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Transformative Computational Models of Narrative to Support Teaching Indigenous Perspectives in K-12 Classrooms

Melissa Tehee and Breanne K. Litts at Utah State University, and Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera at the University of Utah share more on their most recent NSF-funded RETTL project, Transformative Computational Models of Narrative to Support Teaching Indigenous Perspectives in K-12 Classrooms (#2119573; #2119630).

What is the big idea of your project?
This project aims to address the lack of representation of Indigenous culture, history, and stories in the classroom. It uses a community-driven process and is working to develop emerging narrative technologies from an Indigenous perspective to support teachers and classroom learning. Specifically, the project is trying to determine, at the computational level, how to create representations of Indigenous narratives that support an Indigenous knowledge system rather than a Western knowledge system. The project is also working to provide a VR experience or game that can be used by K-12 teachers who are less familiar with Indigenous history so that they are well equipped to implement the curriculum in a way that’s respectful and appropriate. The project staff is working in partnership with the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation (NWBSN) in Utah, and hopes to expand this work in partnership with many Tribal Nations over time. They are approaching this work at a “deep human level,” and are building on their previous work that examined biases that exist in the technologies that we use today.

What is unique about your project team’s composition?
A key component of this project is the truly interdisciplinary team that comprises it. The project team is composed of three principal investigators (PIs), Dr. Tehee, Dr. Litts, and Dr. Cardona-Rivera, and a Tribal Knowledge holder for the NWBSN, Darren Parry. This cross-disciplinary team has the potential to produce high-impact research that reduces bias in emerging technologies, expands representations of diverse knowledge, perspectives, and cultures in K-12 classrooms, and contributes to the field’s knowledge of community-driven design practices that promote equity. Dr. Tehee is a psychologist and brings her expertise in narrative and storytelling as a healing process with Indigenous communities. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Dr. Litts is a learning scientist and has been working with the NWBSN for four years, including on her NSF CAREER grant, and has both deep knowledge of and relationships with the community. She also brings her expertise in designing storytelling technologies for learning. Dr. Cardona-Rivera is a Puerto Rican computer scientist and has extensive expertise in narrative based computational modeling techniques, which he has also been exploring through his NSF CAREER grant. Councilman Parry is on the Tribal Council for the NWBSN, and often works with K-12 teachers, integrating Indigenous perspectives and American Indian history into curricula. He visits hundreds of classrooms a year across Utah and Idaho to share knowledge.

What are the guiding theories of your project?
Identity development, ethnocultural empathy, and perspective taking are significant pieces of this project. Dr. Tehee has been working with undergrads, but sees the benefit of starting at a younger age, when students’ identities and thinking isn’t as shaped. Dr. Tehee explained that the histories that people learn in school really impact who they develop to be, stating that “it is difficult to value things you can’t see.” She elaborated that without perspective taking and learning about these things, we won’t have a multicultural society that allows for other ways of knowing, thinking, or being. However, teachers often feel uncomfortable teaching a culture and history they don’t fully understand, and that they themselves often weren’t taught. Through this project, the team aims to address these pieces by making a sustainable emerging narrative technology for classrooms. They want Tribal Knowledge Holders to feel confident the technology accurately and appropriately represents their knowledge and teachers to feel comfortable using this technology so that Tribal Knowledge Holders, such as Parry, don’t have the burden of visiting hundreds of classrooms a year. The project team is working in close partnership with both the NWBSN and K-12 teachers in order to achieve this.

The team also described the two main ideas in which the project is rooted: rhetorical and technological sovereignty. These ideas involve having power and self-determination over the rhetoric and stories being told about you, as well as the technologies being used to tell those stories. They explained that for the Indigenous communities they work with, having the power to tell their own stories shapes their cultural identity and allows for healing. Further, when students in elementary school feel like they have someone in the classroom who understands their stories and perspectives, it makes a difference in how they experience the education system.

What do you mean by computational models of narrative technologies?
Another goal of the project is to influence how we think about developing software technology in general, especially where the intent is to meet the needs of a given community. As Dr. Cardona-Rivera explained: “Software implicitly expresses a model of a given domain. For example, Microsoft Word models document processing through the metaphor of a typewriter, expecting the author to structure their writing linearly, and immediately see how their content will be presented.” Other document processors (e.g., LaTeX) may follow a different metaphor. The challenge is that the computational models – the data and algorithms – that these software depend on are mostly invisible to the people that use the software.

As the team noted, in addition to being invisible, these models ultimately shape how a person engages with the software. Unfortunately, software technology is predominantly built around Western metaphors. This includes software narrative technology; applications that help people tell stories, like iMovie, Adobe Premier, and Lightworks. For the kind of positive impact the PIs want, they must unpack where current software narrative technology falls short of affording Indigenous communities the software capabilities they would need and want in order to best tell the narratives they wish to share. As Dr. Cardona-Rivera concluded: “Imagine if we could re-think the basis that this kind of technology depends on. What new stories might we be able to tell? That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

How does your project build and center community partnerships?
The project is rooted in two important existing partnerships established through the team’s previous work with Indigenous communities and K-12 teachers. As mentioned above, the partnership with the NWBSN was developed over the course of almost four years. The project’s multi-year partnership with K-12 teachers formed with support from a Spencer Foundation grant co-developing a curriculum that centers culture in the classroom. Through intersections of these projects, some of the Tribal Knowledge Holders involved have previously worked with these teachers in their classrooms, and a goal of the work is to deepen those relationships.

Dr. Litts and Dr. Tehee explained that this work would not be possible without these strong pre-established relationships. The community’s needs are truly at the forefront in driving the development of this work. They noted that their community and teacher partners brought the issues the grant addresses to them; this is in contrast to research where community voice is often secondary to the research questions or ideas that PIs have. Dr. Tehee expanded on this point by stating, “I’m doing research I couldn’t have predicted because it is guided by what the needs are, not my trajectory.” Dr. Litts added, “This new funding will support the needs our partners have right now. Specifically, the technology we will build through this work will support the preservation and sharing of culture in ways Tribal Knowledge Holders are asking for and K-12 teachers are telling us they need. This work represents our shared journey.”

To close, PIs explained that while this type of work can be challenging or uncomfortable at times, they are embracing the “mess” that comes along with the exciting possibilities that their project presents, noting that when working with humans, “we’re doing life as much as we’re doing research together.”

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