DSC01149-1by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon

As news stories about global climate change, the peaking of oil production, or the threat of major water shortages appear more frequently in the mainstream press, it is not surprising that concerns about the long-term sustainability of institutions associated with industrial civilization have become common.  Although national and global organizations have been involved with this issue since the 1970s, only in the past decade has the general public begun to attend to the degree to which our economy and way of life are vulnerable to the impact of human behavior on the natural systems that support our species.  The term, sustainability, has become part of our daily language, and even though it is now employed to justify the efforts of transnational corporations as well as environmental organizations, its use points to a growing awareness that humanity can no longer ignore the environmental consequences of our activities and decisions.

Preoccupied for over two decades with the challenge of raising test scores and overcoming the achievement gap, educators have been slow to grasp the curricular implications of broader trends that could unravel the very institutions they believe await their students upon graduation.  This is not to say that some educators and policymakers have not been attempting to raise the alarm about these issues for some time.  The United Nations, in particular, has sponsored numerous conferences and curriculum development efforts over the past few decades aimed at enhancing young peoples’ awareness of the environment and the rights of future generations to resources currently used with abandon.  In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has until recently underwritten a variety of educational efforts, and numerous states have incorporated environmental themes into their curricular standards.  All of these efforts deserve commendation, but it would be overstatement to suggest that they have begun to address the gravity of the challenges that lie before us.

Models of sustainability education are few and far between. Environmental topics are themselves the subject of controversy, and schools are structured in ways that often prevent teachers from engaging their students in activities aimed at developing dispositions and skills likely to support the formation of a more sustainable culture.  More challenging is the likely possibility that at the core of an education for sustainability must reside an ethical perspective about students’ interconnection with one another, future generations, and the planet.  From such a perspective could emerge the forms of action and restraint that support cultural practices capable of providing for human welfare but at the same time preserving the integrity of natural resources and systems.

Little in contemporary schools encourages the development of such connections.  Students instead are drawn into an institutional environment characterized by a preoccupation with individual performance and a curriculum that focuses primarily on the national and international.  The school day is organized in such a way that children have limited contact with the lives of adults beyond the classroom walls.  What they learn only intermittently deals with the substance of their everyday lives and the places where they live.  And within the context of their classrooms, the formation of long-term relationships with peers or teachers — the relationships that often serve as the basis of care and obligation — is given little thought.  Current efforts to downsize large high schools does reflect a growing understanding that student achievement is itself impeded by the absence of meaningful social ties, but there is little to suggest that this effort will result in the widespread adoption of an ethic based on a deep understanding of humanity’s fundamental interconnection with one another, other species, and the earth.

IMG_0223-1The STAR School outside of Flagstaff, Arizona is one of a handful of institutions striving to address these issues in an intentional way. Founded in 2001, this small charter school is becoming a model of both sustainability and indigenous education.  Its princpal, Mark Sorenson, served in his earlier career as administrator of the Rough Rock Community School and the Little Singer School, both located on the Navajo Reservation.  The Rough Rock Community School was one of the first Native American schools in the United States to create a curriculum that incorporated indigenous knowledge and perspectives. The Little Singer School continued this tradition, becoming a center of community activity and education, affirming Navajo culture but at the same time introducing innovative technologies, agricultural approaches, and social practices.  Throughout his career, Sorenson has sought to bridge Navajo and Euro-American cultures in ways that prepare students to interact with off-reservation society while at the same time grounding them in the integrity and beauty of their own traditions. The STAR School continues this work.

DSCN3430-1Currently enrolling about 60 K-8 students, the majority of whom are Navajo, STAR School activities are predicated on the Navajo value of k’e.  The term, k’e, denotes clan membership or kinship, referring not only to one’s blood relationships, but one’s relationship to all people and beings.  This sense of relatedness permeates all aspects of the school.  Located on 40 brush- and juniper-covered acres on the main road between Flagstaff and the reservation, the school can be identified by a blue tarp that covers an outdoor area behind its brown adobe-like buildings.  When Sorenson initially shows me around the school, he explains that the tarp is the school’s effort to replicate the traditional Navajo shade house, a simple pole structure roofed with loose branches that provides cover from the sun in Navajo land.  The outdoor classroom it provides serves to signal to students that the school is connected to architectural structures with which they are familiar.  From a child’s first sight of the school, he or she can see its relationship to their own community.

Sorenson goes on to say that the property on which the school stands was previously owned by a Navajo man who had allowed it to become covered with old machinery and refuse.  This is not atypical in reservation settings where trash collection may be unavailable and people have not yet adjusted to products that either biodegrade slowly or not at all.  One of Sorenson’s hopes is that people driving by the school and noticing the property’s transformation will realize that they can effect a similar transformation at the own homes.  Pointing out the small junipers that dot the property, Sorenson notes that buildings and paths have been sited to avoid taking out any trees. Later, a class of K-2 students describe to me the way that they are caring for a juniper on the property that was not thriving.  Clearly influenced by the school’s concern about vegetation, they have placed recycled cardboard on the ground around its trunk to increase the amount of moisture available to its roots.

starsoilresearchA little further on this tour, Sorenson points out compost pits similarly covered with cardboard.  When left in piles, plant and vegetable wastes in the Southwest’s climate dry up and fail to decompose.  Buried in the ground and kept moist, compost has a  chance to form and become a fertile source of nutrients and material capable of holding moisture and enriching the spare lava soils around the school.  Earlier in the year, students raised earthworms in garbage containers inside their classroom.  Finding that the worms were not doing as well as they had hoped, they relocated them in the compost piles.  The worms are now increasing in size and reproducing, thriving in their new setting.  Sorenson and his teachers are watching to see whether the worms begin to migrate into the soil adjoining the compost piles, bringing the benefits of their nutrient-rich castings.  There is also speculation about whether introducing soil cultures permeated with the mycorrhizal fungi encountered in compost might in time enhance the agricultural potential of the school’s gardens.  Ecologists have recently discovered that the indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest intentionally inoculated unproductive soils with samples from fertile ground to good effect, significantly increasing the productive capacity of the ecosystems in which they lived.  Perhaps buried compost piles could do the same thing in Arizona.  Engaging in this experiment, people at the STAR School are entering the dance between human beings and the earth that characterizes indigenous societies from South and North America to the Himalayas, a dance in which nature and humanity are not adversaries but convivial partners.

starchantealThis dance can also be seen in the way that students and their teachers are shaping gardens to make the best use of the Southwest’s limited rainfall.  Gardens are either sunken slightly in the ground or surrounded by stones that trap water.  All of these methods have been introduced by a Navajo gardener skilled in permacultural techniques. One of the central goals of permaculture is to create an approach to food production that requires little if any external inputs.  Ideally, this would mean that neither fertilizer nor irrigation would be necessary.  By exploring this innovative technique, the STAR School is opening up possibilities for agriculture that could potentially increase the range of vegetables available to people in this drought-prone region and enhance their food security.  With regard to architecture, land use, and agriculture, the STAR School is modeling a variety of activities that demonstrate its concern about maintaining and extending beneficial relationships with the land and the surrounding human community.

starSolarpanels1The STAR School is also experimenting with alternative sources of energy.  Surprisingly to an outsider, this region of Arizona is not served by electrical utilities.  People either live without electricity or produce their own.  Sorenson and his family have lived for a number of years on a small ranch five miles from the school.  They have become knowledgeable about the use of solar and wind power, and have brought their expertise to the school.  A sizeable array of photovoltaic cells has been built just to the south of the school’s gardens.  This array produces all of the school’s electricity, which is stored in a collection of batteries for days when the sun is not shining.  Although this system requires ongoing monitoring and adjustment, the school prides itself on being the only totally solar educational institution in the United States.  This technology, as well, provides a valuable learning opportunity for students.  Some are involved in its maintenance, and others design solar experiments that they then take to regional science fairs.  Parents have also become interested in solar technologies and are exploring the possibility of introducing similar systems for homes that are off the grid.

In a wide range of ways, the STAR School is modeling to its students and the surrounding communities cultural practices that exemplify a relationship with the natural world that is beneficial and sustainable. Some of these practices are grounded in traditions familiar to students’ home communities; others are new but reflective of the long-standing value of k’e and its implications for relationships between people and the natural world.  All embrace practices and perspectives that contribute to the sustainability of human communities in an ecosystem that demands from its inhabitants imagination and adaptability,

It is often easiest and less threatening to bring conversations about sustainability to a stop following a discussion of various technological innovations.  While such innovations are essential, they are unlikely to prove sufficient to the task of far-reaching cultural transformation that may be required of the earth’s current residents. This is where the human side of k’e becomes significant.  Environmental educator and writer David Orr has spoken about how the process of reversing the degradation of natural systems is not dissimilar from treatment offered to a person suffering from heart failure.  At the outset, every technological aid that can be enlisted to save the person’s life should be used.  The person’s long-term health, however, will require deeper changes in lifestyle.  It is these changes that will ultimately make the difference between an abbreviated life or one that approximates the human potential.  With regard to societies, communities that have learned how to balance their own needs with the needs of the environment have demonstrated that they are capable of persisting for thousands of years.

In such societies, people know that they will be cared for by their fellows.  Biologist Mary Clark argues that the capacity to participate in collaborative communities is one of the primary reasons that our species was able to survive the challenges of rearing helpless infants and children to the point where they could take care of themselves. Absent social relationships and support, our early human ancestors would have been unable to protect themselves and their offspring during the long years of maturation.  The need to belong to such communities, however, has been attenuated by a century of industrial and technological developments that have mediated the more immediate environmental challenges that threatened our forebears.  Privileged residents of the industrialized world now can leave their natal families and communities, move to distant places, and establish secure lives for themselves through participation in a market economy that offers insurance policies in lieu of familial and communal support. The notion that individuals need to remain conscious of “all our relations” as many North American indigenous peoples enjoin, has for many residents of the modern developed world become vestigial.

One of the consequences of this development, however, is that people have come to define security, itself, in terms of accumulated material wealth rather than membership in a stable community.  If, as many proponents of sustainability argue, the creation of an ecologically sustainable society requires a steady state rather than growth economy and the adoption of lifestyles characterized by thrift and simplicity, then the level of individual wealth recently encountered in the United States is likely to become a thing of the past.  To some extent, the increasingly bi-polar distribution of resources that has come to characterize the economy of this country during the past quarter century suggests that this is already happening.  People, however, are ill-prepared to reestablish the kinds of social relationships that once contributed to our sense of security.  As humanity’s relationship with the natural world needs to be mended, so does our relationship with one another.

The STAR School, with its emphasis on the value of k’e, provides an example of the way that this aspect of sustainability can be addressed in educational settings.  Sorenson’s service to the broader community as a Navajo peacemaker has helped him to understand the dimensions of this endeavor.  He speaks of the importance of placing what he calls the 4 R’s–relationship, responsibility, reverence, and respect— at the center of the school’s culture.  He notes  that “Respect is such a key element, especially when you are dealing with kids because so often [their] conflicts have to do with feelings of respect having been violated.”  Focusing on relationships and respect in this way contributes to a school environment that is safe and trusting, homelike in the best sense of the word.

To support this effort, the school has adopted the principles of non-violent communication to guide teacher’s patterns of speaking with students, one another, and parents.  This approach to communication (Rosenberg 2002) emphasizes the maintenance of compassion in dealings with others, even when conditions are threatening or interpersonally difficult.  Teachers at the school speak of the challenge of embracing a way of listening and responding that focuses on what is being observed, what they and the other person may be feeling and needing, and what they and the person(s) they are speaking with require to be satisfied, content, or happy.  By consciously setting aside a pattern of response based on defensiveness or attack, non-violent communication provides a means for sustaining rather than weakening connections between people.  Although teachers have yet to make the specific strategies associated with non-violent communication a regular part of their everyday practice in the classroom, the school’s willingness to adopt this approach speaks to the faculty’s and staff’s awareness of the impact that communication patterns can have on human interaction at the school.  When asked about what made the school unique for him, a teacher said:

“I just want to emphasize the feeling of warmth.  That’s very true, not only the way we treat children at the school, but the way we treat teachers and staff.  I always feel welcome here when I come, everyday. . . . We truly get to know each.  And on more than a professional basis: just knowing how we feel about things, how we think about things, taking that into account.  It’s very unique when I compare it to other jobs I have had.”

He was backed up by another teacher who observed:

“We really try to be honest about things, too.  When we have an idea about something or an opinion about something, we talk about it. . . . We actually say what we believe.”

When faculty and staff embrace this kind of communication with one another, they embrace an interactional style that sets a tone of openness and kindness that can then become the behavioral norm of an institution.

The STAR School also strives to affirm students’ relationship with their own communities, integrating into its curriculum multiple opportunities for students to serve others.  During the week of my visit to the school, for example, the third and fourth grade class visited the home of an older Navajo culture to help shear sheep. Earlier in the year, other students visited the homes of elders on the reservation where they distributed baked goods and helped with household chores.  In the spring, the K-2 students had taken offshoots of spider plants they had been cultivating, potted them, and then distributed the fledgling plants to other “grandmas” and “grandpas.” One of the most striking examples of this service ethic that I was able to observe involved the development of a plan to address the litter problem in Leupp, a reservation community 17 miles away that is home to the majority of the school’s students. The following excerpt from my fieldnotes describes the classroom discussion and work that led to the plan.

Sixteen third- and fourth-grade students, nearly all of whom are Navajo or part-Navajo, sit on the floor in front of their teacher. The teacher, Navajo herself, suggests that they begin the morning by chanting a poem entitled “We Say Nahasdzaan Shime” written out on butcher paper and posted on the door to the bathroom.  The children chant vigorously:

We say Nahasdzaan shime:

Earth, my Mother,

Even though she takes us daily

We will become part of her again

For we are her.

The earth is our mother.

The song continues for several more lines, and the children conclude it as strongly as they began.

After they have finished, their teacher asks what they can do to help Mother Earth.  One boy says that they can water plants in the small garden they have created outside the classroom door.  A girl says that they can sort the seeds they have been given by friends of the school.  Another student says they can make compost.  Then a boy talks about picking up trash.  A plastic bag filled with garbage had fallen from a passing truck by his home and split open.  In the relentless wind of the previous three days, trash had caught on brush around his house, and he had helped his family clear it away.

The teacher picks up on this suggestion, saying that she had noticed how much litter had collected on fences on the reservation between the school and the village of Leupp.  She asks whether students think putting up a sign will help.  They say, “Maybe.”  She then asks which people in Leupp they should talk with about dealing with this problem.  A girl raises her hand and says that her grandmother takes her and her sisters to the Chapter House — Leupp’s equivalent of a city council — to serve food.  She thinks that it might be possible for students to get on the agenda of an upcoming meeting.  The teacher thanks the students for their good ideas and indicates that they will talk more about this in the afternoon.

During the last hour of school, their teacher pulls students together after they have finished their work in the classroom’s literacy centers to continue the discussion they began in the morning. She says that students are going to engage in a “Think, Pair, Share” about the question: “How can we help Leupp deal with the trash problem?”  For two minutes, students pair up and discuss possibilities. When the timer buzzes, they redirect their attention to the center of the room and share ideas that include enlisting the aid of students at a school in Leupp, going door to door to encourage people to help pick up trash, telling stories about Old Leupp to show why the community is worth caring for, approaching a reporter from the Navajo-Hopi Observer to write an article about the issue, and giving people seed packets for trash.  The teacher says that one of the activity groups that afternoon will be called Community Helpers and develop a plan for helping Leupp. Other groups will sort seeds, pick up trash on the school ground, and water the compost and raised-bed vegetable garden.  After 45 minutes, the Community Helpers have written two versions of a letter to the school’s principal requesting permission to attend a Chapter House meeting in Leupp and a 10-step proposal for addressing the problem of trash in their home community.

This classroom scene demonstrates the way that students at the STAR School are being inducted not only into patterns of communication aimed at maintaining positive relations among themselves and their teachers; they are also being given the opportunity to act as responsible participants in the civic life of the school and their home community.

Such learning experiences are being encouraged through staff development activities associated with the work of Rolland Tharp (Tharp et al. 2000), an educational psychologist with extensive experience working with indigenous populations.  In the 1990s, Tharp and his associates established the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE) at the University of California-Santa Cruz. CREDE emphasizes the value of creating learning environments in which relationship building rather than isolation is the norm. Three of CREDE’s five instructional standards provide students with opportunities to form meaningful ties with one another in the context of the school’s academic program: learning through teachers’ and students’ joint productive activity, connecting school to students’ lives, and teaching through conversation.*  All of these standards are in evidence in the classroom activities described above.  What is surprising is how infrequent this kind of teaching and learning is in many conventional classrooms where teacher-centered talk dominates and student conversation is discouraged.  It is not uncommon, especially is secondary schools, for students to be unaware of the names of other students in their classes.  In such circumstances, the initiation and sustenance of relationships are given little considerations.

Also evident at the school is the frequent use of study centers. Because class sizes are small, students often learn in the company of three or four others either at stations that allow for independent work or close interaction between a teacher or aide and a small group of children.  When students are working at a station with no adult present, they turn to one another when they have questions or need assistance.  At stations with an adult, they receive direct guidance with skills related to literacy or numeracy.  At the STAR School, little instruction involves teachers lecturing or presenting information to an audience of passive children.  Conversation and interaction are ongoing, exactly the kind of social experience that forms the basis for sustained relationships.

One final aspect of the STAR School contributes to the cultivation of k’e.  Parents are more visible here than they are in many schools.  To begin with, a half dozen of the school’s faculty and staff members are the parents of students.  They include a teacher, an aide, the school’s secretary, cooks, and janitor.  For them, the school has become a vital part of the community, providing both employment and education. Furthermore, other parents and community members frequently visit the school.  One teacher observed that in places where he had previously taught the school was disconnected from the community.  “Here, it’s almost like teaching on stage.  The parents, they are always here. They are always looking at how you do things.  They always have comments to make to you about it.  It’s a discussion; it’s very open. It’s not like the teacher is over with the kids, and the parents are somewhere else.  They are here.” For a number of generations, Native American parents have been denied this kind of access to schools and teachers.  Relationships between indigenous families and teachers who served as agents of a contrasting culture were virtually non-existent or adversarial.  At the STAR School, parents — mostly Navajo — are co-partners in the education of their children, a situation that allows them to part of the broad circle of relationships the school is attempting to describe.  Here, service truly is to “all” relations, including the critical relationship students experience with their parents and extended families.

From a school climate characterized by interpersonal warmth to service learning projects that link children to their community, from instructional activities that encourage relationship building to the accessibility of teachers and principal to parents, the STAR School embodies educational practices that underline students’ connections to people both inside and outside the school.  Rather than functioning as an institution that isolates children from their natal community and its values, the STAR School helps to integrate its students into the broad kinship networks that link them to all people, beings, and things.

The formation of societies that are both socially and ecologically sustainable will likely depend on the induction of children into a deep recognition of their membership in an ever-expanding set of nested communities.  In the absence of this recognition, people will possess neither the sense of security nor the sense of connection to place required to move beyond two of the central compulsions of industrial society: the accumulation of material wealth and the domination of the natural world.  It is human alienation from social communities that compels individuals to assure their own welfare through participation in a competitive market economy.  It is human alienation from the natural world that leads people to exploit resources that rightly should be preserved for future generations and other species.

The Navajo principle of k’e exemplifies an understanding that may need to be reclaimed by residents of developed societies.  In blending aspects of both an indigenous and a developed society, the STAR School demonstrates how this task might be accomplished.  Central to its methodology is an emphasis on embodying in daily life and activities an ethical principle that supports the maintenance of relationships. Students are reminded by their teachers of the importance of caring for others, the earth, and their communities.  But more than injunctions must be incorporated if children are to be socialized into a society that protects its member, other beings and the earth, and their descendants.  The strength of the STAR School lies in the way that students are led to embody the value of k’e and to make it their own. If a sustainable society is to become a reality, human beings must learn to translate ideals into actions in the way that the Navajo students in this small school are learning to live responsibly in their communities and place.


Rosenberg, Marshall.  (2003).  Non-violent communication: A language of life. Encinitas, CA: Puddle Dancer Press.

Tharp, Rolland; Estrada, Peggy; Dalton, Stephanie Stroll, & Yamauchi, Lois A.  (2000).

Teaching transformed; Achieving excellence, fairness, inclusion, and harmony. Boulder, CO: Westview Press

GregorySmithGreg Smith is Associate Professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.