“It’s a matter of applying yourself.” These were the words of Tylis Bad Bear when asked how he intended to take 13 three and four year olds who had never been in school and get them ready for Kindergarten at Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy either next fall or in the fall of 2017. To be sure, Tylis is a young man with passion and a very tender heart for the children under his charge.
Backing up, the concept of beginning a pre-school program in Lodge Grass on the southern side of Crow Indian Reservation has been discussed for the past several years. One reason to do so, is to have the students ready for the academic challenges they will face when they begin at Pretty Eagle, some thirty miles distant. Another reason is simply that Lodge Grass has fallen on hard times over the past few years in many ways, not being able to provide quality education one of them.
Ivan Small, Director of St. Labre Schools, also discussed the need for this program “ We want the kids to begin learning all of the protocols that go into providing quality education and at the same time, give them an opportunity to learn their language. We know these two goals go hand-in-hand.”
Which is true: educational research points to the fact that children who learn second languages invariably do much better academically than their monolingual counterparts. Of course, this research has evolved over time. When Native American children first began attending government and religious school toward the end of the 19th Century, the thinking was to deprive them of the use of their language and force them to speak only English, something that Native people still decry today.
As for Tylis and his co-teacher, Alfretta Jefferson, they both pursue the goals of the program as they have been outlined by St. Labre. The students were instructed about paying attention, and answering when spoken to, lining up correctly and showing respect at all times. Later, they filed into the church, where they were invited to pray for loved ones. At the end, they repeated the Lord’s prayer after Tylis.
Tylis brings an interesting background to the position. Recently, the Montana Legislature passed a law that makes it possible for Native Americans who teach their tribal languages to become certified through the Montana Office of Public Instruction. He is one of a handful of Native teachers in Montana who possesses this certification. When asked how he became so fluent in the Crow language, he related his story:
I grew up in a home where Crow was not spoken much. My parents can speak it, but they don’t use it unless they have to. They always encouraged me to use English in their presence. For me, however, I have always wanted to learn Crow. With encouragement from my grandfather, I began to attend cultural events at an early age where I would sit by the hour and observe and listen. Over time I began to participate and began to converse in Crow. You might say I am self-taught in the Crow Language.
A young man in his twenties, the manner in which Tylis came to fluency in Crow is remarkable and singular. Very few young people speak the language these days, and the ones who do invariably grew up in home where it was the primary language.
According to Tylis, this position is like a dream come true for him. “I believe I know what will work with these little children,” he observes. “They need to have fun here while they learn. I believe in teaching not preaching. And teaching means being an encourager.”
He adds that most of the students’ parents aren’t very cultural, but the program is designed to include them. They are encouraged to visit school and also to assist their children at home with their lessons.
As one observes the dynamics and interactions in the classroom, it becomes obvious that even after a short time, Tylis is putting his ideas into practice, and the kids are loving it.