Navajo School Spotlighted at U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tour
Little Singer Community School was selected to present its dynamic, bilingual MakerPlace vision
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (February 16, 2023)—Little Singer Community School, a small school located within the Navajo Nation, was singled out of all the schools in the United States 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 last month. The closed-door roundtable with Marten and about 40 education leaders was part of a national effort to highlight bright spots and innovative practices as exemplars to improve student outcomes.
Little Singer, a K–6 school, 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. The event occurred on Wednesday, January 25, at SkySong Scottsdale Innovation Center at Arizona State University. 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,” said Tomas. The school integrates Navajo, or Diné, culture and language teachings across all STREAM subjects (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math).
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,” said Tomas, 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, LSCS 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, LSCS students have participated in KARMA’s annual 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 STREAM 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.
KARMA began with a generous grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as a STEM project within Navajo Technical University and has since incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that collaborates with premier universities and a consortium of businesses and manufacturers. KARMA’s focus on developing career pathways from K-12 STEM through colleges/universities emphasizes entrepreneurship in advanced manufacturing and technology to further economic opportunity in the Navajo Nation. Learn more: https://wiikarma.technology
About Little Singer Community School
Little Singer Community School is a tribally controlled Navajo grant school located on the Little Colorado River Basin in the far southwestern region of the Navajo Reservation. Our vision is to help students develop a positive self-image and unlimited life-long opportunities. Diné language and culture aid our students’ ability to walk with confidence in the Diné and western society through the Diné concepts of Nitsáhákees, Nahat’á, Iiná, and Sihasin. Our education program focuses on learning and higher-level thinking skills. A combination of elders, parents, and staff teaches the wisdom and tradition of the Diné culture and language. Little Singer Community School stakeholders, past and present, reaffirm the dream of Little Singer to have school and family come together to bring a bright future for children. Learn more: www.littlesinger.org