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Motivating Young Minds

Cecelia Lucero, of Acoma descent, has a special approach to teaching young Native Americans. For nearly 30 years, the fourth-grade teacher has incorporated Native American beliefs, scientific research, music, and other educational tools into her classroom, especially in teaching science. Her former students, some of whom aspire to careers in science, consider her influential in their education.

Sparking Young Minds

Nowadays, you'll find Lucero on a break from teaching, cherishing time with her new grandson. But throughout her teaching career, Lucero has sparked young minds at Laguna Elementary School (LES) on the Laguna Pueblo Indian reservation, about 50 miles from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The school has been under the tribal system since 2003.

A longtime resident of Laguna, Lucero took a more mainstream approach to teaching during her first 10 years at LES. Students learned from books and answered questions, just as she had done in college. Over time, she found these techniques alone to be "mundane." "I learned this was not how a teacher taps into the different learning styles of children," she says. "Using only textbooks unmotivated the kids."

After attending educational workshops and conferences, she realized there were more captivating ways for kids to learn. Lucero became fascinated with brain research that suggested ways for her to make teaching more effective. These suggestions included having plants in the classroom "to oxygenate and detoxify the air for better circulation in the class," music in her lessons "to set a mood," aromas "for eliciting memory, especially when testing," and art on the walls "for stimulation and enrichment." She has applied these ideas for many years.

Lucero tries to be creative in all the subjects she teaches, but she has been especially motivated to help improve science education at LES. Lucero feels that there is not enough emphasis on science in classes at LES, and students typically have a poor showing in achievement tests on science and math compared to the national average.

To address this problem, she has devoted her summers and every other free moment to growing as a teacher. Lucero, who has a bachelor's degree in humanities and social science, has taken courses in science, language, math, and arts at nearby colleges, and delved into Japanese culture as a Fulbright Fellow. She has developed and begun using hands-on activities in the classroom. She travels widely, from Hawaii's Volcano National Park to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and updates her lessons with the discoveries she makes on each trip. In her classroom, textbooks serve merely as references.

In addition, because of her deep concern for the environment, Lucero created an outdoor classroom where children are taught how to observe the environment using monitoring techniques. The goal of her lessons: "to learn that there is an interconnectedness to everything in the environment."

Meeting Their Cultural Needs

Because LES often has more than 90% Indian students, Lucero has made it a point to include Laguna values and teachings in her lessons. "It's a way of building self esteem in the Native kids so they're learning about themselves," Lucero explains.

For instance, in teaching kids how the moon, sun, and planets travel in space, Lucero gives them the scientific explanation, but with an entertaining approach. She has her kids pretend they are these celestial bodies and shows them how to move around each other as Native American or Tibetan music softly plays in the background. She also recounts Native American legends on how these celestial bodies formed and how they move in cycles--important in Laguna culture. "Astronomy is central to the observances of the solstices and ceremonies in our tribe," she says.

With Lucero's Acoma traditions closely paralleling that of the Laguna people, it is easy for her to connect her students with their Laguna culture. For instance, many of Lucero's students through the years have primarily spoken English, while most of the older people were fluent in their native language of Keres. Therefore, she translates some lessons into Keres and encourages her students to use it, "so that it becomes their own."

Fruits of Her Labor

For her hard work in educating Native Americans, Lucero has become well-respected. In 2002, she received a Disney's American Teacher Award (now called DisneyHAND Teachers Award), making her among the first Native American honorees since the award began in1989. She was among 32 chosen from over 185,000 nominees.

Former students like Joseph Early, who now works as a Wildlife Inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Atlanta, Georgia, considers Lucero one of his favorite teachers. He describes her as an approachable and attentive teacher who makes a lasting impression. "She was a person who'd encourage anybody, regardless of what field you get into, that you could do it," Early recalls. "[She'd say], be proud of where you come from and then you can . . . be successful in living your traditional ways and nontraditional ways." Early, who received a bachelors degree in biological sciences, partly credits Lucero's teachings for making his dreams of working with natural resources possible.

Lucero feels honored to have influenced people's lives in a positive way. Her advice to parents on encouraging their children to love science: "You expose them to what's around them, and have them develop some knowledge base of what's around them. . . . Let them play in the sand, play in the mud."

Lucero herself wanted to be a horticulturist or a botanist when she was in high school. She was curious and admired plants whenever she ventured out with her father to collect firewood and work the farm fields. Her father shared with her how Acomas used native plants in their homes and for medicine, but ultimately, because she was Indian, she lacked support and guidance at her high school. She eventually did a 2-year stint with the U.S. Peace Corp as a teacher trainer in Jamaica, which led her to her chosen career.

When Lucero returns to teaching, she looks forward to testing her skills at a nearby public school. She intends to continue with her innovative approach, including some of her Native American teachings, even though there are only a few Native Americans in her class. "I really think that if you learn about other people, you become more aware of your own culture and the importance of your own culture. You also respect other people's culture," she says.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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