Honoring Truth & Visibility this Native American Heritage Month

Native American Heritage

Highlander Institute’s office is based in the state of Rhode Island, occupying the ancestral homelands of the Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples. This region’s Indigenous peoples and their time-honored traditions continue today and ought to be recognized and respected. We thank the original caretakers of this land and celebrate your strength, resilience, and legacy.

November is Native American Heritage Month, an opportunity to explore and elevate the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans. This designation was established to provide a platform for Native people to share their cultural traditions and for non-Native people to improve awareness and interrogate the dominant narratives about Native people that permeate our country’s history.

The fact that Native American Heritage Month coincides with Thanksgiving provides a chance to center Indigenous perspectives, voices, and stories as the holiday approaches. While schools often focus on the mythologized version of Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread together in peaceful fellowship, those of us who are non-Natives are responsible for digging into historical context, elevating realities, building awareness around our blindspots, and honoring the truth with students.   

For many, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest, commemorating the arrival of settlers in North America and the centuries of genocide and oppression that followed. Various Native traditional harvest celebrations significantly predate Thanksgiving, with themes of gratitude, human connection, and harmony with the environment; giving without expecting anything in return; and celebrating with feasts of indigenous foods such as turkey, corn, beans, and pumpkins. 

This November, let’s uplift Native stories, causes, and perspectives and work to disrupt the invisibility that represents a prevalent form of oppression against Native Americans. Here are some resources and activities to consider bringing to classroom communities this school year:

  • Elevate and discuss Thanksgiving messages from these Seven Amazing Native Americans
  • Explore Native American academics, activists, and scientists; make connections with your students’ identities and within your academic content.
  • Watch the Tending Nature documentary to apply lessons learned from centuries of Native peoples’ stewardship of the land. 
  • Research and support Native communities in your area. Invest in nonprofits and other organizations, like the Tomaquag Museum, which showcases the cultural heritage of Narragansett and Wampanoag peoples, among others, in the southeastern New England region.
  • Find the Indigenous history of the land you teach and learn on by using resources like native-land.ca
  • Honor the legacy of Indigenous women, like the ones featured in the Unladylike2020 webinar series.
  • Review and share The Reclaiming Native Truth Project about the challenges and opportunities Native Americans face in educating Americans and changing public perceptions. 
  • Use this month to learn, and develop ongoing ways to integrate Native experiences and perspectives into your classroom all year. 

As Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, states in an article from the Arizona Mirror, “There is no aspect of Native American history that has not been impacted by our tribal communities, which predate the state’s and nation’s founding by centuries. From military service to agriculture to the conservation of water and land, our tribes have always played a hugely significant role in shaping the world around us,” Lewis added: “Our heritage speaks to our defining ability to meet every challenge, to transcend even the most difficult circumstances, and to contribute to the fabric of this country.”

What non-Natives believe about Native Americans has been shaped by stereotypes, falsehoods, and half-truths. We hope this month sets the stage for questioning, building awareness, and changing these narratives throughout the year.

Beyond the Binary: Affirming Gender Identity with Our Students

Affirming Gender Identity with Our Students

At Highlander Institute, improving experiences for students is a critical part of our mission. Hearing the student perspective about what is working and what is not working in classrooms — including what may be causing harm — inspired the creation of our Student Experience Survey. Survey data is particularly valuable because it helps us unpack student successes and challenges in ways that go deeper than academic outcomes. In an effort to more authentically represent the insights of historically marginalized groups in our reporting structures, this year’s survey has our most comprehensive student demographics section yet, with an important question on gender identity.

The inclusion of this question and a robust selection of answer options have created a key discussion opportunity for us — both internally and with fellow educators — highlighting gender as an area for continued learning for our team. Education systems are frequently designed to categorize and analyze student data by grade level, race, FRPL status, ethnicity, language acquisition, and academic mastery, but as we scale the SES to schools, we are finding that adults can be underprepared to talk about gender beyond the binary. As school partners, we must be equipped to support all students, including our transgender and nonbinary students, as we collaborate to design learning environments that are empowering, relevant, and safe for everyone to show up as their full selves. When we don’t talk openly about gender identity as a spectrum, we shy away from uncovering whose needs are truly being met in our schools.

As we head into Transgender Awareness Week (November 13-19), we must center ourselves on an urgent reality: “42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth” (The Trevor Project, 2021). The pandemic has worsened many of the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ youth and cannot be ignored.

“Straight and cis is not the default. Let’s stop pretending it is.” – @queerivyart 

Like all social constructs, our experiences with gender are informed by context and the cultures we live in. The way that society understands gender today is deeply impacted by our history of racism — it is impossible to disentangle the two. By recognizing that we are all multi-layered people who each carry identities holding different levels of privilege, we can broaden our knowledge about how systemic inequities operate.

Much of our internal professional development has required our staff to question and “unlearn”. In a workshop I co-led on gender affirmation, my colleagues read book reports compiled by Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming writer, performance artist, and public speaker. These posts detail the Western historical invention of the gender binary (Vaid-Menon, 3 October 2021), how a socially imposed distinction between genders serves as a tool for White supremacist patriarchy (Vaid-Menon, 17 October 2021), and how claims made by White scientists and researchers removed the bodily autonomy of intersex children (Vaid-Menon, June 2021). This exercise underscored the power of the dominant narratives we accept as true, and inspired our team to continue to learn and unlearn with open minds — and then take action to better understand and support our students.

The Gender Constellation Activity from Authentic You is an early-age appropriate task that we can model as adults. As our team members participated by creating our individual gender constellations, we reflected on the feelings that came up for us through questions like: How might your gender identity and gender expression have changed since you were a child? What aspects of your constellation do you feel most comfortable sharing with others? Least comfortable? How can you leverage these ‘aha’ moments to become a better ally to students?

For so many of us, this work is deeply personal. I hope through conversations like this one, educators begin to make small shifts in their districts by recognizing growth areas, participating in workshops, and reflecting on instructional practice through the Student Experience Survey.  Although it will take time to change our school systems, by becoming more aware and having the power to make choices in our schools, we can create safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and families. We know that small actions can make a big difference. “LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year” (The Trevor Project, 2019). Let’s work together to be those accepting adults.


Queer Ivy Art. [@queerivyart]. (2021, January 16). I get a lot of comments saying that we’re brainwashing kids into being queer. Their assumption is that everyone is born cis and straight. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CKH90CLBpty

The Trevor Project. (2019). The Trevor Project Research Brief: Accepting Adults Reduce Suicide Attempts Among LGBTQ Youth. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Trevor-Project-Accepting-Adult-Research-Brief_June-2019.pdf

The Trevor Project. (2021). 2021 National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. West Hollywood, California: The Trevor Project. Retrieved from: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2021/

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, June 3). Book report: Histories of the transgender child by Dr. Jules Gill-Peterson (University of Minnesota Press 2018). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CPqqUAQrUuy

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, October 3). Book report: The biopolitics of feeling: race, sex, and science in the nineteenth century by Dr. Kyla Schuller (Duke University Press, 2018). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CUkka3pLoe9

Vaid-Menon, A. [@alokvmenon]. (2021, October 17). Book report: Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud by Dr. Thomas Laqueur (Harvard University Press, 1990). Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/CVIZybgrv6w

Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP): Research, Rationale, & Practices


“…we can no longer be victims, we can impact social change.” 

A 5th-grade student of a teacher we coach wrote these words as part of a project reflection. I keep these words on a post-it at my desk to remind me of the purpose of schooling: to inspire and support our students to become self-directed learners & empowered leaders who will transform their lives, their communities, and society. Through our work with his teacher, this child felt a sense of belonging to an academic community, learned to engage in productive struggle by working on his academic mindset, strengthened key cognitive skills, and developed his critical consciousness; that is, his ability to recognize systems of inequity and his commitment to promote justice. 

With all my heart, I believe this student will not only create a better life for himself, his family, and his community; but for all of us as a society so long as he continues to be inspired to develop these skills. This is our “why” at Highlander Institute. If we can support teachers and school/system leaders to design classrooms that nurture these skills, society will be better for all of us. This is why we are so excited to introduce an open-source resource to you all. Our team has been working to curate research and strategies around our instructional framework for public benefit, and we hope you will find value in exploring the rationale, research, and practices shared here. As always, we invite your feedback and input and hope you will let us know how you use these resources!

CRSP Framework Page

On this page, you’ll find the foundational theory of change supporting the CRSP Framework, a summary of each domain, and the corresponding teacher and student-level practices.

Explore the Framework

CRSP Research Base

Our CRSP Framework represents an innovative and thoughtful instructional model that centers students from marginalized communities. It offers a clear theory of change and a series of activities that promote equity and excellence for all students; it is also built on a substantial foundation of research. Over the past eight months, the Highlander Institute team has been exploring and curating research studies connected to all four domains of CRSP. Led by our superstar intern, Allison Singleton, this work has culminated in a nine page research overview that offers a significant evidence base and a strong connection to improved student outcomes across each of the CRSP domains.

Read More about the Research Base

Relaunching Our Spotlight Series

The evidence base informing the CRSP Framework is robust and inspiring. Each week or so, we’ll be sharing a closer look at one Teacher Practice through a reboot of our Spotlight Series! Every post will include a brief description of the practice and the why behind it, key research sources supporting the practice, and strategies for educators to make the practice actionable in their classrooms or school. This week, we’re launching the series with: Teacher Practice 1.1: Develop sociocultural awareness.

Click Here to See the First CRSP Spotlight

Malika Ali is a Managing Partner at Highlander Institute and the lead architect of the Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) Framework. She designs internal professional development for coaching staff and supervises program implementation across all classrooms, schools, and districts. As a daughter of strong and brilliant Eritrean refugees, Malika has spent her life critiquing systems that perpetuate educational inequity. She’s proud to be a part of the struggle to ensure that all children have access to, and can take advantage of, an empowering education. Follow her on Twitter @Malika_Ali.

Reflecting on Filipino American History Month through the Lens of CRSP

Filipino American History Month (FAHM).

October is associated with traditions and holidays that offer us a time to reflect on our shared history. It is, among many things, Filipino American History Month (FAHM). As we aspire to be agents of positive change in the education space, we are always working to build our sociocultural awareness. Examining the best and worst moments of how we as a collective got to where we are today is an important part of furthering our mission to imagine and create more equitable, relevant, and effective schools.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress established the annual FAHM recognition in commemoration of the “first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States on October 18, 1587, when ‘Luzones Indios’ came ashore from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California.” This year’s theme marks 50 Years Since the First Young Filipino People’s Far West Convention, which was held in 1971 at Seattle University and officially sparked the Filipino American Movement. If you’d like to learn more about Filipino American History Month 2021, click here.

50 years later, we hear echoes of what these young Filipino American activists were calling for – including ethnic studies and farmworkers’ rights – in the work we do with educators, students, and their communities. Through our Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) framework, we strive to leverage the identities of diverse learners to make learning more relevant and rigorous for all students, to nurture a community where all cultures are honored and sustained, and to design a future that celebrates multiculturalism. Ultimately, through CRSP, we can disrupt the impact of educational inequity and empower students to transform their own lives, their communities, and society.

Continuing to Build Awareness

As we deepen our knowledge of our community’s history, we broaden our understanding of who belongs in that community, who built it, and whose stories are worth sharing. Below are just two stories from Filipino American history, or in other words, part of U.S. history:

  • The Watsonville Anti-Filipino Riot of 1930
    • “For five days in late January 1930, mobs of mostly young, white men terrorized the Filipinos of Watsonville, California. They were beaten, robbed, and driven out of their homes. One Filipino man, Fermin Tobera, was killed. Out of the hundreds who rioted, only eight were finally arrested and convicted.”
  • Filipino Farm Labor Organization: A Lesson in Filipino Leadership
    • “On August 27, 1934, over three thousand Filipino field laborers joined white packing shed workers in a general strike against the Salinas Valley lettuce industry. The Filipino Labor Union (FLU), representing the field workers, requested a wage increase from thirty to forty cents an hour in addition to union recognition. Similarly, the Vegetable Packers Association (VPA), affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), demanded higher pay and improved working conditions.”
    • “Despite the increasing hostility against the strike, the FLU remained committed to its goals. After the VPA agreed to arbitration, effectively ending its participation in the strike, approximately 1,800 Filipino farmworkers stayed out of the fields until their demands were met. On October 8, 1934, the Monterey County Industrial Relations Board announced a settlement in the Salinas lettuce strike. In the end, the FLU received the requested pay increase as well as union recognition.”


Vera De Jesus is a Partner on our program team collaborating with schools and districts to elevate student voice and engage families in our work toward a shared vision. She is passionate about supporting agents of change through 1-on-1 and small-group coaching, professional development sessions, project management, and design team facilitation. Follow her on Twitter @VeraElianna.

LHRIC TLI Virtual Keynote Series

LHRIC TLI Virtual Keynote Series

We’re delivering a keynote in a series hosted by Lower Hudson Regional Information Center’s (LHRIC) Technology Leadership Institute. Member districts can register now to participate for free through the link below.

Keynote Title: Pathways to Personalization

Presenter: Shawn Rubin, Executive Director

Session Date & Time: Friday, October 29, 2021 from 2:00-3:15PM ET

2022 DCSC Annual Convening

We’re presenting! Register for the 2022 Annual Diverse Charter Schools Coalition Convening and join us for two dynamic workshops.

The theme of this year’s virtual event is Care, Courage, Commitment. Schools are experiencing unprecedented times alongside historical patterns of inequality and injustice. The DCSC 2022 Annual Convening will provide space for attendees to reflect on how to center collective care in intentionally integrated schools during our current moment. We will courageously confront persisting racism and disparities in educational access. And, together, we will reinvigorate our commitment to the mission of educational justice. Join us at #DCSC2022 as we continue to build the diverse-by-design movement.

Centering on Instructional Equity: An Overview of the CRSP Framework presented by Malika Ali 
  • Thursday, January 27, 2022 from 1:30-2:45PM
  • Friday, January 28, 2022 from 1:15-2:30PM