Cherokee Reading Hour immerses young children in language
Cherokee Nation citizen Carolyn Swepston teaches a Cherokee Reading Hour class on March 5 at A Bright Start Development Center in Tahlequah as part of 10-week language immersion class for children under 5 years old. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Carolyn Swepston, center, teaches a class of children and adults how to do the hokey-pokey dance during a Cherokee Reading Hour class on March 5 at A Bright Start Development Center in Tahlequah. Classes run through April 16 and are from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Thursday. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – To start teaching children the Cherokee language, a group of parents have taken upon themselves to immerse their children, ages 0-3 years old, with weekly classes they call Cherokee Reading Hour.
Cherokee Nation citizen and University of Missouri assistant professor Melissa Lewis said this is the second round of 10-week classes they have conducted, with the first being in Sallisaw last year. Classes are sponsored by MU.
“It’s part of a pilot study to kind of demonstrate that culture and teaching language especially is an important part of Cherokee, and all Natives, health and well-being,” Lewis said. “We ask the parents to tell us how we do, to try to get feedback, how to improve every week and we’re hoping in the future we’ll be able to maybe expand and improve in some way.”
She said a few mothers and speakers got together wishing their children had more access to learn Cherokee.
“We started asking around and finding out that there isn’t anything in this region or actually anywhere...that they do for 0-3 (year olds),” Lewis said. “So there’s no immersion, there’s no Cherokee curriculum available. I have a 1 year old and others had some young kids, too. So we started asking around.”
Lewis said she went to a few reading hours conducted at libraries in Oklahoma and Missouri, as well as the CN Child Development Center, to observe and learn techniques.
“We were trying to make sure that we were using evidence-based principles to teach, but those principles really are from learning in the English language,” she said. “So we kind of rely on the speakers to take that (teaching) into Cherokee eyes.”
CN citizen and mother Carolyn Swepston, who helps teach the class, said she is grateful for it.
“I hope to see it grow. We invite everyone. I think it’s important for families who want to learn Cherokee to support one another, and this is a good way to do that,” Swepston said.
Swepston is a second-year student in the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program and is working toward her Cherokee education degree at Northeastern State University.
“This is experience building for me,” she said. “I really enjoy it, and the kids really do pick up the language fast. They get excited about it. We try to make it fun, and I think they really enjoy it. It makes me happy to see them having fun learning our language.”
The one-hour class consists of two periods, the first period is for structured learning while the second period is for freeform learning.
“The first period is a lesson either about things like colors or numbers (or directions),” Lewis said. “There’s usually structured activities like a song or songs that children get to play and learn. And the second half is more an open period. They get draw what they want or draw what they learned from the day. The teachers go around and it’s kind of more freeform speaking of Cherokee.”
The teachers interact with the children and speak to them in Cherokee about what they are drawing. “The kids in the first part get a chance to learn words, and in the second half they get to just hear Cherokee in a more natural way,” Lewis said.
Lewis said evaluation of the class is based on parent feedback to make sure they are doing a good job for potential research study, apply for grants to expand the program and to eventually do a real study evaluation. “So this is just kind of providing a service and making sure we’re doing a good job of it,” she said.
Lewis said she hopes the classes lead to more immersion programs for children under 5 years of age.
“I hope that people will come and have a commitment for their kids to learn, and I hope there’s more programs in the future for all kids, especially more immersion programs,” she said. “This is just a start. We know that we can’t create speakers by doing one hour a week, but we wanted to provide some service and we hope that it will grow. If there’s immersive experience in the Cherokee language 0-5, then that’s enough to create a speaker.”
Classes are every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. through April 16 at the A Bright Start Development Center located at 509 S. Muskogee Ave. in Tahlequah.
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