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Alumni Story - Joseph Claunch

Transforming the (Role) Model

In June, the college's teacher education department recommended Sapsik'walá Project alumnus Joseph Claunch for an initial teaching license in middle/secondary social studies. Claunch also completed applied teaching experience in an unusual assignment: he taught sixth grade social studies, language arts, and PE at Wa He Lut Indian School in Nisqually, north of Olympia, Washington.

Practicum experiences are not typically conducted outside Oregon. Wa He Lut is a Bureau of Indian Affairs school at Frank's Landing, a focal point for the national tribal sovereignty movement.

A Different Role Model
Earning a teaching license and master's degree are not unexpected outcomes for Joseph Claunch: prior to coming to the UO, he had completed his bachelor's degree in American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University with nearly a 4.0 grade average.

But few could have predicted that Claunch would come full circle: Wa He Lut was not just Claunch's practicum teaching site; this was his former elementary school—the school where he was expelled at the age of 8 years old.

"I think I'm a different role model," said Claunch.

"Teachers are traditionally the good student, all grown up. I haven't met too many teachers that did as poorly in school as I did—I struggled from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. I never quite saw the relevance in the schoolwork I was doing. I didn't see how it applies: no one in my immediate family graduated from high school, so it seemed less important. I also didn't connect with teachers or the material because it didn't reflect anything like my experience or my family culture," said Claunch.

Community Context Impacts Readiness to Learn
Frank's Landing is federal trust land, named for Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank, Jr., and his 95-year-old father. Their six acres along the Nisqually River were in the national spotlight in the 1960s and '70s in a running dispute with the state over fishing rights that culminated in a landmark federal ruling in 1974 affirming tribal fishing rights of all Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest. According to Claunch, the community also has a long history of students struggling to find relevance in public education, along with economic and social pressures that challenge American Indian youth to sidestep destructive behaviors.

"I cannot think of a community I would like to work in more than the one I came from,” said Claunch, who is devoted to working exclusively in Native American communities, to address the disconnect that often happens for American Indian students as they move between cultures.

“It was really exciting to reach out to these kids and offer them curriculum and a world view that I hoped would encourage them more than they have experienced before.

"Students who go to Wa He Lut appreciate that there is a high priority placed on their respective Native cultures. For instance, the architecture of the school, the paintings, totem poles, regalia and statues all pay respect to the various aspects of their Native tradition. Wa He Lut's design and goal is to meet the unique needs of the Native students who attend."

"I felt like I could make a valuable contribution, not only because we share a common ancestral heritage, but also because my relative experiences as a youth who struggled in school really allowed me to relate to the students in a more meaningful way," said Claunch, "and certain aspects of the Sapsik'walá program have made me better prepared to meet every student's needs, regardless of where they are coming from."

Claunch emphasizes that acknowledging the social and cultural foundation that the students bring with them is the critical first step to ensuring the success of those who may not yet see themselves as having access to post-secondary education.

Sports Ethic Applies in the Classroom
The 28 year-old member of the Puyallup Nation of Tacoma, Washington, left Eugene in August for a new challenge. A former Haskell running back himself, Claunch will serve on the football coaching staff at Haskell Indian Nation's University in Lawrence, Kansas.

"I always knew that athletics helped make me the person I am today: I learned how to become a team member, and it kept me in school. This really is a long term goal of mine: to bring those elements I valued personally from the sports ethic into the classroom," said Claunch. "In football, in any sport, the interaction has the potential to become much more personal than in the classroom: there is more possibility for personal interactions around values, morals, personal goals, commitment, and what it means to be a team member," said Claunch.

"As I was finishing the teaching experience at Wa He Lut, I had just begun to see new ways to open the transactional space in the classroom to this level of growth development. I'm looking forward to comparing this experience with my coaching and refining my abilities to support students in my classrooms."

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