An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider what ‘success’ means by looking at the attitudes of the Navajo people.
Preparation and materials
You will need a leader and three readers, who should practise the script prior to the assembly.
Note: although there are four speakers in the version of the assembly below, this could be extended if more would like to take part.
- More information about the Navajo people is available at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navajo_people
Leader: Today, we are going to tell you a story and then ask you some questions about what you think of it. It’s an anecdote about someone who had a problem to solve - quite a tricky one.
Reader 1: As we tell you this story, we want you to try to work out what you would have done if it had happened to you. The story goes like this . . .
Reader 2: A newly trained teacher - her name was Miss Johnson - got her first job after university, teaching at a Navajo reservation in the USA.
Reader 3: The Navajo people are the largest Native American tribe in the Southwest of the USA. They are a proud people from an ancient culture that has long-established traditions. They have their own ways of doing things, but also have to fit into the American way of life.
Leader: The new teacher was looking forward to starting work at the Navajo reservation school.
Reader 1: On the first day of term, Miss Johnson met her young students. The first lesson she taught them was Geography, which went very well. The students enjoyed it and Miss Johnson could tell that they were intelligent and eager to learn. However, when she started teaching them Maths, she suddenly ran into difficulties.
Reader 2: Miss Johnson stood in front of the class and explained how to do a particular sort of mathematical calculation. Everything was going well until she wrote three problems on the board and asked three students to come up and solve them.
Reader 3: The three students stood at the board, looking very uncomfortable and whispering to each other. Miss Johnson waited for a while and then asked them to tackle the problems on the board. She was very surprised when one of the students spoke up and explained that they couldn’t solve the problems. Very embarrassed, they sat down at their desks.
Leader: Miss Johnson patiently explained the calculation to the class once again and asked another three students to walk up to the board and solve the problems. These three students also looked embarrassed and just stood there, silent and unwilling to complete the task. Miss Johnson tried to help and encourage them, but they said that they couldn’t solve the problems either.
Reader 1: Miss Johnson was glad when the class came to an end. She went to the staff room and mentioned the situation to a member of staff who had been teaching at the school for many years.
Reader 2: Miss Johnson said, ‘While I was explaining the calculation, most of them seemed to understand it, but as soon as I asked them to solve a problem, they couldn’t do it. I don’t understand it - they are very bright students. Am I doing something wrong?’
Reader 3: The older teacher smiled knowingly and said, ‘Yes - you are asking them to do something that they could never do. It would be impossible for them to solve the mathematical problems under those circumstances.’
The speakers should now address the audience directly.
Leader: What do you think Miss Johnson was doing wrong? Got any ideas?
Reader 1: Had she come up against a class who were hopeless at Maths, or was it more complicated than that?
Reader 2: Was she about to learn that Navajo children can’t think while they’re standing up?
Leave a moment for the audience to consider these possibilities.
Reader 3: The older teacher explained Miss Johnson’s mistake. In Navajo culture, children are taught to respect each other’s individuality. It’s very bad manners to injure a person’s sense of self-worth.
Leader: This is what had happened . . . When the students went up to the board and whispered to each other, they were trying to establish that all three of them understood how to do the calculation and would get correct answers.
Reader 1: One of the three admitted that he didn’t understand the maths and would probably not be able to get the right answer. Therefore, the other two couldn’t try to solve the problems on the board because it would mean that the other student would look stupid in front of the whole class!
Reader 2: Even at their early age, they understood the senselessness of the win-lose approach in the classroom. They believed that no one would win if any student was shown up or got embarrassed at the board, so they refused to compete with each other in public.
Reader 3: It’s important to remember that all of these students wanted to learn - but not at someone else’s expense. The Navajo don’t believe in win-lose situations, where someone looks good and someone looks bad.
Leader: It was more acceptable to them for them all to fail than for one of them to be embarrassed. That’s very different from our culture, where winning is often at the expense of someone else.
Reader 1: Miss Johnson was surprised to learn that she had put the students in an impossible situation. However, the older teacher reassured her that it was a completely understandable mistake, given that Miss Johnson knew next to nothing about Navajo traditions.
Reader 2: So what do you think Miss Johnson did? She changed her method of teaching so that she could check each child’s maths problems individually. That way, if there were mistakes, the student would not be embarrassed.
Reader 3: Are there times when you are in competition with your peers? Do you like that?
Leader: Have there been situations where one of your peers couldn’t answer a question and was embarrassed? How did you react?
Reader 1: Did you try to help them or did you just snigger because they were in trouble? Come on, be honest.
Reader 2: Has the same thing ever happened to you? Have you ever been put into an embarrassing situation? How did that feel? Did you like it? How did it feel to know that someone was laughing at you?
Reader 3: The Navajo people like to share success, but they also share failure. In our society, we tend to do it differently - we are happy to share success, but failure often doesn’t get the same response. Do you think that’s fair?
Leader: How would you feel if our society preferred win-win situations, like the Navajo school students preferring to keep quiet rather than embarrass one of their peers? Would you prefer that culture?
Reader 1: Are you the sort of person who is willing to share successes as well as failures?
Reader 2: What do you think God feels about sharing success and sharing failure? Do you think God has a preference for win-lose situations or for win-win situations?
Reader 3: Complicated questions, aren’t they? But maybe this is a good time in your life to work out what sharing success really means.
Time for reflection
Reader 1: We’ve been thinking about Navajo Native Americans today, so we’ll finish with a traditional Native American blessing. It compares the different qualities of trees with human virtues.
Reader 2: Let’s spend a few moments thinking about the qualities mentioned here. Can you achieve these qualities as you go through today?
Reader 3: The prayer goes like this.
May you be as strong as the oak,
yet flexible as the birch;
May you stand as tall as the redwood,
live gracefully as the willow;
And may you always bear fruit
all your days on this earth.
Allow the students to stay quiet for a few moments, and then bring the assembly to a quiet, calm close.
You may wish to play quiet, reflective music during the assembly.