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Collaboration connects elementary and university students to learn Native cultures

November 12, 2021

Young students at the Tomorrow River Community Charter Schools brought Native American stories to life last w

Education majors at UW-Stevens Point had an opportunity to teach elementary students about Indigenous cultures through performance art, which recently debuted on a new outdoor stage.

Students in grades 4-7 at Tomorrow River Community Charter School performed several short plays based on Native American stories. Told by a Ho-Chunk elder and other Indigenous leaders, the stories were developed into scripts by UW-Stevens Point elementary education students.

“I was so impressed with the students,” said Rylyn Donahue, an education major from Lake Geneva. “The play I wrote with my group was performed by 7th grade, and we called it ‘A Sticky Situation.’ It was inspired by a Ho-Chunk story about collecting sap for syrup. I loved how the kids really brought it to life and even used props.”

The effort was a collaboration between Amber Garbe, of UW-Stevens Point, and Chamomile Nusz, founder of Tomorrow River Community Charter Schools. They successfully sought an Oscar W. Neale Fellowship last spring through the UWSP School of Education to fund construction of an amphitheater at the charter school for outdoor performances.

This is the semester before UW-Stevens Point students complete their student teaching in elementary schools, so working with Tomorrow River Charter School students provided a real-world, diverse experience, said Garbe, assistant professor of education. She worked with Native leaders to share stories with her students.

“We were able to read them and learn a little more about their cultures. It was wonderful,” said Kaylee Bukolt, a senior from Antigo. “We worked in small groups with one story per group to begin developing these plays.” Her group transformed the children’s book “Little Feather.”

The project included inviting local Native American artists and performers to increase understanding of Native culture and history. The event opened with Ojibwe dancers and a drummer sharing their art and culture.

“I hope to nurture culturally responsive teaching practices in all my students, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than an experience like this year’s Neale Project,” Garbe said.

Education major Morgan Vande Hey, Wrightstown, worked with 4th graders on a story called Two Wolves. “I thought the performances were amazing! The students really got into character and seemed to be having a great time performing.” She plans to share a similar experience with her future students to help them learn about Native American culture. 

“My personal teaching philosophy reflects multiculturalism, so I was very excited to know that we were going to be working with Wisconsin Native tribes,” Bukolt said. “I value that UWSP encourages multiculturalism in their curriculum and that we had this incredible opportunity to celebrate the Native cultures.” 

The Neale fellowship helped the Tomorrow River Charter School make a stronger connection to environmental learning and deeper connection to Indigenous roots, Numz said. With annual performances by each grade, an amphitheater on the site has long been a goal. “The opportunity for collaboration and coordination with UW-Stevens Point educators was so fulfilling for both of us,” she said.

As a Waldorf school, Tomorrow River Charter School blends cultural and environmental learning with performance arts. It is located at Central Wisconsin Environmental Station, a field station of the UW-Stevens Point, in Amherst Junction.

The Oscar W. Neale Fellowship recognizes and supports outstanding collaboration between UW-Stevens Point faculty and educators in Central Wisconsin. Neale was director of Rural Education from 1917 to 1944 at then-Stevens Point Normal School. A residence hall on campus is named for him.