GREAT FALLS – Following the start of second semester, Great Falls High School (GFH) is not only rebuilding its physical appearance, but also remodeling a part of its curriculum.
For the first time in the school’s history, GFH is offering an American Indian Studies class, aimed at discussing topics ranging from current events affecting Indigenous peoples to major milestones in Native American history. While the class is currently in its pilot phase, school officials and district administration plan to fully launch it in the fall.
Although the course has been taught at Paris Gibson Education Center for the past two years, this expansion denotes the latest attempt by Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS) to broaden and enhance the district’s focus on Native American history and culture. Taught as an extension of Indian Education for All (IEFA), American Indian Studies expands upon the school district’s mission to “recognize the unique and distinct cultural heritage of Montana’s first peoples by learning about American Indian culture, history and contemporary issues in a culturally responsive manner.”
The class is being offered at GFH for one period per day during the second semester of the 2018-2019 school year. Future prospects of American Indian Studies will depend in part upon the ability of students and teachers to communicate a need for it — just like Instructor Jordann Lankford-Forster has.
“I think it’s really important for everybody to have access to this information,” Lankford-Forster said.
A member of the Gros Ventre and Little Shell Tribes, Lankford-Forster currently serves as the district’s IEFA instructional coach and immersion teacher, and has been the driving force behind instituting American Indian Studies at Great Falls High. Throughout the district, she is responsible for “creating lessons and supporting teachers with their Indian education content in their classrooms. ”
Lankford-Forster previously filled the role of American Indian Academic Achievement Coach for GFPS, was the 2017 Montana Indian Education Association’s Teacher of the Year, and earned the Governor’s Award for Excellence for her work with the statewide initiative Graduation Matters in 2015. Her dedication to seeing students of all backgrounds benefit from Indian education is obvious.
“‘Indian Education for All’ means for all, so that means students from every ethnic background [who] just want to learn about the material,” Lankford-Forster noted. “And we have a very diverse group of students — it’s not just Native students. It’s been very enjoyable to have a different crowd, because you get different perspectives and really good conversations.”
And Lankford-Forster has tried to keep that momentum going, by making attendance flexible for students with busy schedules.
She explained, “We also have begun offering this class on the weekends and in the evenings for students who can’t make it during the day because they are attending their other high school; students can attend [those] for credit.” This motivation to work long hours and extend the course’s scope has stemmed from Lankford-Forster’s favorite part of instructing the course: the response of her students.
“The thing that’s been the best part of this class so far is that the students are so engaged,” she said. “They are really excited to answer questions and be involved in our class participation, which shows me that they are excited about this information, too.”
Senior DeShaun Keeble is one of those students. As part of the Sioux, Chippewa, and Oneida Tribes, he decided to add the course to his schedule because he “wanted to learn about [his] heritage.”
“I wanted to learn more about the problems that Native Americans face today, and some of the epidemics that are going on within their culture,” Keeble said. He added that he feels lucky to be a a student at GFH, because there are “other places that don’t emphasize Native American education as much as Great Falls.”
And Lankford-Forster, the teacher with whom Keeble describes he “meshes well,” has played quite the role in shaping that reality for her kids. Through her efforts, she hopes to make one truth abundantly clear.
“The things that are going on in Indian Country today are very relevant to a lot of our students’ lives,” she said.