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Shelby Township

Circle of learning

October 13, 2010

Grant money helps students, teachers span cultures

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Bridging the gaps between cultures and trying to inspire students are lofty goals for teachers, sometimes even more so when budgets are tight.

But Switzer Elementary School music teacher Nancy Cannava aimed to do just that Jan. 28 with the help of a mini-grant from Meemic Insurance Co.

That’s the day an American Indian couple from Livonia came to speak to Cannava’s fifth-grade students for the second part of a program Cannava had organized to tie the subjects of social studies, writing and music together.

Among the lessons students learned were traditional male and female dances, along with how to say “hello” in the language of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and the fact that there is no word for “goodbye” in any American Indian dialect — only a phrase that means, roughly, “see you again.”

Reg Pettibone of Livonia is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. He said that he and his wife, Marca, are trying to show the students how American Indian song and dance is all tied into “the earth and creator.” Marca Pettibone is a member of the Paiute Nation, based in Nevada.

“How our music and dance comes together with Mother Earth, how important our songs and dance is to our children,” he explained about some of the lessons they were trying to impart. “We share Mother Earth. Mother Earth is the most valuable of all things that we, as human beings, have to take care of.”

He told the fifth-grade students that the reason they may not be familiar with the Ho-Chunk Nation, which is based in Wisconsin, is that for more than 300 years the tribe was known as the Winnebago.

That is part of the reason Cannava wanted the couple to come speak to her students.

“They study this subject matter in school. To see it up front, and I wanted them to get the truth,” she said of why she applied for the grant from Meemic Insurance. “I’m hoping they’ll be able to respect other people … understand the background of the people and how tightly music is woven into their background, beliefs.”

Cannava first had author Thomas Woodruff come speak to the students earlier in the year because she knew, as a former fifth-grade teacher, that the Grade Level Content Expectations meant that her students would be writing historical fiction this year.

“I wanted a catalyst for the historical fiction,” she said. “Get them thinking, ‘Why not … Native American?’”

The students agreed that learning about American Indian culture from tribal members was very fun and interesting.

“I like the dances, and I guess, the language,” said 10-year-old Mark-Ethan Holloway, one of the fifth-graders that saw the Pettibones’ presentation.

He said the Pettibones helped him realize that separate cultures share many of the same underlying values.

“Just because you’re a different culture doesn’t meant that you’re different from everyone else,” he said.

Ten-year-old Chloe Hrisopoulous said she was surprised to learn the dances all contained different meanings.

“I didn’t know all the dances” represented different aspects of American Indian life, she said. “I just thought they did that for fun.”

Reg Pettibone talked to the students about the beliefs of the Ho-Chunk people: that they call God the “Creator” or “Earth Maker” and believe that everything is connected in a circle of life. Because of that, he taught the children to respect every living thing and demonstrated how his tribe shows that respect.

“We are told to share the great circle of life,” he said. “You’re going to want your grandchildren to have a great place to live.”

He also told students that American Indian rituals, including music and dance, never include war or savagery, just respect for the animals they hunt and use for food, clothing and shelter.

“When we use every part of the animal, you are showing respect for the spirit of the animal,” he said.

Eleven-year-old Morgan Veach found the teachings and the aspects of American Indian life and dance they learned about interesting.

“I like the dances and what he said about Mother Earth,” she said. “It’s cool how they use a bunch of stuff … (including) tails. I’m especially surprised he’s wearing bone.”

Cannava said she was grateful for the opportunities grant money allows her to share with her students.

“There’s a wealth of knowledge in our state willing to share … with our young people,” she said.

And while money is tight for school districts, Cannava said she knows it’s out there and she wants to take advantage of every opportunity she can get for her students. She heard about grants for educators through Meemic Insurance Co. when Fraser agent John Burke dropped off information at school. The Meemic Foundation selected Cannava’s project in May 2009 and gave her a $1,000 mini-grant for the program in September.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.


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