Reservations About Education: The Importance of Early Childhood Education

by Kelsey John

I thought I did not like children. Living and studying education at a private University, the majority of my encounters are with adults and students my own age, which led me to believe that intellectual conversations could only happen between peers and adults within the confines of a scholarly classroom. I came to expect that these conversations were only possible when facilitated by professors boasting high degrees from top universities. My third trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation, however, recently helped me to continue developing a personal philosophy about education by breaking misconceptions I formed from being immersed in an academic setting.
One service day, my group visited a Bureau of Indian Education school near our work site. My educational studies department requires me to observe classrooms but never any reservation schools, so I was expecting it to be different or more challenging. American Indian education has a negative reputation that makes educators cringe or shake their heads like they know instinctively that teaching there is more challenging.
Trying to forget my expectations, I entered the school, and three second grade girls quickly invited me to sit at their table. I soon realized that talking to the children the same way I talk to my friends or classmates was natural. I always believed that I would have to change my demeanor in order to connect with younger students, but a few lighthearted jokes broke down social barriers quicker than in my college classes. I was surprised because one of my first observations of young students helped me discover that the social interactions between children felt more natural than the messy exchanges adults usually have. I began to realize that social interactions are not necessarily progressive depending upon age. Instead, they are constructed uniquely among different groups of people. Children are still people, little people, but people with social needs similar to adults. They are perceptive and have more capabilities than adults generally afford them.
Although I was nervous, I soon found myself enamored by the students. I resolved to watch their world as an observer and found myself starring at them because they were so beautiful, their eyes were so clear. As the class continued through the afternoon, I began to realize that early childhood education is just as serious as higher education and that the activities and conversations going on in this classroom are just as important to the students’ futures as the dialogues in my classroom are to my future. These students need positive reinforcement and encouragement to pursue their ideas, and if their epiphanies are nurtured, their thinking can be expanded even further.
On Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the most challenging communities in the country, the future and success of the tribe depends upon the education of its young students. The students in the classroom I observed have the capacity to grow up to lead and enact change on their reservation. Despite the hardships projected on these students living on a reservation and the identity struggles that come with being American Indian, they are genuinely joyful throughout the entire day.
Young children walking with LPRCEP camp counselors in the Badlands, summer of 2011
 My observation of the class made me realize that the preconceptions that often arise in the classroom of a privileged University environment have the potential to create a dangerous divide among different learners. As an Education major, I often struggle with the division between theory, policy, and practice, but instead of being discouraged by this disconnect, observing the students on Pine Ridge affirmed my desire to work for change in the education system.  
For young American Indians on Pine Ridge Reservation or other University students across the country, we need to abolish unnecessary barriers put in place by academic biases. It is no secret that American education is unsuccessfully bound to methods of academic ranking — like standardized testing — that continually exclude, marginalize, or stigmatize students in communities like Pine Ridge.   
Elementary education is important for students on and off the reservation and educators and policy makers must work hard to preserve positive social interactions and to nurture the creative minds of children. In addition, they must keep stereotypes, biases and preconceptions out of the classroom and out of the politics that often surround funding decisions. Every part of the education process must be approached with the belief that all students are intelligent and capable of success. The young people of our country, regardless of their ethnicity or residency, deserve an enriching education.  

Kelsey John, Vice President of LPRCEP, is a third year at Colgate University and a candidate for a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences with a concentration in Education Studies. 

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