Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Nathalie Lee’s classroom looked a little different as the school year began in August 2019. Maps of Oklahoma outlining cultural markers and history paired nicely with new games depicting frontier life and books about Native Americans’ time on the land that became the 46th state.

As a third grade teacher at Union Public Schools district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lee focuses on social studies, in particular, Oklahoma history. Earlier in 2019, the Bertrand and Higbee family descendant received a Fund for Teachers grant from the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. She used it to strengthen curriculum and obtain accompanying classroom resources.

Lee (left) and her Fund for Teachers partner Janet DeMarco pick up necessities for selenite crystal digging at Great Salt Plains State Park in northwest Oklahoma.

“I’ve always been really proud to be an Oklahoman and really proud to be a Tribal member,” Lee said. “And I’ve always been interested in learning about Oklahoma history, which is why my teaching partner and I decided to write this grant and why it really, really affected me deeply.”

The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence’s mission “is to recognize and encourage academic excellence in Oklahoma’s public schools.” Through a partnership with the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers, the Tulsa Community Foundation and the Oklahoma Tribal Alliance, the organization receives bridge funding to administer the type of professional development Lee experienced to educators across the state.

“All the more we give that opportunity to teachers, the better job they can do,” said OFE Executive Director Emily Stratton. “They are encouraging student academic achievement — academic excellence. So we feel like it’s a perfect fit.”

Last year, OFE sought to expand its reach and built relationships with tribes in Oklahoma. CPN donated $10,000, and OFE awarded between 25 and 30 grants in total. The organization encouraged Indigenous educators to apply, and Communications and Program Outreach Specialist Sara Wilson also saw the partnership as an opportunity to increase its rural presence.

“This is a statewide opportunity,” she said. “It’s not just for central Oklahoma or the Tulsa area, and we’re trying to find ways to reach other parts of the state and let them know that this is available to all Oklahoma teachers.”

Lee studies Oklahoma

Many of the grants awarded outline trips to Africa, Australia or Taiwan as a way of looking at their curriculum in a broader context.

“It’s an experience. It’s a learning odyssey,” OFE’s Wilson said. “So whatever they create, it has to be with the mindset that the whole time they’re gone, they’re working hard. They’re making connections. They’re learning. They’re researching.”

However, Lee and her teaching partner Janet DeMarco’s goals kept them in Oklahoma.

“We’re in the unique position of being third grade teachers, and we have state standards that focus on Oklahoma history, which of course, includes Native America and the land allotments and the land runs and the culture and the beliefs of these people,” Lee said.

They applied three times before receiving a grant. When Lee and DeMarco began outlining their materials the first time, they knew they wanted to learn more about where they live and work. Lee believes their improvements and unconventional focus brought them to the forefront for selection.

“We realized the beauty and the history that is right under our feet here in Oklahoma. And we have a rich history, just like other places in the world,” she said. “And we wanted to stay here and focus on our homeland and our ancestors and our history and our heritage. We wanted to be able to honor that in our classrooms and make sure that our history and our heritage here with the Oklahoma children in our classrooms is valued.”

Lee and DeMarco traveled for 12 days last summer and spent the following weeks writing lesson plans and laying out their classrooms. Some of their favorite destinations included the Pioneer Woman Museum in Ponca City, Great Salt Plains State Park in northwestern Oklahoma and Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Bartlesville.

“We wanted to go visit landmarks and places in Oklahoma museums. We wanted to talk to people and educate ourselves and find artifacts to bring back into the classrooms so that our students could have hands-on experiences while learning about the history of our state,” Lee said.

Books, toys, maps, games, arrows, videos and photos were only a few of those artifacts. They focused on picking things made by Native Americans or people from Oklahoma as opposed to mass-produced items in the hopes of adding authenticity to the classroom.

“Our kids can utilize (them) to see what kind of games children played at the beginning of the state of Oklahoma and how it’s different from how they play games today. … they had marbles and rag dolls and bonnets and just a completely different aspect of child play,” DeMarco said.

The “ripple effect”

As a major component of a proposal, applicants often think about how their professional development will turn into what Wilson calls a “broader ripple effect to the community.” One way Lee aims to have a lasting impact on her students’ thought process is including Native Americans more prominently in social studies lessons.

During their travels, “I feel like I learned a lot that I wish I would have retained when I was a public school child in Oklahoma,” she said.

They visited the Cherokee Heritage Center near Tahlequah and considered ways to improve inclusion and representation of Native Americans in their coursework.

“We tried to balance out Native Americans, which we found easy to research and find a lot of information about, with the cowboy life and pioneer life. We also learned how Native Americans played a part in the government roles of building Oklahoma,” Lee said.

Their students will learn to use a Cherokee language syllabary and put together full presentations on different Oklahoma tribes using the resources Lee and DeMarco gathered. Lee also feels the “ripple effect” when what she learned sparks ideas for geography, literature or mathematics lessons.

“It’s changed my worldview. … It’s amazing when I’m teaching other things how it will come back around to something that I learned this summer about our home state and about the people of our state. It ties in seamlessly with a lot of the things that we do,” she said.

Talking with grant recipients before and after their experiences, Wilson believes keeping educators inspired is one of the most important and tangible outcomes of Fund for Teachers.

“It’s very empowering to them to be able to go out and learn what they need to do, and then they experience more than they ever anticipated,” she said. “And it just renews a passion for them, and once you see a passionate teacher, it’s so much easier for a student to engage and learn and believe that teacher and trust that teacher.”

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