Teaching in Cherokee - from the earliest years, words and pictures make language come alive

Certified teacher Rainy Brake learned Cherokee as a second language after she began teaching elementary classes at New Kituwah Academy six years ago. She works alongside Louise Brown, who is fluent in Cherokee. In the beginning, Brake interacted very little with students. She took the student quizzes and did projects alongside them to become more fluent.

Now, however, she's animated in class. On a recent morning when an Associated Press reporter was visiting, Brake raised her arms and used her voice dramatically to teach a kindergarten class about snakes in South America as they used construction paper to make anacondas. Here are excerpts from the session, taken from an audio recording translated by Brake:

"My name is Rainy," she says, first in Spanish, then in Cherokee. She tells the children her name in Spanish sounds like the word for soap. The kindergarteners find that hilarious.

Except for Brake giving her Spanish name, she and Brown conduct the rest of the class in Cherokee.

"This is a rain forest," Brake says, reading from a book.

"What is 'rain forest?'" asks Brown.

"You read it" Brake instructs, and the children read together.

"What is 'agasgi?'" asks Brown.

"Dance!" says one child — but the answer isn't right.

"Water going down," Brake says, correcting the answer.

"It is always wet in a rain forest," Brown says. "Outside it looks warm, but it is always wet."

"This is called the 'Amazon,' Brake says. "It is a very big forest. And these are Native Americans. This is their home. Are they the same as Cherokees?"

"No," the children reply.

"And there, this is a canoe," Brake says. "This is a long canoe."

"That is long!" the children say, gasping.

"Look here. Do you know this picture?" Brake says. "This is the South American natives' blow gun. But, this is the Cherokee blow gun."

"Are they the same? Who has made one of these?" asks Brown.

"I have! I have!" the children chorus.

"Whose dad or granddad has made one of these?" says Brown.

"My father made one!" says one child.

"My mom made one," says another.

"OK, here are South American animals," Brake says. "What is this one?"

"A big snake!" the children reply, gasping again.

"That's right. It's an anaconda."

"Anaconda," the children repeat.

"A big, long, snake," Brake says. "What do snakes say?" The kids hiss.

"This will be your snake," Brake says, passing out paper. "First, choose your color. Hmm, I think mine will be green first. Here, just a bit of glue. Do you see it? And here, we make a circle. Now in this circle — "

"Oh, I know how to do this!" says one child.

"You know how? Great," Brake replies.

Together, they cut out paper and paste together their snakes.