a comprehensive school curriculum. To address this accreditation requirement, the district mandated an Outcome‑Based Education (OBE) approach. The Rough Rock elementary staff is now in the position of determining how RRENLAP will be affected by the OBE approach and its implementation. RRENLAP will continue, but it is being interfaced with OBE. This has created some resistance among the staff, largely due to the manner in which OBE was introduced and developed. RRENLAP was developed by teachers within the setting of their own classrooms, where they were encouraged to tailor the program to their personal and students' day‑to‑day needs. In contrast, teachers had little input into the selection or initial implementation of the Outcome‑Based approach. This is an issue which both the staff and its external consultants continue to negotiate and work through.

Numerous other challenges face the program's further development. These include what happens to students after they exit the program in the third grade; while many of RRENLAP's process‑oriented strategies are used by upper elementary teachers, such strategies are not necessarily in place at the secondary level, and beyond the third grade there are insufficient numbers of bilingual teachers. A more general question concerns what will happen to RRENLAP itself when Title VII funds expire. Further, there is a continuing need for Navajo literacy materials. Teachers are still exploring methods of teaching English and Navajo language arts through whole language pedagogy, and we continue to investigate and try to tap into the ways that Rough Rock students learn best.

Conditions Promoting Positive Change

This brings us full circle to our introductory themes of struggle, change, and "firsts." In retrospect, though there have been factors which have restricted or created conditions of resistance to our efforts to effect positive change, there have been many more that have acted to assist us. We conclude by identifying some of the necessary conditions that have served as catalysts for positive change.

First, the program has been fortunate to maintain a stable core of administrative and teaching staff. Nearly all RRENLAP staff members are members of the Rough Rock community. Most are related by kin ties and indeed, RRENLAP itself reflects the reciprocity and mutual aid characteristic of Navajo extended families. This in itself has nurtured a supportive environment for curricular and pedagogical change. Moreover, all those involved in the program share a long history at Rough Rock and with the school. Program staff and faculty thus have an investment in the community and are committed to providing a high quality education for their children.

Second, the program has maintained funding at levels that permit sustained staff development. As a consequence, teachers have had prolonged opportunities to critique and refine their practice; they have been free to take risks and  try out new ideas. Through this, they have found novel ways to use their bilingualism and knowledge of the community so that the same strengths can be recognized and utilized by Navajo students in the classroom.

Third, the program staff has been assisted by long‑term collaborations with outside professionals who have contributed a wealth of expertise. These specialists and the staff explicitly rejected "one‑shot" workshops, focusing instead on direct collegial work in RRENLAP classrooms, extended dialogue and critical inquiry into teaching bilingually, and a mutual process of professional growth.

Finally, and most importantly, the program has been developed by those who are responsible for implementing it. Teacher ownership and growing trust in their ability to effect change and enhance instruction are ever‑increasing.

From its inception, the Rough Rock Community School has sought to provide instruction in and about the Navajo language and culture. As the school has evolved, so too have efforts to deliver sound, meaningful bilingual/bicultural/biliteracy education. This has not occurred without struggle, compromise or controversy, and much remains to be done on a school‑wide basis. Nonetheless, at the elementary school, positive change has occurred through restructuring: (1) the content of instruction or what is taught and learned; (2) the organization of instruction or the structures for classroom participation; and (3) the larger school context in which teachers and their students are able to take risks and to grow. Addressing all three areas has helped establish learning environments that are academically rich, intellectually engaging, and relevant to Navajo students' lives.

Such improvements cannot occur as a top‑down, short‑term process. Rather they emerge from sustained collaboration in which educators are supported in constructing learning environments similar to those they are building for their students. Activating these improvements requires, first, that the language and culture of the community be recognized as the enormous learning resources they are. Even for indigenous educators this may prove difficult, as it challenges their own schooling experiences, the public prestige of English, and such entrenched practices as standardized tests (cf. Ilutsik, this volume). At Rough Rock, more systemic institutional changes also have been required, including teachers' redefinitions of their roles such that they validate and take control of their own pedagogy.

The work at Rough Rock indicates that as teachers realize their power through such processes, they are better able to establish the same conditions for their students. In the long run, students become the beneficiaries, affirming for themselves the value of their language and culture in school.


1.        The founding of the Rough Rock School and its early programs are well described elsewhere; see, for example, Collier (1988); McCarty (1989); and Roessel (1977).

2.        Originally designed for Native Hawaiian students, KEEP has used community‑based ethnographic research to inform a pedagogy that accesses and capitalizes on indigenous learning processes. For more details on this program as it has been implemented in Hawaii, see Vogt, et al., 1987; 1993.

3.        Written by Juanita Estell; illustrated by Emmett Bia, Jr.; editorial assistance by Afton Sells. (1992). Chinle, AZ: Rough Rock School Board, Inc.

4.        From Laverne Teller, Third Grade, Dzil t'aa Diilugo Siniligii' Baahashne', (The Story of the Four Sacred Mountains), 1991‑1992.

5.        Adapted from Joy Cowley's Mrs. Wishy‑Washy. San Diego: The Wright Group.

6.        For a full discussion of the study group process and these assessment systems, see McCarty (1993).


[Notes 3, 4, &5 were not noted in the body of the original article.]


We are indebted to the Rough Rock School Board for their support of our work. We also wish to recognize the work and commitment of our RRENLAP colleagues: Sally Begay, Jean Begay, Juanita Estell, Lorinda Gray, Emma Lewis, Evelyn Sells, Gloria Sells, Lorene Tohe, and Rita Wagner.

Galena Sells Dick is Director of the Title VII RRENLAP Bilingual Program at Rough Rock Community School, Rough Rock, Arizona.

Dan W. Estell is Elementary Principal at the Rough Rock Community School, Rough Rock, Arizona.

Teresa L. McCarty is Assistant Professor of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a consultant to the RRENLAP project.


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