California teacher placed on leave after mimicking Native Americans during math class – The Denver Post

A student’s video of a Riverside teacher wearing a faux Native American headdress and dancing in front of her math class has gone viral and sparked calls to fire the instructor and halt teaching tactics perceived as disrespectful to some cultures.

In the video, which hit social media Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 20, and blew up on the internet, the John W. North High School teacher — who was placed on leave — appears to be sharing with students the word “SohCahToa,” a mnemonic device used to help students remember advanced mathematics concepts.

Community leaders, educators and former North High students blasted the teacher’s behavior as racially insensitive.

“It’s essentially mockery is what it is — racial mockery,” said James Fenelon, director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at Cal State San Bernardino.

Apparently, this wasn’t a first occurrence. A 2012 North High yearbook contains a picture of and quote from the same teacher, using the same teaching tactic, according to a North alumnus who graduated that year.

As the video begins, the teacher asks students: “I don’t know? Tomahawks? Is that right?” while moving both arms up and down, as if she were chopping something. She dances across the front of the classroom, as some students laugh, repeatedly chanting “SohCahToa.”

As the video closes, the teacher pretends to be exhausted and says: “I get to go home and I get all of my feathers,” before touching the faux feathers on her headwear.

“SohCahToa” is a mnemonic device to help remember three basic trigonometry ratios “used to solve for missing sides and angles in a right triangle,” according to Calcworkshop.com.

Fenelon, a Lakota-Dakota scholar and professor, said the teacher may have been trying to help kids remember something but that doesn’t excuse how the lesson was presented.

Riverside Unified School District spokesperson Diana Meza confirmed the video shows a female math teacher at North teaching trigonometry. The district put out a statement Thursday morning, Oct. 21, statement decrying the lesson.

“Obviously this video has gone viral,” Meza said. “It’s not who we are as a district, nor as a school … RUSD prides itself on valuing diversity and equity.”

Meza declined to name the teacher, citing the privacy of personnel matters. The instructor has been placed on administrative leave, and the district has launched an investigation, Meza said.

The district is offering counseling to North students and has been notifying parents about the incident, she said.

In a social media post, North High Principal Jodi Gonzales said the teacher’s “actions were marginalizing, especially to Native Americans.” School counselors will work with students “to restore their trust in our team,” Gonzales wrote.

Laura Boling, president of the Riverside City Teachers Association, which represents district educators, said in a statement that, while the teacher “may not have intended to cause harm, we are disappointed by the insensitive and inappropriate behavior.”

At the same time, Boling wrote that, as the investigation proceeds, the association will work to ensure the teacher is provided “due process.”

The video brought swift condemnation from some Inland state lawmakers — Assembly Members Jose Medina, D-Riverside; Sabrina Cervantes, D-Corona; and James Ramos, D-Highland — who called the teacher’s actions “highly inappropriate and offensive.”

“It is damaging and disheartening to see Native American and indigenous culture represented in such a trite and insensitive way,” their statement said.

The lawmakers cited the recent signing of a Medina bill that will make ethnic studies a required course in California high schools.

“Unfortunately, for students of color, moments such as the one at John W. North High School are the few in which their heritage is represented in the classroom, despite how inaccurate and wrong they are,” the lawmakers said.

The lawmakers said they will work with the district to make sure “incidents like this never happen again.”

Medina is a former teacher at Riverside’s Poly High School and Ramos, a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County, is the first California Native American to serve in the state Assembly.

After seeing the video, Riverside resident Kim Kirkpatrick, a 2012 North High graduate, said she pulled out her senior yearbook and found a photo of the same teacher. There was a caption saying the teacher was “dancing from one end of the room to the other” and wearing “an Indian headdress to emphasize geometry basics,” Kirkpatrick said.

The yearbook quotes the teacher as saying: “I find that if I tell them a story using math along the way, it’s like a memory device! It just may stick with them forever.”

Kirkpatrick said she was “really shocked to see a large picture of her doing exactly what she did” in the video.

Bertha Perez, whose daughter is a North sophomore, said she hopes the video will halt such behavior.

“What this teacher has been doing, she has been doing for a long time,” Perez said. “Not only was it excused, it was celebrated.”

The tactic should have been called out years earlier, Perez said.

Fenelon said the tactic might not have been called out now, either, had the student who filmed the dance decided not to do so, or not to share it.

“How much of this is going on in our classrooms right now?” he asked. That’s a question for which the answer is unknown, he said, but such things are coming to light because “a kind of heightened consciousness has arisen.”

Some area residents came to the teacher’s defense.

Riverside resident Dick Hoss wrote in a social media post that the video is an issue only because the teacher is White. Hoss said she was “teaching creatively.”

“She didn’t cross the line, the line crossed her!” Hoss wrote. “I stand with her, this isn’t culturally insensitive or meant to be demeaning in any shape or form.”

Cecelia Cavanaugh, of Riverside, wrote that she didn’t think the teacher was “intentionally trying to ‘make fun’ of the culture.”

“I think this day and age people are so sensitive,” Cavanaugh said.

The video caught the attention of a national, Native American-led, nonprofit group based in Oklahoma.

Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative and a member of the Pawnee Nation, called the teacher’s actions “incredibly harmful to Native youth.”

“This incident underscores the importance of making Native peoples visible in modern society, especially in the classroom,” she wrote.

As for the school district’s statement, it said: “A recording of one of our teachers has been widely circulated on social media. These behaviors are completely unacceptable and an offensive depiction of the vast and expansive Native American cultures and practices. Her actions do not represent the values of our district. The teacher has been placed on leave while the District conducts an investigation.”

The statement says the district “values diversity, equity and inclusion, and does not condone behavior against these values” and “will be working with our students, families, staff and community to regain your trust.”

“SohCahToa” was trending on Twitter on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

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