Connecting Culture, Environment & Education: White Swan Teacher Shares

Jennifer Tenney has lived in the Yakima area for the past 17 years, and has worked in education in the White Swan community for more than 10. The following is a Q&A with Mrs. Tenney, the 2018 ESD 105 Regional Teacher of the Year from Mt. Adams School District.

Tell us about your school.

Our student body is around 60 percent Native American and about 35 percent Hispanic/Latino. It’s a rural school district, located near Mount Adams in the Yakima Valley. Because our school is on a reservation, we are unique in that teachers may not necessarily live in the community for lack of housing.

I teach algebra and I have taught grade 3, 7, and 8.

Do you have any favorite age groups to teach?

I enjoy teaching all students, but I really like teaching eighth and ninth graders. These students are just on the cusp of trying to become high schoolers, but not there yet. The ninth graders are making that transition into high school. It’s exciting.

Jennifer Tenney, 2018 Regional Teacher of the Year, ESD 105

As a district, we have put a lot of energy into helping our ninth grade students be successful. They are coming into a whole different way of acting in education. In elementary, they seem to move forward in a way. The majority of our kids come to us below grade level, we need to make them successful for the future. We focus a lot on freshman seminar, and the combination of learning study skills and a growth mindset.

I find that sometimes it’s okay for our students to struggle a little. It’s learning. Often students feel themselves struggling and their answer is giving up. We need to teach them the resiliency to keep going.

Tell us about some of your challenges.

Attendance is a challenge for us. We are working on that with our community. We have to find ways to understand that there are cultural norms in our student’s lives that carry great significance. Sometimes these this can interfere with what we expect out of school.

In the spring, a lot of our Native American students go to the mountains to dig roots and gather for the spring feast. This is an important cultural moment that has to happen, and should happen. There’s a lot of learning happening that isn’t traditional. We still have to look at the significance of that cultural impact.

Another challenge is the language barrier that we sometimes encounter as nearly 65 percent of our students come to us with language acquisition deficient, according to WELPA21.

In Native American culture, words can be used differently. I like to say, there is an economy of words in Native American languages. That might be a challenge they face when they enter a school that was designed for white American middle class students.

For example, silence is sometimes interpreted differently with my Native American students. Where popular American culture gives weight to the “awkward silence,” I have learned that just because my student doesn’t answer, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t thinking or learning.

Do you have any success stories from your work?

A few years ago, my Superintendent came to me and said, “We have a new grant requirement and it is that 55 percent of eighth grade students are enrolled in high school algebra. We want you to teach them.”

I resisted at first. I thought this is never going to be successful. Most of my students were below grade level expectations at math.

I thought, I need to be positive! Every day, I tried in new ways, I used music, we sang a song, “math is great, better than chocolate cake.” I told my students, “There is not a person sitting this classroom that cannot pass this End Of Course (EOC) exam. The more I said it, the more they believed it.

I had 29 students, and 20 of them passed! The next year, the remaining nine passed. I learned that we get caught up in the deficit of students, we don’t believe enough. Somebody said, “as a teacher, it is not my caring that helps students, it’s my believing that helps the students.” Sometimes we care so much, we don’t push them, but my big realization came when I finally pushed my students.

Images from Jennifer Tenney’s Mount Adams math lesson.

How does your school celebrate Native American culture?

We do a lot in our history and social studies classes, we have Yakima culture class where they do beading and talk about the history of Native American culture. We have an instructor that teaches a Sahaptin class. We also have two Native American teachers that graduated from White Swan themselves and have come back to teach in our community.

In my classroom, it’s important to me and the students are making connections to their culture and environment, even in math that can be done. For example, I was able to use a photo of Mount Adams, a landmark that is very significant in our community. Using this image, I was able to teach graphic math concepts like slope. They can then see math in their environment. To me that’s important.

We as teachers should consider the culture of our students and be able to connect it to their education.

For more information about Jennifer Tenney and all of this year’s Teachers of the Year, please go to

Be on the look-out for more guest articles featuring Teachers of the Year!

For more information on Washington’s tribal sovereignty curriculum, “Since Time Immemorial,” check out the latest Medium post about it here:



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