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Widening the Circle: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for American Indian Children

reviewed by James Bruggeman - 2004

coverTitle: Widening the Circle: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for American Indian Children
Author(s): Beverly J. Klug, Patricia T. Whitfield
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415935113, Pages: 224, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

Many American Indian students fail school because much of schooling fails them.  In any given year during the past decade, 25% to 60% of all Indian students dropped out or failed to graduate from high school.  Something is amiss in the schools and classrooms in which American Indian students are enrolled.  In their book, Widening the Circle; Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for American Indian Children, Beverly J. Klug and Patricia T. Whitfield advance both a diagnosis and a set of remedies for what is wrong in the teaching of American Indian children.  The book’s intended audiences are pre-service as well as practicing teachers who teach or intend to teach in schools with significant enrollments of Indian students, whether on Indian reservations or in urban settings.  The authors anchor their recommendations for improving the teaching of Indian students on their reading of a massive body of opinion and research relating to multicultural education, personal correspondence and interviews with skilled practitioners, and their own observations of pre-service teachers in classrooms and schools with high enrollments of Indian students.


Klug and Whitfield join an ever widening circle of educators who advocate multicultural approaches to teaching and learning, not simply to advance intergroup harmony and reduce conflict among ethnic groups, but rather as a means of actually improving Indian students’ academic performances and bridging their need and desire to “retain their Native cultures while at the same time acquiring the skills necessary to survive in a technological world.”  (p. 24) The academic success of Indian students is impeded, the authors argue, by the “dissonance” and “incongruity” between the cultural values, social behavior, and teaching methods of Euro-American teachers and schools and those of their Indian students, their families and communities. 


Klug and Whitfield dispute the notion undergirding much of high stakes, standardized testing and simplistic interpretations of standards-based curriculum that good teaching and good curriculum in one community are good teaching and good curriculum in all other communities.  Instead, they advance a sociocultural approach to education, an approach that recognizes that academic expectations, knowledge and ways of knowing are situated in the culture and history of individual Indian communities.  The failure of culturally traditional Indian students arises from a sad dialectic in which teachers’ lack of cultural knowledge and unfamiliarity with Indian students’ preferred learning and classroom interaction styles and linguistic patterns transform classrooms and schools into “places of confusion” where the student’s cultural rules “don’t fit and they can’t understand why.” (p. 162)  Ethnocentric non-Indian teachers and culturally assimilated Indian teachers, the authors argue, will experience success in their work with American Indian students, parents, and communities only if they become “bicultural,” that is, only if they acquire a deeper understanding of Indian cultures and histories and an appreciation for Indian family and community mores that are necessary to “operate effectively within their own culture and within those of their Indian students.” (p. 4)


Klug and Whitfield’s presentation in Chapter I of the recursive and circular process by which Euro-American teachers can “become bicultural” frames their entire book.  Basing their conclusions on their observations of pre-service teachers in schools with high enrollments of American Indian children, the authors outline a six-stage process of bicultural encounter and transformation.   For teachers, the journey from an ethnocentric to a bicultural perspective involves rediscovering and grounding themselves in their own ethnic cultures, exploring the unique cultures of the native community in which the school is located, and seeking “allies” within that community who are willing to initiate them into the cultural knowledge that will provide the keys to success in the classroom.  In the final chapters of the book, the authors provide case studies of both pre-service and practicing teachers who successfully negotiated these cultural encounters and successfully integrated culturally relevant pedagogy into their classrooms and schools. Their narrative becomes the strongest, most convincing and helpful when Klug and Whitfield’s present case studies of teacher experiences in Indian communities and schools, interviews with Native authorities within American Indian communities, as well as the authors’ own observations of effective and ineffective teaching of Indian students.


Klug and Whitfield position their recommendations for culturally relevant and congruent teaching within a sometimes scathing critique of the destructive effect that two centuries of Euro-American cultural and educational hegemony has had on Indian students’ self-esteem, cultural identity, and academic achievement.  It is the sad and familiar story of genocide and cultural extirpation, of Indian missions and BIA boarding schools, of Euro-American cultural imperialism but also of Indian cultural resistance and survival that eventually prompted the Merriam Report in 1928 which called for abolition of assimilation policies within schools serving Indian students and for assistance to tribal peoples in preserving and perpetuating their cultural heritages – a recommendation that is yet to be fully realized.  Recognizing the wide diversity of American Indian cultures, the authors carefully, but not always convincingly, outline throughout the book “generalized differences between Native and European cultures,” (p. 14). They also set forth a “general explanation of [Indian] cultural belief systems” (p. 122) that teachers can use to assist their teaching of Native students.  However, they wisely admit that the “best resources for learning about American Indian cultures are those who live them… ” (p. 112), including Indian students themselves.   Nevertheless, the “Pan-Indian” cultural practices and systems that the authors enumerate in their chapter “American Indians and Their Cultures” will be very useful for teachers unacquainted with traditional Native culture.  Even if these practices are not present in every Indian community, they are useful talking points with which teachers can interrogate the specific cultural practices of the communities in which they teach.


In their effort to help teachers capitalize on their Indian students’ cultural heritage, Klug and Whitfield urge the practice of a “culturally responsive pedagogy,” one that marries a sociocultural perspective with constructivist learning approaches.  Briefly, the elements of culturally responsive pedagogy include integrated and interdisciplinary curricula employing materials from the community’s history and culture backed by school-wide planning and staff-development, authentic and child-centered instruction connected with Indian students’ real lives and the lives of their communities, development of critical thinking skills, use of cooperative learning and whole language instruction, as well as consideration of multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles in all instructional planning.  Sufficient research and successful practice of culturally responsive pedagogy in Native communities exists to validate these as common sense approaches.  Classroom use of appropriate multicultural literature and language experience strategies, for example, ease the inclusion of Indian culture and history into literacy instruction while lockstep use of basal reading texts may impede it. 


The authors map out many roads leading to an education that honors Native cultures.  Unfortunately, they direct us into another episode in the “reading wars” when they argue so stridently for whole language strategies in literacy instruction to the exclusion of other approaches.  A kind of educational manicheanism seeps into their extreme polarizing of “authentic,” “natural,” “holistic” whole language approaches against “narrow,” “synthetic,” and “problematic” skills-based instruction (pp. 184-192).  However, many of the same whole language and language experience activities the authors advocate are also found in “balanced” literacy programs that make selective use of direct skills-based instruction.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with Klug and Whitfield’s stand in the “reading wars,” it is clear that the ways in which teachers mediate the curriculum for Indian students has a greater impact on student learning than the interaction between the student and the curriculum materials.  Klug and Whitfield, perhaps intentionally, make this point in their very useful discussion of the contrasting classroom interaction, discourse and lesson presentation styles of American Indian and Non-Indian teachers (pp. 161-165). 


How then does a teacher, a group of teachers, or an entire school district mediate for Indian students state-mandated, standards-based curricula and their accompanying assessments?  Stressing that there are “many different ways to reach [these] particular destinations,” (p. 179) the authors suggest the use of the circle, evocative of the Native American Medicine Wheel, as a way of planning integrated instructional units that presumably would embody state-mandated curriculum standards.  Missing from their discussion is a more comprehensive discussion and enlarged examples of how individual tribal nations are reframing national and state curriculum standards and assessments to fit their particular cultural contexts.  Klug and Whitfield briefly summarize (pp. 45-46) the “Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools” that were developed by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network from the Alaska State Content and Performance Standards.  Nevertheless, a fuller elaboration of initiatives, such as Alaska’s Native Knowledge Network and The Four Directions Challenge in Technology Project (Four Directions, 2993), would have been helpful to teachers and schools across North America who wish to reach out to like-minded Indian communities that are successfully transforming state curriculum standards into culturally responsive curricula.


Widening the Circle is a welcome addition to a growing and much-needed library of works that to varying degrees base their educational recommendations on Native knowledge, empirical research, and the actual experiences of Indian students and their teachers (Cleary and Peacock, 1998; Reyhner, 1994; Nee-Benham and Cooper, 2000). Missing from most of these works is an analysis of how the educational colonization of Indian cultures has intersected with the formation of social classes in precapitalist and modern capitalist market societies to reproduce unequal distribution of the wealth, power, and knowledge needed by American Indians to reproduce, defend, and sustain their tribal cultures.   Historically, Indian tribes in their present form (as politically distinct, culturally homogeneous, bounded and discrete groupings) are creative social reconstructions of fragments of shattered pre-Colombian cultures and polities by Indian peoples caught between the anvil of deadly European diseases and the hammer of commercial capitalist exploitation (Richter, 2001). From the late seventeenth century onward, significant numbers of American Indians became enmeshed in global commercial markets first as petty producers of agricultural products, furs, and skins, as workers in the maritime, military, and carrying trades, and as consumers, increasingly dependent on European-produced goods and food for their subsistence.  Over the centuries, the way in which individual American Indians have constructed their cultural identities - represented by Klug and Whitfield as a continuum ranging from “traditional,” to “bicultural,” to “assimilated” (pp. 7-8) – has been a function of the degree and manner in which they have participated in the market economy as workers and consumers (Devens, 1992). One should not be surprised, therefore, by the intriguing parallels between the kind of school knowledge that Jean Anyon observed being taught in working class schools (Anyon, 1981; 1997) and the kind of culturally irrelevant, even repressive, education that Klug and Whitfield attribute to many schools serving Indian students: an education bereft of working class or tribal histories that would enable them to identify the interests and struggles that they share with other workers or tribal members, an education that emphasizes compliant, mechanical and rote behaviors rather than the sustained conception, personal decision-making, and critical inquiry that one finds in the educational practices of middle class and elite schools - in short, an education that ensures a ready supply of workers whose jobs primarily require carrying out the policies, plans, and regulations of others.




Anyon, J. (1997). Ghetto schooling: A political economy of urban educational reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Anyon, J.  (1981). Social class and school knowledge, Curriculum Inquiry, 11, no. 1; 3-42


Cleary, L.M. and Peacock, T.W. (1998). Collected wisdom: American Indian education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Devens, C. (1992). Countering colonialism: Native American women and Great Lakes missions, 1630-1900. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Four Directions: In Indigenous Education Model.  (2003). http://www.4directions.org/community/abstract.html


Nee-Benham,  M. and Cooper, J. (2000). Indigenous educational models for contemporary practice: In our mother’s voice. New York, NY: Erlbaum Associates


Reyhner, J. (Ed.). (1994). Teaching American Indian students. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.


Richter, D.K. (2001). Facing east from Indian country: A native history of early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 911-916
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11221, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:11:41 AM

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About the Author
  • James Bruggeman
    Bozeman (MT) Public School District #7
    E-mail Author
    Jim Bruggeman is the Principal of Irving Elementary School, (Bozeman Public School District #7) Bozeman, MT, and the Federal Project Director for Bozeman Public School’s Title VII – Indian Education Project. He has just completed service as co-principal investigator for the Keystone Project, a six-year National Science Foundation training project for Montana science teachers, including teachers who serve on the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Fort Belknap, and Blackfoot Reservations. Recently, Jim, in collaboration with the History Department of Montana State University, wrote and received a $1 million Teaching American History Grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the purposes of training K-12 teachers in history content and pedagogy. He also serves as co-director for this project. Jim’s research interests are in the area of ethno-history.
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