American Indian Boarding Schools | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2019 G6:M3

American Indian Boarding Schools

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Despite their painful and long-lasting impact, American Indian boarding schools are an often neglected topic of study. In Module 3, students are introduced to this topic, with the goal of amplifying long unheard voices and better understanding this critical time in North American history. Students read Two Roads, the story of a thoughtful and independent boy named Cal and his father “Pop,” who live as traveling “knights of the road” after losing their farm during the Great Depression. Cal faces a critical question of identity when he learns from Pop that, after a lifetime of identifying as white, he is, in fact, part Creek Indian. Cal’s father shares this revelation days before enrolling Cal at the Challagi Indian Industrial School while he travels to Washington, DC alone. Cal challenges the expectations of the school’s administration, develops close friendships with other students, and questions, explores, evaluates, and affirms his varying identities. To deepen their understanding of American Indian boarding schools beyond a literary context, students also read a variety of supplemental texts, including informational reports and first-person accounts of life at American Indian boarding schools. Together, these texts further contextualize the anchor text and illustrate a wider range of experiences.

In Unit 1, students read excerpts of the initial chapters of the anchor text, which serves as a “hook,” inciting student interest in the history of American Indian boarding schools. Students then develop their knowledge of the historical context of the topic by reading related informational and narrative supplemental texts. Students consider the purported objectives of American Indian boarding schools and compare these against the often far darker experiences reported by the students who attended these schools. Students then return to the anchor text at chapter 9, better equipped to contextualize the experiences of Cal, Pop, and Cal’s friends. Unit 1 assessments gauge students’ abilities to read critically and independently for the author’s point of view and for background information on the topic.

In Unit 2, students finish reading the anchor text. They demonstrate continued development of reading skills, tracking character growth and central ideas and themes in the Mid-Unit 2 Assessment using a new excerpt from the text. An additional supplemental text is included in Unit 2 to support connections across the anchor text and the historical context. At the end of the novel, Cal faces the decision of returning to Challagi school or staying with his father in Washington, DC. Students convey Cal’s vacillating perspective toward this challenging question through a narrative letter to Possum, focusing on just one of the possible outcomes. This narrative assignment, which has the option of being assessed for its appropriate and accurate use of pronouns and sentence variety (a second assessment targeting these skills is also available), helps prepare students for the argument essay of Unit 3. Some of the evidence and reasoning incorporated into these student narratives will be repurposed and strengthened in an argument essay for the Mid-Unit 3 Assessment.

In Unit 3, students revisit the Painted Essay® structure as they construct their own argument essays. In those essays, they grapple with the question of whether Cal should return to the boarding school or remain with his father, whom he has run away to find. Students first collaboratively produce an argument piece using a similar prompt to further prepare for their independent argument essays. Module 3’s performance task presents the culmination of students’ learning about and reflections on the American Indian boarding schools through the production of an audio museum exhibit. Students select an excerpt from a text written by a survivor of American Indian boarding schools; they then write a preface to situate their text within a historical context and a reflection to convey the personal impact felt by their chosen text. Students record their preface, text, and reflection independently, and then use an audio recording application program to produce a product that will be featured at a listening station as part of the audio museum and can be widely shared to uplift the voices of American Indian boarding schools.

Notes from the Designer

The anchor text, Two Roads by Joseph Bruchac, a fictional account of a Creek boy named Cal who attends Challagi Indian Industrial School, addresses complex issues of identity with sensitivity and inclusiveness. The supplemental texts examined in Unit 1 help to situate Cal’s experiences within a broader historical context and uplift other voices of survivors of American Indian boarding schools. In tackling issues of identity, race, and abuse, the texts examined across this module raise issues that may be upsetting, painful, or confusing for students. The design of this module aims to support students as they process sensitive or challenging passages. Across lessons, teacher notes describe specific passages that may be especially troubling for students and offer suggestions for helping students process the content of these passages with strength and compassion. Instructional decisions throughout the module, too, equip students with the literacy skills necessary to interpret the writers’ choices and responsibly challenge content with which they may disagree.

Position yourself as an expert on the topic by gaining as much background information as possible. Consider resources, such as "A Call to Action: Collecting, Preserving, and Sharing Boarding School Records" from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, for historical context and the importance of understanding and sharing the truth about this history by bringing forth the boarding school records.

Guiding Questions and Big Ideas

Why were American Indian boarding schools first established?

  • American Indian Boarding Schools were established to assimilate Native Americans into white American culture through education and erasure of Native American identity.

What kind of experiences did students have at American Indian boarding schools? How did these experiences impact students?

  • Students may have experienced forced aesthetic changes (e.g., their hair was cut and their clothes were changed), linguistic changes (e.g., they were not allowed to use their Native American languages), and identity changes (e.g., their names were changed).
  • Students may have experienced abuses or cruelty at the hands of the school's administration.
  • Students may have formed strong bonds with other students and exchanged tribal knowledge that actually strengthened their ties to their heritage (e.g., stomp dances, sweat lodges, language, oral tradition).

What factors influence our identities?

  • Our peers, our school, our families, and our experiences can affirm or threaten our identities.
  • Identities are dynamic and change in response to experience, awareness, and self-reflection.
  • Identities are complicated and conflicting, and tensions may exist among our different identities.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards and to be taught during the literacy block. The module also intentionally incorporates Social Studies content that may align to additional teaching during other parts of the day. These intentional connections are described below.

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • D1.5.6-8. Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of views represented in the sources.
  • D3.1.6-8. Gather relevant information from multiple sources while using the origin, authority, structure, context, and corroborative value of the sources to guide the selection.
  • D3.3.6-8. Identify evidence that draws information from multiple sources to support claims, noting evidentiary limitations.
  • D3.4.6-8. Develop claims and counterclaims while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both.
  • D4.1.6-8. Construct arguments using claims and evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the arguments.
  • D4.2.6-8. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with relevant information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanations.
  • D4.3.6-8. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations on topics of interest to others to reach audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).
  • D4.6.6-8. Draw on multiple disciplinary lenses to analyze how a specific problem can manifest itself at local, regional, and global levels over time, identifying its characteristics and causes, and the challenges and opportunities faced by those trying to address the problem.
  • D2.Civ.6.6-8. Describe the roles of political, civil, and economic organizations in shaping people's lives.
  • D2.Civ.10.6-8. Explain the relevance of personal interests and perspectives, civic virtues, and democratic principles when people address issues and problems in government and civil society.
  • D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.
  • D2.His.6.6-8. Analyze how people's perspectives influenced what information is available in the historical sources they created.
  • D2.His.10.6-8. Detect possible limitations in the historical record based on evidence collected from different kinds of historical sources.
  • D2.His.14.6-8. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.
  • D2.His.16.6-8. Organize applicable evidence into a coherent argument about the past.

Technology and Multimedia

  • Online word processing tool: Complete note-catchers. Students complete their note-catchers and compose their essays online.
  • Speech-to-text/text-to-speech tool: Compose essays. Increase writing fluency by allowing students to fill in note-catchers and compose essays using this function.
    • Many newer devices already have this capability; there are also free apps for this purpose.
  • Recording application: Showcase audio museum contributions. Audio record students presenting their audio museum contributions to share their work with other students and families.
    • Most smartphones and tablets have this capability; there are also free apps for this purpose, such as Vocaroo and Chirbit.
  • Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian: Build background on American Indian culture and experiences in boarding schools. Students can explore museum resources to broaden their knowledge of the richness and depth of Native cultures.
  • The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition: Build background knowledge on the purpose and generational impact of American Indian boarding schools. Students can gather additional personal narratives from those who experienced the schools firsthand.
  • QR code generator site: Create unique QR codes that can be downloaded and linked to online files/sites. Attach a QR code to each student's audio museum recording. Print them out and include them at the students' listening stations for guests to scan and hear the recording.

Refer to each Unit Overview for more details, including information about what to prepare in advance.

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions


  • Set up the audio museum in a public place for the school community to visit.
  • If feasible, host a live release of the audio museum. Invite students to co-present some of their selections aloud.
  • Take inventory of the books available in the school library focused on Native American culture and experiences. Evaluate for bias. Suggest titles the librarian or media center specialist may want to add.


  • Invite a representative from a nearby historical society or Indian reservation to further educate students on Native American history in the area.
  • Classroom Video Visits:
  • Review the Essential Understandings laid out by the Museum of the American Indian for their Native Knowledge 360° initiative ( to better understand how to present this module with accuracy and sensitivity.
  • Explore the many resources provided by the Smithsonian Institute specifically for educators (, including artifacts, online teacher professional development courses, webinars, and videos.


  • Research local exhibits centered on Native American history and arrange opportunities for students to visit and reflect upon exhibit material.
  • Look for local museums or reservations that provide education on Native American culture; contact them to arrange a visit or sign up for an education program.


  • With the aim of better disseminating information on American Indian boarding schools, invite students to participate in a library letter-writing campaign, encouraging libraries in and around their community to curate a robust collection of texts dedicated to the topic. Help students explain why this is important, as well as recommend specific texts that libraries can consider adding to their collections.


  • Curate a classroom library featuring stories of survivors of Native American boarding schools. Encourage students to engage with these stories across the module and keep track of voices that they would especially like to uplift during the performance task. See the Grades 6–8 Recommended Texts list for suggestions of books, articles, and videos on the module topic.
  • To prepare for the performance task, facilitate opportunities for students to explore audio storytelling through resources such as StoryCorps or The Moth. These resources feature transcripts, which may be helpful for drawing attention to features of oral storytelling, which students can replicate in their own contributions to the class audio museum.
  • November is National Native American Heritage Month ( Create a bulletin board or other public display within the school showcasing the learning from the module.
  • Watch the documentary In the White Man’s Image to integrate images with historical facts as you gain additional expertise on the module topic.
  • Explore other books by Joseph Bruchac, author of the module’s anchor text, for additional perspectives on the Native American experience.


Each unit file includes supporting materials for teachers and students, including guidance for supporting English language learners throughout this unit.


Each unit in the 6-8 Language Arts Curriculum has two standards-based assessments built in, one mid-unit assessment and one end of unit assessment. The module concludes with a performance task at the end of Unit 3 to synthesize students' understanding of what they accomplished through supported, standards-based writing.

Performance Task

Voices of American Indian Boarding Schools Audio Museum

Over the course of the module, students will have built a deeper understanding of early American Indian boarding schools and the experiences reported by the Native American students who attended them. These degrading and often abusive schools forced the acculturation of their students, aiming to erase tribal identities under the guise of education. The impact of these schools, though profoundly felt among the school's attendees, has gone largely unacknowledged in mainstream narratives of North American history. In this performance task, the Voices of American Indian Boarding Schools audio museum, students will act as witnesses to this time period by organizing an audio museum to highlight the experiences and amplify the voices of American Indian boarding school students.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts and resources that need to be procured. Please download the Required Trade Books and Resources Procurement List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
Two Roads
by Joseph Bruchac
one per student
ISBN: 9780735228870


Each module is approximately 6-8 weeks of instruction, broken into 3 units. The Module-at-a-Glance charts, available on the grade level landing pages, provide a big picture view of the module, breaking down the module into a week-by-week outline. It shows how the module unfolds, the focus of each week of instruction, and where the six assessments and the performance task occur.

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