Little Singer School spotlighted for bicultural and bilingual education model 📚
WINSLOW, Ariz. — Little Singer Community School, a small K-6 school located on the Navajo Nation in Winslow, was singled out to be a panelist at a roundtable discussion convened by The U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Cindy Marten as part of her "Raise the Bar: Lead the World" tour in January.
The closed-door roundtable at Arizona State University brought Marten and about 40 national education leaders to highlight bright spots and innovative practices as exemplars to improve student outcomes.
Little Singer was spotlighted for its bicultural and bilingual MakerPlace educational model emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The school's vision affirms Navajo culture and identity while preparing students for 21st-century careers.
Tom Tomas, head teacher at Little Singer, presented virtually.
Opened in 1978, Little Singer Community School was named after a local medicine man whose vision was to build a school that honored and upheld Navajo values.
"His goal was to bring the children back to their community to be happy mentally and emotionally," Tomas said.
The school integrates Navajo culture and language teachings across all subjects.
In 2017, Little Singer began collaborating with the Ke'yah Advanced Manufacturing Alliance (KARMA), which shared the school's goal of empowering students to create and sustain economic opportunities in Navajo.
KARMA envisioned and helped the school launch a "MakerPlace" — a term that reflects the importance of "place" to Navajo identity — outlining its core model, which brings culturally relevant hands-on and project-based "maker" pedagogy into classrooms.
"The Navajo people have always been innovators," Tomas said, which includes a long history of weaving, jewelry making and silversmithing.
Educators at Little Singer connect students' understanding of those cultural traditions to new technology skills such as coding, 3D printing, robotics and engineering. For example, students learn how an additive manufacturing process deeply rooted in Navajo culture—weaving a rug—involves a similar layering method to 3D printing. By making these culturally relevant connections to newer technologies, students become more personally engaged in learning new skills and knowledge.
Through KARMA's relationships with other STEM education institutions, Little Singer School has collaborated with Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), the Kellogg Foundation, and Navajo Technical University. With these collaborations, LSCS has expanded its MakerPlace programming by offering professional development for teachers and more learning opportunities for students.
For example, Little Singer School students have participated in the Innoventure Challenges held at the Diné Maker Nation Maker Faire at Navajo Technical University (NTU) since 2018. In one challenge, students designed culturally relevant toys for preschool-aged children, such as a 3D-printed model of a sweat lodge and cradle board. In another challenge, students designed products to help Navajo elders. Students also used biomimicry, taking inspiration from bird feathers and raindrops to design wind turbine blades, experimenting with blade pitch, blade design, surface area, number of turbine blades and gear ratios.
“The pedagogy of play is embedded in the MakerPlace approach to learning,” said Dr. Ben Jones, founder of KARMA. With playful learning, students actively explore and experiment, applying knowledge of new concepts acquired through hands-on projects. Play reduces feelings of anxiety that prevent learning. "It is a more natural way of learning," he said.
Another aspect of LSCS's vision is the intergenerational transference of knowledge among Navajo families. Older generations of native populations, including many of the parents and grandparents of Little Singer students, experienced the trauma of a boarding school education that punished students for speaking their native language, sometimes even physically, said Tomas. LSCS honors what students learn at home by integrating Navajo teachings and language across the STEAM program.
School initiatives that reach beyond the school's walls include LSCS's international collaborations. For example, through the school's relationships with KARMA and Tufts CEEO, LSCS students and educators have connected virtually with student makers and educators in Rwanda, Nepal and Mongolia to share ideas and stories.
Closer to home, LSCS and KARMA have teamed up to facilitate collaborations with Second Mesa Day School, located in a Hopi community. Second Mesa Day School sent teachers to observe LSCS students in their classrooms using LEGO robotics. The school will host its first Hopi science fair this spring. "We hope to continue to find ways for other community schools, such as Hopi and Zuni schools, to collaborate with Little Singer and make those learnings their own," said Dr. Jones.
Tomas said that while he knows Marten recognized LSCS's alignment with their national vision, he hopes the Department of Education provides more support to rural community schools and honors the dynamic histories, languages, cultures and visions for the people's future in indigenous communities.
More information about KARMA can be found at https://wiikarma.technology.
Information about Little Singer Community School can be found at LittleSinger.org.
Information provided by Little Singer School.