Lesson Plan: Factors in a Successful College Experience

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In this lesson, students will watch video clips that provide glimpses into the lives of two high school seniors who live in New Mexico on the Navajo reservation. They will then analyze a current issue that Native Americans face (college completion) and will consider factors that might contribute to their own decisions either to enter or to complete college. Students will then explore different strategies that might be used to address this problem.

For more information on the Navajo reservation, please see the Related Resources sections of this lesson.

The clips used in this lesson are from the film Up Heartbreak Hill, a documentary that follows two Navajo high school students during their senior year as they struggle with forming their identities, managing family relationships and making decisions about their futures.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Discuss what life is like for two modern-day New Mexico high school students on the Navajo reservation (as seen in a series of film clips).
  • Compare and contrast the two teens' perspectives on college with their own perspectives.
  • Analyze a current issue that Native Americans face (college completion) and consider how their own communities or cultural identities might factor into their decisions to attend or graduate from college.
  • Consider a strategy that might help the two students in the video address this issue.




Current Events, U.S. History, Geography, Social Studies



One 50-minute class period


Clip 1: "Living in Navajo, NM" (length 2:27)

The clip begins at 1:12 right after the title card. It ends at 3:39 with the statement "...just the thought of being free."

Clip 2: "Meet Tamara" (length 1:30)

The clip begins at 5:51 with Thomas saying, "Me and Tamara..." It ends at 7:21 with a view of the town and road.

Clip 3: "Meeting for Thomas" (length 1:46)

The clip begins at 42:45 with the line "Thank you to all of you..." It ends at 44:31 with Thomas saying, "...if you just hang on to the past."

Clip 4: "Graduation at Navajo Pine High School" (length 2:57)

The clip begins at 50:55 with an exterior shot of Tamara's house. It ends at 53:52 when Thomas receives his diploma.

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1. (Note: Classrooms on reservations should begin this lesson with Step 2.) With non-Native American students, start with a warm-up during which students tap their prior knowledge about Native Americans. Do this by asking students to brainstorm a list of things they know about Native Americans. After a few minutes, ask students to share their lists with partners and then invite a few to share their ideas with the class. Have students explain where they learned the information that they have included on their lists. How reliable are these sources of information about Native Americans?

2. Tell students that you are going to show them four brief video clips that feature two teens--Thomas and Tamara--who live in New Mexico on the Navajo reservation. As students watch the clips, they should listen to what is said and make careful observations about life on the reservation, writing down as many details as possible.

3. Discuss:

  • How would you describe life on the reservation where Thomas and Tamara live? What evidence from the film supports your ideas? How closely do these ideas match your answers to the first question?
  • What did Thomas gain from the ceremony convened by his family (seen in Clip 3) to "send him off on his way to become a young man"? How might such a meeting connect past and present for Thomas?

4. Ask students to work with their partners and assign each pair or group to complete a three-circle Venn diagram. One circle will represent Thomas, another will represent Tamara and the last one will be for factors that might affect each student's experience and success in post-secondary education. What do the students in the class have in common with Thomas and Tamara? What are the differences between them? What might account for these similarities and differences?

5. Display the page, "How Many People Go to College Every Year?" and briefly review the demographics of college students. Point out that though Native Americans make up the smallest percentage of people enrolled in college, they also represent less than 1 percent of the total population of the United States. Explain that the number of Native Americans entering college is higher now than it has been over the past 40 years; however, the degree completion rate remains low.

6. Distribute the materials to the students, so each student has just one article or excerpt.

"The Decline in Male Native American College Enrollment: Perspectives and Strategies"

Page 33 of "The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color"

Pages 66-79 of "Perceived Factors Influencing the Retention Rates of Native American College Students: A Case Study"

Pages 80 to 94 of "Perceived Factors Influencing the Retention Rates of Native American College Students: A Case Study"

As each student reads his or her article, he or she should highlight or outline in writing the key problems the author is describing, what the author thinks is contributing to a low degree completion rate and the recommended strategies for fixing these problems. Each student should then decide which proposed solution he or she thinks has the greatest potential and explain why in writing. Also, have students infer how the solutions they have chosen could impact Thomas and Tamara or other rising college students.

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1. Study how U.S. policies toward Native Americans have contributed to modern-day conditions on reservations. To provide perspective, show students two maps of reservations around the country (American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States and American Indians and Alaska Natives in Alaska).

Have small student groups review a summary of federal policies toward Native Americans and discuss the impact of those policies. Which policies have limited economic growth on reservations? Which have weakened tribal culture and families? Which have related to the school systems on reservations? Students should conduct additional research as needed and organize their findings in cause and effect T-charts. How are these effects illustrated in the video clips for this lesson that show life on the reservation in Navajo, New Mexico?

2. Serve fry bread as a way to begin a study of Native American history in the 1800s. In Up Heartbreak Hill, Navajos are seen making and eating fry bread, a common Native American food. Fry bread is made from a simple dough that has been flattened and fried in oil, shortening, or lard. Recipe variations. Have student volunteers choose a recipe and prepare it for the class. Student chefs unfamiliar with fry bread may find it helpful to watch a video about Navajo fry bread that demonstrates how to flatten and cook the dough. Then have students read Navajo fry bread's history and an article on fry bread from Smithsonian magazine to discover how this simple food was created by Native Americans to keep from starving after they were relocated to government camps. Discuss what fry bread can teach about Native American issues past and present and be sure to also highlight its contribution to high levels of diabetes and obesity on reservations.

3. Facilitate a more in-depth discussion of Native American stereotypes and how Native Americans are represented in today's society. Students can bring in representations of Native Americans from the media. Students can also take a quiz about Native American history, culture and language, or another quiz about American Indian myths. Discuss the answers to the quizzes or review the media examples for potential stereotypes. Talk about the possible origins of any inaccurate information and develop action plans for helping to make corrections. For example, if students discover that picture books for children oversimplify or generalize Native American cultures, have them create books for younger students that better represent the diversity of Native American tribes. Or if they discover that movies perpetuate stereotypes, encourage them to organize a letter writing campaign or other initiative to protest such portrayals and ask for more accurate depictions in future films. Refer to Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) for a list of resources.

4. Explore what connections students feel to their communities. In Up Heartbreak Hill, Thomas and Tamara are in their senior year of high school, considering decisions that will determine how close they remain to home. Thomas says, "This is our land where I was raised. I just love the mountains and the trees and just the thought of being free." Tamara says, "My mom and my dad live together. They're always there to support me. We're just an awesome family. I want to stay here, but at the same time I want to leave. Getting off the reservation to get a degree, I think that would really help me. But my mom and my dad, they want me to stay close to home." Ask students to reflect on the ties they feel to homes and write monologues that reflect their thoughts. Have students present their monologues to the class.

5. Explore additional POV and PBS films relating to Native Americans, athletics or high school students. Video, background information and classroom resources are provided online for each film.

Standing Silent Nation documents the struggles of the members of an Oglala Lakota family to grow industrial hemp on their South Dakota reservation as a means of earning a sustainable living.

In the Light of Reverence recounts the struggles of the Lakota in the Black Hills, the Hopi in Arizona and the Wintu in California to protect their sacred sites.

Off and Running shows the search for personal identity by Avery, a high school track star who was adopted by a lesbian couple and raised in a multiracial family.

Arctic Son tells the story of a Native American father and son who reunite in the Canadian Yukon after almost 25 years apart.

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Native American Netroots

This site provides ongoing posts related to political, social and economic issues affecting Native Americans.

The Navajo Nation
This is the official website of the Navajo Nation. Information includes a history of the Navajo and details on current activities.

POV Background: Navajo Nation
This resource provides basic statistics, a brief history of the Navajo people and a description of life on the reservation.

UnderstandingPrejudice.org: Teaching about Native American Issues
This page lists dos and don'ts for educators seeking to create culturally sensitive classroom environments and teach about Native Americans in respectful ways.

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Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

SL, 9-10, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on [grade-appropriate] topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

W.9-10, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.

W.9-10, 11-12.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization and analysis of content.

W.9-10, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

WHST. 9-10, 11-12.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.

Content Knowledge: (http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/) a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Behavioral Studies, Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity, and behavior.

Civics, Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

Geography, Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

United States History, Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

Visual Arts, Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.


Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.