Back to Blog

My First Year of Teaching on the Navajo Nation

This blog is written by NCTE student member Evelyn Begody. 

Charley the Navajo Scout
Charley, Navajo Scout under Lieutenant Guilfoyle or Lieutenant Wright: Photograph by Ben Wittick. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative no. 015933

Since I was a late hire, my first day of teaching was a mad scramble for reading selections. I chose Steinbeck and Shakespeare and depended much on an anthology.

When I collected and read the class reading surveys, I learned that most of my Navajo students had not read a book from cover to cover. I chose Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley as our first book because the bookstore had plenty of copies. I also learned that my students’ reading levels were on the low side, so I decided that we should all read together aloud because I saw no other way that we could all finish together. Some reading gurus discourage group reading because of the boredom factor, but in the deepest of trenches where reading is the barest of habits, this is the only way. My students were struggling.

No one dozed off. Everyone had a copy of the book, and we took turns reading. Keep in mind that my students were not sophisticated readers. However, like sophisticated readers, they recognized good writing. They were sorely disappointed when Steinbeck raced through Arizona and slept that evening in the outskirts of Gallup, New Mexico. I still recall the indignant “What?!” that echoed in our classroom. We also read Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, and As You Like It. I admit that during my first year of teaching we chose readings that I believed would make sense and would impact my students, but I was guided by the humble contents of our bookstore.

In the end-of-the-year reading survey, my students’ favorite books were ones that we had read together. Later we read Joy Luck Club, Yellow Raft in Blue Water, and Where the Heart Is. My students don’t have many Native literary role models, and I was probably the only Navajo English teacher they knew. That means something.

Evelyn Begody, in her 22nd year of teaching high school English on the Navajo Nation, devotes much time to reading and writing. She loves hiking, Greek salads, her four children, her husband, and reading—but not in that order, of course.